Visiting the Bronte Sisters in Haworth, Yorkshire
It’s not a place you might have heard of unless you are thinking of literary sites, but that was my plan—to visit a location where “place” was one of the characters in the story. Haworth is three train rides away from London, and you have to get off at Keithley and get a bus or cab into Haworth itself. A lover of landscapes and literature, I wanted to see how where the Bronte sisters lived and what of that place had influenced the Bronte sisters in their books. Writing at a time when they first published under a man’s pseudonym, they created a sensation with their books, works that “couldn’t have been written by a woman,” according to the reviews at the time. Unrequited love, passion, the domestic lives of women, wind on the moors, freedom from the bondage of marriage not based on love—such incendiary topics. They were rule breakers who drew upon universal themes that were particularly relevant for women. At that time in literature, women were rarely presented as heroines.
As I strode up the narrow cobbled streets of the former mill town, I marveled at the tough lifestyle that they would have endured. The streets ran with sewage, there were intensely cold winds that swept the moors and entered cracks in the stone houses. I feel the shiver of being in another time and place, my imagination triggered by the ruins of the woolen mills that were the economic center of the region. Up and down the streets of the town you see the small houses that once housed the mill workers. The mill owners had fancier homes with large rooms and spacious grounds. They were responsible for their workers, but usually, the wages were not enough to feed the family.
In the parsonage at the top of the hill, where the three sisters Charlotte, Emily, Anne and their brother Branwell lived with their father, small windows deliver dim light. A spotlight illuminates the wooden table where creation took place, a pen and ink box at the ready. Visitors whisper in awe as they view the small rooms. As I wander through the rooms of the parsonage, I think about how much we take for granted in America, having space: large rooms, yards, space to spread out. Privacy. In the parsonage, there was a lot of shared space—the picture above shows the room with table where the three Bronte sisters wrote their first novels. The other photo shows the writing box with pen, ink and blotter. In the museum there are the first editions of Shirley, Jane Eyre, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
When you visit a place, it leaves its imprint upon you, you revisit it over and over again, the images, scents, and impressions. What I take with me is the immense silence and a vast green space dotted with sheep. I know that I’ve open the door into another time. When we travel, we see the world through new eyes. Here where the Bronte sisters lived and died, I feel that I’ve tasted the world that inspired them to write stories that live and thrive far beyond their time.
That’s what we do when we write memoir—we create worlds that invite others to walk with us. Words bring that world alive, and we create stories that live beyond the space of our own lives. When the Bronte sisters wrote their novels, they were drawing upon the realities of the place that marked them, the moors, the houses, the way of life lived then. Though they are works of fiction, their stories offer us a taste of that time and place, which is we must do in our writing, draw upon details that awaken the senses and make us feel intensely alive.
The next day I toured the Yorkshire countryside with my tour guide Johnny Briggs—a knowledgeable and entertaining tour guy I found on the internet. In his little Fiat, we made our way on narrow roads fenced on both sides with stone. There were rolling hills of green, and lots of sheep. There were ruins from the 15th century, and halcyon landscapes that seem quintessentially English. I was grateful that I was not the one driving through traffic circles and narrow roads, and even happier when Johnny came upon a pub owned by one of his friends who has a Michelin star. Out in the middle of the countryside, I had one of the finest meals of my life. Here we are, celebrating the pub and a great day in the Yorkshire Dales.
Now, I read the lines of Jane Eyre with new insights and feelings. I have stepped in the shoes of Charlotte Bronte briefly as I walked the lanes of Haworth, visited the parsonage, and admired the courage of young women who put pen to page because the worlds in their head were so vivid and alive, they had to write them down.
Let’s all follow in their footsteps—to write with passion the truths that are ours to share.