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Brontes of Haworth

You are in: Bradford and West Yorkshire > History > Brontes of Haworth > In search of Shirley Country!

Costumed figures at Red House

Time-travelling at Red House

In search of Shirley Country!

Kirklees already has its 'Summer Wine' country. Now a guide, inspired by writer Charlotte Bronte, hopes to put 'Shirley Country' on the tourist map. We went on a literary trail around the Spen Valley to find out more.

Shirley by Currer Bell, a novelist just making a name for himself, was published in 1849, just two years after his first novel, Jane Eyre. Of course, Currer Bell turned out to be Charlotte Bronte from Haworth and, as soon as the secret was out, Spen Valley people who were aquainted with Charlotte, began to look for themselves and their neighbours in the book. They weren't always pleased with what they read!

stained glass window at Red House

'Purple and amber - the predominant hues'

In Shirley, Charlotte set out to write a novel which would be very different from Jane Eyre. This was not to be every young girl's dream; instead, Charlotte, writing at a time of great political unrest across Europe, set out to write a social novel. Right at the beginning she warns her readers: "Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool and solid lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning..."

Charlotte had been a regular visitor to the Spen Valley since her schooldays in nearby Mirfield and she often went to stay with her school friends Ellen Nussey of Birstall and Mary Taylor of Gomersal. There were other family connections - her parents had lived in Hightown and her father Patrick Bronte was minister at Hartshead Church at the time of the Luddite riots of 1812 which form the background to the novel.

"Briarmains stood near the highway. It was rather an old place and had been built ere that highway was cut..."

Charlotte Bronte describes Briarmains/Red House in Shirley

These were violent times in West Yorkshire - in the all-important textile industry men were being replaced by machines. In the early hours of April 12th 1812 over 100 Luddites attacked Rawfolds Mill in Liversedge, attempting to break the new and hated shearing machines. When the Luddites arrived at the mill there was a violent battle. In the event, mill owner William Cartwright and just a few of his men managed to turn the Luddites away, fatally wounding two of them. With blackened faces, and armed with sticks and muskets, the Luddites must have been a frightening sight to anyone who dared to take a peek out of their windows on that April night. The novel tells the story of modernising mill owner Robert Moore whose character is thought to have been inspired by William Cartwright.

Rawfolds Mill has long since disappeared, as has Hunsworth Mill from which Charlotte drew her description of the fictional Hollows Mill depicted in the novel but the newly published guide, The Brontes in Pennine Yorkshire, shows there is still plenty of evidence both of the Luddites, and of Charlotte Bronte's Yorkshire, if we know where to look.

Armed with the guide we started our journey at the Dumb Steeple just outside Mirfield. This is where the Luddites met at midnight on April 11th, 1812, prior to their attack on Rawfolds Mill. Today, as the traffic rushes past on the busy A62, it takes a lot of imagination to conjure up that scene.

Top of the Dumb Steeple, Mirfield

April, 1812: The Luddites gather...

It's a very different picture, though, at Red House in Gomersal where it's all too easy to think you might have travelled back to a time when you could just possibly come face to face with Charlotte herself. Red House features in 'Shirley' as Briarmains - the Taylors who lived there, a family of wollen cloth merchants, feature in the book as the Yorkes. Museums Officer, Helga Hughes, who is based at Red House, says: "Mrs Taylor was very offended by Charlotte's unkind portrayal of her in the book as 'Mrs Yorke'!"

In many ways Red House is central to the whole idea of 'Shirley Country.' 'The Secret's Out', an award-winning permanent exhibition based there explores Charlotte's connection with the Spen Valley as well as the expectations society had of women at that time. The exhibition shows that Charlotte's friend Mary Taylor, who lived here at Red House, was an unusually independent woman.

Still to be seen today are Red House's unusual stained glass windows. Charlotte wrote: "Those windows would be seen by daylight to be of brilliantly-stained glass - purple and amber the predominant hues..."

Another Kirklees museum also features in both the novel and the new guide. Oakwell Hall provides the setting for heroine, Shirley Keeldar's home, 'Fieldhead.' When Charlotte visited Oakwell in the 1840s it was being used as a boarding school.

Model in  1830s costume inside Red House

At home with Miss Taylor...

Pick up a copy of the free guide from any Kirklees Museum, Library or Information Centre and you can create your own literary trail. Like us, you will find yourself visiting not only museums but churchyards, pubs, hotels and mill sites along the way.

But what of Shirley, the novel? "Cool and solid" it might have been but it did find some time for the affairs of the heart along the way. What resulted was also a dramatic and exciting novel which is as readable today as it was 150 years ago! Back in 1922 the movie cameras moved in to the Spen Valley to make Shirley into a film. The new guide is just the latest in the novel's story!

[The guide to Shirley Country, The Brontes in Pennine Yorkshire, has been produced by Kirklees Community History Service and Kirklees Tourism]

last updated: 24/04/2008 at 15:35
created: 19/05/2006

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