Report from the 2001 Martinus Nijhoff Study Grant Recipient

WESS Newsletter

Vol. 25, No. 2 (Spring, 2002)

By Sue Waterman

Despite dire predictions of rainy weather and gloomy skies, Belgium in October of 2001 turned out to be not only sunny and pleasant but enormously fruitful. The two weeks I spent there, in Brussels, Liège, Namur and Charleroi, revealed an easily accessible country, full of friendly people and overflowing archives.

My study concerns three generations of a prominent Belgium family of the 19th century, the Selys Longchamps and their collections. By the end of my research trip, the 4 men I have been studying for several years emerged from the shadows of conjecture and began to take on real shape and individual personalities. This transformation was effected by unexpected discoveries in the archives, and by the utter charm and openness of the present-day Selys Longchamps family, my hosts for several days in the Belgian countryside.

The family estates of Longchamps and Halloy are still quite rural and quite beautiful. While the chateau d’ Halloy was sold several years ago outside the family, a Selys descendant lives in the “Ferme de la Motte”, adjacent to the old chateau. I spent one night there, at the home of Marie de Selys, the great-great granddaughter of Edmond de Selys Longchamps, the central figure in my study. And the chateau de Longchamps, where I spent a lovely afternoon, is still home to another of Edmond’s great-great granddaughters. Along the way, I met several other family members, all incredibly welcoming to this nosy American who was poking around in their family tree.

And it turns out there actually was a skeleton in the closet. Walter de Selys, Edmond’s younger son, was a nonconformist par excellence in the late 19th century, running off with the family cook from the chateau de Longchamps, and living in Paris with her for 6 years before finally agreeing to marry her, to save his father’s reputation back home. In those 6 years, she bore him 3 children. This was quite a scandal for the 19th century, especially in the family of the President of the Belgian Senate. Walter and his family spent several years in Switzerland until the heat cooled off and they could safely return to Belgium, now with 4 children in tow.

None of this information is available from “official” sources; the reference La noblesse de la Belgique lists Walter’s marriage as 1871, in order to obscure the fact that 3 of his children were born before the actual date of his marriage, 1881. I discovered this quite by chance while rooting through several dozen dusty boxes of archives from the chateau of Halloy, happening upon an extraordinary “contract” Walter wrote up before his marriage. In it he writes:

Le dit Walter de Selys s’étant décidé, par condescendance pour son père et en vue de régulariser la position sociale de sa femme et de ses :enfants, à confirmer par un mariage civil, absolument contraire cependant à ses convictions, la libre union qui existe depuis plus de 6 ans :entre lui et la prénommée de seconde part…(mariage) qu’il considère comme constituant un véritable esclavage; mais qu’il prétend au contraire :conserver, (comme il lui laisse à elle,) ses pleine et entière liberté et indépendance personnelle de corps comme de coeur…

This fascinating document was found amid thousands of others, stuffed into archives boxes, in no order whatsoever, at the Université de Liège, part of the “archives du chateau d’Halloy”, a huge collection of miscellaneous documents donated to the Université. The librarian in Liège told me the papers were piled high in a room of the chateau, in such a deplorable state that they had to literally shovel many of them out.

Also found in Liège, a small notebook in a scrawling 19th century hand, that of Edmond de Selys, chronicling the brief life of his youngest child, Marguerite, who died in 1852, at the age of 4, from what appears to be meningitis. This is also a compelling document, excruciatingly detailed, recounting the slow and painful demise of his beloved child.

C’est là, au milieu de la chambre, en face de la cheminée, que la pauvre enfant a rendu son âme à Dieu à 3 heures 40 minutes de relevée, au :moment où je sentais son pouls défaillir entre mes mains comme une montre qui va s’arrêter et que j’inondais sa joue de mes larmes après :l’avoir embrasser une demi-minute avant la fatale séparation, et avoir baisé trois fois sa pauvre petite main encore chaude. Une demi heure :avant, elle levait ses beaux yeux bleus au ciel, ayant l’air de voir Dieu. Ses yeux alors n’étaient plus habités on n’aurait pas cru qu’ils :avaient tant souffert.

I did not discover the existence of a sort of catalog for the now dispersed library from Halloy until my last day in Liège, and so was unable to investigate the only material remnant of a once magnificent 19th century private library. Needless to say, there is still months of work that could be done in the Liège archive.

However, while in Brussels, I did find notes from the library at Halloy, in the hand of Jean-Baptiste Julien d’Omalius d’Halloy, father-in-law of Edmond de Selys. D’Omalius sketched out the layout of his grand library, as well as his cabinet of geological specimens; neither collection exists today, both dispersed and lost, as were so many 19th century libraries and collections. Also in Brussels, I was able to see the vast natural history collections of Edmond – birds, insects, reptiles, and small mammals. The Institut royal des Sciences naturelles de Belgique contains all of his collections, carefully inter-filed with countless others, but each specimen bearing a pink ticket with “Collection de Selys Longchamps” either printed or hand-written on it. Often the tickets are in Edmond’s own hand. I spent 2 days in the Institut, hosted by 3 of its very affable and helpful curators, who showed me row after row of massive wooden drawers with glass lids, each holding dozens of carefully preserved specimens; the smell of formaldehyde faintly perfumed the locked rooms that were permeated by a feeling of time standing still.

In Charleroi, I visited the Musée de la Photographie, the Belgian museum for photography, where all of Raphaël de Selys many photographs and glass negatives are kept. Raphaël was Edmond’s oldest son, and was one of the early amateur photographers of Europe. The curator there told me it was a unique collection, the prints having been preserved intact until they were discovered in a bookseller’s shop in Brussels several years ago and purchased by the museum. Raphael’s glass negatives were recently found in the attic of the chateau de Longchamps and donated to the Musée. I found a number of very interesting photos and ordered prints from some of them, hoping to add some visual punctuation to my study.

The task of making sense of everything I saw, read, photocopied, photographed, heard, tasted, smelled and transcribed in Belgium is looming now. While I have written and delivered a short paper on this study (can be found online), a longer and more detailed study on the culture of 19th century collecting is my ultimate goal. For the moment, I am busily transcribing the more than 400 photocopies I made (I had to buy a suitcase in Namur to carry all the accumulated stuff), and in the process, still discovering interesting tidbits from vanished lives.

Sue Waterman is the Resource Services Librarian for German and Romance Languages and Literature at Johns Hopkins University