It is 25 years ago that I started doing research on the Brussels of the Brontës, aiming to recreate the Isabella quarter for her, the lady who had introduced me to Villette. Over the next decades I looked at every book and picture I could get hold of, in archives and libraries, to try to understand what the old quarter had looked like in the days of the Brontës. In 1990 I visited Brussels and the quarter for the first time, with Elle. I remember the excitement of standing on the Belliard Steps, though obviously having no real idea of the world ‘down these Steps’, and what it would all bring. Most recently, my talk for the BBG.
Of invaluable importance was and is the iconic Tahon photo of the quarter, supposedly dating from 1909. For many years it hung on the wall at my desk. The crucial breakthrough came in 2003, when I took the picture to a photography professor of Leiden University. She said it must be an 1850s photograph. It’s possibly the highlight of these 25 years. Finally we fully understood the quarter. By implication it shows us the quarter as it was in 1843.
With all we had gathered then, it had become possible to do a sort of virtual walk through the old quarter, in the mind. Just as I can easily imagine walking in, for instance the quarter as it is now. I hope that those who joined my walk can agree.
One of my last and nicest discoveries was the following picture:
It’s a picture of the area where the Terarckenstraat now ends (with Hotel Ravenstein on the right). This time though we only need to climb over the gate to continue our walk, ‘through the mist of time’ (unfortunately I forgot to say that at my talk). At the same time it’s also a sad reminder of the very charming quarter that not long before had been demolished.