It seems that our travels have randomly developed a literary bent. Works for me! The world of books is most definitely one of my happy places. I spent most of my childhood walking around with my head buried in a book and it’s still my “go to” place when I want to escape from the world.
In these pursuits, the Bronte sisters have provided me many hours of joy. The rambling moors of Wuthering Heights, the wildly romantic Heathcliff, the enduring love he held for Cathy. That someone should love you so…faults and all…*sigh*. The grim existence of Jane Eyre. Great fodder for a teenaged imagination. I lapped up every word.
Today we visit the house where those wonderful works were written and learn a little more about the Bronte family’s early history.
We’re visiting the Bronte Parsonage Musuem, so named as it was the actual Parsonage in Haworth in which Patrick Bronte took a role as Curate in 1819. It went on to become the home for all 6 Bronte children and his wife Maria.
Patrick was born into impoverished circumstances in County Down, Ireland. He was a clever boy though and with the help of a benefactor, it was decided that following his local schooling, he would study theology at Cambridge. Upon entry to England, thanks to his rich Irish brogue, his actual name, Brunty, went into record as Bronte. The umlaut atop the “e” came years later.
Shortly after coming to England, he met Maria in 1812. By all accounts, it was love at first sight. Marriage and 6 children, 5 daughters and a son came in quick succession. The family moved into Haworth in 1820, he as Curator. They had outgrown where they were and the Haworth Parsonage would serve them well.
Sadly, in the following year, Maria died, leaving Patrick with 6 children under 7 to care for. Having failed in three attempts to secure a suitable replacement bride, Patrick sent for Maria’s sister Elizabeth to care for the children. What was meant to be a short visit turned out to be a lifetime – she stayed with the family until she passed away two decades later.
The family faced a number of challenges. The Curator’s role was a busy one. Haworth had lowest life expectancy in England at the time, outside of White Chapel in London. At the time, the average life expectancy was 25 years. 25 years. Can you imagine that? Much of the reason for this, a later enquiry found, was due to the water supply. Brace yourself, it’s gruesome. Haworth is set running down a hill, with the church and graveyard set on high. In the time of typhoid, diphtheria and cholera, the town’s water supply filtered down the hill, through the graveyard, through those diseased bodies, into the town’s well That the graves were marked with flat gravestones (as opposed to vertical), which apparently stops decomposition, didn’t help. Eventually following an investigation into the reason for the high death rate, this practice was stopped. Gravestones were placed vertically and a new reservoir was built, doing much to improve lifespan in the area.
The other challenge for the family was that as Curator’s daughters, the girls had no dowry and hence could not marry well. It was determined that professions were in order – in those times, this meant being a teacher or a governess. Luckily for the girls, this meant they received an extended education, including art and music lessons as well as access to the Parsonage’s extensive library which held rather worldly works of the time. Books that girls really would not have been allowed to see in the usual run of things. The son, Branwell, in the meantime was set on a path of higher education, his father reasoning that on his death, that Branwell would ultimately step up to care for his unwed sisters. Plan set, but it did not unfold that way.
The two eldest daughters were sent away to school, but both became ill and were called home. In 1825, both Maria and Elizabeth died, aged 11 and 10 respectively. So robbed of their mother and two older sisters, the remaining siblings withdrew into themselves creating a rich world of imagination. In this next stage of their childhood, they developed a complete world, where Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne each played a different character in their “world”. These stories, and their character development over years were recorded meticulously in the tiniest of books. A sample is displayed in the musuem, less than 2 inches high, the nib inked writing is tiny, when viewed under a magnifying glass.
These characters stayed with them through their 20s. It’s said that they were based on a set of toy soldiers gifted to Branwell, he writing of battles from the male point of view, the girls from the wives and mistresses’ view. Each soldier had both apparently, along with a family and a back story.
We learn all this from a most fabulous tour guide. In celebration of the 200th anniversary of Emily’s birth in 1818, the Musuem is running additional activities and talks in celebration of the bicentenary. She’s so passionate about her topic it’s easy to get caught up in it. Her presentation ends at the end of the girls’ education. We glean the rest from the Musuem.
Branwell for all of the hope and promise he held for his father, was not a success. He started and failed in a series of business ventures, and following a failed love affair with a married woman, turned to alcohol and drugs. He died of tuberculosis, compounded by his laudanum and opium addiction. He died in 1848, aged 31.
His sisters meanwhile taught, both in Haworth and elsewhere.
Charlotte and Emily traveled to Brussels for further study. All three sisters published their first novels under pseudonyms in 1847: Jane Eyre (Charlotte), Wuthering Heights (Emily) and Agnes Grey (Anne). The following year (in which Branwell dies) Anne’s second novel, The Tennant of Wildfell Hall is published. Emily also dies that year, aged 30.
In the following year, Charlotte’s second novel, Shirley, is published. Anne dies that year, aged 30. In 1853 Charlotte’s third novel, Villette, is published and in the following year, she marries Arthur Bell, her father’s Curate. A year later, she dies aged 38, in the early stages of pregnancy. Her last novel, The Professor, is published posthumously in 1857. Having outlived all his children, Patrick Bronte died in Haworth in 1861, aged 84.
For all the gifts they brought to the literary world, it seems a sad family life viewed through the lens of a modern eye. A son who failed to reach his potential, despite the gifts of education bestowed upon him. His sisters less blessed educationaly, infinitely more talented. We can only wonder what the girls might have produced had their educational opportunities been the same as their brother’s. What might the two eldest daughters brought into the world, had they survived? How grief stricken must Patrick have been, watching his his beloved wife and whole family die before him.
The Musuem is very well displayed: the house is set up as it was in the Bronte’s time. Most fabulously, they have been lucky to secure the original family’s dining table where all the Bronte novels were written, bar the first few pages of Jane Eyre.
Luckily, when it was sold in the late 1800s, the sale was recorded, and the Bronte Society has tracked its provenance ever since. They were able to purchase it in 2015, it having been held in the same family through generations since the original sale.
e see art works by each of the Bronte children – Branwell was for a time a portrait artist and the girls sketched beautifully. We see original notes and diaries as well as displays of the family artefacts including needlework, fashion, bonnets and books. The family piano is displayed in the parlour.
I can’t resist a couple of Bronte novels I haven’t read from the bookshop, then it’s time for a late lunch and walk through Haworth and the church where Patrick Bronte was Curator.
It’s a steep climb through town and I can see immediately the issues they would have had with water filtration to the well – there’s no way down hill, bar through the graveyard.
It’s been an informative day. When we studied the Brontes, we learnt of their alcoholic brother, but I’m sure we were told the girls lived an isolated life on the Yorkshire moors. I always marveled that such an isolated life could led to such rich imaginations. It’s an oft repeated myth apparently. We’ve learnt a lot today, and I’m so glad we came. The gorgeous greenery of Yorkshire guides us home.