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  You are in: Home > Biography > Through Belgian Eyes  
 

Through Belgian Eyes
Charlotte Brontë’s Troubled Brussels Legacy

Helen MacEwan

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.

The story of Charlotte Brontë’s Brussels legacy provides a unique perspective on her personality and writing.


Acknowledgments
List of illustrations

Introduction:  ‘Oh it is certain that I shall see you again one day’
Chapter 1:      ‘Bruxelles, la mal-aimée’
Chapter 2:      ‘Good gracious, Madame, où avez-vous appris la speak French?’ The Early History of Jane Eyre and Villette in Brussels
Chapter 3:      ‘Miss Baudelaire’: Charlotte and the ‘Labassecouriens’
Chapter 4:      The Great Capital of the Great Kingdom of Labassecour: Brussels as ‘Villette’
Chapter 5:      ‘What women to live with!’: Charlotte and the Art Exhibition
Chapter 6:      King of the Farmyard: Charlotte and Leopold I
Chapter 7:       ‘Brussels’ Revenge’ or ‘the Mysterious Destiny of the Brontës’: The Destruction of Charlotte Brontë’s Brussels
Chapter 8:       From ‘Nobody’ to ‘Somebody’: Charlotte, Villette and the Immigrant Experience
Chapter 9:       Education and Hopeless Romantic Love: Villette and The Professor as a Window on Nineteenth-Century Brussels Boarding Schools
Chapter 10:     Grande Passion and Petite Pluie: Charlotte and the Hegers
Chapter 11:      ‘Mon père, je suis protestante’: Charlotte and Catholicism
Chapter 12:      In Mr Browne’s Shop: Belgian Brontëana
Chapter 13.      ‘The Brontës in Africa’ and Charlotte in the Congo
Chapter 14:      ‘Land of Enchantment’: Charlotte in the Park
Conclusion      Charlotte Brontë’s Brussels Legacies

Timeline            
Chronological summary of events that have shaped Belgian views of Charlotte Brontë
Select bibliography
Index


 

Endorsements for Through Belgian Eyes
A wonderfully fresh and informative book, seeing the connection between Charlotte Brontë and Brussels in the round for the first time. Helen MacEwan’s acknowledged expertise on both the place and the author comes together perfectly in this packed and fascinating study of Brontë’s mixed feelings about the city that formed her as a writer – and its equally ambivalent responses to her.
Claire Harman, author of Charlotte Brontë: A Life

Once again, Helen MacEwan writes eloquently about Charlotte Brontë in Brussels, bringing together her expert knowledge of the city Brontë inhabited and of the great works that drew on this experience. She balances Charlotte’s critique of Brussels against the impressive counterweight of her legacy: her astute social observation of Brussels in the 1840s — its education, its park, its king, its manners and food — her placing the city at the centre of a great work of literature.
Lyndall Gordon, author of Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life

Helen MacEwan has achieved something very unusual: she has found a fascinating area of Brontë studies untouched by previous writers.  The impact of Brussels on Charlotte Brontë is well-documented, but MacEwan is the first writer to ask what impact Charlotte Brontë had on the Belgians. Impeccably researched from a huge range of sources, from the 1840s to the present day, and from city guide books to academic studies, this scholarly but engaging and readable book investigates every aspect of Charlotte’s Belgian legacy.  Charlotte’s opinion of Belgians (apart from her beloved teacher) was negative in the extreme, but MacEwan, in fourteen varied chapters, shows us that Belgians have not only been, on the whole, very forgiving, but that they attach immense value to her fiction. One surprise for non-Belgian readers is the importance of Villette and The Professor as a unique record of a vanished Brussels, since razed by relentless redevelopment. MacEwan illustrates Belgian appreciation of Charlotte’s uncanny accuracy in bringing to life its lost urban landscapes, its cosmopolitan population, its art exhibitions, concerts, boarding-schools, churches, its park and public celebrations – even its royalty. The best description of King Leopold I, according to his Belgian biographer, MacEwan tells us, is Charlotte’s, in Villette. Beyond verisimilitude, Beyond verisimilitude, Belgians find romance in that lost Brussels as the site of Charlotte’s unhappy love, recognising that her anguished sense of being alone in a foreign land crucially heightened her imaginative creativity. MacEwan’s remarkable book, by enabling us to read through Belgian eyes, sheds surprising new light on novels we think we know.
Patsy Stoneman, Emeritus Reader in English, University of Hull, and Vice-President of the Brontë Society

 

Publication Details

 
Paperback ISBN:
978-1-84519-910-4
 
 
Page Extent / Format:
312 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
 
Release Date:
December 2017
  Illustrated:   Yes
 
Paperback Price:
£24.95 / $39.95
 
 

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