I have loved the Brontë sisters since I was a teenage bookworm.
I spent a great deal of my young life swooning over the brooding characters of Heathcliff and Mr Rochester while reading dog-eared copies of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre liberated from the school library. Plain and ordinary Jane in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre soon became a literary heroine of mine – along with Jo March from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women – and I became enthralled with the wild landscape and romances depicted in the pages. Yes, I was that teenage girl.
My friend Alex – another avid Brontë fan-girl – and I are on our way to visit the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth and have decided to make a day of it, exploring the Yorkshire countryside, stopping occasionally to let sheep pass or glance at a particularly spectacular view.
As we drive through the winding lanes in Alex’s little convertible, with the sun beaming and the roof down, it’s easy to see why the landscape not only provided the Brontës with such a stunning backdrop in which to pen their novels and poetry, but became a famous character in its own right. As we crawl through wild, green spaces I can’t help but think of a line from Sylvia Plath’s poem, Wuthering Heights: ‘There is no life higher than the hilltops.’
“We’ll have to stop there for a drink on the way home,” Alex says, pointing to a grey, stone pub which seems to appear from nowhere and has the most epic view. I almost wish it was raining and windy as it puts me in mind of a wonderfully gothic 19th century inn where unsavoury characters might reside. I resist the urge to select Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights on our Spotify playlist.
This year sees the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth and, with lots of excellent events in store, it’s the ideal time to visit the home of this most famous of literary families. The 200th anniversary marks the start of Brontë 200, a five-year programme for the Brontë Society, one of the world’s oldest literary societies and a registered charity, where the idea is to “bring the Brontës to the world and the world to Yorkshire”. A statement that certainly seems to ring true as we try to navigate parking in the small town of Haworth.
Luckily for us, our trip to the Parsonage coincides with a 1940s celebration which leaves us feeling like we’ve stepped back in time. Access to the car park is blocked and a make-shift fête has been erected instead, complete with vintage stalls and wartime vehicles. As we make our way through the throngs of people in 40s garb – red lipstick, victory rolls, men in uniform and women in floral tea dress – it’s not the era we had in mind but still an excellent addition to the day.
The Brontë Parsonage Museum was the Brontë family home between 1820 and 1861 and houses the world’s largest collection of their personal possessions, clothing, papers, artwork and furniture. With more than 70,000 visitors a year, many of whom make the journey to Haworth from all over the world (one glance at the ‘guestbook’ sees names from Australia, Canada, England, and USA) it comes as no surprise that the collection continues to have such a wide appeal. It not only inspires Brontë fanatics like me, but scholars, writers and artists. The museum even runs a highly-respected contemporary arts programme offering exhibitions and a writing festival.
The house itself is perfectly preserved and it’s a real honour to be able to see the rooms and desks used to write such masterpieces. As we mill from room to room, reading information as we go, I feel incredibly sad that such brilliant artistic lives were cut so tragically short. The Brontës were plagued by ill health and grief throughout their lives and this is evident in the reserve of personal correspondence we are privy to. The exhibitions are perfectly curated and flow from one room to the next.
A great new addition to the museum is the Charlotte Great and Small exhibition by novelist Tracy Chevalier (of Girl with a Pearl Earring fame and the parsonage’s creative partner for the bicentenary year). Through objects and quotations, she explores the disparity between Charlotte’s constricted life as a female writer publishing under a male pseudonym (each Brontë sister wrote under the guise of an Ellis brother rather than their real name) and her great ambition.
The rooms at Haworth are tight and compact with the sisters sharing confined spaces. But the exhibition highlights the extraordinary talent of both Charlotte and her sisters with personal letters, documents and the beautiful miniature books and magazines they created, signifying that, despite being contained by such close quarters and the age in which they lived, the sisters (and Charlotte in particular) were steadfast in the contribution they wanted to make to literature.
Highlights include Charlotte’s petite clothes (Alex and I marvelled at how tiny Charlotte’s hands and feet were), shoes embroidered with the hair of lost loved ones, a moving love letter loaned by the British Library for the bicentenary, and several poignant quotes from Charlotte’s letters and writings depicting her hopes and dreams for her life and career.
As well as celebrating Charlotte’s achievements in 2016, The Brontë Society will also be commemorating Branwell (the brother) in 2017, Emily in 2018, Patrick (the father) in 2019 and Anne in 2020.
We leave the Parsonage via the fête, rifling through baskets of headscarves being sold off for only a quid (I bought an apt silk garment with a quill and scroll pattern) before heading off in the car in search of the pub we passed on the way in. We find it after a few minutes, head inside for a quick half and are welcomed by a friendly employee who gives us the grand tour of this unique place. If you’re ever in the neighbourhood, I can highly recommend the Old Silent Inn, and the ciders aren’t too shabby either.
For more information about the Brontë Parsonage Museum, click here