In honor of the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth, I’m posting an article I wrote a number of years ago about my experience of living for a year in Haworth, home of the Brontës.
My mission was to travel in the footsteps of the Brontës and create a video documentary on their lives. Video camera in hand and backpack strapped on, I journeyed to Brussels, Northern Ireland, and the countryside of England, places associated with the Brontës. My travels eventually took me to Haworth, a small village in Yorkshire, England. Home of the Brontës, Haworth became my home.
Haworth sits among the Pennines where the winds can be relentless and the weather harsh. Powerful winds are commonplace to those who live in Haworth. To an American unused to such fierce conditions, it was somewhat daunting.
Fog shrouds the scenery frequently and rolls in so suddenly and so thickly that the fainthearted swears Sherlock Holmes’ hound of the Baskervilles truly exists and is lurking somewhere near. Winter is long and spring arrives at least a month and a half later then in the south of England.
Moors stretch in all directions around the village lending the predominant colors of brown and dark green of the sparse, scrub-like foliage. Late August the moors come to life with the flowering of the purple heather. From childhood to womanhood, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne lived in a place surrounded by this wind-swept landscape that is uniquely beautiful whatever the weather.
View of parsonage through the graveyard.
The Brontë Parsonage is perched atop a steeply cobbled street and is engulfed by a graveyard that even during the Brontë era was a striking feature. I was allowed to film in the parsonage and could move behind the barriers that divide visitors from the Brontë possessions. Stepping behind the ropes and gates, I was no longer in a museum with neatly laid out pens, writing boxes, orderly displays of Victorian garments, jewelry, and the everyday items of life, which only becomes important after death if you are famous. I had entered the home of the Brontës.
I could image the three sisters writing and creating the characters of Jane Eyre, Heathcliff, and Agnes Grey. Who could not help seeing their heads bent over their latest creations while approaching the table where they had worked? But I also imagined the everyday actions of the Brontë family, performing the normal duties of life. Not unlike people in the twentieth-first century, the Brontës cooked (Emily was known for her outstanding bread), cleaned, argued, and worried. Walking around the same hallways and rooms as Charlotte, Emily and Anne once did, unhindered by the typical tourist path, I could see these women of the nineteenth century going about their lives.
As I passed the parsonage on my nightly walk through that magnificent graveyard to reach my cottage, my imaginings continued. I saw Charlotte going to bed or, after all her siblings had died, pacing the room where they had once read their latest writings to each other until long into the night. I witnessed Anne climbing the grey stone stairs for a night’s rest with her dog Flossie by her side, and Patrick, their father, winding the clock before retiring, as was his habit each night. I was present as Emily watched for the moon from her bedroom window and waited for the wind to rise giving her the nightly inspiration to write. The carefree, idealized brother, Branwell, at the Black Bull Pub, a short descent down the cobbled street, would return much later to the resting household. In the dark the house becomes quiet disguising the energy and imagination hidden behind its coal blackened stonewalls.
I had the chance to fill out my picture of the Brontë life by speaking to scholars and recording these conversations with my video camera. From Juliet Barker, who after eleven years of research published the definitive biography on the Brontës, I learned that what I had assumed I knew about the Brontës was part of the myths and legends that began even before Charlotte died and continues today.
The popular image of Patrick is of an irate, enraged, violent father who ripped the back off chairs and burned hearthrugs. In actuality he was a devoted, loving father who encouraged his children to read and write and to explore their own ideas. I gained new respect for Patrick when I realized how graciously and quietly he discounted the inaccurate portrayal created by Mrs. Gaskell, Charlotte’s first biographer. Although Mrs. Gaskell obtained her information from hearsay and a gossiping nurse who had been dismissed from the Brontë service, possibly for drunkenness, Patrick’s only comment was that there were “a few trifling mistakes”. I learned that Branwell, the supposedly untalented, worthless brother in reality published his poetry five years before his sisters’ works. I also came to realize that Anne, who is always portrayed as weak and frail (usually by Charlotte) was in many ways much stronger than her sisters.
Top Withins: possible inspiration for Emily’s Wuthering Heights.
From local Haworth historian, Ian Dewhurst, who I was told knew more than anyone in Yorkshire about the history of the area, but was not necessarily a Brontë person and who surprised me when in his broad Yorkshire accent began quoting from Charlotte’s letters as well as passages from Wuthering Heights, I learned that the quaint village of today during the Brontë era actually industrial, overcrowded and polluted. Factories belched out the smoke that stained the stone houses black The air was so bad at times that laundry hung out to dry returned to the house dirtier than when it had left. Life in Haworth was not all doom and gloom, however. Farms run by large families populated the moors. The village had its own symphony orchestra and famous musicians and singers came to Haworth to perform. A mechanics institute functioned as a library and educational center where lectures were given on a variety of subjects. Haworth was definitely not the “strange, uncivilized place” that Charlotte liked to portray.
As I spoke with these scholars and the catalog of what I thought I knew about the Brontës began to shrink, I kept asking myself can anyone really understand and find the right answers to a person’s life story? How do you describe a life? Are the nuances, intricacies, and explanations of a person’s biography always hidden from the prying eyes of later generations? Possibly only educated guesses can ever be made about how the plot of someone’s life has evolved. Mrs. Gaskell’s agenda in writing her biography of Charlotte was to vindicate her friend to the Victorian world who saw this woman writer as unnatural and accused her and her sisters of having minds that violated every code human and divine. Is it possible to prevent a personal viewpoint or a personal worldview from blurring the true outlines of another’s life story?
Sheep among the heather
The time given to me to answer these questions in the country where they had started was quickly slipping away. Towards the end of my stay in Haworth the sun began to make an occasional appearance. On one such day I took a walk. It was the kind of day I had only experienced in Yorkshire when after weeks of greyness the sun decides to bless the earthlings living among the Pennies with its presence. The colors took on the light and became the light source. Greens become more yellow, blues more white. Occasionally the colors darken as clouds whisked by overhead. I looked around intently and tried to memorize what I was seeing so I could recall the scene. A few weeks later I was heading home.
My year in Haworth did not end when I returned home. Although I had gone to Haworth to create a documentary, my project morphed as new technology became available. The information, video, images and insights I gathered has become an Enhanced Classic of Jane Eyre. Within the novel written by Charlotte Brontë, readers can also learn about the life and times of the Brontës through video, images and interactives. The Enhanced Classic will be available soon and will be free. If you would like to be notified when it is available, please sign up.