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Brontes of Haworth
In Charlotte's country!
First there was Shakespeare country and here in Yorkshire we've had 'Herriot' and even 'Summer Wine' Country so why not Charlotte Brontė country? After all, admirers of Haworth's famous sisters were flocking to the village even during her lifetime...
Charlotte Brontė was the only one of Haworth's writing sisters to live long enough to see her novels published and she was also the one who - as we might say today - got out more. But for the millions of readers across the world who have been captivated by Charlotte's writing, especially the novel Jane Eyre, what better place is there to find out more about both author and books than Charlotte's home at Haworth Parsonage!
Charlotte's home:The Bronte Parsonage Museum
Visit the Brontė Parsonage Museum at Haworth and you can see some of the clothes the sisters actually wore, not to mention quite a bit of their own furniture. Ann Dinsdale is the Museum's Collections Manager. She thinks Charlotte would still recognise some of the rooms as they appear today. She explains: "We've got contemporary descriptions - particularly of the downstairs rooms - of how they would have looked...We do make an effort to get as much of the collection on display for people to see and to present the rooms as near as possible to how they would have been."
The Brontė family lived at the Parsonage up to the death of their father Patrick Brontė. Ann feels this makes the sisters unusual: "They lived all their lives here. Unlike Jane Austen they didn't really move; this was their home between 1820 and 1861 so that was a long time really." She points out that the Brontė sisters were not ladies of leisure: "The sisters were expected to take a share in all the domestic chores. Emily did the baking and a lot of work in the kitchen. I think with Charlotte and Ann the work was probably lighter - sweeping carpets, dusting, cleaning and things like that. They did spend a portion of each day writing and needlework and reading obviously filled a lot of their time."
As Charlotte began to enjoy some success as a writer she made several trips to London and here she came into contact with many well known writers, including Mrs Elizabeth Gaskell, author of Cranford. She visited Hathersage in Derbyshire with school friend Ellen Nussey. Ann says the village is generally accepted as providing some of the locations for Jane Eyre. Charlotte became friends with Ellen from Birstall and Mary Taylor from Gomersal when all three girls attended Roe Head School in Mirfield. Mary's home Red House, now also a museum, plays its part in Charlotte's novel Shirley as does nearby Oakwell Hall. A permanent exhibition at Red House focuses on Charlotte's connection with the Spen Valley and on her friend Mary who also grew up to be a very remarkable woman.
Charlotte @ home: The Parsonage kitchen
Returning home from trips with Ellen or a tour of the Lakes with her publisher, Charlotte might have felt a little restless. Ann says: "I suspect that Charlotte found life in Haworth decidedly lacklustre. There's quite a lot of scathing remarks about Haworth in her correspondence. When Mrs Gaskell visited Haworth for the first time in the early 1850s Charlotte warned her that she needed to set out in the same spirit that she would if she was going to the backwoods of America. She presented Haworth as being a place where not much went on - certainly not much intellectually or culturally - and she did slightly exaggerate that side of Haworth but she did live most of her life here. I think she was drawn back here." Ann thinks this may well be why Charlotte agreed to marry her father's curate, Mr Nicholls. The house came rent free with the job!
Given Charlotte's view of Haworth, Ann is not surprised that she and her sisters spent so much time walking in the surrounding countryside: "You've got to bear in mind that the Parsonage is a kind of borderline. You've got the fantastic moors at the back of the house and you've got what was in their time an industrial township - dirty, polluted, contaminated. I think it's understandable that they headed off to the moors rather than Haworth itself with its open sewers, cesspits and privies, not a particularly nice choice of place in the mid-19th century."
You may need to put on your hiking boots but from the Parsonage you can walk to many places associated with the sisters. They regularly visited the waterfall that is now named after them. Charlotte often walked across the moors to go visiting in the village of Wycoller. Wycoller Hall, now in ruins, is popularly believed to be the original for Ferndean Manor where Rochester and Jane eventually settled together at the end of Jane Eyre.
Wycoller Hall: Charlotte's Ferndean Manor?
Not all Charlotte's locations are so close to home. Rochester's home Thornfield Hall is now thought to be Norton Conyers near Ripon which even boasts a mad woman in the attic as one of its legends. Charlotte based Lowood School in Jane Eyre on the school she and Emily attended at Cowan Bridge in North Yorkshire. Ann says: "I think there was an assumption that, because Jane Eyre was subtitled 'an autobiography', it was a true story - the places were real, the characters were real and right from day one, really, people have been walking about identifying the originals."
But Ann is in no doubt where we should go if we really want to find more about the real Charlotte: "I think one of the things that is so powerful about Jane Eyre is that so much of Charlotte Brontė's life is in the book. Obviously she had a great gift of imagination and she was able to transcribe that experience and make it something really passionate and moving...Everybody's got these ideas about the book and it's the same with [Emily's novel] Wuthering Heights, particularly with Wuthering Heights. They are not just the kind of Mills and Boon romance stories that possibly people tend to think they are because the films often concentrate on the romance elements to the exclusion of other themes. I think you should always come back to the books. They're passionate, they're gritty, they are just brilliant."
The Brontė Parsonage Museum in Haworth is open every day except December 24th to 27th and January 2nd to 31st but opening times vary from season to season. Call 01535 642323 for more information. There is an admission fee.
[The images of Charlotte Bronte and the Haworth Parsonage kitchen have been kindly provided by the Brontė Parsonage Museum and should not be reused without the Museum's permission]
last updated: 24/04/2008 at 15:32