Just before Christmas I got to realise one of my English literature dreams and visited the Yorkshire town of Haworth, famous for being the home of the Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne. It was part of a superbly organised trip with the New History Lab and I meant to write about it before the Christmas break but the little matter of handing my first thesis submission in got in the way!
We met the History Labbers outside De Montfort Hall on a cold December morning. As we left the comfortable undulating countryside of Leicestershire and emerged into the wilder, rockier landscapes of Yorkshire, I was entertaining ideas of looking round a lonely parsonage on top of a bleak, windswept moor. I was surprised therefore to find that, amongst many other myths punctured that day, the Parsonage was actually situated at the top of what had been a busy industrial town in the 19th century. The moors of Wuthering Heights, the splendid isolation of Thornfield seemed miles away from the shops, houses and fields of the surrounding area (from which the Brontes wished to escape?).
The Bronte Museum is located in the original Parsonage, which has been extended and developed since the time of the Brontes. On arrival we went inside a small basement room for a talk on the Bronte family with a very informative member of the museum staff - sadly I do not know her name otherwise I would be able to say a proper thank you! It was very interesting to learn about the real history of the Brontes, rather than the romantic myths and stories which grew up around them after their deaths. Apparently some the myths can be blamed on Elizabeth Gaskell who wrote a biography of Charlotte, particularly the erroneous idea that their father, Patrick Bronte, was something of an eccentric tyrant. It was a revelation to learn that Patrick was just as interesting as his more famous daughters, having come from a poor family in Ireland and started his own school at the age of 16. A published writer and poet, he encouraged his daughter's talents rather than suppressed them. It was also interesting to learn that Bronte was not the real name of the family but the more prosaic Brunty. There was plenty of interesting detail given about the more famous sisters, for instance that Emily Bronte did not seem to take to teaching very well, suggesting that some students she taught were less well behaved than her dogs, and the seeming rivalry between Charlotte and Branwell, and Emily and Anne, when inventing their fantasy world. Also poignant was the life of their brother Branwell, who was the 'golden boy' of the family and had many hopes resting on his shoulders, which he seemed unable to live up to.
After the talk was over, we were free to look round the house, which has been laid out approximately as it would have appeared at the time the Bronte's lived there. Unfortunately it was not possible to take any photos inside the house but it was surprisingly small for such a large family, even with an extra wing added by a later incumbent. The museum gave another interesting overview of the Bronte family, furnished with many objects that they would have owned in life. It was interesting to see their writing cases (reassuringly messy) and early examples of their writing, such as the tiny magazines they made as children.
The position of the house above the graveyard is not always a comforting sight, however the graveyard played an interesting role in the town's history. Despite being small, Haworth had an incredibly high death rate in the 19th century similar to Manchester and the larger cites. The average age of death was around 25 I remember. Partly this was because the springs where most of the people drank from and washed in filtered down the hill through the very graveyard in front of the parsonage... but even if the Brontes had access to cleaner water, the number of the family who died from Tuberculosis - only Patrick lived to old age and heartbreakingly saw all his children die before him - reveals the fragility of life in the 19th century.
The church (above) where Patrick Bronte was Curate, although he would not recognise it as it was rebuilt in 1879 (Patrick died in 1861).
I was amazed by the graveyard because unlike many other cemeteries and graveyards in England, it has not suffered from having gravestones taken down, made into paths or arranged around the walls. It is completely packed with memorials and I imagine most graveyards could have been like this at one stage.
For lunch J and I ventured into town and decided to eat lunch at the Black Bull Inn, a pub that was frequented by Branwell Bronte. It was well within staggering distance of the Parsonage and was relatively easy to imagine Branwell making the walk several times a week, to the annoyance and concern of his family.
Haworth's main street is strung out along a relatively steep hill (compared to most in Leicestershire anyway) and looked picturesque in the feeble sunlight. Unfortunately whilst we were eating lunch the heavens opened and rained down hail and rain in equal measure. Intrepid explorers as we are, we refused to let this put a dampener on our visit and set off resolutely to explore the town, fortified by jacket potatoes.
Haworth is mostly built of lovely yellow stone and the main street retains its cobbles, giving it a 19th century feel. I imagine that the presence of the Brontes has prevented it from going the way of most British high streets with their garish signs!
The meeting place of the Haworth brass band (above).
J was determined to see the moors so we trekked for a few miles past the Bronte Museum in the rain and the twilight... well um actually we found a field a couple of minutes past the museum which conveniently doubled as 'moorland.' Still J looks so romantic and brooding in this picture it is easy to imagine her own on the moors somewhere searching for her 'Heathcliff.'
Another view of the moors (ahem, field).
The sun was disappearing rapidly as we came back to the museum, which gave time to take some pictures of the Parsonage, which had been hard to take before because of the low position of the sun. This image clearly shows the end of the original facade, marked by the darker stones, and the later extension which was added on to the house.
Another view of the house, this time taken from the graveyard.
Before we left Haworth there was time to have a look around the church, where J made friends with a very fluffy cat. The Bronte family are buried underneath the church and there are various memorials to them, including an older brass plaque and a larger, marble memorial shown in the image below.
It was a great day out and made all the better for the interesting talk from the Bronte Museum, which revealed another side to the Bronte family, who otherwise seem so familiar to us from the legend which has grown up around them. Whether your favourite book is Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, or (my favourite) Wuthering Heights, or even if you dislike the Brontes, it is well worth a visit to the museum to find out about the 'real' circumstances of their lives. Even on a cold Wintery day there is plenty to see if you want to wander about the town, and if only we had more time J and I might have even have made it out onto the proper moors....