Did you know that the father of the Bronte sisters changed his name from Brunty to Bronte to make it sound more … posh? The things you learn by visiting the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth!
Arriving in the part of Haworth that has been transformed into the touristy ‘Bronte Village’, you have to wonder how on earth horses pulled heavy carts up the steep street. At the heart of the village, now surrounded by tea-rooms and gift shops, is the church. However, this doesn’t look like the church in which Patrick Bronte preached. That was almost a wreck by the time of his death and was subsequently rebuilt, apart from the tower.
But directly behind the church is an elegant Georgian building (elegant now that we look back on the Georgian style with such enthusiasm but probably quite ordinary at the time) – the parsonage where three of the most talented and influential writers of the 19th century lived. This is where Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte created their live’s works.
Each room in the Bronte Parsonage Museum has been painstakingly re-stored and described. The most powerful room for me is the downstairs sitting room. In this small room they all sat writing – writing Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and the rest. And also walking; walking around and around the central round table discussing their work in this environment of intellectual and emotional support.
The story of Patrick and of the Bronte sisters is a story of the power of education and aspiration but also of the limitations put by society on a person’s class and sex in early Victorian times. As Patrick admitted in a letter to Elizabeth Gaskell in 1857:
“Had I been numbered amongst the calm, sedate, concentric men of the world, I should not have been as I now am, and I should, in all probability, never have had such children as mine have been.”
Patrick rose, by dint of hard work and ability, from a childhood of poverty to a Cambridge education and a comfortable living at Haworth. He published his own poetry and prose and the children were used to seeing books carrying their family name on the shelves.
Upstairs is the tiny children’s study where the girls read and wrote about their imaginary worlds from a young age. Also upstairs a bedroom contains a display of a wide selection of Charlotte’s beautiful drawings and paintings, as well as her wedding bonnet and veil. Perhaps most poignant is a tiny baby bonnet, made for Charlotte by her friend. Charlotte Bronte is thought to have been in the early stages of pregnancy when she died.
She was the last of the sisters to die, left alone with her writing and her father. Patrick outlived his wife and all six of his remarkable children. Across the way from the parsonage is the school where Charlotte taught, no doubt a kinder school than the Cowan Bridge Clergy Daughters’ School at which she and her sisters toiled and which destroyed the health of the two elder girls. Emily immortalised that as Lowood School in Jane Eyre.
Because with the death of their mother and with so many mouths to feed the Bronte siblings had to work – Emily took on the role of housekeeper at home while Charlotte and Anne went out as governesses. Bramwell attempted a career as a portrait painter – and the paintings on display in the parsonage show he had some talent.
When they weren’t working or writing they were out walking. Right behind the parsonage is a gate that leads into a field. Across that and you are en route to Haworth Moor, to Penistone and Oxenhope . The wildly beautiful places of Yorkshire that found such a place in the novels. As a reviewer of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall wrote in the Examiner in 1848:
“The Bells are of a hardy race … the air they breathe is not that of the hot-house, or of perfumed apartments: but it whistles through the rugged throrns that shoot out their prickly arms on barren moors, or it ruffles the moss on the mountain tops.”
My final, perhaps most impacting, discovery at the Bronte Parsonage Museum was that the Bronte sisters were travellers at heart. They found escape from the “four bare walls” of governess life in walking the Yorkshire moors but they dreamed of more. Charlotte wrote to a friend of receiving a description of travels in Europe:
“Mary’s letter spoke of some of the pictures and cathedrals she had seen … I hardly know what swelled to my throat as I read her letter – such a vehement impatience of restraint and steady work. Such a strong wish for wings …”
I’m sure I am not the only one who can relate to that! Charlotte and Emily did make it to Belgium. They formed a plan to set up their own school and travelled to Brussels to improve their language skills at the Pensionnat Heger. Their aunt had given them some money to pursue this dream but before the year was out news of her death called them home.
Charlotte returned to Brussels for another spell, this time as a student-teacher and suffered unrequited love for her married teacher Monsieur Heger. Sadly their school project never got off the ground. However, I love to think of them discovering Brussels as I did: the Grand Place, the churches, the markets – a taste of Europe so different from where they grew up.
By Natasha von Geldern
Just to let you know, I have included links to the Bronte sisters’ books on Amazon and if you purchase one I will receive a tiny commission. Thanks!