Friday, January 04, 2013

Down the Belliard Steps - A review

We are very grateful to the author for sending us a review copy of this book
Down the Belliard Steps: Discovering the Brontës in Brussels
Helen MacEwan
Brussels Bronte Editions (3 Sep 2012)
ISBN-13: 978-0957377202
Whenever I stand in such a place in the Brussels of today, there is always a feeling of incongruity and surprise at the thought that the Brontës were here.
So writes Helen McEwan and such will be the experience of anyone who has followed on the footsteps of the Brontës anywhere, even in Haworth, where it is a given. But it is true that the Brontës are so closely associated with Haworth, Yorkshire and England that we often forget that Charlotte and Emily lived abroad for a while. It is easier to remember in Charlotte's case, with her many letters from there, her unforgettable infatuation with M. Heger and the influence on her prose, both in the style, partly due to M. Heger's own lessons, and her plots, particularly The Professor and Villette. It is easier to forget, however, in Emily's case. As far as we modern readers can tell, not a trace of influence is left in her one novel or in her poetry. Brussels, then, serves as a good metaphor for what we know of each sister and how they approached and how we approach their respective works.

As Helen McEwan, founder of the Brussels Brontë group, points out, most biographies tend to treat the Brussels stay as a parenthesis. And while this may be true for Emily, for Charlotte it was a catharsis. We all rightly flock to Haworth and surrounding places in Yorkshire to find the Brontës. Some may even venture into London for a quick look at a few landmarks (many of them no longer extant, though) but fewer even set foot in Brussels. There's of course the fact that a large part of the Brussels the Brontës knew, particularly the Pensionnat on the Rue d'Isabelle and most of the Isabelle quarter, were wiped out at the beginning of the 20th century. This would seem like a problem but as Helen MacEwan will help you see throughout her book,
part of the appeal of the Pensionnat is precisely that it has vanished yet lives on so vividly in the pages of The Professor and Villette. If it had been preserved as a museum like the Parsonage, today it would probably be sandwiched between a Carrefour Express and an EXKI self-service restaurant in a Rue d'Isabelle changed beyond recognition.
And while it sounds a little like cold comfort to us, we still see what she means.

Down the Belliard Steps is an enjoyable, cosy read that feels more like a chat with a Brontëite friend than an an actual read. Actually, the topic of friendship and connection through the Brontës is a running them in her book: finding people with whom you can discuss the Brontës endlessly face to face is something many of us have experienced but can't get tired of. It is actually how the Brussels Brontë Group came to be: through Helen's wish for like-minded people in Brussels. Throughout the book, Helen MacEwan and her fellow members touch on topics that will be near and dear to every Brontëite's heart. It's mainly about all things Brussels: from how the Brussels Brontë Group was born and how it grew, to profiles on the first members, to books on the Brussels-Brontë connections, to commemorative plaques, to guided walks, to events, to research, and a long, long etc. It even tells how the lastest devoir by Charlotte Brontë which surfaced in early 2012 was discovered. It also includes many pictures, both modern and historical, Brontë-inspired art, Brontë-related documents, etc. But the basic concepts: surprise at walking in the Brontës' footsteps, amazement at how these long-deceased women can still bring together people from all sorts of backgrounds and nationalities, how close and how relevant they still feel today, despite the much-changed surroundings, is something every Brontëite will find both relatable and enjoyable.

Down the Belliard Steps is an all-encompassing Brussels experience without leaving your comfortable sofa. A side-effect, though, is the urge to book a trip to Brussels and immerse yourself in it all.

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