A cold day and a clouded sky form the ideal climate for a journey into the past and further into the imagination. On such a day in November, I traveled to Haworth to visit the Brontë Parsonage Museum; to visit the home of that extraordinary family and to walk in the footsteps of genius. I think it is the natural inclination of the student of literature to be hyperbolic in their praise of the great authors of the past whose reputation is sculpted in marble to defy the weathers of time. Still I find that it is impossible to overestimate my love and admiration for those sisters, as dear to me as my own, and their creations. To hold a work of the Brontë sisters in your hand is more significant than the mere handling of ink and paper. It is an experience akin to peering into the depths of a human heart, warm and pulsating with life. My first encounter was with Emily after I chose Wuthering Heights from a list of classic literature to be the subject of my first research essay. You may imagine that like many young girls, I was immediately enthralled by the passion and romance of that remarkable book, but my reaction was very much the reverse. I was appalled by the selfish brutality of her characters and very critical of their choices. Nevertheless I could not help but admire Emily’s poetic and visual writing style that left such a vivid impression on my memory that even though it has been many years since I first read it, I can still recall select passages to mind and enjoy them as if I were experiencing them for the first time. I thought that in re-reading the book for my option module, my feelings might be more open to the romantic aspects of the novel and that I would now embrace what I had once rejected. Unfortunately, I find I am even more convinced that Wuthering Heights is more deserving of a place under the genre of horror, if not for the violence and immorality of its characters, then at least for the inscrutability of its author who, like her novel, is as tangible as a phantom. Little is known or understood of Emily Brontë, a solitary figure who drew her knowledge of human nature from observation rather than interaction and who had greater affection for her beloved dog than for any friend. She remains an enigma crowned with genius.
Because of my strong feelings towards Wuthering Heights, I delayed meeting Charlotte for several years. I was at last inclined to read Jane Eyre for a college course and with every page I cursed my younger self for not having sought her out sooner. The affinity I lacked for Emily I felt in abundance for Charlotte and for her dearly beloved characters. I followed the progression of Jane’s strong willed and independent nature and admired the development of her character from her troubled childhood to her first experience of love. Cruel relatives, sinister religious figures, a Byronic anti-hero, and a mad woman in the attic threaten her resolve, but she never loses sight of herself. She does not crumble and fade away like so many victims that haunt the pages of literature, but is as strong as the woman who created her. Charlotte was of course the most prolific of her sisters being not only the author of several novels but also an ardent letter writer and we know more of her than of any in her family. I highly recommend Mrs. Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë as a valuable primary resource for gaining a better understanding of that shy, intelligent, and ambitious woman. Even as I develop a more sophisticated appreciation of her writing, I find the connection I have to Charlotte grows deeper and more lasting the more I learn about her. I certainly cannot compare myself to her as a writer since I am too much in awe of the clarity of her prose to even attempt to emulate it. But in her life, I can observe some sympathies. After the death of her mother and two elder sisters, she assumed the role of mother and teacher to her younger siblings. As the oldest in my family, my affection for my sisters is both sisterly and motherly. She traveled to another country to study and spent a year away from her family as I am doing now. She was by nature shy and reserved, able to enjoy her own company. She did not have many friends, but those she did have were cherished and their letters greatly appreciated. In many ways, I feel I understand Charlotte more than I did Emily, and even when made aware of her failings, it does not decrease my respect for her. She discovered Emily’s poetry and was intelligent enough to know their worth. I only hope she knew and appreciated her own worth as an author of exceptional skill whose work has been held close to the hearts of millions of readers throughout time. When I am in need of a friend and cannot reach the ones I know in life, I know I can find one in the pages of her books.
Anne is a recent acquaintance, having only just this year found time to read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. To her works is married the word “realism,” due to her subjects being drawn from her observances as a governess, and I wonder if that word is detrimental to her legacy when compared to the “Gothic” and “romantic” intrigues that color the work of her better known sisters. Based on that word alone I rather uncharitably prepared myself for a historical record devoid of the warmth and style of the novels I had come to admire. I thought I would find only a pale shadow in the work of the youngest sister as I could think of no other reason why Anne Brontë should be so neglected in literary criticisms and film adaptations of her work. I’m not too proud to admit when I am wrong. In fact, I am overjoyed when my prejudices are exposed as the brittle untruth and I discover something new and exciting. That Anne draws a realistic portrait of her characters is quite true and it is that very quality that enthralls you when you read scenes that could easily have taken place in the present day. The mysterious and independent artist who resides in the dilapidated Wildfell Hall, the farmer who is bewitched by her arresting manner, and the violent rogue who haunts her secret past are sensational elements that might have contributed to the most lurid piece of fiction were it not for the temperance and intelligence of the author. I wish more people were acquainted with this novel and that it would maintain the level of fame that it deserves. It has often been observed by my instructor that it is interesting that the Brontës never created characters who were writers. I think it is also worthy to note that of all the sisters, only Anne ventured to create a woman who earned her living as an artist. We know as much about Anne as we do about Emily, perhaps more because her contemporaries did attempt to describe her. In descriptions of Anne, you will find the words usual in describing the baby of the family such as “sweet,” “good-natured,” and “shy.” While I have no reason to suppose that those words are far from the truth, after reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I suspect that one could add “intelligence” and “courage” to her list of qualities.
After three rail connections, I arrived at Keighley, which is the nearest station to Haworth, just as a fine mist began to fall to the ground. From Keighley, I traveled by cab to the Brontë Parsonage Museum and through the window viewed a world slowly changing. In a very short time, I saw fewer and fewer signs of modern life and industry and seemed to journey into the past. That may seem like an exaggeration, but to walk up a hill of a stone covered road, lined with houses and shops as picturesque as a painting is an pleasure far removed from anything that I have ever experienced. How can I compare the sight of a full and clouded sky that meets surrounding windswept hills in an infinite and unblemished horizon to the well manicured lawns and identical houses that clutter the American landscape. It’s an interesting difference of attitude towards nature that America will cordon off and preserve some elements of nature and bulldoze over the rest to make room for industry whereas the houses in Haworth are built into the hills and seem more harmonious with the nature that surrounds them. The north of England is a beautiful and enchanting part of the country and though it may not be an exact reflection of the unspoilt nature that Emily Brontë loved, it loses none of its magic when viewed through the eyes of a 21st century woman.
There may not be many who share that opinion when it comes to the museum itself or rather to the surreal art exhibit that is currently on display. In essence, Charlotte Cory’s exhibit features mock photographs of 19th century men and women with the heads of animals. I would never deny an artists right to examine the absurd, but it is peculiar to view these strange portraits in every room in the house. I do not care for them myself, but I couldn’t help feeling regret for the poor artist if she should happen to read the guest books which were dripping with venom and vitriol. Did I allow these questionable examples of expression to spoil my enjoyment of the museum? Not one bit. I have had the privilege to visit the preserved homes of several notables including Charles Dickens’ house in London, but my experience of exploring the home of the Brontë family was overwhelming. I stood in the very room where the sisters had composed their novels; where Emily drew her last breath. I walked as if on sacred ground. Standing in Charlotte’s room, I saw the relics of a saint in her faded dress, her delicate shoes and the pages of her handwriting. Perhaps that is bordering on blasphemy, but I think I have made it clear that my love for the Brontë sisters is far from superficial. I was disappointed that even in this shrine for literary pilgrims, Anne is rather neglected. I understand that there is little that survives of Anne’s personal papers, but every room in the house seemed to share a particular connection with a member of the family; every one except Anne. But it is a lovely house that has been beautifully restored and it was a great pleasure to view it. From the windows of the Parsonage can be seen St. Michael and All Angels church and the neighboring graveyard where the Brontë’s beloved servant Tabitha Ackroyd is buried. The Brontës were buried in the vaults of the church, with the exception of Anne who was buried at Scarborough. In the parish church, I noticed a stained glass window titled “The American Window” and I puzzled for a moment over the possible reason for this until I read the inscription painted onto the window itself: “To the Glory of God in pleasant memory of Charlotte Brontë by an American Citizen.” My sense of patriotism swells with pride at this gesture of appreciation. There is also a chapel within the church dedicated to the Brontë family and a lovely gilded plaque for Emily and Charlotte.
It’s quite amusing to view the shops and restaurants of Haworth which have all been affected with Brontë-mania and are subsequently named after the characters and locations of the novels. To their credit, I will affirm that I sampled some of the finest chocolates I have ever tasted in a local shop called …and Chocolate. I was a fool to accept the free sample, but I gave in to temptation and chose my oh so edible souvenir. I can assure you that I treasured that little bag of salted toffee and coconut truffles for as long as I could. Although I write from my own perspective, I was fortunate to have traveled with the two women who make up my option module and we ended our day by dining at a local pub at the bottom of the hill.
Eventually night fell and as we stood waiting for a cab outside the museum, I was struck by the terrible darkness that seemed to swallow up the sights that had delighted my eyes only a few hours before. Were it not for the cheering presence of Christmas lights throughout the town, I am certain we would have been absorbed in a pitch black night unable to see even a few feet ahead of us. Out of a morbid curiosity, I went to see if the graveyard gate remained unlocked and found to my surprise that it was. It would have been dangerous to venture too far into its heart as the tombstones are so thickly clustered together that it is impossible to walk without treading over someone’s grave, hidden beneath a carpet of autumn leaves. The front of the Brontë Parsonage Museum was illuminated in a ghostly white light and the air was heavy with silence, which was all the more noticeable for the absence of the sinister cries of some unknown species of bird that I had found difficult to ignore during the day. Every element of nature seemed to be working in tandem to create a singularly evocative experience for our imaginations. I did not see any ghosts that night, not even after the clouds exposed an appropriately full moon to light my way. But to visit the Brontë Parsonage Museum is to feel the presence of those remarkable women whose works will always be remembered. It is certainly an experience I hope never to forget.
Short Story Reading Group will be meeting Wednesday 4 December in Att. 1315 at 5pm
Also there will be free screenings of David Lean’s Great Expectations on 4 December at 4:15pm in Att. University Film Theatre and a double feature of A Christmas Carol and Scrooged on 11 December.
Music: “Wuthering Heights”-Kate Bush
Book: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall-Anne Brontë
Film: Jane Eyre (1983)