The year 2016 marked the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth; this resulted in a wave of creative and critical work which interacted with the ongoing phenomena of Charlotte Brontë’s legacy. Out of this emerged Helen MacEwan’s most recent study on a much overlooked aspect of Brontë’s literary legacy. In her previous works Down the Belliard Steps: Discovering the Brontës in Brussels (2012) and The Brontës in Brussels (2014), MacEwan has striven to bring this integral element of Charlotte Brontë’s personal and literary history to a wider audience. This new work is her latest attempt to turn the heads of Brontë scholars and enthusiasts towards Brussels. The period Charlotte Brontë spent in Brussels had an undeniable impact on her as a woman and a writer. Her time there was so dynamic that it would dominate two of her novels: The Professor and Villette, and make an appearance in her third, Shirley. Unfortunately, the one novel in which Brussels does not play a significant role is in her most famous, Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre is intrinsically linked to Brontë and her legacy, and the absence of any significant reference to Brussels in this one text is enough for it to remain an overlooked factor, despite the importance it is given in all her other novels. In addition to this, there is no site of pilgrimage in Brussels to compare with the Brontë Parsonage in Yorkshire. In the course of this text MacEwan explains how the Brussels experienced by Brontë no longer exists. Brontë herself has also hindered her reader’s opinions of Brussels and the Belgians in her novels where her depiction is unflinchingly critical and negative. It is against these challenges that MacEwan strives to prove the relevance of Brussels to the legacy of Charlotte Brontë. The overarching theme of this text appears to be the need to alleviate the damage caused by Brontë’s negative portrayal of Brussels and the Belgians. An intimidating challenge as those who have read The Professor and Villette will testify. However, MacEwan goes about this with such vigour it results in some of the most entertaining moments. A particular highlight is MacEwan’s demonstration that whilst Brontë was critical of Brussels and the Belgians she was not the only one, nor was she the worst. MacEwan comments how ‘Charlotte’s own criticisms of things Belgian seem positively mild in comparison’ (p. 6) when considered alongside the comments of Charles Baudelaire. Baudelaire suggests that to be born a Belgian is to be punished for crimes in a prior life, to have their souls encased in the most detestable bodies and to be forced to live in Hell on Earth, otherwise known as Brussels. These moments, and there are many, provide shock and hilarity, but underneath it is clear to see MacEwan endeavouring to redeem Brontë. The text includes a good variety of primary and secondary material which MacEwan interacts with well. The inclusion of sixty pictures demonstrates her attempt to display and recapture the lost Brussels which was experienced by Brontë. MacEwan does not deny that visitors to Brussels will struggle to find any trace of the Brontës there and will ultimately be disappointed. Nevertheless, her inclusion of these pictures enables the text to offer the reader the opportunity to be the literary tourist the present reality does not allow. The primary material used contextualizes the period in Belgian history which Brontë was responding to, as well as depicting the evolution of her legacy in the country. However, the inclusion of current secondary material is where the text struggles. The work Brontë produced in Brussels is frequently overlooked critically and as such there is little recent criticism, besides her own work, which MacEwan can interact with. This is made apparent by the references to a number of student dissertations. Nevertheless, this shows what an untapped resource Brussels is in Brontë scholarship, and the inclusion of these dissertations demonstrates that new scholars are beginning to realize this. The text manages to find a balance between the biographical and literary elements, drawing as much from the novels as Brontë’s own life. MacEwan gives extensive textual analysis, particularly of Villette and The Professor, so readers approaching this text are not required to have read the novels to understand the relevance portrayed. Chapters 2–5, 8 and 9 use Brontë’s novels and their interaction with Brussels as their focus and are the strongest. There are some fascinating moments, such as in Chapter 6, where the reader is made aware of how Brontë’s writing has contributed to Belgian history. Not only does Brontë depict a version of Brussels which has long since disappeared, she is also able to offer them a first-hand glimpse of their monarch Leopold I. It is fascinating to see how Brontë’s novels can be used as historical artefacts in the history of Brussels. In an attempt to cover as many aspects of Brontë’s relationship with Brussels and the Belgians as possible MacEwan offers 14 concise but well considered chapters. However, there are chapters towards the end of the text whose brevity, once again, highlights the lack of critical attention this particular subject has received. One of the most intriguing aspects of the text is MacEwan’s portrayal of how Belgians have reacted to Brontë, who treated them with such derision. Chapter 7, ‘“Brussels’ Revenge” or “the Mysterious Destiny of the Brontës”: The Destruction of Charlotte Brontë’s Brussels’, explains how no great effort was made to preserve the school Charlotte attended as a shrine to her. There is even the suggestion that the destruction of these locations, which removed any evidence of Brontë’s stay, was a deliberate act of revenge. The argument that Brontë does not deserve a plaque or a street name, because of her treatment of Brussels and the Belgians, is also presented. Even so, Brontë’s impact is not denied, and as the city she knew was destroyed there were numerous references to her ghost haunting the Penisionnat.Aside from Chapter 7, the overall representation of the Belgian opinion of Brontë is predominantly positive. MacEwan is able to excuse Charlotte’s negativity through comparisons to others who were also forgiven. In addition to this another explanation is offered: ‘A charitable explanation of Charlotte’s attitudes sometimes advanced by Belgian readers is that she was not in a healthy state of mind during much of her time in the country’ (p. 51). Certainly the rejection and isolation Brontë felt and chronicled in her letters and fiction support this sympathetic explanation for her cruelty. The consideration of such factors from the Belgians indicates their acceptance and forgiveness of Brontë. This text is an enjoyable and accessible read to any literary tourist wishing to investigate this frequently unexplored area of Charlotte Brontë’s life and legacy. MacEwan admits that a trip to Brussels will likely be met with dissatisfaction. However, this book is able to revive much that has been lost and allows us to access the Brussels which Charlotte knew, as well as the Brussels her legacy has helped to shape. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press 2018; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 4, 2018
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