Well I have had just the most marvellous few days in Yorkshire. I am one of those Londoners who never goes North of the Watford Gap so it was quite an experience for me to see ‘The North’ as all the roadsigns on the M1 kept saying, and I absolutely loved it. I will definitely be going back.
Our first stop was in Whitby, which is reached by driving through the most incredible moorland scenery you could wish for; I was gasping at every corner as amazing cliffs, expanses of wild, empty moorland and deep valleys emerged from the distance and as far as the eye could see there were just the most breathtaking views. I was in my absolute element. Then, you get to the end of the moors and suddenly, the sea is before you, and the ruins of Whitby Abbey rise majestically from the horizon, and I was just so overwhelmed with the beauty of it all. I can see how this town inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula.
Whitby isn’t just famous for the Dracula connection though; far from it! This little town was the place from where Captain Cook left for his famous round the world voyages, and it is also where the finest jet in the world can be found, and the jet jewellery trade is still alive and well, though nowhere near at the level it was when Queen Victoria made it famous through her mourning jewellery. Whitby has also been famed for the exceptionally well preserved fossils found in its cliffs, and a visit to the delightfully old fashioned and haphazard museum is very highly recommended as amongst the myriad of exhibits is the world’s best example of a fossilised crocodile. Quite a sight!
After Whitby we went on to Haworth, home of the Bronte sisters, and this was the highlight of the trip for me. I have loved the Brontes since I was a teenager, and I have read all of their novels. I chose to write my BA dissertation on them and I desperately wanted to visit Haworth at the time when I was writing it, but funds never permitted so it is only now, nearly three years later, that I have been able to finally set eyes upon the home and environs of the women whose writing has affected me so much. It was actually a surprisingly emotional experience.
What has always fascinated me about the Brontes is that they were brought up in the same place, with the same influences, and yet their novels are so very different. Charlotte is passionate and incredibly insightful and emotional, but in a restrained way; her characters never give way or sink into despair. Emily is wildly passionate and completely unrestrained, but her writing is, in my opinion, not as polished as her sisters’, and Wuthering Heights suffers from a lack of convincing characterisation. There is a lot of evil and distress and grief and madness in her novel and I do wonder where that came from…perhaps the pain of the many losses she endured throughout her short life; her mother, sisters, and brother all died before her, and she also witnessed the descent into alcoholism, opium addiction and depression that marked the last years of her beloved brother’s life. All of this pent up grief and loss seems to have been expurgated into the pages of Wuthering Heights without any filter of stoicism and inner strength that you find in Charlotte and Anne’s characters, and perhaps it is because of this that I have always found Emily’s novel such a difficult and depressing read. I do wonder whether Emily found it harder to cope with loss than her sisters, as they all experienced the same events, and their novels all depict similar themes, but Charlotte and Anne seem to have dealt with it in a much more bridled manner. I know that Emily refused to admit she was ill until the day she died; denial of her feelings and fears to those around her, perhaps, is what prompted Wuthering Heights to be her outlet. Conjecture, of course, but I find it endlessly fascinating to muse on the subject. Finally, there is Anne; dismissed as ‘the other one’ in literary criticism well into the 20th and 21st centuries; her books have never reached the echelons of fame that Charlotte and Emily’s have and I have always thought this was a great injustice. It was this topic that I particularly focused on in my dissertation, and it was fascinating to research the history of her critical reception and understand what it was that made people dislike her novels in comparison to her sisters’.
Anne’s more famous novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, (she also wrote a short novel, about the same length as Charlotte’s The Professor, entitled Agnes Grey), was published a year after Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, in 1848, and received a mixed critical reception; some loved it, others admonished it as crude, immoral and not fit to be read, largely because of its subject matter of a woman daring to leave her abusive husband. This was similar to the response her sisters’ books received, and it sold very well regardless of the negative press surrounding it. However, in the late 19th century and into the 20th century, Anne Bronte became increasingly maligned and her skills as a novelist dismissed as inferior. I take great umbrage to this as I personally think Anne was a league apart from Emily in her writing ability and easily on a par with Charlotte, and so I wanted to find out why exactly Anne’s novels were considered ‘bad’. What I discovered was that critics were comparing Anne solely to her sisters and not to the wider context of the literature being produced at the time; Anne has a style that is rather didactic when compared to Charlotte and Emily, but this is by no means unusual of the period; she has a lot of similarities to Elizabeth Gaskell, I think. This was something that I found especially interesting; Anne was a much more conventional novelist than her sisters, and she got attacked for it, though at the time of publication, she was considered so unconventional that some even called for Tenant to be banned. What an about turn in public opinion in the space of just a few years!
So Anne has a special place in my heart, and I love The Tenant of Wildfell Hall almost equally to Jane Eyre; if you haven’t read it, I would urge you to do so as it really is excellent. I have gone off at a bit of a tangent so I am going to bring it back more on topic now…another subject that has interested me about the Brontes is the myth that they were poor uneducated heathen girls living wild on the moors near a town of uncultured ruffians and positively quivering with repressed sexual desire. This is so untrue as to be laughable, and while I knew this already, it was so fascinating to actually see the environment they grew up in, which the guide to the Bronte house is keen to emphasise has hardly changed since the Bronte’s time. There have been additions to the Parsonage and the neighbouring church and the town has grown larger so it is not exactly the same but the Brontes would certainly recognise their surroundings if they were to return today. Haworth is a bustling town nestling amongst moorland and dales, with many streets of Victorian houses, several old textile mills, some of which have fallen into disrepair, and a large amount of large Victorian villas, which point to it having been a prosperous town filled with industry and wealthy manufacturers who no doubt would have been cultured and interested in the latest happenings of the era. It is situated in between the large towns of Halifax and Bradford, so it is not in the middle of nowhere and could not possibly be described as isolated. At the time of the Brontes, there were no less than 8 working textile mills and this shows how busy and populous it was. The Parsonage itself is at the top of the main street and is surrounded by the graveyard of the church that their father preached at, is overlooked by several houses, and backs onto the moors. It is beautiful and atmospheric, but hardly isolated, and never was; the shops and pubs on the doorstep of the Parsonage were there in the Bronte’s time and Branwell Bronte was a regular patron of the several pubs down the main street.
The myth of the Bronte girls closeted in a dull and damp house with no outlet for their creativity and no education does them a real disservice. The most interesting thing about this myth is that Charlotte was the one who created it, after her sisters’ deaths; she wanted to portray them as innocents who didn’t know what they were writing about, but instead she created a mythology of sexual repression and backwardness that has permeated until the present day. Elizabeth Gaskell’s saccharine and quite untrue in places biography didn’t help either. Lucasta Miller’s The Bronte Myth unpacks this brilliantly and if you are in any way interested in the Brontes I highly recommend it; it debunks a lot of myths. Another book I love is The Madwoman in the Attic, an absolutely terrific and groundbreaking book of feminist criticism by the critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar first published in the 70s. It has wonderful essays on the Brontes and how sexual repression and female subordination and so on is shown in their work; I’m not sure how much I agree with their extreme feminist approach (they make a very big deal of the subversive meanings behind the red room in Jane Eyre, for example) but their insights are fascinating to read nonetheless.
However, back to the Parsonage; actually seeing just how false the popular perception of the Bronte’s home and upbringing is was truly eye opening and I adored being in their surroundings and seeing their world, that is largely unchanged. Inside the house there is all of their original furniture; their books, possessions, clothes, manuscripts, letters, workboxes and so on, untouched from the day they died; it was incredible. You truly can step into the Parsonage that they inhabited and get a total feel for the life they led. Being able to see Charlotte’s letters was also lovely; in one of them her sardonic humour really came through – it was a letter to a reviewer who had criticised Jane Eyre, and Charlotte wrote ‘I think we need to have a little chat about XYZ’ and I laughed – she was far more modern than I had anticipated. It was also quite touching to see the clothes they wore, the toys they played with as children, to understand the little routines they had; Patrick Bronte used to go past the parlour every night and tell the girls not to go to bed too late before going upstairs to wind the clock and go to bed, and Emily used to bake bread in the kitchen while learning German; they had her book displayed in the kitchen, propped up like she used to have it so that she could see it while mixing dough. It made them so much more real to me, and seeing where they lived and the scenery they had access to also gave me a greater insight into the novels and where they are set and how important nature is in them. I am rereading Jane Eyre at the moment and nature is such a central character; the tree below, which I found whilst taking the Bronte’s favourite walk down to a waterfall on the moors, could be right out of the book.
I’m going to stop now because I should think I’m boring everyone silly with all my Bronte prattle; to sum up, I had an absolutely wonderful time, have fallen in love with Yorkshire, and the Brontes, all over again, and I wish I could go back to university to study them more! By the way, if anyone is interested in reading more about the Brontes and would like to have a look at my dissertation, which I have briefly revisited in this post, do feel free to send me an email as I’m happy to send it out. I can’t promise brilliance though!