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Bronte sisters part and parcel of the magic of Haworth

bookHaworth, West Riding of Yorkshire, England. 

It’s 4:30 in the morning, Sunday June 18, and I stood a few moments ago on the cobbled street outside the Old White Line Inn. I slept poorly; the gentleman in Room 12 across the hall wakened me with ursine snoring, and “nature’s soft nurse” left the room. Grabbing my computer bag, I headed to the hotel lobby, where only the ticking of the clock in the hall interrupts the stillness.

Workmen laid the cobbles on the street I just mentioned in 1755. It is an ancient thoroughfare, and up and down this hill have passed Norman knights, Anglo-Saxon warriors, Viking raiders, Celtic traders, Roman legionaries, and heaven knows who else. Not another human soul is on this street so early this damp morning, and as I linger here, drumming up the ghosts of a Roman soldier or a medieval monk takes little imagination. As a native told me yesterday, Haworth is magical, and after two days here, I am inclined to agree with him.

Haworth (pronounced Ha-worth) sits atop a steep hill here in the Moors. The buildings are made of millstone grit, a workable stone used for construction in nearly all the buildings in the surrounding valleys and hills. The locals even made their rooftops from this stone, with the roof tiles about an inch thick. 

Wherever you go in Haworth, you either climb or descend; to make the haul from the railway station a mile away left me in a sweat. By day, the streets of Haworth are lively with tourists, but by six in the evening they belong to the locals, who jam the pubs up and down the street with thumping karaoke music, louder catcalls and oaths, and raucous laughter. Just down the street on this wet morning roosters have begun crowing, and soon the sheep will begin bleating and rummaging about for breakfast.

In the summer, steam trains run hourly from Keighly (pronounced Keithlee) to Haworth. One of these trains was used in the film “The Railway Children.” It was a fine sight to sit in the window of my room of the hotel, hear the shriek of the whistle, and watch the clouds of steam rise through the treetops beyond. 

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The tourists come to Haworth both to see the town and to visit Bronte country. For it was to Haworth that the Rev. Patrick Bronte, an Anglican priest, brought his wife and six children 1820. In this town, ridden by diseases like cholera and consumption, they lived and died. All but one of the children is buried inside the parish church along with their parents. And here, of course, three women, no more than girls really, produced some of the great novels and poetry of English literature.

Yesterday Mr. Johnnie Briggs of Bronte Walks fame gave several of us a walking tour of the town and the Bronte legacy. A congenial man with the beef-red face common among older males of the town, and one of the best guides I have ever encountered, Mr. Briggs fired questions at us, asking how many children we had, whether we wrote letters, what did we think of the portrait of the young Patrick Bronte (“Dashing!” several of the women proclaimed). His questions always had a purpose. In wishing to know, for instance, when any of us had last written a letter, and then specifically a love letter, he lamented the lack of letter writing in our electronic age and then commenced to explain the importance of the Bronte’s letters. 

During the tour we visited the cemetery, the school built by Patrick Bronte beside the church, the edge of the moor behind the parsonage where Emily, Charlotte, and their siblings used to play, and a bit of the town. The Bronte legacy is deeply embedded in the town’s history. The bookshop nearest the church once served as post office for the town, and Mr. Briggs explained that the desk in that shop was the very one from which the manuscripts of the Bronte sisters novels were delivered into the world. “Rub your hand on that desk, and you’re touching history,” he said. (After the tour, I found the shop, chatted with the owner, and then rubbed the desk, laughing at myself but feeling pleased as well).

I learned too much from Mr. Briggs to deposit all that information in this piece. One more example must suffice. In the cemetery, half of the gravestones, the ones closest to the church, were embedded in the ground with their edges nearly touching one another, while the other markers were all upright. Beneath the large markers lying on the ground deep pits were dug, and as family members died, their casket would be placed atop those below and the slab replaced. What the folk of that time did not understand is that the slabs kept oxygen from the earth, and the slowly rotting flesh was close to the water supply. When the government issued reports pointing to this arrangement as a source of disease and death, Patrick Bronte insisted on upright tombstones, and he planted trees in the cemetery to speed the process of decomposition.

The Bronte children lost their mother shortly after moving to Haworth. Patrick Bronte — or Pat, as Mr. Briggs called him — was devastated and never remarried. In their childhood in this parsonage on the Moors, the Brontes practiced the talents that led to the gifts they gave to the world. They created imaginary kingdoms, wrote letters and plays, and had the run of the Moors that figure so prominently in Wuthering Heights. As adults, the Bronte girls served as governesses and teachers without much success. It was at the peak of their frustration with their lives — their brother was an alcoholic and laudlum addict, and their father was losing his sight (later regained through a risky operation) — that Charlotte, Anne, and Emily decided to write their novels and submit them under male pseudonyms. 

The rest is literary history.

A final note: For several years now, I have taught Wuthering Heights to AP English Literature. Each time I go back over this book, each time we discuss it in class, I am astounded that such a work could come out of the heart and mind of one so young.

Last week: Stratford-on-Avon: in search of ‘The Bard’ 

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