Walking in the Footsteps of Giants

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!

Off to Bronte Country

Early tomorrow morning I am off to Yorkshire! I am so excited! Our first stop will be Whitby, home of the famous Abbey and inspiration of Bram Stoker to write Dracula…how we will fare in the wind and rain I do not know, but a bit of extreme weather isn’t enough to put two hardy Englishwomen off and we can’t wait to go for bracing walks along the beach and scare ourselves silly on a Dracula tour.

Next up will be Haworth, home of the Brontes, and a place I have been longing to visit since I wrote my dissertation on them. I am so thrilled to be getting to see the house where the Brontes lived, and the surrounding area that they knew and loved so well. I am also excited to go for a walk on the famous moors and I know I am going to love buying tat from the Bronte House gift shop!

So lots of fun to be had and I will be back on Monday evening to tell the tale of my trip and of course post lots of photos. I am secretly hoping that we may accidentally perhaps on purpose bump into a few second hand bookshops as well…so I will hopefully have some new purchases to show off too, even though I am not supposed to be buying any more books until Christmas!

I hope you all have lovely weekends and I will see you next week!

Beautiful Bath

Well who doesn’t enjoy pretending to be in Jane Austen novels and generally flouncing about in historical locations? Certainly not me, as I had a brilliant time in ‘historical’ Bath, which shoved its history in your face at every corner, but in an endearing way. Costumed guides? Check. Every other building named after a Jane Austen novel/character/place? Check. A ye olde tea room on every street? Check. It all added up to a holiday as only good old England can do, and once I had recovered from five days of camping in a sodden field and feeling like the dampness and tiredness would never end, I got into being a tourist and got my camera out at every opportunity!

Like every self respecting Bibliophile, my first stop was the Oxfam Bookshop. An excellent selection of books, plenty of Viragos (so many I had to leave several behind, so if you’re in the vicinity, get there as soon as you can!), and for a tenner I became the new owner of old green Virago copies of A Pin to See the Peepshow, The Soul of Kindnessand A Game of Hide and Seek, and a biography of Winston Churchill’s mother Jennie Jerome, one of the first ‘Dollar Princesses’ and her sisters, called Fortune’s Daughters, that I’d been wanting to read for a while.

Onwards to the Jane Austen Museum, which was nice but frankly a bit disappointing; I’d expected more from my £7 entrance fee than some displays showing the historical context of early 19thc Bath and a few costumes from not very well known adaptations. Jane Austen doesn’t even have a connection with the building the museum is housed in. If you’re going to Bath and were fancying a trip, I’d advise you skip it if you already have a good knowledge of Austen and her books. I’ve heard Chawton, her cottage in Hampshire, is much better for getting a real feel of Austen and how she lived, so I shall try that for my next trip outside of London.


We followed this up by a trip to the Abbey which was absolutely stunning. The walls are literally covered in commemorative plaques to the good, great and also ordinary citizens of Bath from the 1600s to the Victorian times. Absolutely fascinating, and humbling, and wonderful to be able to see a glimpse of what these now largely unknown people meant to those they left behind.

The next day we went to the Assembly Rooms and Fashion Museum which was housing a touring V&A exhibition on The Supremes (work follows me, it seems) alongside its usual displays. It was fantastic and as I have a particular interest in the history of fashion this was one of my favourite Bath sights. The Assembly Rooms were very interesting too but I didn’t really get an impression of the space as the Supremes exhibition was taking up the ballroom.

After this we went to the Circus and the Royal Crescent, which we ran along Anne Elliot style, much to the amusement of passers by. The architecture in Bath really is breathtaking; its uniformity is very soothing to the eye and it is fantastic to see how new buildings have to conform to the stonework and style of Georgian Bath. The grandeur of the Crescent, looking down over onto the hills beyond was wonderful, and I almost had a moment of thinking I would like to live there, but then I pulled myself together…I am a Londoner, after all.

I came across a terrific independent bookshop down a side street, Mr B’s, which sold Persephones and the anniversary hardback Viragos…and upstairs they had a Reading Booth where you can pay by the hour to have sole use of a soothing room in which to enjoy uninterrupted reading…it’s a truly delightful shop and well worth a visit.

And yesterday…we went to Tyntesfield, a fairly newly acquired National Trust property that is covered in scaffolding as it’s a ‘live conservation’ project, the Trust’s first. Fully restored, it will be amazing; it’s a Victorian gothic pile that had a collossal amount of money spent on it at the time, inside and out, to create an authentic ‘Gothic’ look. The inside was stunning but in a very bad condition, and like the land time forgot…old perambulators, umbrellas, toys, etc, just hanging about as if the family just upped and left yesterday. It was fascinating to see the conservation in progress and to understand a little more the sheer scale of work that goes into bringing a property up to a standard that will allow public access. I shall be sure to go back in a few years’ time to see the completed work.

After Tyntesfield our final stop was The American Museum in Britain, the only museum of Americana outside of the US. It was hands down one of the best museums I’ve ever been in. Interactive, interesting and varied displays, striking objects, and a wonderful layout, not to mention a brilliant exhibition on Folk Art and a world renowned collection of stunning quilts. I would have driven from London to Bath for the day just to visit, it’s that good. The cafe does excellent cakes and cookies too, and there’s a lovely gift shop that’s set out like a General Store. AND you get to dress up as a pioneer!! Please do go if you get the chance.

I’m now at home and exhausted. But I must finish Dorothy Whipple’s The Closed Door and Other Stories so that I feel I haven’t missed out on Persephone Week completely. Review forthcoming!

I hope you enjoy the pictures. Oh, and please do look at Naomi’s wonderful blog that I recently discovered after she emailed me…it turns out we work down the corridor from one another at the V&A and I have now been busted at my habit of blogging whilst at work…tsk tsk!!!

Off to Bath!

I am sitting in my office, listening to the sounds of the Brompton Oratory’s organ practice next door, and the dulcet tones of pneumatic drills from the building site of the new Medieval and Renaissance galleries which are being finished off beneath me (opening very soon – and they look spectacular!), and am very much looking forward to my trip to Bath which starts tomorrow. I’ll be gone Saturday to Saturday so no posts for a week, but no doubt I’ll have lots of photos to delight you with when I get back.

With me on my trip I will be taking the book I am currently reading, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s In Connection With the De Willoughby Claim, which is Victorian melodrama at its best and if you like that sort of thing it’s highly recommended! I will post a more in depth review when I am back and also bore you with photos of my FHB collection, following on from Elaine’s wonderful post on the topic last month. I will also be taking Dorothy Whipple’s The Closed Door and Other Stories so that I can still take part in Persephone Reading Week so brilliantly thought up by Verity and Claire.

I am greatly looking forward to pretending to be Anne Elliot running through the streets of Bath to find Captain Wentworth and tell him that she does indeed accept his proposal, and will never be persuaded otherwise, to visiting the American Museum in Britain (which I have been longing to visit since Persephone mentioned it years ago when they were doing an exhibition on Dollar Princesses, the American heiresses who came over the Atlantic to marry titles in the late Victorian era, which made them decide to put forward the release of The Shuttle), and also to visiting Tyntesfield, a fantastic Victorian Gothic monstrosity of a house that the National Trust is in the process of restoring. So it’s going to be a busy week, the first part of which I will be volunteering at yet another Christian youth event called Soul Survivor, but it’s going to be immensely good fun. I just hope I manage to fit some reading in!

See you all in a week!

Happy Camper

So I spent the last week camping. In Norfolk. This did strike fear into my heart when I was in the anticipatory stages of going; camping anywhere in England inevitably results in constant rain, mud everywhere, no sleep, damp clothes and bad tempers. However, none of my fears were realised, apart from the slight sleep deprivation and odd snappy comment. The sun shone (I even got a tan!), the tent and its contents stayed dry, and I even managed to enjoy myself. Joy!

The first six days of my week away were spent at Newday, a youth Christian festival. I am a church youth worker so along I went with various friends to keep the kids in line and laze around in the sunshine. We had a wonderful time; the seminars and times of worship in the evening were brilliant and uplifting and the lazy afternoons provided plenty of time for good, deep chats over contraband wine with my friends….and minus the wine with the youth. I do enjoy spending time with teenagers as it reminds me of how far I have come, and how much I do NOT want to go back to being an insecure, clueless and really rather annoying schoolgirl with bad fashion sense and an obsession with nail varnish. I also have to stifle a chuckle at their awkward attempts to communicate with each other, usually along the lines of ‘sooo…what music you into?’. Bless those hormonal bundles of acute embarrassment. I hope they too will look back and laugh when they’re my age!

Once Newday was over my flatmate and our friend and I bundled into my Mini and off we drove to Cromer, a once genteel Edwardian seaside resort that now consists of an unimpressive pier and a LOT of teashops, which I had no problem with as the words ‘cream tea’ bring me to my knees. The sun shone and we splashed delicately in the sea and wandered around the shops and ate fish and chips as the sun set before heading back to a much smaller campsite without the 7,000 teenagers we had been sleeping alongside for the previous week. This was, as I am sure you can imagine, bliss.

The next day my long suffering Mini trundled us off to Blickling Hall, a National Trust property nearby, where Anne Boleyn was reputedly born, and which was absolutely stunning and had beautiful gardens, a jealousy inducing library and a MASSIVE second hand bookshop in which I almost hyperventilated. I found tons of books I wanted but restricted myself to just one; a lovely first edition of an Edith Wharton book, New Year’s Day, that I then discovered was the second in a quartet that make up Old New York. Shame. I shall now have to buy the other three. After a hearty pub lunch we then visited Felbrigg Hall, another National Trust property, that was not as impressive but also boasted a second hand bookshop (in which I bought nothing) and some beautiful paintings. We finished up by going to the beach at a small village called Overstrand, where we used a phone box to call home and felt very retro as we dialled 0800 R-E-V-E-R-S-E (remember those days?), and then we capped off a very enjoyable day by being good Sarf East Landoners and going for a curry in Cromer, which was delicious.

The next morning we packed up our tent and went off to Cromer to go to a service at the beautiful and skyline dominating church in the centre of town. We then had a greasy spoon breakfast at the local caff before I drove us to Oxburgh Hall, on the border of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, which is a stunning moated 15thc house with some wonderful embroideries by Mary Queen of Scots and a priest’s hole that I shimmied my way into and then felt very brave when I was congratulated for my daring on my way out. After a sandwich sitting in the ruined church next door, we headed to Cambridge, where we stopped for a cream tea, a wander and a look around the Fitzwilliam Museum, which has a very interesting Darwin exhibition exploring his influence on the arts (from the Pre Raphaelites to Degas) before arriving back in London, exhausted, tanned and far more cultured than when we left.

I hope you enjoy the photos!