Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Wednesday, September 03, 2014 12:05 am by Cristina in , ,    No comments
Our thanks to Helen MacEwan for providing us with a review copy of this book.
The Brontës in Brussels
Helen MacEwan
Peter Owen Publisher
ISBN 9780720615883
Helen MacEwan continues enticing Brontëites all over the world to travel to Brussels. Granted, it is a much easier, much more pleasant trip than it was back in 1841 when Charlotte, Emily, their adventurous-at-64 father and some members of the Taylor family made the trip from Yorkshire.

The Brontës in Brussels is the perfect Brussels companion. Ideal as a guide or handbook for a trip to Brussels, but also a very interesting read from the sofa in your living room miles away from the actual places described in the book. Helen MacEwans's knowledge not only of the Brontës' stay in Brussels as well as the works derived from it (only devoirs in Emily's case but also novels, references in letters, etc in Charlotte's case) but also of the history of the quartier Isabelle, which is quite intricate, encyclopedic and always to-the-point. She meets three different points in her book: conveying a sense of the Brontës' stay in and opinions of Brussels, telling about the historical, social and geographical contexts that surrounded them when there and helping the modern Brontëite find his/her bearings in Belgium as it is today. And she manages to combine it all into an enjoyable read.

Thus, for instance, The Brontës in Brussels shows us where the Brontës' acquaintances resided at the time, where the Brontës would have visited them, as well as other places the Brontës would frequent such as the Chapelle Royale (where the Brontës worshipped) but also adds the geographical and social context and the current situation of said places, whether still standing and, in that case, how different/similar they look, etc.

This is all accompanied by many maps - both contemporary and modern -, fragments from novels, devoirs and letters written by the Brontës and finally a large quantity of illustrations, very helpful in order to make the reader see Brussels as closely as posssible as the Brontës would have known it, given that the neighbourhood where the Brontës were staying - the quartier Isabelle - was mostly torn down, with a few surprising exceptions which can still be seen today. Add to that a summary of both of Charlotte's Brussels novels: The Professor and Villette, a timeline, a short history of Belgium up to Independence and a Brontë walk in Brussels. As if that wasn't enough, the prologue is written by Lyndall Gordon.

Google Street View screenshot of the place where the pensionnat was located.
Our only - minimal - complaint is the fact that Branwell is only portrayed as the drunk brother. In our opinion he would have been best left out of the picture rather than depicted in such a bad light:
They could open their own boarding-school, either in the Parsonage or elsewhere. [Charlotte] eventually opted for the Parsonage itself, despite the logistical problems of using a house with just four bedrooms and the drawback of having a brother who, when at home between jobs, had a tendency to roll in drunk in the small hours and once set his bed curtains on fire by knocking over a candle.
While his behaviour towards drink may have never been exemplary - to put it mildly - it was while Charlotte and Emily were in Brussels that Anne got him a post with the Robinson family. It wouldn't be until years later that he would set his bed curtains on fire, so it is rather unfair to mention the event when looking into Charlotte's decision. It is indeed a tiny thing to mention, but it stroke us as an unnecessary comment when reading the book.

Otherwise, nothing prevented us from thoroughly enjoying this book. Well, something else actually did: we are not based in Brussels and couldn't just take to the streets and walk in what's left of the footsteps of the Brontës. Thankfully, Helen MacEwan's evocative descriptions, the many illustrations the book contains and a bit of Google street view helped. Brussels is now, however, high on the list of trips to make. This book will be the first thing we pack then. Nothing new, of course, as Helen MacEwan's previous book Down the Belliard Steps ( also had the same effect.


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