Explore the landscape that inspired the Brontë sisters

How did a quiet Yorkshire parsonage produce three of Britain’s greatest writers? On the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth, Juliet Barker explores the moorlands and villages that inspired the author and her equally gifted sisters Emily and Anne.

 

 

Bronte country

It’s a remarkable fact that the first Brontë fans began to make their way to Haworth as early as 1850, less than three years after the publication of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Charlotte – by then the sole survivor of six Brontë siblings – was amused and baffled by these ‘curiosity-hunters’ as she called them but, just like visitors today, they came because they wanted answers. 

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How was it possible that three shy spinster daughters of a country parson, living quietly in an obscure corner of Yorkshire, had written such shockingly unconventional novels? Had they spun their tales out of their imagination or, as both Charlotte and her first biographer Mrs Gaskell encouraged their readers to believe, had they simply drawn inspiration from the locality where they lived? The “rough, strong utterance, the harshly manifested passions, the unbridled aversions” (from Charlotte’s preface to Wuthering Heights) that so offended contemporary reviewers of Brontë novels could thus be explained away as a faithful depiction of the ill-educated inhabitants of the wild moors around Haworth. 

The idea that every character and place in the sisters’ novels has a real-life original that can be tracked down and identified is an appealing one that has gained in popularity over the years and led to a surge in tourism to what its promoters now call Brontë Country. Take the most popular walk across the moors from Haworth to the ruined farmhouse Top Withens, for instance, and you’ll be told that you’re seeing the ‘real’ Wuthering Heights and that Ponden Hall, in the valley below, is the original of Thrushcross Grange. 

Yet even the most casual read of Wuthering Heights makes it clear that neither building bears any resemblance to those described in Emily’s book. You’ll also find yourself directed to the Brontë waterfall, the Brontë bridge and even the Brontë chair (a rock, in case you’re wondering), none of which have more relevance to the sisters than any other part of the moorland around their home.

Landscape of imagination

There are two problems with this reductive approach to visiting Brontë Country. The first is that it denies the Brontës the power of creative imagination. Like all writers, they drew on their observations to create their fiction, but, as Charlotte herself stated: “We only suffer reality to suggest – never to dictate.” Secondly, so many spurious associations detract from the genuine ones. Ponden Hall may not be Thrushcross Grange, but it was the home of the Heatons, whom the Brontës knew and visited. 

To follow in the footsteps of the Brontës then you should begin in Thornton, on the outskirts of Bradford, where Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne were born in the parsonage on Market Street. The day before Charlotte’s fourth birthday in 1820, when Anne was just three months old, two carts carried the family and all their possessions six miles over the hills to Haworth, on the edge of the moors where West Yorkshire merges into Lancashire. Pausing, as they must have done, on the brow of the hill facing Haworth, you can see the Reverend Patrick Brontë’s extensive new parish spread out before you, from far Oxenhope to Oakworth and across the moors to Stanbury. Much of the wilderness quality of the Brontës’ beloved moorland has been lost to development, eroded by reservoirs and dominated on every side by wind turbines: Haworth too has grown exponentially, though the distinctive line of Main Street is visible, as is the tower of the post-Brontë church at the peak of the hill. 

Even in 1820, however, Haworth was far from being the remote rural village of Brontë legend. It was already a small but busy textile manufacturing township. You can still see some of the cottages, each occupied by several families who lived and worked in cramped conditions as wool-combers and hand-loom weavers. This cottage industry would soon give way to mass employment in the new mills in the valley bottom. Unhealthy working conditions, combined with inadequate sanitary facilities and a tainted water supply (the springs supplying the village wells ran through the churchyard), meant that 41.6% of Haworth children died before their sixth birthday. 

The Brontës were fortunate in that their new home stood in a comparatively healthy position above the churchyard on the edge of the moors. Nevertheless, within five years of moving to Haworth they lost their mother Maria to cancer and their older sisters Maria and Elizabeth, aged 11 and 10, to tuberculosis contracted at the Clergy Daughters’ School. 

The four precociously clever remaining siblings would be taught at home by their father, enjoying an unconventional and wide-ranging education that encouraged their imaginative engagement with politics and history and allowed them unrestricted access to works generally considered unsuitable for children of their age and class (Lord Byron was a particular favourite). Although they were on friendly social terms with some of their neighbours, including Patrick’s fellow clergymen and local mill-owners and gentry, nothing Haworth had to offer could match the intensity, energy or excitement of the imaginary worlds of Glasstown, Angria and Gondal that the young Brontës created together in the unlikely setting of their father’s parsonage. Writing in a script so minute it can barely be read with the naked eye, the children filled page after page with tales of love, betrayal, adultery, drunkenness, skulduggery, violence and murder, all alien to their own experience, but preparing the ground for the future novelists to invent such reprobates as Rochester, Heathcliff and Huntingdon. 

The childhood obsession with these fantasy worlds would last into adulthood, surviving the break-up of their close-knit writing partnerships as they each left home to earn a living, and providing the sisters with what Charlotte called their “apprenticeship in writing”. In their published novels, Charlotte and Anne (though not Emily) drew on their own experiences, particularly the frustrating years they spent in undervalued employment as governesses in private houses across West and North Yorkshire and, in Charlotte’s case, the life-changing period she spent at a school in Brussels. 

But Gondal, Angria and indeed most of the Brontë novels, were a product of their setting: they all have characters who speak in Yorkshire dialect, live in Yorkshire houses and follow Yorkshire occupations. Above all else, however, the moors on the doorstep of the parsonage, which had been the Brontës’ playground and inspiration since childhood, were an integral part not only of their lives but also of their fiction. 

Provincial appeal

It was the distinctive provincial quality of the sisters’ novels, so alien but fascinating to a metropolitan reading public, which brought those first visitors to Haworth in 1850 and continues to draw so many today. There is no doubt that the Brontës’ writings are imbued with the spirit of the moors around Haworth. “My sister Emily had a particular love for them,” Charlotte wrote in 1850, “and there is not a knoll of heather, not a branch of fern, not a young bilberry leaf not a fluttering lark or linnet but reminds me of her. The distant prospects were Anne’s delight, and when I look round, she is in the blue tints, the pale mists, the waves and shadows of the horizon. In the hill-country silence their poetry comes by lines and stanzas into my mind.”

So what should you do when you visit Brontë Country? Much has changed beyond recognition, commercialism is rampant and it’s difficult today to find solitude, even on the moors. Don’t let all this put you off. The spirit of the Brontës is still alive and well if you know where to look for it. 

The family’s home in Haworth, now the Brontë Parsonage Museum, is an evocative place: you can imagine the sisters scribbling away around the dining room table and Emily studying German while baking bread in the kitchen. Seeing the tiny books in which the young Brontës forged their art, you really appreciate their compulsion to write. 

Then don your walking boots and take to the moors. Stick to the footpaths as this is a surprisingly fragile landscape of rare blanket bog and seek the hidden dells in the heart of the moor. Or take the harder, but less popular, track up to Ponden Kirk, where you can see the whole panorama of Brontë Country. In these places you can listen to the urgent spiralling song of skylarks, drink in the intoxicating honey-scent of blooming heather and lose yourself reading the Brontës’ writings in the midst of the brooding landscape that inspired and permeates their work.  

Meet the sisters

Charlotte (1816-1855), author of Jane Eyre, Shirley, Villette and The Professor, was, like her own Jane Eyre, plain and little. Her reticence often left her tongue-tied in public and it was only at home, and in her writing, that she could give voice to the fire within. She married her father’s curate Arthur Bell Nicholls in 1854 and died the following year in the very early stages of pregnancy. 

Emily (1818-1848), author of Wuthering Heights, was stubborn, introverted and headstrong. She guarded her privacy fiercely and published only when anonymity was guaranteed. She died of tuberculosis, aged 30, in 1848. 

The youngest, Anne (1820-1849), author of Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, was cripplingly shy, but motivated in her work by quiet determination and a sense of duty. She died of tuberculosis, aged 29, at Scarborough and is buried there.

Great reads

Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë’s home plays a cameo role as Moor House, the haven to which Jane Eyre flees after parting from Rochester. Her descriptions of the house, its inhabitants and its moorland setting draw heavily on Haworth.

Wuthering Heights The many moods of the bleak, wild moors round Haworth are the perfect backdrop for Emily Brontë’s tale of thwarted passion as the foundling Heathcliff, deprived of his soulmate Cathy, wreaks his vengeance. 

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall Anne Brontë’s Wildfell Hall is an isolated Tudor house, high on the moors. It’s also close to the sea – Anne may have had  Scarborough in mind, too.

Juliet-Barker-Photo-by-Helen-Burrow-Jan-2011-d2a72db
Juliet Barker is a medieval historian and an authority on the Brontë family.

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Books include her biography The Brontës (Abacus) andits newly republished companion volume The Brontës: A Life in Letters (Little Brown)