Stories of Bruges

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Bruges La Morte

Historical figuresPosted by Your Bruges Tue, February 13, 2018 20:39:37

Georges Rodenbach and Bruges La Morte

Georges Rodenbach was born in Doornik in 1855, son of a family with German origins. Patriarch Ferdinand (1714-1786) was a chirgan with the Austrian army, who settled in Ypres after the marriage with Catharina Vanden Bossche.

The name Rodenbach may sound familiar to the beer lovers amongst you, and you are right. One of the grandsons of Ferdinand was the founder of the known beer Rodenbach.

Georges lived in Ghent, went there to school and university. He graduated in law in 1878, but before passing the bar in Ghent he first went to Paris to improve his legal competences. In Paris he mostly spent his free time in literary salons to make friends with numerous poets and writers. It was no secret that Georges was a writer of poems and novels himself. In that year in Paris he wrote 21 “Lettres Parisiennes” (Letters from Paris) for the catholic Brussels weekly “La Paix”.

Feeling homesick he returned to Ghent and started working as a lawyer. Disappointed in his work, his love for the literary arts prevails. He keeps close contacts with the Brussels literary circle “L’Union Littéraire”, where he becomes friends with Caroline Popp, writer and publisher of “Journal de Bruges”. This friendship is so strong he spends the entire summer of 1884 with her in Bruges, getting the important impressions of the city of Bruges.

Georges is so disappointed in his work as lawyer in Ghent, that he moved to Brussels to work there as a lawyer. But again is love and passion for the literary arts wins and in 1888 he leaves Belgium and moves to Paris to become a fulltime writer and poet. He moved in different artistic circles where he made friends with some prominent people; Mallarmé, Daudet, Rodin…

He also started working for the liberal newspaper “Le Figaro” where he wrote several serials on cities as Ghent, Middelburg and… Bruges.

It is in the format of a serial that Rodenbachs most known work is published for the first time. Bruges La Morte tells the story of widower Hugues Viane, looking for the shadow of his deceased wife and is attracted to Bruges. One of the rooms of his house on the Rozenhoedkaai is devoted to his wife; with several portraits and in a glass shrine a lock of hair of her. To pass the time he made long walk through the city. During one of these walks he meets a woman whom is the spitting image of his wife. He becomes friends with her. Turns out she’s an actress and her name is Jane Scott. During their dates Hugues seeks the traits of his deceased wife. Somehow he has her moving in to one of his houses just outside the centre of the city. However, soon Jane gets bored in this bizarre relationship and goes out in search for more enjoyable company. In Bruges gossip about this widower and actress starts. With months passing by, Hugues discovers more and more differences between Jane and his wife. When Jane discovers the room with portraits and lock of hair, she confronts him with this and everything goes wrong. He strangles her with the lock of hair.

What made this work special? The main character in this book isn’t Hugues Viane, but the city. The bells of the Belfry, the Beguinage, the atmosphere of the city… It all plays an important part in the setting.

But the people of Bruges didn’t appreciate the book! It was published on February 4th – 14th 1892. This was the moment Bruges took on the plans to (re)connect with the sea and expanding its harbour (Zeebrugge). Just then this writer from Paris wrote a book with “dead” in the title! Also the colourless setting isn’t something the people of Bruges liked.
Also there was the language in which it was written; French. The Flemish-fanatics accused the writer of immoral, obscene and anti-religious thoughts, having the descriptions of the relationship between Hugues and Jane in mind. Maybe difficult to understand today, don’t forget that people had a totally different view on love and relationships in those times.

While Rodenbach didn’t want to put a 100% accurate realistic image of the city on paper. He only wanted to vent his personal feelings, feelings of melancholy in which Bruges formed a perfect frame for this.
It is however without a doubt that Rodenbach –maybe unwillingly and without realising- boosted tourism in Bruges. It is a paradox but Rodenbach didn’t want to depict Bruges as a dead city. He fought this controversy by adding a foreword in reprints of Bruges La Morte, trying to explain his intentions.

Georges Rodenbach died in Paris on December 25th 1898. And even after his death there was protest coming from Bruges. The Flemish catholics and conservatives remained opposed, depicting him as “French”, who made Flemish people as fools and mocking Bruges. The symbolism used in the book was misinterpreted, taken too literally and considered too bold. Creating an image of a dead could be blocking the expansion of the port of Zeebrugge and this would be ill-fated form the economic growth of Bruges.

Still today, if you go looking for anything on him in Bruges, the only reminder is a plaque on the house ‘De Rode Steen’ at the Jan van Eyck Square.

It is clear that Rodenbach was and still is a misunderstood figure in the history of Bruges. Except for the controversy of those times it is impossible to recognize the major influence the book had on Bruges and its tourism.

With the book being translated in several languages (English, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Finnish and Dutch) it attracted many people from all over Europe, and today the world. After all the misinterpretations maybe it's time we recognize what Georges Rodenbach did for the city.

What do you think the city of Bruges could do to remember and commemorate him?





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