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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.

Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-910-4
Paperback Price: £19.95 / $34.95
Release Date: December 2017
Page Extent / Format: 312 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: Yes

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

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

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

[Travel] broadens the mind. Helen MacEwan argues that British readers do not appreciate how deeply Charlotte Brontë and her fiction were steeped in her experience of spending two years in Brussels, and how this brought about that proverbial broadening – a dimension lacking in her novel-writing sisters. MacEwan, a learned Brussels resident, levels her points coolly and authoritatively, assisted by rich illustration. What, then, was the ‘broadening’ that fed Charlotte’s oeuvre? It is evident most clearly in Villette, the sole work by Charlotte that can be called autofiction. Boundaries, the novel testifies, were broken in Brussels, releasing a genius more transgressively creative than that of Charlotte’s sisters. Helen MacEwan … gives us a complicatedly creative, if invincibly troubled, Charlotte to read with eyes opened wider. MacEwan’s work should find a place on every Brontëan’s bookshelf.
John Sutherland, Literary Review, March 2018

In her two previous books about the Brontës' Brussels – Down the Belliard Steps and The Brontës in Brussels – Helen MacEwan described both beautifully and thoroughly the now-gone Brussels the Brontës knew(1). She explored the places the Brontës would have been familiar with. Those two books were about Charlotte and Emily too coming to live for a time in Brussels and what they encountered there. But what about the other way around? What about the Belgian interpretation of what they saw and wrote about? Except for a few devoirs, Emily’s legacy about her time in Brussels is virtually non-existent. But for Charlotte it was a key period, which left a mark on her both personally and professionally. She wrote about Brussels on those two levels as well - private letters from there sent to family and friends and descriptions, settings and even people in her novels. The Professor and Villette both are thinly-disguised Brussels novels. And Shirley, too, has a pair of Belgian brothers.
... Much of what she wrote has been found spiteful or deemed untrue, but is that so? Helen MacEwan researched Brussels in the time of the Brontës deeply and put Charlotte’s statements and descriptions to the test. And as it turned out, though certainly tinged by her own experience and used for fictional purposes in the case of the Belgian novels, much of what she wrote coincides with what others wrote at the same time (or very nearly so).
... As it turns out, Villette especially is an important document when it comes to seeing how life was shortly after the Independence of Brussels in 1830. Charlotte Brontë was there at a key period and her realistic descriptions of places and customs are valuable in the sense that they offer a wealth of information not otherwise recorded. Add to that the fact that she mostly moved around an area of the city that no longer exists and what she wrote is a testament to a long-gone time and place. For instance, there's hardly any record of how finishing schools at the time of Charlotte Brontë worked and thus her descriptions both in her letters and novels are quite relevant. A letter she wrote with Mary and Martha Taylor in which the Taylor sisters described their teachers at Koekelberg and the lessons they took there as well as the amount of foreign students is a treasure trove on the social history of Brussels, as are Charlotte’s descriptions of lessons and fêtes in Villette.
... Charlotte was nothing if not observant and perceptive, especially given that she was in a foreign country for the first time in her life and everything she encountered was new. And although she once famously claimed that she suffered ‘reality to suggest, never to dictate’, it is pretty clear that she's mostly reliable when it comes to descriptions of places and events. In fact, Belgian researchers have been able to find out the exact date on which she attended a concert – which she later incorporated into Villette – during which she saw King Leopold I and the exact events (a mixture of two close events, actually) which she so craftily used for her hallucinogenic scene in the park in Villette. It has also been possible to identify the paintings she saw and also incorporated into Villette. Thus proving not only her reliability as a witness but also the richness of her art and how skilful she was when it came to craft a story.
... Her descriptions of Brussels, its customs and its people (generally speaking at least) have been considered bitter, contaminated by the inner turmoil she was going through and her incapability of blending into the social life of the place. But we see others such as Baudelaire or Victor Hugo as well as many others comment on the very same things she mentions. Her accurate portrayal of the class system at the time, based both on location and language spoken is remarkable precisely because of how effortlessly and naturally it was woven into her fiction. For instance, she comments on how M. Paul observes the outside from the inside by using a mirror positioned strategically and as it turns out this was not an uncommon thing to do in Brussels at the time!
Thus, Helen MacEwan goes on to examine other aspects which stand out from Charlotte's view of Brussels and puts them against other testimonies from that time. Thus, she examines why Charlotte may have disguised Belgium as Labassecour (literally, the farmyard’) or Brussels as Villette (literally, ‘small town’), why she described the reigning Catholicism as she did (she was very critical particularly of how young girls were brought up in that faith - was she alone in her perception or was she not?). Helen MacEwan tells us that her description of the king of Labassecour, the equivalent of Leopold I, is 'of particular interest to Belgian readers’ and it seems that it was also pretty accurate from what we know about him.
... Thanks to Helen MacEwan we come across a couple of local Brontëites, which wrote about them in Brussels during the 20th century: journalist Louis Quiévreux and biographer Abbé Dimnet. Their views are enhanced by their knowledge of the Belgian character and the local geography. By the end of the book, we admit to having a soft spot for Louis Quiévreux, indefatigable Brontëite, who never missed an opportunity of celebrating, defending or reclaiming them. He was particularly active in his campaigns both against the destruction of the Brussels they knew – the Quartier Isabelle in general and the Pensionnat Heger in particular – and for the construction of some sort of tribute to the Brontës. He was adamant that Brontëites from all over the world would be travelling to Brussels in the future in the footsteps of the Brontës and would find no mention of them. (Which is what happens, of course). It broke our hearts to read that by the time the Brontë Society finally put a plaque close to the site where the Pensionnat would have been, he had been dead for ten years.
... Because we have an acute interest in Brontëana, we were delighted to find an article on Belgian Brontëana: the Brontë devoir L’ingratitude being a discovery for the whole world in 2012 except for the Musée Royal de Mariemont staff, who always knew it was there. Charlotte’s juvenilia turning up in a market stall while M. Heger was still alive (it is thought that she gave him the stories) and, most moving of all, a book given by Charlotte to 4-year-old Louise Heger when she left Brussels and which is passed down the generations without its inscription, which was cheekily torn out by a Russian lady! Constantin Heger and his wife, as well as their children and their descendants, turn up all throughout the book. The characters of Monsieur and Madame Heger immortalised by Charlotte both in real life and in her novels are examined in the light of other contemporary testimonies which makes for a fascinating insight into the people who lived with Charlotte during her stays in Brussels. It is interesting, too, to see what became of their children and how the Brontë connection affected – or not – their lives and what they thought of the whole thing. We were particularly enchanted by an anecdote told towards the end of the book featuring Belgian novelist Marie Gevers, the Belgian Congo, the centenary of Charlotte's death, Brontë juvenilia and a descendant of the Hegers.
... All in all, the book is a perfect companion to Charlotte’s stay in Brussels and her fictional portraits of it. It puts some unfounded myths to rest and gives a picture not only of the context that welcomed Charlotte in Brussels but also of how said context may or may not have been affected by her stay and her words. As Helen MacEwan has tried to make us see before, for Charlotte Brussels was more than just an educative stay in the continent – it was definitely a life-changing event that should be approached with depth and understanding. The book, as always with Helen MacEwan’s books is full of plates and illustrations to help the reader, and, in spite of the wealth of information conveyed in it, it is an easy, entertaining, compelling read.

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