Friday, 22 May 2015

Back in time with the Brontë family

       With the sun actually shining for once, a free day ahead of me, and the determination to achieve at least one of the zillion things ‘to do before I die’, I set off with a friend for Haworth and the famous Brontë Parsonage Museum an hour and a half’s drive away.

Haworth Village
       Situated in the glorious Yorkshire moors, Haworth is a tiny village with steep, cobbled streets and quaint little alleyways along which Ann, Emily and Charlotte used to trip in dainty little boots to post their latest manuscripts. On Sundays, the sisters and their brother Branwell would attend the church at the bottom of their garden to listen to their father’s sermons.
       Today, in this same small garden, furnished with plants popular in Victorian times, were crowds of people of all ages and nationalities. A whole class of (amazingly respectful) American teenagers  stood patiently in line with their tall, imposing teacher as a coach-load of pensioners, who’d obviously pre-booked, were allowed, ever so politely, to jump the queue. As for the rest of we itinerant tourists, there was little choice but to wait. But hey, the sun was shining and the camaraderie was warm.
The Parsonage
       At last we reached the entrance to the Parsonage, which is large, spacious and remarkably cosy - though whether this was down to residue vibes from the 19th century Brontës or from the 20th century radiators is open to debate. According to the free guide at the door, Patrick Brontë arrived with his wife and children in 1820 to take up his post of Perpetual Curate. This was their home for the rest of their lives; sadly, Mrs Brontë and the two eldest daughters, Maria and Elizabeth, died within a few years of arrival, while the remaining children were also survived by their father. Patrick reached the grand old age of 84 before expiring peacefully in 1861.

Mr Bronte's study
       His study was the first room we entered. This was where Mr Brontë conducted all the business of the parish, founded a Sunday school and campaigned vigorously on behalf of his flock. One of his missions was to improve Haworth’s sewage system which was apparently worse than that of London’s slums. Unfortunately, despite their prominent pews in church every Sunday, his wealthy neighbours refused to heed the parson’s call to action, so his plans were scuppered. In the corner of the study is a small wooden desk on which his magnifying glass still lies. This he used for reading when his sight grew dim due to cataracts, a condition alleviated by an operation.

Dining room

       Most of the furniture in the parsonage is original and still in situ, bringing the family vividly to life. In fact, you almost feel as though you’re trespassing. In the dining room, for instance, Ann Brontë’s writing slope is resting on the table and you can almost see her writing, sitting in her rocking chair by the fire, or ‘taking turns’ around the room with Emily and Charlotte as they chatted about each other’s work. After Emily and Ann died suddenly and within a tragically short time of each other, a family servant told how her heart ‘ached to hear Miss Brontë walking, walking on alone’.  The sofa where Emily is supposed to have died is also in the room, yet the atmosphere is far from melancholy.
Charlotte's room
       For me, the most poignant item is in Charlotte’s room upstairs. Sharing a display cabinet with the exquisite bonnet Charlotte wore for her wedding is a tiny little lace cap – a gift for the child she was expecting but which died with her only months into her happy but tragically short marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s curate. Her room also contains a plaid day-dress – or rather a bodice and skirt, beautifully tailored and finished.  What struck me was how petite she was - but then, most people were small in those primitive days before Big Macs and heavyweight carbs!
       Other personal items included jewellery (tiny, tiny rings), cuffs, boots and stockings, all in perfect condition, along with collars and nightcaps of delicate lace created by Charlotte herself. There was even a lock of her mid-brown hair, amazingly glossy and untouched by time.

Mr Bronte's bedroom
      By far the spookiest room in the house is Mr Brontë’s bedroom where he moved after the death of his wife. It was here that Branwell also slept once his alcoholism had taken hold, endangering him and everyone else. The half-tester bed where Branwell took his last tortured breath is an exact replica of a sketch he drew, showing Death in the form of a skeleton summoning him to the grave. As I gazed at the copy of the drawing on display, a young Japanese man stood beside me to read Branwell’s inscription, written in spidery almost illegible letters. “Creepy!” he exclaimed, and shivered. No, he hadn’t read any of their works, but he’d certainly heard of the Brontës and travelled thousands of miles to pay homage.
       Actually, I felt a bit sorry for Branwell. Growing up as the only boy in a cultural hothouse with three geniuses for siblings must have been extremely tough. How is a simple guy to make his mark amidst such literary giants? His answer was to carve a career as an artist, and he certainly had plenty of illustrious patrons judging by the portraits in his studio. But while they are passable, his works could hardly match the towering achievements of his sisters – but whether his lack of talent stemmed from his drinking or was the catalyst which drove him to drink would be hard to fathom. There have, after all, been many hard-boozing artists (Van Gogh, Gauguin, Lautrec to name a few) whose gifts, unlike their livers, were scarcely touched by their excesses.

Apostles Cabinet featured in 'Jane Eyre'

       Finally, in the Exhibition Room, amidst glass cases full of original letters, manuscripts, and other personal effects, is a huge wooden cupboard with 12 panels each depicting one of the Apostles. This impressive piece comes from the home of Charlotte’s dear friends, the Eyre family of Hathersage, Derbyshire. Their turreted house is thought to be the inspiration for Mr Rochester’s mansion, while the Apostles cupboard, which must be 8’ high, features in the scene where Jane Eyre is left alone with the mad-wife’s injured brother.
      I’ve actually been to the house in Hathersage on a recent mammoth walk with my daughter when we also visited the grave of Little John.....but that’s another story.

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