I recently spent three glorious weeks in Europe, thanks largely to my alter ego Corporate Serje, who had work commitments in Stockholm and London. When I was unshackled from my suit I made my way via taxi, train and bus to Haworth, a village in Yorkshire located about an hour from Leeds. In many ways Haworth is a typical English village: quaint and picturesque with a preposterous number of pubs. But Haworth has a unique claim to fame that gives it a prosperity notably absent from its near neighbour Keighley. It is the location of the Brontë parsonage, where Emily, Anne and Charlotte wrote their novels, and it shamelessly trades on its association with the world’s most famous literary family. Every second shop or café on the steep ascent to the parsonage hawks a Brontë connection, some of it in questionable taste. (A plaque outside one shop announces it to be the location where Branwell Brontë bought the opium that contributed in no small measure to his death).
But the parsonage itself has a power that belies the sometimes crass commercialism of Brontëmania. The first thing that strikes you about the parsonage is how small it is. The ‘children’s study’ in which the fictive worlds of Angria and Gondal, the young writers’ precursors to the later novels, were created is no larger than a walk-in-robe. The dining room with the table around which Charlotte, Emily and Anne would walk whilst discussing their writing is so tiny as to be claustrophobic. The portable writing desks on which they worked and in which they stored their manuscripts are impossibly prosaic and compact.
As you walk through the parsonage, elbows tight to your sides, the hothouse energy of the Brontës’ work begins to make perfect sense. Those quicksilver intellects double-bound in their restrictive clothing and cramped quarters must have sought release in writing. I found myself wondering if the physical freedom accorded to Branwell on account of his being a man had, in the end, compromised his gifts. At liberty to frequent the Black Bull pub and various other haunts, Branwell’s energies were diffused where his sisters’ were contained and targeted.
Beyond the parsonage is Haworth moor, a landscape immortalised by Emily in Wuthering Heights. The moorland is undeveloped, retaining the wildness and harsh beauty that spoke so eloquently to Emily. Facing the green fields scored by low stone walls, you can feel the centuries at your back. I first stood in those fields when I was nineteen, my desire to be a writer still unspoken. Twenty years later, with three manuscripts behind me and my toddling daughter at my side I stood there again and gave silent thanks.
The Brontës have been a constant presence in my life since I first picked up Wuthering Heights at fifteen. Their novels provided sustenance during an intellectually isolated adolescence. Later, when I began to tackle the mysteries and frustrations of structuring novels, their technical abilities inspired and awed me. When I have been tempted to shuck Boho Serje from my psyche on account of writing’s all being just too hard their example has constantly shown what is possible. There is the image of Emily kneading bread in the kitchen with a book propped up before her, learning German. Of Charlotte staring down her broken heart, fading eyesight and frustrated ambitions to create Jane Eyre. And Anne, in many ways the most worldly and radical Brontë, composting what she saw as a lowly paid and overworked governess into The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
A week after visiting Haworth an indulgent relative drove me to Scarborough so I could visit Anne Brontë’s grave. Anne is the only Brontë not to be buried in the church in Haworth. She passed away in Scarborough and Charlotte, reluctant to put her father through another funeral after the deaths of Branwell and Emily, buried her there. Anne rests in the graveyard of St Mary’s church atop a cliff overlooking the water.
The day we visited was an impossibly fine autumn day, one of the few fine days England had enjoyed all year, so there was a festival atmosphere in the seaside town. Despite the conviviality in the air, the grave brought a lump to my throat. Someone had left fresh flowers and a card addressed simply ‘To Anne’. I don’t know who left these offerings but I understand the feelings that compelled them. The literary pilgrimage acknowledges debt and gives thanks for words that continue to sustain and inspire.
S.A. Jones is a Killings columnist, and the author of the novel Red Dress Walking and of numerous essays.