Pilgrim’s progress

The isolated Yorkshire landscape associated with the Brontës will be trodden by many a walking boot during the bicentenary celebrations. Chris Moss cuts through the myth to find the wilderness

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Many literary pilgrimages lead to disappointment, the sense of place communicated by poets and novelists lost to time, or tourism. Try to imagine Dickens walking beneath the Shard, Elizabeth Gaskell in slick, modern Manchester, Hardy having a Leffe at the King’s Arms in Dorchester.

For visitors to Brontë Country however, of which there are bound to be many during the bicentenary celebrations that begin this year, the moorland landscapes around Haworth still deliver. Brontë Country possesses an elemental beauty that stirs visitors and can be imaginatively linked to the famous novels and poems.

John Bowen, professor of 19th century literature at York University, advises Brontë pilgrims not to limit their gaze to the moors.

“Looking down from the Parsonage into Haworth, in the Brontës’ time, you saw an industrial town, with working mills and middens – people pissing in the street and awful sanitary conditions.”

The moors, at that time, were quarried. Industrialisation was apace. The Brontë sisters invested in the railway and brother Branwell worked for the Manchester and Leeds Railway company.

“There was a north-south divide in the 19th century but nothing like the one now,” says Bowen. “The south was backward and rural while Manchester was the shock city, the Shanghai of its age. There is a northern aesthetic in the Brontës’ work, but it’s as much about the modern as it is about the wilderness.”

On 21 April it will be 200 years since the birth of Charlotte Brontë. To celebrate her life and work Haworth’s Parsonage Museum is hosting an exhibition, Charlotte Great and Small, curated by Girl With a Pearl Earring author Tracy Chevalier, who also edits a new collection of short stories, Reader I Married Him, featuring contributions from Susan Hill and Helen Dunmore. A touring exhibition will also visit London’s National Portrait Gallery and the Morgan Library in New York. Next year celebrations of brother Branwell, born in 1817, will begin, followed by Emily, born in 1818, and Anne, 1820. In 2019, the focus will be on father Patrick.

For many people, the heart of Brontë Country is the Parsonage – where Patrick was curate and the children were raised – and nearby Top Withens, a ruined farmhouse that has no direct connection with the Earnshaw family home in Wuthering Heights but, perched on a lonely slope and exposed to the harsh westerly winds, looks the part. In fact, the Brontës’ working and leisure lives extended across Yorkshire, from the Calder Valley to Scarborough and Bridlington where, in 1839, Charlotte – according to friend Ellen Nussey – first saw the sea and was “quite overpowered [and] could not speak till she had shed some tears”.

“Looking down from the Parsonage into Haworth, in the Brontës’ time, you see people pissing in the street.”

Charlotte’s novels stray far beyond even these milieus to fictional locations inspired by Derbyshire in Jane Eyre, Brussels in Villette and, closer to home, Liversedge and the Spen Valley in Shirley.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the best known of Anne’s novels, probably takes its geographical cues from Stanbury and Mirfield, where she worked as a governess.

If Brontë Country has been trimmed by tourist boards, the Brontë myth has evolved around the gothic elements of Wuthering Heights, numerous film and TV adaptations – and Kate Bush’s song.

But Charlotte was a bold, daring author, influenced by Thackeray’s naturalism and by Ruskin’s radical ideas about landscape painting. She shared with her fictional creation Jane Eyre a powerful sense of being a “free human being with an independent will”, contemptuous of the “carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers” she found in the novels of Jane Austen.

Somehow, the novel’s “bleak winds and bitter northern skies” have been conflated with a romantic image of the three girls as gloomy, long-suffering daydreamers whose early deaths add to their mystique.

“I’m surprised at how the sisters themselves have become characters in their own right. There can’t be many writers who are so profoundly anchored in a particular landscape,” observes author Mick Jackson, who grew up in Great Harwood, 25 miles to the west of Haworth, and visited the area on daytrips as a child.

In his new novel, Yuki Chan In Brontë Country, he’s critical of such literary exploitation as Brontë-themed earrings, oven gloves and biscuits – just normal biscuits in a Brontë tin.
“I’m intrigued that a place that is familiar to me has become a sort of shrine town, particularly to people from such a different culture to ours,” says Jackson, whose book follows a young Japanese fashion student’s visit to Haworth, retracing her late mother’s footsteps and decoding the local heritage industry.

“The fact that Japanese tourists make an effort to get up to West Yorkshire when they’re over here must say something about the power of the novels, or the potency of the myth.”

While researching the novel, Jackson took the walk out to Top Withens. “I had my Brontë walk map in hand and was struck by how much of the landscape had been appropriated by the Brontë heritage.

“I remember a Brontë bridge, a Brontë chair – which was essentially a large rock – and a Brontë waterfall. The implication was that no one but the Brontës had ever strolled out there. It had become a sort of disused film set.

“There’s a contradiction in hordes of people heading to the moors around Haworth in search of the wilderness they experienced in the novels but are unlikely to find due to all the other people who are also looking for the wilderness.”

All is not lost, though. Set out on the 43-mile Brontë Way, besides places associated with the sisters – including Wycoller Hall (Ferndean Manor in Jane Eyre) and their birthplace at Thornton and Oakwell Hall (Fieldhead in Shirley) – you can still be alone on uninhabited heaths and hillsides.

That’s what Charlotte did in May 1850, only to find desolation. In a letter to friend Jane Taylor contained in The Brontës: A Life In Letters, out next month, she writes: “I am free to walk on the moors – but when I go out there alone everything reminds me of the times others were with me and then the moors seem a wilderness, featureless, solitary, saddening.”

She writes that the heather and ferns remind her of Emily, who had died in 1848. The pale mists and “distant prospects” evoke Anne, dead exactly a year.

For the surviving sister the landscape is as painful as their poetry. “Once I loved it – now I dare not read it.”

More literary landscapes

Grasmere, Cumbria – trace the wanderings of Wordsworth from Dove Cottage via the Coffin Road to Rydal Mount (walklakes.co.uk)

Upper Calder Valley, West Yorks – see the landscapes and milltowns that inspired the early writings of Ted Hughes, including his birthplace in Mytholmroyd and Heptonstall, where Sylvia Plath is buried (discovermytholmroyd.info)

Eastwood, Notts – follow the Blue Line Trail to see where DH Lawrence was born, a heritage centre, and houses and a pub associated with the author (experiencenottinghamshire.com)
Lower Ure Valley, North Yorks – complete five-mile walk from Great Ouseburn Village Hall to Thorpe Green Hall and back, through a landscape familiar to Anne and Branwell Brontë (boroughbridgewalks.org.uk)

For more information on the Brontë bicentennial see bronte200.org. Jane Eyre, and the rest of the Bronte backcatalogue is available on Audible, read by Juliet Stevenson

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