Haworth and The Brontes

It was a glaring omission in my history of literary pligrimages which I remedied last weekend with a visit to Haworth, and to the Parsonage Museum home of the Bronte sisters.

I’ve read their novels; I’ve even read some books about them, Daphne du Maurier’s The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte is one I particularly recall from my adolescence.  I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him: we’d know nothing of his disappointments and failed attempts at greatness were it not for the huge success of his three sisters, whom I think he must have loved and hated in equal measure.

Consequently I already knew certain things about them; the closeness of the siblings, their constant writing from when they were children, the imaginary world they created within the pages of the small books they wrote in tiny script, the long walks they took on the wild moors around Haworth, and the poverty of the family resulting in constant struggles to make ends meet or to find employment suitable for a Parson’s daughters.

But there were still things to learn.  From the isolation they describe in their novels, where their heroines are all outside of any kind of society, cast against a harsh landscape, I had always assumed that the Parsonage, where they spent the majority of their lives, was set well away from the village, and that Haworth  was a tiny place, isolated on the edge of the moor.

Neither of these things are true.  The house is set only a little up the hill from the very centre of the village; true it’s on the far side of the church and the cemetery,  but is still only a couple of minutes walk to the nearest pub, where, one presumes, Branwell was a frequent guest.  And Haworth wasn’t all that small.  According to the records, at that time in the early 19th century, it had a population of nearly 7000, most of whom were engaged in some manner or other in the spinning and weaving of wool.  It wasn’t a healthy place to be because of the poor quality of the water, partly due to the wool processing, but also because the graveyard was overfull and was uphill from most of the village; consequently 41% of children born there died before their sixth birthday, at a time when something in the region of 20% was average.

So the Brontes weren’t physically alone, in fact there must have been a small town teeming with life at the bottom of the garden,but  they must have been socially and intellectually isolated from all those people nearby, which must have accentuated their feeling of separateness and their turning in on their own company.

The second thing that struck me as I went around the Museum was that,  given one of their defining characteristics was their gentel poverty, there are an awful lot of artefacts in the house.  So I was very pleased that they provided a history of how so much stuff has come to be returned to the Bronte Society after it was dispersed as gifts to surviving servants and subsequent auction and legacy.  The desire of wealthy collectors to acquire relics associated with the sisters seems to have been born not long after their deaths and has been sustained ever since.  Early legacies of large collections have encouraged others to make donations, constantly adding to the things to put on display.

I particularly liked the pattens used by Aunt Branwell to raise her feet out of the muck in the street, and tried to imagine how much mud and mess would have covered these cobbles at the time, and how difficult it would have been to walk anywhere in the town; the moors would have been a much more attractive option by comparison.

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