Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Through Belgian Eyes by Helen MacEwan


Helen MacEwan is one of the initial founders of The Brussels Brontë Group. The Group is dedicated to research the years that Charlotte and Emily spent in Brussels. Helen has written another three books connected to the Brontës in Brussels; Down the Belliard Steps (about the founding of the Group), The Brontës in Brussels (a 'guided' tour of places and history connected to the Brontës), Winifred Ghérin, Biographer of the Brontës. Through Belgian Eyes, with the under title Charlotte Brontë's Troubled Brussels Legacy takes a look at how the Belgians handle/d Charlotte Brontë's attitude to Brussels and the Belgians. Mainly through her two books set in Brussels, The Professor and Villette. And, why it took so long for the Belgians to acknowledge her greatness. 

"Charlotte Brontë's years in Belgium (1842-43) had a huge influence both on her life and her work. It was in Brussels that she not only honed her writing skills but fell in love and lived through the experiences that inspired two of her four novels: her first, The Professor, and her last and in many ways most interesting, Villette. Her feelings about Belgium are known - her love for her tutor Heger, her uncomplimentary remarks about Belgians, the powerful effect on her imagination of living abroad. But what about Belgian views of Charlotte Brontë? How have Belgian commentators responded to her portrayal of their capital city and their society? Through Belgian Eyes explores a wide range of responses from across the Channel.

In the process, it examines what The Professor and Villette tell Belgian readers about their capital in the 1840s and provides the Brussels background to the novels. Brussels has inspired few outstanding works of literature, and that makes Villette, considered by many to be Charlotte Brontë's masterpiece, of particular interest as a portrait of the Belgian capital a decade after the country gained independence in 1830, and just before the city was transformed out of all recognition from the 'villette' (small town) that Charlotte knew. Her view of Brussels is contrasted with those of other foreign visitors and of the Belgians themselves."

Charlotte has been accused of being condescending and rude when it comes to the Belgians and Brussels. It took a long time for the Belgians to take her writing to their heart. Her infatuation with Monsieur Heger had a big impact on his family. It is now well established that the stay in Brussels had a huge impact on Charlotte's writing, if not on Emily's.  

A lot of research has gone into this book. It is quite impressing how Helen has gathered information from so many different sources, Belgian and foreign. There are references to articles and letters, archive documents as well as private ones. The book does not only deal with Charlotte and her relationship to Brussels and the Belgians, but it is also a history about the city and the country. Helen gives us a glimpse of life in those days, political as well as on private levels. What did Brussels look like in those day? How has it changed since Charlotte and Emily walked its streets? Is there anything left from that time? How did other exiled authors and well-known political persons look at Brussels? Helen has caught the spirit and atmosphere of that time.

Villette, Charlotte's masterpiece is the story about her Brussels, and based on the time she spent there. It is an interesting, but complicated book, and considered very personal as she had some difficult times there as well. However that is, Brussels somehow stayed with her for the rest of her life, and, in one way or the other, made it into her novels. Through Villette Helen shows us where Charlotte found inspiration for her writing. A little bit of detective work is coming into her account as she tries to locate paintings and venues which Charlotte wrote about. We meet Leopold I, we get an inside view on nineteenth-century boarding schools, her approach to Catholicism and much more. Even an anecdotal chapter on 'Charlotte in the Congo' (the Belgian colony at the time). 

If you are a fan of the Brontës you will find this book interesting (even without the Brontë connection it is an interesting account of Brussels in the first half of the 19th century), and it covers so much of Charlotte's stay and the time she spent there. There are still a few places left where Charlotte and Emily visited. They are included in The Brussels Brontë Group's guided tours that take place several times a year. If you are visiting Brussels have a look at the Group's web-site. 

Through Belgian Eyes includes many illustrations. Personally, I find the illustrations from old Brussels very interesting. Even if you know your way around Brussels, it can sometimes be difficult to get your bearings. So much has changed in these quarters. Helen guides you around the streets, squares and happenings with her engaging and well written account of a lost Brussels. I enjoyed it tremendously.

10 comments:

  1. How interesting. This book definitely goes on my wishlist. Not only is Brussels special to me because I lived there myself, now my son lives there, also. And I do like the Brontës.

    Thanks, Lisbeth, I've said it before, you always find the most interesting books.

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    1. Yes, it is an interesting account of Brussels, not only from a Brontë perspective. Since you have lived there it will be even more interesting.
      Thank you. I like to read different books and since I am interested in history och biographies of famous people, I always seem to find a book or two.

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    2. I know you do. And I have a similar interest, that's probably why I find your books always so interesting. I'm glad we got to know each other. And I'm sure, one day we'll meet in real life.

      Till then, have a good weekend.

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    3. I really do hope we will be able to meet soon. Enjoy a day in a nice cafe or restaurant, speak about books and a lot of other things.

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    4. Well, even if the cafés aren't open again and you are in the area, I have a coffee machine and I like baking ... 😁
      And I live only about five minutes from the motorway.

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  2. Listening to all of Hercule Poirot, I'm seeing life a lot through Belgian eyes right now, so this would be a good variation of eyes ;-)

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    1. Absolutely, I am sure Poirot would recognise his city. He might have had something to say too of Charlotte's view on Brussels and the Belgians.
      Poirot is always interesting, just love the TV-series, but have not read any of the books. I really should.

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  3. I"m not familiar with this part of Charlotte Bronte's life, so thanks for sharing this. It sounds interesting.

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    1. I think it is partly due to the Brussels Brontë Group that this part of Charlotte's life has been highlighted. It was, of course, known that she was there, but it is only in recent years that scholars have pointed out that it might have had an important part of her writing.

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