The legacy of Charlotte Brontë’s time living in Brussels is explored in Helen MacEwan’s new book Through Belgian Eyes. She spoke to Yvette Huddleston.
While the Brontës are inextricably connected with the Yorkshire landscape in which they grew up, some of Charlotte’s work was also inspired by another location – Brussels.
The city, where she lived for almost two years in the early 1840s initially with her sister Emily and then alone, informed two of her novels – her first, The Professor, and her last, Villette. In 1842 the sisters were enrolled at a boarding school for young ladies, the Pensionnat Heger, where in return for board and lodging Charlotte taught English and Emily gave music lessons.
Charlotte’s experience of Brussels, emotionally, was ultimately not a particularly happy one since she fell in love with her (older, married) tutor Constantin Heger. The pain of this unrequited love fed in to her later work and Heger provided her with a model for some of her male characters, in particular Paul Emmanuel in Villette. But while Charlotte’s feelings about Brussels are known, what has not, until now, been explored is the Belgians’ response to her portrayal of their capital city and society. This is exactly what Helen MacEwan’s new book Through Belgian Eyes sets out to do.
A translator and former teacher, MacEwan has been interested in the Belgian link with the famous literary family since moving to Brussels to work in 2004.
“I started a branch of the Brontë Society here and I got more and more interested in their time in Brussels,” she says. “Everything that’s been written about it so far is how Charlotte Brontë saw the Belgians and how she felt, so I thought this would be a new way of looking at her and her books. What I wanted to do was to give a bit more background of her time here and I found as I was working on the book there were lots of new insights. I looked at archive newspaper articles to see how she – and her books – have been perceived here through the ages.”
MacEwan was surprised during her research that, given how critical Charlotte was of Belgium – she was particlarly scathing about Catholicism – in fact, many Belgian commentators were very generous and they saw Charlotte’s time in their capital city as positive and productive. Not least because her novels provided an interesting portrait of their capital city, shortly after Belgium gained its independence in 1830.
“Her stay in Brussels absolutely stimulated her imagination,” says MacEwan. “She experienced living in a city for the only time in her life. It was both claustrophobic and full of interesting things. She wrote about the city’s art galleries, theatres and beautiful parks and buildings.” MacEwan says that she sees her book as a companion to Villette, providing a context for the novel. It also quite timely. “With all the debate around Brexit I think it is nice to have this as an antidote,” she says. “Because the image of Brussels in the British press is often quite negative at the moment, it is interesting to go back and look at the city’s beginnings and to realise that even when Charlotte was here it was a very international capital with a lot of influence from outside.”
Through Belgian Eyes by Helen MacEwan is published by Sussex Academic Press, £19.95.