Essays and In Person

My Pilgrimage to the House of Brontë

By posted at 6:00 am on April 21, 2016 3

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1.
The Brontë Parsonage Museum lies in the remote Yorkshire village of Haworth, perched above vast, unpopulated moors. Arriving on a drizzly evening in late November, having changed trains several times and debarked in Keighley (pronounced KEITH-ley), I jounced over the narrow country streets in a bus, bleary with jet lag, until a grandmotherly woman nudged me to get off. The bus left me at the bottom of a high street so steep that its original pavers had installed the bricks short-end-up to give horses more traction. I lugged my suitcase up between the iron-grey stone and lath cottages lining the street. The Black Bull tavern appeared on my left, and an old-fashioned pharmacy with chickens scratching around its front door on my right. Once installed in my room at Weaver’s, a bed and breakfast over a low-ceilinged, hearth-warmed pub, I looked out the window. There before me was the parsonage, facing the famous graveyard and Rev. Brontë’s church. My breath caught in my chest. I was about 100 feet from the place where Charlotte Brontë  born 200 years ago today — lived, worked, and died.

Isolated in bucolic Haworth, the Brontës did not have society connections. Patrick Brontë moved the family to the remote Yorkshire village in 1820 when he became resident parish priest. Within five years, his wife, Maria, and his two oldest children, Maria and Elizabeth, were dead. In the parsonage, his four youngest children grew up with books and created their own magazines and illustrated sagas. By adulthood, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne had written seven novels and several volumes of poetry. Their brother Branwell painted and earned money by tutoring the children of local gentry.

covercoverThe young artists had to forge their own connections. When Charlotte was 20, she wrote to poet laureate Robert Southey for feedback on her writing; Southey admitted she had ability but chided her: “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: & it ought not to be.” Years later, after a half dozen rejections of her first manuscript The Professor, Charlotte penned Jane Eyre: An Autobiography “edited by Currer Bell” over the summer of 1847. When it came out that October, it was an overnight sensation, immediately drawing the admiration of William Makepeace Thackeray and the bombast of anti-feminists. Even before the pseudonym was unveiled, London literati were beside themselves over the question of authorship. In the Quarterly Review, Elizabeth Rigby rankled that the book could not have been written by a woman because Jane defies the essence of femininity and Christian piety; “and if by no woman, [the book] is certainly by no artist,” she added.

covercovercoverBetween the novel’s publication and her death eight years later, Charlotte, surviving the loss of all three siblings in the space of eight months during 1848 to 1849, became a one-woman publicity agency. She visited London, met the already famous political economist Harriet Martineau, and entertained rising novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, a prime figure in a new subgenre of fiction, the Condition of England novel (to which Shirley also belongs). Gaskell would soon become Brontë’s posthumous biographer. When Life of Charlotte Brontë hit bookstores in 1857, devotees arrived in Haworth, peeping into the windows as Rev. Patrick Brontë ate his meals alone. So began a fiercely devoted fan culture that has only gained momentum over the past century and a half — with pilgrimages like mine and with a steady stream of literary tributes such as this year’s The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell, an example of biofiction distinctive to Brontëana.

2.
I spent my first evening in Haworth walking around the parsonage’s lovely garden-bordered front yard, gazing at the strange churchyard with its gravestones laid flat, and admiring the cornflower blue clock-face. Behind it, the Yorkshire hills, green even in late November, sloped away and rose again in the distance, giving the impression that I was alone on a pinnacle in the middle of nowhere, England. The chilly air was still except for a rooster crowing. There was no sign or sound of life from this century. I scanned the upper windows of the parsonage, wondering which was Charlotte’s room.

The next day, Ann Dinsdale, collections manager of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, gave me a private tour. The four main rooms downstairs are preserved and have been recreated to appear as they were when Charlotte and her father occupied the house after Emily and Anne’s deaths. The parlor on the left sported red curtains and the round table at which the sisters wrote. Across the hall was Rev. Brontë’s study, and the kitchen where Emily and Anne would write diary papers every few years and where Emily would teach herself German while she waited for bread to rise. Behind the parlor was a converted pantry that Charlotte had renovated for her husband, her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls. On the landing upstairs, the iconic portrait of the Brontë sisters by Branwell was displayed — a copy, Ms. Dinsdale told me. Behind the pigment that Branwell used to paint himself out of the group portrait, his face just faintly appeared. Upstairs were rooms occupied by Aunt Elizabeth Branwell, their mother’s sister, who came to raise the girls when Mrs. Brontë died.

In a narrow room between Aunt Branwell’s chamber and Rev. Brontë’s bedroom, young Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell fashioned themselves into authors and cultural critics. There they invented tales about imaginary kingdoms, Gondal and Angria, and produced minute, hand-sewn and -lettered booklets that parodied London magazines, complete with advertisements. Their juvenilia is full of military sagas, political drama, and romance — the result of their father’s unusual library containing volumes of racy poetry by Lord Byron, history books full of battles, and earnest political treatises. Rev. Brontë’s library was unusually cosmopolitan for a clergyman or indeed most literate households in the early-19th century. (Books were expensive and often limited to The Pilgrim’s Progress and the Bible). This library, along with Patrick’s encouragement of his children’s art, music, and writing, may be the single greatest reason that the Brontë sisters became poets and novelists — along with the storytelling of their beloved servant Tabitha Aykroyd. According to Dinsdale, Tabitha would relate the village gossip and tell sordid tales that were not necessarily edited for children’s ears. Other than a brief stint at a school for clergymen’s daughters, they were educated at home in a provincial village of miners and wool workers.

But in order to become juvenile authors and the young women who crafted tales of insubordinate heroines and reckless heroes, they had to survive. On a shelf in a downstairs back room, Ms. Dindale pointed out a pair of cloth mules with platform soles; these were for protecting dainty shoes and low hemlines from the muck of the village streets. She didn’t elaborate, but offered a copy of a public health study conducted a few years before Charlotte died.

In 1850, the average life expectancy in Haworth was 25.8 years. Because it was a town “periodically visited by typhus fever,” in that year, Haworth commissioned a report by Benjamin H. Babbage. Babbage was an inspector in the new field of public health, which had gotten underway in London as a consequence of new scientific attention to urban slums and what middle-class Victorians perceived as the moral and physical degradation of the poor. Rev. Brontë assisted with Babbage’s investigation. The inspector found open sewage and water supply contamination plaguing Haworth. Between 1840 and 1847, the year Jane Eyre was published, 42 percent of children died before the age of six.

The mortality rate and life expectancy can be explained by Babbage’s findings, which he declared rivaled the poorest and sickliest neighborhoods of London. One detail from his report speaks volumes about the need for platform shoes. He describes a public privy perched over the highest part of the main street:

The cesspit of this privy lies below it, and opens by a small door into the main street; occasionally this door is burst open by the superincumbent weight of night soil and ashes, and they overflow into the public street, and at all times a disgusting effluvium escapes through this door into the street. Within two yards of this cesspit door there is a tap for a supply of water to the neighboring houses.

More privies like these were ranged along the main street. Additionally, behind many houses were midden steads — 73 in all — containing household garbage, human waste, and pig manure in piles that seeped through walls and even covered the low roofs of houses built into the slopes. Looking at the platform shoes, my mind formed an image of Charlotte, whose small frame had materialized for me in the petite summer dress on display upstairs, walking over streams of sewage. I also realized that my impression of having been teleported to Charlotte’s time on the still night before, with misty fresh air and a cock crowing somewhere, was delusional. To live in Haworth during her time would have made anyone from the 21st century chronically nauseated.

Rev. Brontë visited the multitudes of sick parishioners during outbreaks of typhus and officiated at countless funerals. He had been interested in medicine before entering divinity school and remained an amateur scholar of medicine and a keen observer of his family’s health for the rest of their lives. After his wife and older daughters died, he kept his remaining children at home, but his vigilance could not save them; all four died of tuberculosis, another scourge of the era.

coverBranwell died first, at age 31, after a long battle with morphine and alcohol, becoming so inebriated that Rev. Brontë kept him in his own bed at night for fear that Branwell would set the house on fire. Anne would write The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as a cautionary tale about a husband’s alcoholism; there are also traces of Branwell in Heathcliff and Rochester. Emily died next, age 29, at home, without medical attention in accordance with her preference. Anne died next; she was sent to recuperate, on her father’s scanty salary, to oceanside Scarborough, but died there; she is the only sibling buried away from the chapel in Haworth. All four of the younger Brontë children lived past the average age of 25.8 years, though not by much.

Looking into the parlor as Ms. Dinsdale pointed out the round table where the sisters wrote, we then turned to a black horsehair sofa upon which Emily had expired. Tuberculosis is a lung disease that causes wasting; before antibiotics, “consumptives” essentially drowned in sputum and blood. I stared in awe and grief at Emily’s severe-looking sofa, just feet away from the vital table around which the sisters had paced as they read their days’ work to one other.

When Charlotte was his last remaining child, Rev. Brontë renovated the parsonage roof, thinking that the dampness in its lathes could be the source of his children’s fatal illnesses. He also monitored Charlotte very closely. Already showing symptoms of decline, she was attended by a local surgeon who diagnosed inflammation of the liver. Charlotte complained in a letter to her best friend, “part of this sickness is owing to his medicine.” She was correct; Dr. William Ruddock gave her mercury pills, still the mainstay of allopathic medication. “Salivating” and “purging” a patient were believed to carry illness out of the body by increasing the release of fluids produced naturally during sickness.

coverThis late continuation of humoral theory was competing with newer ideas, such as those of her father’s home medical manual Graham’s Domestic Medicine. Thomas J. Graham put more stock in regulating the bowels, and Rev. Brontë, keeping up with developments in medicine, did too. In the margins, he carefully documented his own observations and evidence from other authors about the healthy frequency of solid and liquid elimination. In her last novel, Villette, Charlotte made her heroine’s first, failed love interest a cardboard character named John Graham Bretton. Struggling to write the book between 1851 and 1852, Charlotte was reeling from her siblings’ deaths and an episode of what seems to be a lifelong propensity to major depression, plus the debilitating mercury treatments. The whole tale of Lucy Snowe is an illness and grief narrative, wrought in stunning intertextual allusions and even richer wordplay than Jane Eyre. Not surprisingly, Dr. John cannot cure Lucy’s hypochondria (used in its literal sense, “poor health,” in this era) because he believes her nightmares and anxiety are caused by constipation. In frustration, Lucy declares, “Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure” and finds a new love interest.

Despite her father’s solicitousness, Charlotte succumbed to her illness in 1855. Rev. Brontë died in 1861, aged 84, somehow eluding the tuberculosis that had claimed his entire family and the typhus that killed his parishioners. His belongings, including his children’s manuscripts, scattered (they brought especially high prices in the U.S.) but thanks to the Brontë Society some decades later, they began to make their way back to Haworth.

Cousins of family servant Martha Brown opened the first museum. In rooms above a Haworth bank, they displayed items that had been donated, loaned, or purchased by the new Society. In 1928, the parsonage went up for sale and Sir James Roberts, a local textile tycoon who had known the family, purchased and donated it to the Society. That August, thousands of people in cloche hats and fedoras crammed the narrow village streets to witness the opening.

Since then, the Society, the mission of which is to “promote the Brontës’ literary legacy within contemporary society” and to purchase and collect Brontëana, has brought hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world, making the remote parsonage second only to William Shakespeare’s museum in Stratford-upon-Avon. This cultivation of the legacy is rooted in arts and programming, but it is also anchored in 150 years of recalling back to the parsonage every artifact of the Brontës’ short lives so that fans and scholars can imagine the sisters’ lives in Haworth.

On my own pilgrimage, I was unexpectedly and utterly enthralled by the physical traces of Charlotte and her siblings — a curl of Charlotte’s hair, blond and auburn, tucked into a tiny, black-edged mourning envelope looked as if it had been cut that morning; her diminutive dress and shoes; the large metal collar of Emily’s beloved dog Keeper, who attended her funeral in the church; paint boxes and sewing kits; and even their father’s carefully annotated home medical manual all struck me with their intimacy.

coverQuietly reveling among these homely objects, the wild gothic expressions of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall seemed to me extraordinary to have emanated from the unconnected daughters of a clergyman in a remote village above the sheep-dotted Yorkshire hills. Yet these moors, repurposed into the home of Cathy and Heathcliff and the refuge of Jane Eyre escaping Rochester’s tyranny, were the healthiest alternative to Haworth itself in the insalubrious days before indoor plumbing and germ theory. The fresh, sweet scent of heather would have smelled heavenly in that malodorous age.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.





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3 Responses to “My Pilgrimage to the House of Brontë”

  1. BK
    at 7:20 pm on April 21, 2016

    “Anne died next; …Emily died next”

    No. Emily died first. Then anne. Please correct

  2. Heather Curran
    at 9:30 pm on April 21, 2016

    A lovely, immersive short history of the lives of this remarkable family. Life was difficult yet we tend to romanticise the past. Movies made about this period show actors with sparkling white teeth, glowing skin and clean hair. When I was young I became enamoured with Little House on the Prairie viewing it as a time of simple joys, until my mother burst my bubble advising me of lack of teeth or rotting teeth, a bath once a month, the arduous work for little gain.

  3. Lydia Kiesling
    at 12:46 am on April 22, 2016

    We fixed, BK. Thanks!

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