Although I’d packed a raincoat, I’d hardly needed it until now and it did not surprise me at all that I’d woken to a steady downpour, particularly today. Today was the last day of The Enchanted Book Club’s Inaugural group tour of England and we would be spending it in Haworth (pronounced “Howeth”) visiting the Bronte Parsonage Museum, the former home of authors Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte. (Or Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily), and Acton (Anne) Bell, the pen names under which they originally published their works.) Thanks to the Bronte sisters, I kind of had the impression it rains quite a lot in this area of Yorkshire, England.
In preparation for this part of the trip, I had re-read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and I was half way through Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I was carrying with me a very heavy book titled Selected Works of the Bronte Sisters which contained those two novels plus The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte, which I intended to start reading next. Both Charlotte and Emily start their respective novels by setting the scene with quite a dreary image of the Yorkshire countryside.
Jane Eyre begins with a scene in which young Jane has ensconced herself in a window seat:
“…to the left were the clear panes of glass, protecting, but not separating me from the drear November day […] I studied the aspect of that winter afternoon. Afar, it offered a pale blank of mist and cloud, near a scene of wet lawn and storm-beat shrub, what ceaseless rain […].
Later in the book, a much older Jane sets out across the Yorkshire Moors and becomes lost and delirious at night and curls up under a mossy rock outcrop thinking she’d die there, making the Moors seem a dark, wet, misty place with low visibility and likely to swallow a person.
Meanwhile, Wuthering Heights begins with the new tenant of Thrushcross Grange making his way to Wuthering Heights to meet his landlord and describes it as such:
“Yesterday afternoon set in misty and cold. I had half a mind to spend it by my study fire, instead of wading through heath and mud to Wuthering Heights.”
Unfortunately our storyteller gets stuck at Wuthering Heights for the night because everyone is certain he would get lost in the Moors if he attempted an evening commute home to Thrushcross Grange, and thus begins the story.
With novels in hand, and these stories in mind, I boarded our tour bus. I was quite glad our trip itinerary did not include an evening romp in the Yorkshire Moors National Park, however we were staying in a hotel in Bradford and our bus driver had told us the evening before when he dropped us off that he wouldn’t go outside at night in Bradford, so it seemed staying in the city wasn’t any better than in the Moorish countryside as far as after dark was concerned. Haworth is technically part of Bradford, but it’s about a half hour drive from the city center and has a considerably different feel.
We arrived in what appeared to be a quaint little village. The buildings are made of stone, half the streets are still cobbled, and there’s a train station preserved from the days of old steam engines (there actually is a preserved steam engine train that runs five kilometers of track back and forth for tourists). Despite the rain, the place felt less dark and dreary than one might imagine the Bronte sisters coming from based on their famous literary works. This is understandable, however, when we consider that it was less the place, and more the tragic experiences lived and shared by the sisters who once resided inside the house we were about to enter that inspired the truly gothic elements of their novels.
We were allowed into the museum in staggered groups of about ten, so while I waited in the front yard for my chance to enter, I took a good look at the front of the house. Interestingly, this facade had an entirely different association for me than the Bronte works I held in my hand. One of my Mom’s favorite books as a child was The Railway Children by E. Nesbit, and the 1970’s film adaptation of that book had used the front of this house as that of the Doctor’s house (watch the clip here)! I turned around and looked at the church cemetery behind me on the other side of the front yard gate. It too had featured in the film. I had not remembered this house from watching the film as a small child, but had discovered this interesting fact while reading up on the Brontes before my visit. My mom has passed her love of E. Nesbit books down to me, so despite having no memory of seeing this house in the film, I was still happy to be standing in a former filming location of an adaptation of an E. Nesbit book.
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After only a short wait, I was ushered inside the Bronte’s home. The first room I stepped into just off the hall was a mix between a dining room and living room. There was a couch against one wall, a fireplace in the middle of another wall, and a table in the middle of the room. If you imagined the room without the rope that ran from one wall to the other about a quarter of the way into the room, the crowd of strangers packed uncomfortably close together behind this rope ogling at the rest of the room, and the linoleum flooring that had replaced the original flooring under where we tourists stood, it seemed it might have been a cozy space. It was here that the girls poured what they knew onto pages, each coming out with very different tales.
When the family had moved into this house, they’d had a mother and there had been five sisters, as well as their one brother and their father. By the time Charlotte, Emily, and Anne were writing their novels in this room, they’d lost their mother and two eldest sisters to TB and their brother was a struggling alcoholic. All the girls had been sent away to boarding school where they were malnourished and mistreated. Luckily their father discovered how bad the situation was for the girls and brought them home, however it was too late for the two eldest, Maria and Elizabeth. They passed away at ages ten and eleven.
This lived history appears in Charlotte’s novel Jane Eyre. Jane, similarly to Charlotte, is sent away to boarding school where the conditions are horrific and her only friend dies of TB. The sisters Charlotte, and Anne, went on to become governesses, again as did Charlotte’s character Jane. Except Charlotte didn’t fall in love with and marry the
monster man of the house. Interestingly, Charlotte was the only sister out of the five to live long enough to get married, but then died in the early stages of pregnancy.
A small interpretive panel in the room noted that the girls discussed, read out loud to one another, and paced around the table as they wrote. Emily, having lost her mother and two sisters, and having been brought up by her aunt who had moved in with the family after their mother died, naturally wrote into Wuthering Heights a young woman whose mother passed away, leaving her raising mostly to the maid of the house and a largely absent father figure. I imagined Emily reading passages out loud to her sisters while she paced around the table, or perhaps sat down on the couch. She later passed away lying on that couch at the young age of 30, also from TB.
During the period that Charlotte and Anne had left home to be governesses, Emily had stayed and acted as housekeeper for her father, who was busy as the Pastor of the church just outside their front door. An interpretive panel in the house’s Kitchen mentioned not only that old walls had been restored and the place refurbished to look like it did when the Brontes lived there, but it also stated that Emily had plenty of time to think about her writing while doing housework. This may be true if it was while doing housework that she plotted all the abuses her Wuthering Heights characters hurl at one another. Interestingly, Emily also made sketches in her diary of herself in some of the rooms, and these sketches later helped in renovating the house back to how it looked during the lives of the Bronte family. Her diary pages with sketches of the dining room and the children’s room were on display in the museum.
Although I had yet to start Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, one of the book club members I was traveling with was currently reading it. I happened to be behind her as we passed through a room that had been set to look like Branwell, the sisters’ one and only brother, had just left the room. It was every inch the room of an alcoholic artist. Papers full of sketches were scattered everywhere, all over walls, the bed, and the desk. And bottles, both ink and alcohol were spilled amid the papers. We also walked in and out of Mr. Bronte’s bedroom, where an interpretive sign informed us that Branwell had passed away here in his father’s room at the age of 31 due to drugs and alcoholism, only a few months before his sister Emily’s death.
My fellow literary traveler who I’d been trailing through the rooms turned to me with surprise in her eyes and said, “I’ve been reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and wondering how Anne Bronte could possibly have known all these facts about drugs and alcohol as a sheltered female whose father was a pastor, but now I see it’s because of her brother! I wouldn’t have figured that out if I hadn’t come here!” Clearly Anne too wrote what she knew into her novel.
It’s these “Ah ha!” moments like the one had by my fellow traveler that exemplify why I love literary travel. We make connections between the life story of the author and elements that come through their works that were never taught to us in school! In fact, I hated Jane Eyre when I read it for school! This reread, however, having now learned that Charlotte really did go to a terrible boarding school, went to teachers college, became a governess, and lived with a very religious father, I found the book more intriguing than detestable. So much of the novel that annoyed me before made more sense and the inclusion of certain elements more understandable.
I expected to feel somber inside the house. I thought perhaps the visitors inside might emanate a brooding, gloomy vibe inspired by the gothic works of the three authoresses whom everyone here had come to connect with. Or perhaps out of respect for the family who had all passed away before their time, except for their father. I was surprised when I felt nothing of the kind. But I was heartened to discover that the museum included displays that showed community involvement in multiple museum projects to memorialize the Brontes. This was no forgotten author house museum. These displays painted a picture of a town more proud to own the Brontes than I would have guessed based on my introduction to them in school!
The small, portable writing desks of Charlotte and Emily were also on display in the house, and I thought they looked very similar to the one Jane Austen used. Though, while I could picture Jane perhaps taking her little desk outside to write in the sunshine, I had trouble picturing the weather here being so accommodating! Funny enough, as I was thinking this I moved to the last display in the museum, which happened to be about an analysis done of the weather mentioned in the Bronte novels. The researcher agreed that readers generally think of the Bronte books as “dark and atmospheric,” however “sun” is mentioned more often than other weather!
Despite the researcher’s conclusion, the very atmospheric rainy day continued for us. We were supposed to spend the afternoon taking a hike in the Moors to a waterfall now known as “the Bronte Waterfall” because the girls used to walk there quite often. Unfortunately, due to the weather, four different hike guides had canceled or declined to take us that afternoon. So instead, we had a short guided tour inside the church opposite the Bronte Parsonage and then we had the afternoon to ourselves in Haworth.
In St Michael and All Angels’ Church we learned that the structure we now stood in was not the church in which Patrick Bronte preached. That one had to be demolished as it had fallen into such a state that it was unsavable. Mr. Bronte, although he wasn’t the preacher at the time, had put the bells in this newer building and they’re the same bells that are used today! And the rebuilding of the church had thankfully not disrupted any of the graves in the crypt, so although we did not get to visit the gravesides of the Brontes, we were told that they are still quite safe and intact below today’s building.
Stepping out of the church, we found ourselves in the center of a very cute downtown. Haworth seemed to be one of those small towns with one main street full of shops and if it hadn’t been for the stonework buildings, I might have thought I was in Salem, Massachusetts! Several shop windows displayed all sorts of witchy odds and ends. The other clue I wasn’t in America was the surprising number of tea houses on the short main street.
As it was about tea time, I decided to join our Enchanted Book Club host, Hayley, and another member of our tour group for afternoon cream tea. Holding our hoods over our heads, we chose the closest tea room and ran for the door. I was quite delighted to find the walls inside covered in aging posters of the 1970 Railway Children film. The rain only seemed to come down harder and harder outside so instead of finishing tea and seeing more of Haworth, I spent the afternoon cozily ensconced in the tea house chatting away with my new bookish friends.
Eventually it was time to make our way down to the train station car park where our bus would be waiting to take us back to Bradford. It wasn’t until we walked out of the tea house that across the street we noticed a bakery named Villette, after Charlotte Bronte’s other novel! I’d have to come back so I could visit it next time!
I had actually hoped to have extra time in Haworth because what I really wanted to do was ride the old steam engine train out and back again. I had such fun riding a similar train in Corfe! Unfortunately, British trains were on strike for the day so that wasn’t an option. Luckily, however, our bus driver was kind enough to let us stop for a photo op at the Oakworth station. This station was not only used in the filming of the 1970 adaptation of The Railway Children, but also in the 2020 film adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small!
Our driver made one more photo op stop for us on the way back to central Bradford. Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell were actually born in Thornton, another suburb of Bradford. As of October 2023, there is an effort to save the building in which they were born and turn it into a Bronte museum. Nearly across the street from their birth house is Thornton Hall, a large property which may have been Charlotte’s inspiration for Jane Eyre’s Thornfield Hall. The property is private, and the building can’t be seen from its front gate as it’s apparently down a long windy drive, but we were able to see the wrought iron gates.
Someday I hope to return to Haworth, hopefully when the weather is better so I can do the waterfall hike, and perhaps by then Thornton will have a museum or two dedicated to the Brontes!
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