Like most suburban women of a certain age, I belong to a book club. Last month’s book, The Thirteenth Tale, relied heavily on the book Jane Eyre, both metaphorically and as a plot device. It’s been many years since I’ve read it, so I grabbed the free public domain copy for my Kindle. Then I started thinking–it’s also been years since I’ve read Wuthering Heights, and despite taking several literature courses and actually living in Yorkshire, I’ve never really given poor Anne Bronte the time of day. So when my husband suggested Haworth and the Bronte Parsonage Museum for our weekly hometown tourist outing, I was more than ready to delve in.
The town of Haworth is hilly and considerably more charming than your average English industrial town. I don’t know if that’s due to the Bronte sisters’ fame and resulting tourist draw, but I’m sure that can’t hurt. The parsonage where Patrick Bronte, formerly Brunty (he changed to the more euphonious Bronte, assumedly because Brunty sounds like something that happens to chickens), brought his large family to live is small but well-preserved. The tragic lives of the three Bronte sisters–Emily, Charlotte, and Anne–is generally known to anyone with the barest literature knowledge: each died young, leaving no children, after writing one major novel.
The truth is a little grimmer than that.
There were originally six Bronte children. Their mother died when Anne, the youngest, was an infant. The two eldest daughters died after their stint at a boarding school for children of the clergy. The only boy, Branwell, had a lackluster career as a portrait painter and died of his addiction to alcohol and narcotics. Emily and Anne died of tuberculosis, and it’s a toss-up as to whether tuberculosis, typhus, or dehydration from severe pregnancy morning sickness killed Charlotte. Patrick Bronte outlived his wife and all six children, none of whom were able to give him any grandchildren. Why recount all these grim deaths and shortened lives? Because during this era of Haworth’s history, theirs was a common story.
Walk slowly through the graveyard outside the parsonage, or you may miss the small, humble sign with black lettering: at one time, Haworth’s cemetery had to be closed because it was so choked with bodies. Scores of thousands died because of poor sanitation and contaminated drinking water. The mortality rate for children was almost fifty percent by the age of six. It’s a horrible and fascinating percentage to comprehend, even in a time where infant and maternal mortality was far higher than we know it today.
Given these surroundings and the generally spooky atmosphere of the moors, it is little wonder that these women wrote so extensively of dark emotions, untimely passings, abandonment and orphans. My favorite part of the Parsonage museum was a quote taken from a review of Wuthering Heights: “There is an old saying that those who eat toasted cheese at night will dream of Lucifer. The author of Wuthering Heights has evidently eaten toasted cheese.” I suspect the reviewer had never seen the graves of Haworth. If you’re a fan of Gothic-style writing in general and the Brontes specifically, Haworth and the Bronte Parsonage Museum are must-see landmarks. I know my next reading of Jane Eyre will be much richer for having this peek into Charlotte and her sisters’ lives.
Do you like visiting literary landmarks? Why or why not?