ShowsBefore You GoBulletin BoardContactAboutSearch
Show and Features |
Culture Watch | Question of the Week | Letters of the Week |
Traveler's Aid | Library | Host's View

Literary Heaven

Do you ever think about tracing the footsteps of your favorite author...Hemingway's Cuba, Faulkner's's south, Thereau's Walden? It can be a real thrill to see the locations they've written about...and the places that molded the authors themselves. Judie Fein followed a girlhood dream by taking a journey to Haworth, England to explore the home and pay tribute to some old friends...the Brontë sisters.

Literary Heaven
At Home with the Brontës

By Judith Fein

Listen with RealAudio: The Bronte Sisters

Bronte's Church It's a gray, dismal, rainy day in northern England. What a perfect time to visit that bastion of gothic girlhood--where the Brontë sisters lived, wrote, repressed their emotions and most of them died. Haworth is the ideal location for romantics who have read and loved Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights or Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I am a Brontë nut, and, dreaming of the wild and passionate character of Heathcliff, I arrive in front of the old Brontë homestead. I am immediately swept back l50 years in time.

It's Sunday and in front of the stone church, where the Brontës' austere father, Reverend Patrick Brontë, presided, there is a local band accompanying a modern-day preacher. I can picture the three little girls standing here, enthralled. The parishioners look down at their well-worn song books, and they begin to sing.

The Parsonage Their voices waft over the graveyard that the girls walked through every day.

"I see around me tombstones grey
Stretching their shadows far away.
Beneath the turf my footsteps tread
Lie low and lone the silent dead....."

It's these tombstones that fueled the girls' imaginations, offering up character names and telling tales of infant mortality, typhoid and personal tragedy.

The Brontë home, otherwise known as The Parsonage, is open to tourists. Inside, everything has been preserved intact. There's the piano the girls played, the dining room table which Charlotte, Emily and Anne circled as they read and critiqued each othres' writing at night. I remember the impact the house had on Emily:

"There is a spot 'mid barren hills
Where winter's howls and driving rain,
But if the dreary tempest chills
There is a light that warms again.

The house is old, the trees are bare
And moonless bends the misty dome
But what on earth is half so dear--
So longed for as the hearth of home?"

I sigh at the sofa where Emily died, concealing her tuberculosis until hours before her demise. And there's the back kitchen, which Charlotte described nostalgically in a letter to Emily in l843:

"I should like...to be cutting up the hash, and you standing by, watching that I put enough flour, and not too much pepper, and, above all, that I save the best pieces of the leg of mutton for Tiger and Keeper, the first of which personages would be jumping about the dish and carving-knife, and the latter standing like a devouring flame on the kitchen floor. To complete the picture, Tabby blowing the fire, in order to boil the potatoes to a sort of vegetable glue!"

We visit Charlotte's room with her tiny, delicate dresses, mittens and boots. Perhaps the greatest thrill is looking at the astounding books the girls wrote as children. They are about an inch-and-a half tall, covered with thousands and thousands of words in handwriting so minuscule that the girls almost went blind from creating them.

Branwell's portrait
Drawing by Branwell.
(L-R) Charlotte, Branwell, Anne
As we go through the Parsonage, we learn about the "other" Brontë-- brother Branwell, an artist, poet and consummate sufferer, who, by the way, has lately garnered quite a fan club of his own. Branwell bucked convention and slipped into a dissolute life of alcohol and opium. We exit the house and visit his nearby watering hole.

The locals don't like to speak ill of the Brontës, but the pub manager does give us a hint of what went on back in those Victorian days.

The manager: "We're in the Black Bull pub, in Haworth, where Branwell spent some of his darkest hours. He'd often be among the last customers to go home in the wee hours....."

By now the Sunday service has ended, and we enter the dark, dank church. A group is gathered in sad silence near the main altar, and a plaque informs us that this is where Charlotte and Emily are buried, under the flagstone.

Because we have arrived on a Sunday, it's hard to find anyone to speak about the Brontës, but I did manage to get Robert Barnard, chairman of the Brontë society, on the phone. He has a theory about why there's still so much interest in the Brontës after l50 years.

The Brontë Sisters
Painting of (L to R) Anne, Charlotte and Emily by Branwell Brontë, c. 1834
At the National Portrait Gallery, London
Robert: "I think the novels touch a chord in people. They are Romantic, they are Gothic. As my mother-in-law said, every woman should have a Heathcliff in her life. She meant that a passion of that sort--an overmastering passion between two people-- is something everyone should experience. My mother-in-law would have worn Heathcliff down to a frazzle."

Judie: "What do people react to most when they come to Haworth? What gets the most emotional responses?"

Robert: "I think it is the Parsonage. I sometimes stand upstairs--I like to do it in the late afternoon, when the crowds thin out. I hear people coming out of one of the rooms saying it's incredible. It really is what they wanted from the house, what they've always imagined the house to be like."

The town of Haworth and the surrounding moors Although it is now a popular tourist destination, the town of Haworth still has the original shops, the cobblestone streets and the school building where Charlotte taught. On the outskirts of the city are bridges, castles and buildings that inspired the settings in many of the Brontë novels. But there's nothing quite like taking off your shoes and running through the moors that Emily loved so well.

Robert: "The moors turn purple around August or September time and then the moorland become a great blanket of purple--an astonishing sight. Emily's first mature poem was about this heather waving in the breeze."

English voice: "The moors seen at a distance, broken into cool dusky dells; but close by, great swells of long grass undulating in waves to the breeze; and woods and sounding water, and the whole world awake and wild with joy."

This is Judie Fein, in literary heaven in Haworth, for the Savvy Traveler.

For More Information

Brontë Country Tourism

Brontë Country

Want to take your own literary tour?

Bookadventures.com offers literary tours, including:

  • West Country Wonderlands: A Storytour of Children's Literature in England's Cornwall, Devon and Somerset (July 15-28, 1999).
  • Jane Austen: Pastimes & Pleasures (June 21-July 2, 1999).
  • Scene of the Crime: A Book Adventures Tour Investigating Mystery Writers of England (August 12-23, 1999).

The Literary Traveler is a quarterly newsletter where you can "explore the world of your literary imagination." A variety of literary tours throughout the United States are described.

InfoHub offers several packages, with literary tours throughout England.

American Public Media
American Public Media Home | Search | How to Listen
©2004 American Public Media |
Terms of Use | Privacy Policy