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Through Belgian Eyes

Charlotte Brontë's Troubled Brussels Legacy

Helen MacEwan studied modern languages at Oxford University. A translator and former teacher, she is the author of The Brontës in Brussels, a guide to Charlotte and Emily Brontë's time at the Pensionnat Heger, and Down the Belliard Steps: Discovering the Brontës in Brussels. And most recently, Winifred Gérin: Biographer of the Brontës ("Adds significantly to Brontë studies and literary biography": Claire Harman, biographer and critic, author of Charlotte Brontë: A Life).


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 from her novels and letters – 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? What has her legacy been in Brussels? 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, from the hostile to the enthusiastic.

In the process, it examines what The Professor and Villette tell Belgian readers about their capital in the 1840s and provides a wealth of detail on the Brussels background to the two novels. Unlike Paris and London, Brussels has inspired few outstanding works of literature. 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 modernisation and expansion transformed the city 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.


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