Like any true bookworm, my taste in literature is eclectic to day the least. First of all, there are the Brontës, their wonderful poetry, adult novels, and juvenilia. Secondly there is 18th and 19th century fiction by the likes of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and William Makepeace Thackeray. I also adore the 20th century science fiction works of Philip K. Dick (there’s really nothing quite like them). Then there are the greats such as William Shakespeare, and also older novels by the likes of Daniel Defoe and Ann Radcliffe. There are also modern greats such as the writings of Markus Zusak and the Brontë inspired works of my lovely friends and followers. However, my second biggest obsession after the Brontës has to be the work of the Queen of Crime Fiction, Agatha Christie. There’s simply nobody else like her, and there never will be. Over the past 18 months or so I’ve really been enjoying the Hercule Poirot novels in particular. There’s really nobody quite like the little Belgian in fiction. A few days ago I was involved in a Twitter thread asking for the names of 4 fictional characters who are significant to me. It’s telling that alongside Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre from the novel of the same name (1847) and the Duke of Zamorna (King of Angria in her juvenilia), I also chose Hercule Poirot. Yes, I rate him that highly. In case you were wondering, my final choice was Liesel Meminger, protagonist of Zusak’s The Book Thief (2005). An English governess, a libertine, a Belgian detective, and a young girl in wartime Germany. An eclectic mix indeed.
Looking over my choices, which actually sprang to mind straight away, such is the influence they have on me, I made the decision to combine two worlds. Sort of. I’ve been blogging about the Brontës for over two years now, having initially set up Brontë Babe Blog in July 2017 before picking it up again the following January. My passion for Agatha Christie will never rival my passion for the Brontës but clearly, I’m inspired, enthralled, and entertained by Christie and her creations more than I am by any other author bar the Brontës. The welcome news this week that the district of Koekelberg in Brussels has decided to establish ‘Place des Soeurs Brontë/Zusters Brontëplein’ to commemorate Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s connection to the Belgian capital got me thinking not just of all things Brontë, but of all things Belgium and Brussels, including Hercule Poirot. Although he is of course fictional, Hercule Poirot was a native of Brussels and was employed in the police there prior to arriving in England as a refugee in 1916 (this is documented in The Mysterious Affair at Styles which was published in 1920).
The Brontë-Brussels connection began when Charlotte, Emily, and Anne were planning to open a school in Haworth which would hopefully allow them some kind of independence and take them away from governess work. Unfortunately, despite advertising their school, there was no interest and the plan did not come to fruition. How successful this would have been I don’t know as Charlotte clearly despised teaching her pupils at Roe Head and in 1838 Emily spent just 6 months as a teacher in Miss Patchett’s school at Law Hill, near Halifax before resigning. The only one I think who could and would have stuck it out long term was Anne, who along with Branwell, was able to find work away from home and Haworth. Branwell was of course dismissed from various posts for various reasons, but he could gain and hold down employment.
For their own school, the sisters wanted to include languages in their curriculum, including French. Charlotte’s friend Mary Taylor frequently wrote to her of her experiences in Europe and, after reading one of her letters, the idea of perfecting their knowledge of the language in a French-speaking school was born. Charlotte’s Aunt, Elizabeth Branwell supplied the funds for the scheme, and Charlotte somehow coerced Emily into joining her once they could find the right school. Mary and her sister Martha were going to the Château de Koekelberg. This was a highly acclaimed girls’ school in a leafy suburb in Brussels which was out of reach to the Brontës financially. Instead, a cheaper school was recommended, and so in February 1842, Charlotte and Emily set off for the Pensionnat Héger in the Rue d’Isabelle.
In return for their tuition and board, Charlotte taught English and Emily taught music at the school. The sisters seemed to be successful during their time there with Emily in particular being singled out for praise by headmaster Constantin Héger. However, following the death of Aunt Branwell in October 1842, they returned to Haworth. Emily was content to remain at home in the parsonage, whereas, ambitious and knowledge-thirsty Charlotte returned to Brussels in January 1843 to take up a teaching post at the boarding school. However, her second stay there was not entirely happy. Away from home and alone, she was homesick and took a shine to Constantin Héger which was not reciprocated. Some of her letters written to him were kindly donated to the British Museuem by Héger’s son, Paul. Charlotte returned to Haworth in January 1844 and despite her school never coming to fruition, she put her knowledge and experience of Belgium to good use in her novels, Villette (1853) and The Professor (published 1857 but written earlier).
The news about the Brontës’ commemoration and my obsession with Poirot has literally filled my head with Brussels this week. Sometimes you just take things as a sign, and I took this as one to act on my idea to launch another blog. After reading and loving Poirot, I’ve been trying to branch out to explore not just other Christie crime titles, but also works by her contemporaries and other crime fiction from the golden age of detective fiction. I’d love it if you joined me over at The Classic Crime Chronicle. It’s very much a work in progress, but if you’re interested in Christie’s Belgian detective, then there is already a history of the character posted there. I do hope you’ll enjoy reading these posts. And never fear, I’ll always be here with Brontë related material. I’m even hoping to get to Brussels in 2021.
If you’re interested in the Brontës’ time in Brussels then there is an excellent website, The Brussels Brontë Group, where you can find out more. There are also several books on the subject including the one pictured above by Helen MacEwan.
Reader, stay safe.
In Loving Memory of Bob the Bichon (2007-2019)
A lover of life, the Brontës, and Haworth who knows that I’m just going to write because I can’t help it.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
Thanks for reading. I’d love it if you stopped by The Journal of Juvenilia Studies where you can read my essay, “Autobiography, Wish-Fulfilment, and Juvenilia. The ‘Fractured Self’ in Charlotte Brontë’s Paracosmic Counterworld”.
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