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brontessmCredit: Hark! A Vagrant

I have a dysfunctional relationship with the Brontës. I often find myself rolling my eyes at all the DRAMA! in their stories, which I usually go out of my way to avoid in other books. I rebel against Charlotte’s negative portrayal of my beloved Brussels and her snide remarks about Jane Austen. I cringe at Emily’s glorification of an abusive hero. I go a bit easier on Anne because I have a soft spot for her – she has her sanctimonious moments, but I’m anxiously waiting for the day when the world realizes she’s the true ground-breaking feminist in the family.

The truth is: I can’t get enough of them and can’t think of a more interesting family (maybe the Mitfords come close?). It’s almost like I’m also a Brontë sister, always bickering but loving them all the same, vigorously defending them from outside attacks.

I’m also a proud member of the Brontë Society, and its Brussels Bronte Group  branch (post about our weekend in London). I’ve read many books about the family and since Charlotte’s birthday is coming up, I’ve decided to start celebrating earlier with a list of my favorites. Have you read any of them?

51Hre4BoOvL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Brontës by Juliet Barker
(Previous reviews: Part I; Part II)

This is on my top-3 favorite biographies of all time. It’s huge, but it reads like a 300-page Sarah Addison Allen novel. It starts with Patrick Brontë’s youth and arrival in England and goes right through to the family’s growing popularity after everyone’s been long dead.

Juliet Barker’s approach is that a reliable biography of each Brontë cannot be done in isolation, since their lives were too connected and they constantly inspired each other’s work. She’s also in the business of myth-busting.

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41QR7VCP9HL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Brontë Myth by Lucasta Miller

Like Start Trek, each new generation creates a new zeitgeist version of the Brontës. Miller examines the way these perceptions change over time by taking a comprehensive a look at all body of work produced about the family.

The impact of Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë was especially interesting to read, as well as the ripple effect of the cinema adaptations of their works and lives.

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The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell

This was the book that started the Brontë myth and crystallized it for many years. Gaskell was a friend of Charlotte Brontë and, for better or worst, it shows. Even if you know little about Charlotte, it’s obvious this is a very romanticized and sanitized version of her life. Gaskell was very keen to keep up Charlotte’s domestic-goddess image – fascinating stuff to read from a 21st century perspective.

I’ve had really geeky conversations with other Brontë aficionados on the best order to read the first three books on this list. The Brontës was the last to be written and it’s a great intro to the family. It talks about how both The Myth and The Life fit the narrative. The Myth describes in detail how The Life impacts how we perceive the Brontës even today. It’s really interesting to read The Life after The Brontës and The Myth, but it would probably be a very different experience if read first.

107973The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë by Daphne du Maurier

Oh Branwell, golden child, the unfulfilled promise, the most tragic element of a tragic family. This is Branwell’s biography and a great example of du Maurier’s non-fiction skills. From what I’ve gathered, she saw this book as an opportunity to prove herself beyond her “popular literature”.

Confession: I didn’t know this book even existed until I won it in a raffle at the last Brussels Brontë Society Xmas Lunch.

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The Brontës Went to Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson

A novel for a bit of change. The Brontës Went to Woolworths is about three sisters that share an imaginary world that threatens to become more real than reality. And it actually does, because after a table-turning session, the Brontë sisters come knocking on their door.

It’s such a witty and fun book and unlike The Eyre Affair (don’t get me started on that one, a pet hate of mine), the Brontës act as I’d expect them to. It’s one of those forgotten diamonds that deserve more limelight. How come it’s not a Persephone?

Any other recommendations?


June is Daphne du Maurier Season over at Historical Tapestry, and today I’m guest-posting there about possibly du Maurier’s least famous book, and the one that sold less copies: The Infernal Life of Branwell Brontë.

She was fascinated by the Brontës (there’s no escaping the similarities between Jane Eyre and Rebecca), in particular by Branwell, the golden child, the unfulfilled promise, the most tragic element of the tragic family. It’s a great example of du Maurier’s non-fiction skills and she saw it as an opportunity to prove herself beyond her “popular literature”.

Please drop by and share you thoughts!

(The Brontës & Axel the Cat, our temporary guest. Photo by Andre)

As I’ve mentioned in the first part, I don’t usually write multiple posts about a single book outside read-alongs. However, there’s just too much to explore in Juliet Barker’s The Brontës. It’s an amazing portrait of the family, and has deservingly become known as the biography for all of them. It’s the perfect choice for a brave bookclub like mine, who agreed to tackle this 900+ page mammoth.

The second half of the book starts right after Charlotte and Emily arrive in Brussels and begins her lessons with Monsieur Heger. Strangely enough, it’s not Charlotte’s falling desperately in love that’s the most interesting part of this period, but understanding the influence he had on her writing. He gave her focus and drive, and he encouraged her to write about what she knew. Charlotte’s journey from the enchanted world of Gondal to the almost autobiographical Jane Eyre is remarkably similar to the one made by two fictional characters with similar literary aspirations: Little Women’s Jo and Anne of Green Gables.

Emily on the other hand, didn’t let go of her juvenilia and seemed immune to Heger’s teachings:

Having spent most of her life at home, Emily had always been the one most dedicated to, and involved in, her imaginary world. There was no perceivable break between her Gondal writing and her novel; indeed it seems likely that she went straight from writing her long Gondal poem “The Prisoner”, to Wuthering Heights.

It’s also in this second half of the book that we get to see that the beginnings of some of the most famous novels in the English language. Fascinating stuff!

Something I didn’t know: Emily might have written a second book. Barker has very good arguments to support this as well as the theory that it was destroyed by Charlotte, to prevent another “coarse” novel to be published and further harm her sister’s reputation. As is normal with Brontë-related non-fiction, Charlotte takes center stage due to the amount material biographers have to work with. After the portrait of sainthood painted by Mrs. Gaskell in her version, it’s truly illuminating to finally see Charlotte in 3D, with all her weaknesses and inconsistencies. I’m not sure we would get along if we ever met, I’m afraid. I’m too outraged at the way she handled her sisters’ (especially Anne’s) work after their deaths. Her defense of their themes and writing style (they dared to actually using the word “damn”, instead of “d–“!) wasn’t very brave or true to their nature. She presented them as secluded virgins with an overwrought imagination who didn’t know what they were doing instead of, for instance, argumentation in favor of Anne’s moral and religious motivations for writing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (can you tell I’m an Anne fan?). I also was shocked at how Charlotte heavily re-wrote  edited their poems, sometimes completely changing the original meaning.

I know Charlotte is considered ground-breaking in her writing, especially in Jane Eyre, but after reading most of the Brontë novels (only missing The Professor and Shirley), she strikes me as the most conventional of the three, the one who risked less. Even on the issue of governesses, Agnes Grey was much stronger in its realism and brutality.

This [women’s rights to work] was a subject to which Charlotte would return again and again, it being one of obvious  relevance to her own situation. One cannot  escape the conclusion that her intellectual engagement with the subject arose purely and simply as a  result of her own unhappiness. if she had been financially independent, “the condition of women”, would not have mattered to her.

But to give her credit, she did show great spirit at time, like her head-to-head with the great William Makepeace Thackeray, who she idolized but never the less receive a piece of her mind when he deserved it.

Barker’s description of the dramatic moments of the family’s deaths were the first time a non-fiction book made me cry. Anne’s death in particular was hard to read because we not only have Charlotte’s description, but also that of Ellen Nussey, an intimate family friend.

It was Ellen, together with Mrs. Gaskell and Charlotte’s friend and publisher George Smith, that made my blood boil in the book’s last chapters. Barker does a wonderful job of piecing together the creation of The Life of Charlotte Brontë, which became the beginning of what Lucasta Miller described as “the Brontë myth”. The three of them did Charlotte a great injustice, not only with the border-line-illegal ways used to gather materials, but especially in the portrayal her family, which would be the accepted version for centuries to come: “poor Charlotte”; not-of-this-world Emily; Branwell, the black-sheep; Patrick, the distant and harsh father; Arthur the domineering husband.

Also, next time someone argues that the media’s exploitation of the personal life of celebrities is a modern phenomenon, I’ll have to gently disagree, after reading about what happened after Charlotte’s death.

Barker has clearly set out to de-bunk most of the Brontë myths and has done a great job of it. It’s almost an historical moment to see their true characters finally starting to surface, after all this time.

I’ve never done more than one post about a single book (except read-alongs), but I’ll open an exception for this one. It’s not just because it’s probably the biggest book I’ve ever picked up, but I’m half-way through it and it’s fascinating enough to make me want to put some thoughts down. This is compulsory reading for anyone with an interest in the Brontës and don’t be intimidated by its size: it’s one of those books that just floooows.

Juliet Barker’s approach is that a reliable biography of each Brontë cannot be done in isolation, since their lives were too connected and they constantly inspired each other’s works. She’s also in the business of myth-busting.

It was especially enlightening to read this after Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë. While Gaskell’s clear agenda was to give a sympathetic view of Charlotte and ease the shock the family’s books generated at the time, she did it by making certain sacrifices. Patrick and Branwell for instance, were not portrayed in the best of lights and it was clear Gaskell bent the truth to carry this argument.

The Life is responsible for many Brontë legends, namely “poor Charlotte” (the martyr daughter and saintly sister) and Emily as the romantic and wild free spirit. With The Brontës, Barker set out to defy these and other dogmas by diligently re-visiting all direct and indirect sources and re-accessing every established assumption.

My perception of Charlotte in particular changed from the “picture of perfection” image I had of her. I was spellbound by her struggle between her duty towards her family (a job she didn’t like and was bad) and the ever-present temptation of her imaginary worlds.

I discussed this book with other Brontë fans and some thought Barker was sometimes too set on thoroughness at the expensed of compelling story telling (the opposite of Mrs. Gaskell?). I didn’t feel that way, even though I admit to a few skims here and there. Baker’s very keen on describing several juvenilia characters and after a while it became too difficult to keep up with who killed, (de)crowned or married whom. Certain parts on the religious and political activism that took so much of Patrick’s time could also have used a little trimming, but the fact remains these were central events in the family’s lives.

Other myths Barker busted included the image of Haworth as an isolate, stagnated village, Branwell being an alcoholic from a very early age and Patrick as a severe and distant father. And we’re only talking about the first half of the book!

There was one debunking where I felt Barker went too far. The Brontë’s two elder sisters – Maria and Elizabeth – died of TB contracted in the boarding school Charlotte also attended. Charlotte was so traumatized by her time there as seen in Jane Eyre’s first chapters. Barker puts these experiences into perspective: Roe Head was bad, but not that bad compared to other schools and their mortality rates, malnutrition and aggressive daily routines were better than average. Somehow, perspective just doesn’t stick as a compelling argument in these cases. Better unhuman conditions are still unhuman conditions. The nightmare at Roe Head is one Brontë legend I can live with.

I’m just at the point in their lives where Charlotte and Emily arrive in Brussels. The voyeur in me is looking forward to Charlotte’s relationship with Mr. Heger, Branwell’s downfall and future literary disappointments 🙂

Much to think about in these chapters. I was left with some nagging questions which I hope the other participants in the read-along might help answer.

First about M. Paul’s habit of spying on the Pensionnate (with a glass if it’s night… shudder). He says:

There I sit and read for hours together: it is my way-my taste. My book is this garden; its contents are human nature – female human nature. I know you all by heart.

All I could think was “RUN, LUCY! SAVE YOURSELF!” When she tells him “It is not right”, he starts going on about religion and his rich father. I don’t know how M. Paul’s supporters will justify this, but I’m curious to see 🙂

Also in that same conversation he tells Lucy about St. Pierre’s intentions (not very gentlemanly) and how his spying allowed him to see St Pierre as she truly was (“I have seen her rancours, her vanity, her levietes”). Lucy seems to accept that justification and even says, surprisingly “If you were a wicked, designing man, how terrible would all this be!” You know what this whole scene reminded me of? The Phantom of the Opera, but with a less likable Phantom.

(“One Sunday afternoon, having walked the distance of half a league to the Protestant church, I came back weary and exhausted” Villette, chapter 31 – the photo is of the International Protestant Church of Brussels, where the Brontës used to worship. It’s still active today.)

But moving on to the new-found love between Lucy and Polly. I didn’t see it coming and am not sure if it’s not a bit out of character. Is Polly less annoying than she was before or was Lucy freed of blinding jealousy when she buried her letters and devotion to Graham? Also, can you help me understand this speech of Lucy?

Much pain, much fear, much struggle, would have troubled the very lines of your features, broken their regularity, would have harassed your nerves into the fever of habitual irritation you would have lost in health and cheerfulness, in grace and sweetness. Providence has protected and cultured you, not only for your own sake, but I believe for Graham’s. His start, to, was fortunate: to develop fully the best of his nature, a companion like you was needed: there you are, ready.

At first it seems a sweet thing to say, full of compliments, but when reading closely what it really says is: if you were a bit more complex, a bit less beautiful, Graham wouldn’t want you.

I still don’t understand why she would say that Graham needs Polly in order to “develop fully”. Does he really need another person in his life that thinks he’s God incarnate? Is Lucy truly sincere here?

I just wrote one shot note on the picnic: “Chapter should have been called “An Ode to M. Paul”

Finally about the house in Basse-Ville and ensuing tête-à-tête. It was truly gothic experience and kudos to Lucy for keeping her cool. I wonder what Catherine Morland’s flamboyant imagination would make of it all. I bet nothing as noir as the real story.

The conversation between Lucy and M. Paul in Chapter 35 was really well written: M. Paul did well and Lucy used the right amount of teasing. Her happiness at the end was very genuine and apart from her walk in London, I never felt so close to her. However, I’m afraid that in my heart, M. Paul is beyond salvation. True, he’s generous and selfless but I think he does it a lot because he likes the image of himself as the ever-loyal lover and self-sacrificing man.

He watched as Lucy was submitted to an interrogation which was clearly painful for her because his vanity and honor needed to be saved. In his mind, Lucy’s essay is not a reflection not of her abilities, but of him as a teacher. In the chapters describing his private lessons, he made it clear that Lucy shouldn’t be eager for knowledge or too proud of what she manages to achieved.

I have not doubts M. Paul is a good man and that Lucy has found her intellectual match. I’m just sorry she has to hide this from him.

As Dr John falls into the story’s background and the focus shifts to M. Paul I start getting more and more confused: am I suppose to like him?!

(The Brussels Brontë Group with the British Ambassador to Belgium)

Maybe I’m being a bit unfair here (who knows what will happen in the next chapters?), but the word “bully” keps popping into my mind.  That scene at the Hotel Crécy, when Mr Paul “sibilates” those insults and just minutes afterwards speaks to Lucy “politely, and even deferentially” reminded me of the usual behavior of violent husbands.

By making M. Paul behave like this (the criticism of Lucy’s dress, the inflamed speech against the English) is Charlotte Brontë expecting us to think “what a passionate man! I wish someone was jealous like this over me”? Because I’m not feeling it, and am becoming increasingly concerned about Lucy’s interest in him.

She actually tells us the reason behind her fascination:

He [Dr John] has said, and you have heard him say it: “Lucy’s disadvantages spring from over-gravity in tastes and manner – want of colour in character and costume. ‘Such are your own and your friends’ impressions; and behold! There starts up a little man, differing diametrically from all these, roundly charging you with being too airy and cheery – too volatile and versatile – too flowery ad coloury.

I understand why Lucy might start to enjoy this new image of herself, but from where I’m standing, she really could have used a bit of colour to character and costume, or at least some… lighten-up.  So someone who sees her as too vivacious must be at the extreme of the specter. I think we all agree that Dr John is not the man for her, but can she really be happy with someone like M. Paul?

These chapters also made me wonder how much of Mr Heger (Charlotte’s Professor whom she fell in love with while living in his Pensionnate) is in M. Paul. Lucy seems to understand him really well and he also becomes her tutor. I even googled M. Heger to see if his anniversary was in March, but didn’t find the date.

I’m really curious about how I’ll feel about all of this by the end of the book.

Or a lighter note, I couldn’t help but smile at Lucy’s comment on the different ways to greet people:

[Fraulein Braun] though we thought we were very cordial with her: but we did not slap her on the shoulder, and if we consented to kiss her cheek, it was done quietly, and without any explosive smack.

Living in an extremely international city and in a country culturally divided into three, how to say hello is important. The Flemish part of Belgium gives three kisses on the cheek, the Walloon part gives 2, the French community gives 1 or 2 (haven’t figured out what the choice depends on), the Italian also 2 but they start on the right side of the face, the Russians and Balkan men kiss other men, and some other nationalities don’t kiss at all.

So as you can imagine,  at a normal party of the Brussels international community, some diplomacy is required!  At Joanna’s wedding last Saturday, for instance, 16 nationalities were represented in a group of about 50 people 🙂

Yes, it’s that time of the week again!

The most notable thing about these chapters is how quiet they were. While in the earlier ones I underlined many paragraphs and made several notes with lots of exclamation marks, in this section I only had five. Just as Lucy breathed deeply, paused and relaxed, I had a ‘soft’ reading experience and found little to make my blood boil, for good or evil. This alignment of states of mind between character and reader is proof of great workmanship on Bronte’s part, don’t you think?

It was good to see Lucy enjoy herself, but I suspect  it only happened because she found herself among people of her class and nationality. We were even treated to a mild ugly duckling/make-over scene, which is probably my favorite plot-gimmick ever (I should post a list of Top 10 Favorite Ugly Duckling Moments in Literature soon).

And talking about favorites, my favorite scene happened when Lucy saw herself and her group in the mirror without realizing it –  it would look great in a movie:

Thus for the first, and perhaps only time in my life, I enjoyed the “giftie” of seeing myself as others see me. No need to dwel of the results.

Why the use of the word “giftie”? Seems off-key somehow.

I also found interesting the part about the gallery and the Cleopatra. It’s clear that Bronte wanted us to compare the attitudes of the two men in Lucy’s life towards an open display of sexuality. Dr John was all coolness, while M. Paul was his frantic self, ready to cover the modest eyes of any woman in the vicinity. Another not so veiled comparison between Catholics and Protestants – or Continentals and English?

Once again Bronte was not kind to the poor Labassecouriens, especially the women. They all seem to be bulky, “barrel-shaped” and artificial, and can never be trusted – “You never find her [Ginevra] lying, as these foreigners will often lie.” I’m glad that at least the Queen seemed to have pleased!

One last note: I would like to see some more character development around Dr. John. I like him, but I don’t see him as a romantic hero. He actually doesn’t create any strong feelings in me, especially now that he stopped orbiting around Ginevra, and I don’t want to slap him upside the head all the time.

When is Polly coming back?!

(SPOILERS for these chapters)

Well, I wasn’t expecting that! The most surprising thing wasn’t that Dr. John was Graham, but that Lucy knew for several chapter and didn’t tell us, her dear trusting readers. It makes me smile over the several comments about her powers of observation (including mine), only to see her reveals herself as an unreliable narrator. I’ll need to pay more attention to what she says (and how she says it) it the future.

(Someone from the Brussels Bronte Group once told me that the Church which inspired the place where Lucy almost turned Catholic was the Notre Dame du Sablon (photo) – can anyone confirm?)

Looking back at her motives, I thinking I’d also not tell Dr. John who I was if he failed to recognize me. This is actually one of the only two moments in these chapters where I could understand Lucy, the other being her sarcastic ode to de Hamal (he he he!).

Ever since the chapter in London I’ve been moving further and further away from Lucy. I just don’t get her and it frustrates me a little, because many bloggers I follow loved the book exactly because they recognized themselves in Lucy. Oh well!

For instance, here’s something I couldn’t understand: during school months Lucy’s always craving for solitude and as soon as she has it, she’s more depressed than ever! She even goes mentally and physically ill (but not enough to fall into the hands of those cunning Catholics, hey?). And what sin did she confess that so much impressed her confessor?

Another: she’s a strong, resilient, self-reliable woman, so why did she let herself be locked in an attic full of rats to better memorize a play?

AND YET! And yet she can laugh!

How I laughed when I reached the schoolroom. I knew now she had certainly seen Dr. John in the garden.

But alas not for long… two sentence afterwards:

Yet as the laugh died, a kind of wrath smote me, and then bitterness followed: it was the rock struck, and Meriban’s waters gushing out.

The thing is, as I feel less empathic towards Lucy, I become more curious to see what the Bronte has in stall for her. I’m fascinated by Lucy’s depthness, repression and slightly psychotic mind, and I don’t mind at all that she also became an unreliable narrator – it add more layers to the story!

I went into this story without know anything apart that it’s about a woman moving from England to live in a foreign place called Villette. I still know nothing about it apart from these first five chapters.

My first thought after finishing them was this: Lucy Snow, who are you? Something tells me I won’t get much closer to an answer by the end of the book, and it surprised me that Charlotte decided to create such a mysterious heroine after letting us into bit of Jane Eyre’s mind (or maybe because of it?).

Lucy, we find in these first five chapters, is a keen observer and gives us an intimate glimpse of two homes. The first is her godmother’s, whom she’s visiting and where she meets Polly-the-creepy-child. Polly is a relative that’s staying with them while her father is out of the country for his health. She’s a six-year-old drama queen who transfers her almost morbid attachment to her father to the godmother’s son, Graham. Lucy’s descriptions of the way Polly clings to these two men made me slightly uncomfortable – her gestures and dialogues are those of a wife or a lover, and in modern times would deserve serious counseling. Take a look at this eerie description of Polly:

Opposite where he had placed himself [Graham] was seated Mr. Home, and at his elbow, the child. When I say child I use an inappropriate and undescriptive term—a term suggesting any picture rather than that of the demure little person in a mourning frock and white chemisette, that might just have fitted a good-sized doll—perched now on a high chair beside a stand, whereon was her toy work-box of white varnished wood, and holding in her hands a shred of a handkerchief, which she was professing to hem, and at which she bored perseveringly with a needle, that in her fingers seemed almost a skewer, pricking herself ever and anon, marking the cambric with a track of minute red dots; occasionally starting when the perverse weapon—swerving from her control—inflicted a deeper stab than usual; but still silent, diligent, absorbed, womanly.

Flashes of “Village of the Damned” keept crossing my mind…

The second home we’re introduced to is that of invalid Miss Marchmont, to take is Lucy as a companion/nurse after an unexplained tragedy happens. I had to go back and re-read the metaphors about boats and storms to realize Lucy was telling us she’d lost all her family and was now alone in the world. Did Charlotte know that by not telling us what happened, the reader would imagine the worst?

Lucy spends years confined to the two rooms Miss Marchmoors is limited to, and dedicates her life to the Lady’s comfort. I came to see this time in her life as a necessary harbour of safety and constancy, after her unnamed difficulties. My favorite part of these chapters were Lucy’s thoughts when Miss Marchmont dies and she is forced out of her emotional hibernation:

It seemed I must be stimulated into action. I must be goaded, driven, stung, forced to energy. My little morsel of human affection, which I prized as if it were a solid pearl, must melt in my fingers and slip thence like a dissolving hailstone. My small adopted duty must be snatched from my easily contented conscience. I had wanted to compromise with Fate: to escape occasional great agonies by submitting to a whole life of privation and small pains. Fate would not so be pacified; nor would Providence sanction this shrinking sloth and cowardly indolence.

This is the second book I’ve read this year where we’re left ignorant of the heroine’s background and it’s interesting to see the difference it makes in character development. You really are the sum of all your experiences and the decisions you make are a consequence of a past cause. So why did Charlotte decided to give us a “past-less” Lucy Snowe? Something I’m looking forward to explore in the next chapters.

So this is it, I’m finally reading Villette by Charlotte Brontë. It’s happening because of the timely Villette Read-Along organized by Wallace over at Unputdownables.

I’ve been curious about this one for a while now, ever since moving to Brussels actually, because this city inspired the fictional one which gave the name to the novel . Emily and Charlotte lived here for a while and that’s why there’s a Brussels Bronte Group, of which I’m a proud member. It seems that several of the references to places in Villette are clearly connected to real places in Brussels, so I’m really looking forward to this!

The Pensionnat Héger in Quartier Isabelle, where the sisters lived, has long been destroyed, but the Group placed a plaque in the only piece of original street still visible above ground (there’s another part in the catacombs of a local museum). This was done without asking the Brussels municipality, so shhhh, it’s just between you and me, ok?

Whenever friends come to visit I always pass by while giving my usually city tour, but usually my enthusiasm is way above theirs… “Brontë who?! Whatevs!”

A piece of rue d’Isabelle in the Belvue Museum:

A small piece of Quartier Isabelle still remains. See the plaque between the doors? Tinny blue spec?

The plaque. You can read here all about the Secret Mission to put it there! Notice the reference to Villette: