In past days there had been, said history, an awful crisis in the fate of Labassecour, involving I know not what peril to the rights and liberties of her gallant citizens. Rumours of wars, there had been, if not wars themselves; a kind of struggling in the streets – a bustle – a running to and fro, some rearing of barricades, some burgher-rioting, some calling out of troops, much interchange of brick-bats, and even a little of shot.
– Charlotte Brontë, Villette
Charlotte arrived in Brussels only twelve years after the short but bloody revolution of 1830, so her brief paragraph as Lucy Snowe begins her opiate-fuelled walk into the Park at night seems curious and detached, and all the more interesting.
The Great Powers had fused the Dutch Netherlands and largely Catholic southern Netherlands – the future Belgium – in 1814 as a buffer against France, under a Dutch Protestant king, William I. One of Evan’s former pupils was at the theatre on the evening of Wednesday 25 August 1830, where the signal for an uprising against the Dutch had been rumoured. The Dutch government in The Hague refused to make concessions. Many British fled, terrified, but the Jenkinses stayed at their house, only ten minutes’ walk from the Park, with four children under the age of five, as well as schoolchildren.
‘Belgians, be prepared for combat or slavery,’ declared one Belgian deputy. In Brussels, trees were hewn down in the boulevards, barricades were built, and volunteers began arriving, but the odds were hopeless against an approaching army of 13,000 under Prince Frederick. Dutch troops occupied the Park, while two American adventurers arrived to help the Belgians. When the Beaumont brothers got to the Place Royale ‘they saw no enemy, but they were told they were in the Park; they looked but saw only trees. The Dutch it appeared were hid in a deep hollow in the Park, which effectually covered them from any fire but that of bombs or rockets, and these the Belgians did not possess.’ One brother was shot in the leg: ‘I’ve got it, Vive la liberté.’ But unbelievably, the Dutch troops withdrew after four days. The stunned Belgians had won an improbable victory, and a new country.
The following year the Belgian Congress chose Prince Leopold, widower of the heiress to the British throne, Princess Charlotte, as their king. Over twenty years later, Charlotte Brontë saw King Leopold at a concert in Brussels; she transforms it in Villette to Lucy Snowe’s observations of the King of Labassecour, but it is unmistakably Leopold, ‘a man of fifty, a little bowed, a little gray’.
The photos show King Leopold I in 1839 and the attack on the Park in September 1830, an engraving of the painting by Thomas Sidney Cooper, one of the eyewitnesses to the Revolution, who is mentioned in the book. (Both Wikimedia Commons)