Today, for something a little bit different, I bring you the first of my three-part account of my very Brontë summer, my chronicle of discovering the Brontë family through activities in Brussels, Haworth, and New York City. Parts II and III will be posted, respectively, on Tuesday and Friday.
“I see it – that cluster of trees over there!”
“No, Mom, look. See the dip at the top? And just under it? That lone dark spot? That’s Top Withens.”
I pointed to the spot, one tiny speck in the moor in front of us – and the realization hit my mom.
We were standing near the top of Penistone Hill, outside Haworth, West Yorkshire, England, and we were looking at the abandoned farmhouse that just may have inspired the setting of Wuthering Heights. It was the last day of our little mother-daughter trip through Brontë Country.
But this wasn’t the beginning – or the end – of my very Brontë summer.
It began when I was packing for the trip Europe. I always bring a healthy selection of books with me when I travel, and I dropped the three Brontë novels I had not read – Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Charlotte’s Shirley and The Professor – into my bag. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall accompanied me on my flight, and let me just say that I was hooked from Anne Brontë’s preface to the second edition.
Over the next couple of weeks, I devoured The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It was such a visceral experience that I gasped and yelled at parts of the book as our extended family watched me read.
When we were visiting downtown Brussels, I had to look up the location of the plaque for Charlotte and Emily Brontë. (The two elder Brontë sisters traveled to Brussels to study, and the plaque marks the place upon which the school used to stand.)
Seven of us were in a minibus, driving through the small streets of the Belgian capital. I spotted the plaque on the street and, while the minibus stopped briefly, jumped out of the bus. The bus circled around the block while I went over to small plaque, took a picture of it, and then attempted to take a photo of myself with it. I checked the street for the minibus, didn’t see it, and returned to the plaque just to steal another glance at it. When I walked back to the street, the minibus came, and I fluidly opened the door and got back into my seat.
Yes, I made my poor father, who happened to be driving that day, navigate that large minibus through extra streets just so that I could snap a couple of pictures of the Brontë plaque.
Back in the car, my cousin asked, “So what was that?” And I promptly explained.
“The who?” she asked.
“The Brontë sisters – you know, Charlotte and Emily. They wrote Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.”
“Oh, yes, them…”
Needless to say, few in the car shared my enthusiasm.
I finished The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and started Shirley while we were still all together. So steeped in nineteenth century writing was I that I began to adopt some words I was reading.
One evening, I said to my cousin, “I shall contrive to wake up at 7:00 to work on my proposal.” To which he responded, “Contrive?” And then I laughed and realized how pretentious I sounded to modern ears. (From then on, I began to use the word contrive in jest.)
My use of the word contrive made it clear: these sisters’ works had had unexpected effects on me over the past year.
The Brontë Myth
After I picked up Wuthering Heights last year, I went on a whirlwind through Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, Villette, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and, finally, Shirley. I was drawn into the mystery of the Brontë myth.
From the introductions of my copies of the novels, various websites, and a fascinating lecture at the New York Public Library (which will be repeated October 11 for anyone in the area interested), I learned more about this family, but the question was always in my mind: Who were these people?
Only by voyaging to their home could I begin to decipher the answer.
Heading to Haworth
Our time with the cousins finished, we began making arrangements for the trip to Yorkshire. Four hours from Cardiff, where we started, the GPS indicated that we were fast approaching Haworth, and I began to look for signs. It appeared that we were in the middle of nowhere: tiny roads, green pastures, stone walls, a few cottages scattered. And then:
Over the next ten minutes, I slowly started seeing signs that we were in Brontë Country, including a pub called Wuthering Heights.
We began to pull into a town that we imagined was Haworth, only to find a bus of Japanese tourists parked in front of the Brontë Weaving Shed. The presence of the tourists confirmed it: we had arrived in a known tourist location. We were in Haworth.
(I later found out that the Brontës are so popular in Japan that many Japanese tourists flock to Haworth to visit the Brontë Parsonage Museum and hike on the moors.)
After finding a place to stay, we began to explore the town, which was full of the flavor of the Brontës. The Villette Coffee House. Ye Olde Brontë Tea Rooms (which, unfortunately, were permanently closed). Eyres and Graces. And so on. Haworth showcases its pride for its literary history. By the time we started exploring, however, it was late afternoon, and as we quickly learned, many things close early in Haworth. And some shops aren’t open on weekdays at all.
We settled for a quick visit to the Haworth Churth, where Patrick Brontë was perpetual curate, before it closed for the day. The Brontë family – save Anne, who died in Scarborough – are buried in a vault under the church, and a small plaque marks the spot under which it lies. At the front of the church is the Brontë Chapel, which rests over the burial vault.
Outside the church, I had my first look at the Parsonage. The building stands frozen in time, aside from the extra wing added (where the museum exhibit and offices are now located)
There’s a garden in front of the Parsonage, but a dark graveyard that looked like it could be a haunt for the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw dominates the scene, separating the garden from the church and stretching far beyond the building. Dark trees loom over it, casting the tombstones in oppressive shadow, and I could almost imagine ravens cavorting among them. It’s not known how many people are actually buried in the graveyard, adding another twinge of the macabre.
During my brief stay in Haworth, I got a sense of how its environment shaped the writing of the Brontë sisters, particularly Emily, who spent the most time at home. For one, imagine what it would be like to leave your house and face a gloomy graveyard every day.
The next morning brought the event which I had been anticipating: the actual visit to the Brontë Parsonage Museum, which you will hear about on Tuesday.