Yesterday, I went to Haworth and visited the Brontë parsonage. Before the visit, I started reading Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights; however, I have not had the chance to finish it. From what I’ve read, the first volume and about four chapters of the second, I thoroughly enjoy it, especially the academic discussions about Heathcliff’s ancestry. I plan to do a blog post post on this at some point. Today, I just want to take a moment and write about my experience at Haworth and what I learned.
Even though I have a PhD in literature, I had never read any work by any of the Brontë sisters until recently. Honestly, I never had any interest in reading them, and they never appeared on on any of the syllabi in my classes. Now, though, I wish I had started reading their work earlier. The trip to Haworth, of course, has spurred on this interest, especially after hearing the family’s story.
Patrick Brönte took over as the parson at Haworth in the early 1800s. Patrick and his wife Maria Branwell had six children in all–Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne. Maria died shortly after the birth of the youngest, Anne. So, Patrick was a widower, a poor clergyman, with six children under the age of seven. This was hard. He proposed to three women, hoping to find someone to help with the children, but they all turned him down.
Eventually, Maria’s sister, Elizabeth Branwell, agreed to come and help with the kids. Patrick wanted his children to receive a good education, so he sent them to school. However, the girl’s school that the five sisters went to was pretty bad, to say the least. The eldest two sisters (Maria and Elizabeth) contracted tuberculosis at the school and died. Patrick took them out of the school after a short time, a year I think, and chose to have them educated at home. He took on the responsibilities of teaching them countless subjects from Latin and Greek to painting and music.
The remaining sisters, along with Branwell, spent their time at the parsonage, studying, walking along the moors, and creating imaginary lands which they wrote about from a very early age. As they did this, they were surrounded by death and the onslaught of the industrial revolution. I believe, by 1850, right before Charlotte died, there were eleven mills in the area. So, from the parsonage, Charlotte would see the smoke rising.
Even before the rise of the mills, the Brontës encountered death everywhere, every hour of everyday. Beside the church where Patrick served, there were multiple graves from people who had died of diseases such as typhoid, dysentery, and tuberculosis. They were buried, some with table top graves (to prevent grave robbers) and others normally. Due to the table top graves, and the lack of air being able to get into many of the coffins, the bodies did not decompose. As such, when the waters from the moors ran down into Haworth, the diseases that the non-decomposing bodies carried got caught up in the water and taken down into the well water, thus exacerbating the problem.
On top of all of this, the area where the graves were did not have any trees to soak up the oxygen or water where the diseases lived, and the town did not have a sewage system. The result of this was that over 45,000 people died of these diseases. About 42% of children didn’t live past six, and the average life expectancy was 25. Anne died at 29, Emily at 30, Branwell at 31, and Charlotte at 39. Patrick outlived them all, dying at 84. Patrick sought to solve Haworth’s problem and worked to get a sewage system installed and planted trees around the area.
I write all of this to say that the Brontës did not have an idyllic, romantic, English countryside existence. They were poor. They were surrounded by death, not just in their own family. They grew up without their mother. Even with all of these things, the sisters, and Branwell, produced copious amounts of material, apart from their published works. They would constantly write, paint, hunt, and do other activities.
I was struck by seeing Branwell’s work and Charlotte’s paintings. They truly were well-rounded artistic individuals, and this confluence of multiple artistic strains amongst such dire surroundings, intrigues me and makes me want to dive headfirst into more of their work. Below, you will see pictures of some of Charlotte’s works. I especially enjoy the “Woman in leopard fur.” It is the middle image. In the third image, you can see Charlotte’s paint box.
I want to conclude with an anecdote that the guides at the museum conveyed. Each of the Brontës, save Anne, died at the parsonage. On the bottom floor, in the dining room, Emily died. The couch that she died on is still there. (It is in the right of the picture.) She died of tuberculosis, and the story goes that she refused to see a doctor. She caught something at Branwell’s funeral, and it turned into TB. (Branwell, Emily, and Anne all died in the same year, basically.)
The day she died, she got up, got dressed, fed her animals (dogs, cats, a hawk), and did other chores. She did all of this even though she was sick. She laid down of the couch, which was by the fire, and combed her hair. Doing this, she passed on, dropping the comb into the fire. The museum has the comb, and it is on display. After hearing this story, and others about Emily, I see where the vitality and power of Wuthering Heights comes from. I see it in Heathcliff. I see it in the depictions of the landscape and the characters.
My trip would not be complete without a walk along the moors. I did not have a long time to do this, but I probably walked about a mile then back to Haworth. The area, with the wind, the birds singing, the sheep baaing, the cows lowing, and roosters crowing was perfectly amazing. I do not know how else to describe it. The pictures below provide merely a glimpse of what it was like.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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