Charlotte, Emily and Ann Bronte are three sisters that are part of one of the most famous literary families in history. Within a span of 2 years the three sisters each published a book considered a classic even today. For the time they were ground breaking and somewhat controversial. The story of their lives is almost as good as their books.
In the Penines, northwest of Manchester
After visiting the Bronte home there is a deeper appreciation for what they accomplished as writers 150 years ago. It wasn’t until I pulled up to the Bronte Parsonage Museum that I realized that their father Patrick Bronte was a minister. The house stood on a side hill with a large parking lot below surprisingly full of cars late in the afternoon. The house and grounds were busy with people yet it was relatively quiet as many had come to pay their respects, show their appreciation or learn more about these young women who died tragically in their prime. The majority of the crowd on first glance was largely female.
Walking from the parking lot to the Bronte home the cemetery laid below the house to my left, the house to my right. When the girls stood on their front porch their view was of the church clock tower with the cemetery on the grounds of the church like all other churches in England.
The house has been restored to look as much as possible like it did in 1850. An American businessman in the 1920s purchased the property from the parish and began to purchase artifacts from friends and family to build a museum. I have seen few buildings restored so accurately based on old photos. What really made the museum interesting is the amount of personal information about the girls, the family and the life they lived. Included in the museum were personal dairies, papers, pictures, poems and historical information from their best friends that has been saved. The museum housed the couch on which Emily died, dresses Charlotte wore and the bed where the family prayed as their brother Branwell tragically died at 30 after a life of unfulfilled promise. Each of the girls was soon to follow. The rooms had some of the same furniture and artifacts that were there when they were alive.
There was a great deal of reverence and hushed tones as people walked from room to room. Even if you haven’t read the books you will find the museum interesting and their story is well worth learning. There were many personal surprises about each of the girls and their lives.
After my self-tour I walked out back of the house, up a trail and sat on a bench in a field above the house. The museum curator told me that the area looked almost exactly as it did when the girls were growing up. The only thing really different were the trees in the graveyard. Today there are a lot of large shade trees in and around the house and cemetery.
Patrick Bronte, the father, outlived 5 daughters, a son and a wife. He committed his life’s work to God and was devout until the end. He was the foundation that kept the family together through difficult times. The first of his family to attend university he taught his daughters the importance of education and supported their ventures in writing.
Walking through the house you can almost hear the interaction and feel the closeness of the sisters who walked the kitchen every night creating stories, reading their writings out loud and encouraging each other. Their novels were more collaborative than I imagined even though their styles were different.
I left feeling melancholy. There is a sadness that surrounds the house. Was it the short and tragic lives they lived? Was the difficult time in which they lived? The Bronte sisters left a legacy, something of significance to people beyond the time in which they lived. Visiting the house reinforces the importance of their writings, their message. I think they would have been pleased.
The Background and History
The Bronte family is one of the most famous literary families. Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre (1847), Emily wrote Wuthering Heights (1847) and Ann wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). Each novel was written in Bronte house over 150 years ago yet their books still move people today. The Bronte’s sisters wrote under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Women weren’t supposed to write novels that in that time were considered “direct with powerful emotional energy”. Some critics of the time called the writings “coarse” and “brutal”.
The enduring myth of the Brontes living a life in isolation was tragedy and probably unintentionally created by the girls’ themselves. By writing in pseudonyms the sisters created a veil of mystery around them and many people speculated to the true identity of the Bells. A great deal of mystery surrounded the “Bells” and Charlotte and Emily had to go to London to convince the publisher in person that there were truly three sisters and not just one.
The Bronte family lived most of their life in Haworth, a non-descript town in the Penines; foothills just northwest of Manchester in northern England a 5 day horse ride to London. The family moved to Haworth when Charlotte, the youngest, was 5 years old. The sisters’ formative years and writing styles were developed in Haworth amid the dramatic landscape of the surrounding moors.
The Penines are a beautiful backdrop of lovely rolling hills with few trees due to the swampy, rocky landscape. The weather plays an important role in all of the sisters’ novels and it continues to play an important role in life today in the moors. English weather is unpredictable but wet and cool most of the year. The United Kingdom (Ireland/England/Scotland) is more north than Canada yet the UK has a warmer climate because of the jet stream that sends warm water up from the equator over the Atlantic Ocean past England. It is this clash of weather systems that creates a cold, misty, foggy and raining climate especially in the north of England where the Bronte’s lived.
A mistake some readers make assumes that the Bronte’s wrote exclusively about real life places, people and events. Few understood the amount of creativity nurtured by growing up in the Bronte parsonage. In the twenty years prior to the publication of their novels the girls created the imaginary lands of Angria and Gondal which they used as a collaborative literary apprenticeship. These make-believe worlds were where the Bronte sisters created their own individual characters that lived and interacted with each other’s. When their father bought their brother toy soldiers the girls gave each toy soldier a name and created a fantasy world for them as well. They even wrote tiny books about them small enough for the toy soldiers to read! There are examples of these small books on display at the museum. You need a magnifying glass to read them.
Despite the beautiful scenery and openness of the moors Haworth was overcrowded and an unhealthy place to live. A report compiled by the General Board of Health in 1850 attributed much of this ill health to the cramped living conditions and the lack of privies or restrooms (1 to every 4.5 houses). The only sewage system was open channels running down the Main Street. According to Charlotte’s 1857 biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, this is the reason why the Brontes took their walk towards the moors rather than towards the long descending village street.
To make matters worse, the drinking water was contaminated by not only sewage but from the seepage from the graveyard above the village. The Brontre’s parsonage was fortunate to have two privies and access to a private well fed by the moorland springs. However their close proximity to the ill-drained, dangerously over-filled graveyard was a constant threat to their health. The General Board of Health noted in 1850 there had been 1344 burials in the previous 10 years alone. That is an average over 9 people a month dying and being buried in the cemetery near their home for over 10 years. The banging of the stone mason’s hammer against the chisel making names on tombstones must have been constant reminder of the fragility of life in the moors in their lifetime.
The General Board of Health recommended that the graveyard be closed immediately. The Board was appalled to discover the cemetery covered graves with large flat stones that prevented the growth of plants which would assist decomposition. How challenging was it to live in Haworth where the Bronte’s lived? 41% of children died before the age of six. Haworth’s average life expectancy of 25 years in1850 corresponded to some of the worst districts of London.
Patrick Brunty was educated at St. John’s College in Cambridge. His original surname was dropped in favor of the more impressive sounding Bronte. By the time he moved to Haworth he was a published author of poetry and fiction. In 1821 his wife, Elizabeth Branwell, died of cancer. Her unmarried sister gave up a comfortable life to come to the Moors and help Patrick raise the kids. Patrick sent his two oldest daughters, Maria and Elizabeth, to Clergy Daughter’s school. Both daughters came back sick and died within a month of each other, 10 and 11 years old. For the next few years the remaining children lived at home. However their father’s lack of private income meant the daughters would have to work at one of the only jobs readily available to them – governesses.
To varying degrees the girls had success as governesses but eventually they decided to set up a school of their own at the parsonage. Although not enough students could be found to start the school it did bring the girls’ home again where they continued to write. In early 1846 the girls published a book of their poems at their own expenses. Only two copies were sold. Later in 1846 the sisters were gaining the attention of publishers in London. In 1847-48 Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall were published to the delight of readers across England. Family tragedy wasn’t far behind the success.
Branwell was the only boy of the family and probably showed the greatest promise of the Brontes in childhood. He failed in his first profession as a portrait painter in Leeds. He returned home in debt and went to work for the railroad where he was promoted as a clerk before being terminated for poor performance. Next he tried being a tudor for the Robinson’s son at Thorp Green Hall, a large estate near York. He would return home again after a self-admitted affair with Mrs. Robinson. Branwell never recovered from this last blow and turned to alcohol and opium. According to Mrs. Gaskell, Charlotte’s biographer, Branwell’s great conversational talents “procured him the undesirable distinction of having his company recommended by the landlord of the Black Bull (local pub in Haworth) to any chance traveler who might happen to feel solitary or dull over his liquor.” On his deathbed Branwell was to have spoken, “In all my past life I have done nothing either good or great”. Charlotte spoke at his funeral, “Branwell was his father’s and sisters’ pride and hope in manhood, but since manhood the case has been otherwise. It has been our lot to see him take a wrong bent….and now to behold the sudden obscure close of what might have been a noble career.”
In September 1848 Branwell died of tuberculosis at 31. In December of the same year Emily died of tuberculosis at age 30. Five months later Anne died of tuberculosis as well. Charlotte was the only one of six children still alive. She married her father’s assistant curator Arthur Bell Nicholls in June of 1854 and from all accounts was happy. They lived in the Bronte house until Charlotte’s death ten months later in 1855 in the early stages of pregnancy.
Category Rating: A
Overall Rating: #2
Comments: The Yorkshire Dales where the house is located is beautiful and has lots of sights for families and children to see. If you in Manchester, Liverpool or Leeds it is well worth the drive. Take a day and visit the Bolton or Skipton castle, see the waterfalls in the national park nearby or enjoy the beautiful scenery of the Penines.