The recent terrorist attacks in Brussels, Belgium focused the world’s attention on this beautiful European city.
As I read the harrowing stories of the survivors of this tragedy, I reflected on what I know – and what I would like to know — about the country of Belgium and its colorful history. As a reader, I enjoy learning about other countries through novels and non-fiction books.
Books set in Belgium
I first thought of historical fiction books I have read about World War II’s Battle of the Bulge, but after some thought, I realized there were other fine books in my repertoire set in Belgium. Here are some of them.
The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier (Penguin Books, 2004)
The author of the best-seller Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier uses a set of medieval tapestries as the focal point of this engrossing novel. Chevalier weaves extensive research into what little is known about the six tapestries that hang in Paris’s Cluny Museum with her imagination about their making.
In the book, nobleman Jean Le Viste commissions artist Nicolas des Innocents to design a series of battle tapestries for his home. When Jean’s wife seeks a different subject, Nicolas combines her idea of the taming of a unicorn with his own vision of appealing to each of the senses. He then takes his designs to Brussels where they are woven into tapestry from wool and silk.
Favorite quote: “Warp threads are thicker than the weft, and made of a coarser wool as well. I think of them as like wives. Their work is not obvious – all you can see are the ridges they make under the colorful weft threads. But if they weren’t there, there would be no tapestry. Georges would unravel without me.”
Vanity Fair by William Thackeray (Original publication 1847; Penguin Classics, 2003)
This classic satire is set partly in Brussels at the time when the British armed forces were set to do battle with “the Corsican upstart” (aka Napoleon) at Waterloo. The story follows the lives of Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley as they make their parallel but different ways through society.
The title refers to the town in the classic allegory Pilgrim’s Progress. In that book, Vanity Fair is the town that represents man’s attachment to appearances and to worldly possessions.
Thackeray, who serves as omniscient narrator of the book, has a decidedly dim view of 19th century Western culture and indeed of human nature as a whole.
Favorite quote: “Are not there little chapters in everybody’s life, that seem to be nothing, and yet affect all the rest of the history?”
Villette by Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte set two of her novels in Belgium — Villette, published in 1853, and The Professor, published posthumously in 1857. Both books are based on the experiences she and her sister, Emily, had at a boarding school in Brussels in the early 1840s.
In Villette, the author of Jane Eyre takes her protagonist Lucy Snowe from England to Belgium, where she teaches at a girl’s school in the French-speaking town of Villette. In Villette, her fourth novel, Bronte goes beyond the standard romance/adventure themes of the day to explore isolation and subversion and the impact these events have on Lucy’s psyche.
Favorite quote: “Life is so constructed that an event does not, cannot, will not, match the expectation.”
The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst (Chatto & Windus, 1994)
Deeply dissatisfied with his life, Edward Manners, 33, leaves England in search of a new life in Belgium. There working as an English tutor, Edward is drawn into two different types of obsessions – one with one of his students and the other with the work and world of 1890s Belgian painter Edgard Orst.
Hollinghurst has a lyrical way with words, and his enigmatic ending will keep this book in your thoughts as you play out the possible outcomes in your mind.
Favorite quote: “Part of the misery of swimming was that you couldn’t do it in glasses.”
A Dog of Flanders by Marie Louise de la Ramée under pen name “Ouida” (Original publication 1872, Dover Books, 2011)
This touching book tells the story of Nello, a young Belgian boy who dreams of becoming an artist, and his loyal dag, Patrasche. Set in a small village near Antwerp, you learn much about the difficulties of country life in 19th century Belgium.
The story is so well loved that there is a commemorative statue of Nello and Patrasche standing in the village still today.
Favorite quote: “Death had been more pitiful to them than longer life would have been. It had taken the one in the loyalty of love, and the other in the innocence of faith, from a world which for love has no recompense and for faith no fulfillment.”
A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge by Charles B. MacDonald (William Morrow & Company, 1984)
And, finally, a non-fiction book about that famous battle from World War II. Military historian Charles MacDonald commanded a rifle company in the brutal battel that raged in the Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg in December 1944.
In this vivid account, MacDonald combines his own personal experiences with detailed research to tell the story of how, after an incredible lapse in American battle intelligence, the U.S. Army faced the last desperate efforts of Hitler’s army and won.
“Had not Frederick the Great – who among all the military leaders of history was Hitler’s idol – whose maxims were always on the tip of the Fuhrer’s tongue to silence the pessimist, invoke new sacrifice, or justify cruel discipline, and whose portrait hung behind the desk in Hitler’s study in the Reischschancellery – faced vastly superior forces convergent on his kingdom in the Seven Years’ War? …With the British and Canadian armies wiped out, would it not become obvious to the American people that their sons were dying to impose on Western Europe the dictatorship of the proletariat?