The Brontës
Wednesday, September 7, 2016 at 8:03AM
Mark Scarbrough in Anne Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë

As we start our five-month (!) tour of everything Brontë, I thought we might look at the lay of the land--and the women who lived on it.

As you probably know, the Brontës lived most of their lives in the parsonage at Haworth, up on the northwestern section of the Yorkshire moors. The name "Haworth" probably means something like "hawthorne enclosure"--and gives you some idea of the landscape in which it is set. However, there has long been the myth that the town was merely a remote village in a forbidding landscape. Juliet Barker in her gigantic, 1000-page, beautifully researched biography of the family has gone to some lengths to prove that Haworth was certainly no more remote than many other small towns in England and was in fact an agricultural center for the region, complete with many shops, local crafts, a fairly prosperous church, and even a dissenter congregation (a mix of Methodists and Baptists) at the other end of town. Although the family did have to walk to the rails, they were well served with easy connections even down to London. Here's a picture of the parsonage where the three writing sisters grew up:

Note the close proximity of the graveyard. The house has since had a wing addition to the far side and now houses the Brontë museum. The church where their father, Patrick Brontë, preached was damaged, torn down, and rebuilt in the late nineteenth century, although some parts of the original tower and foundational elements remain.

Here is a street of modern-day Haworth. Almost all of these structures were extant when the Brontë sisters were alive. You'll see it's a small but rather attractive farming town.

The so-called "Brontë myth," instigated by the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray during Charlotte's lifetime and in full swing even today, demands the story that the sisters lived in bleak isolation with little access to the real world (that is, London). Given that Haworth had shops and markets, given that it had fairly good rail connections (for the time), given that Charlotte eventually became the most famous woman in England (after the queen) and the toast of high-society parties across London, and given that both Charlotte and Emily got a fairly advanced education abroad in Brussels, the myth has to work hard to stay relevant. No, the sisters were not Oxford dons or urban intellectuals. But they were not quite the country bumpkins they are still made out to be today, even by the Haworth tourist industry.

That said, the moors did beckon, particularly for Emily, but for Charlotte as well. They were a place of great if austere beauty, particularly in the spring.

We tend to see the moors through the lens of WUTHERING HEIGHTS. And no doubt, they're a frosty, damp place. But we should also remember that Emily Brontë's poetry celebrated the moors for their wild aesthetics, their abundant flowers, and their endless skies. And yes, their snowy, soggy landscape in the winter.

 

As to the Brontë sisters themselves, there's only one fully verified image, painted by their wastrel of a brother, Branwell. He fancied himself an artist although alcohol and perhaps laudanum took their toll early on. He painted this portrait of the four of them, then he painted himself out and put a pillar or chimney in his place. The painting has since been restored so you can see a ghostly image of Branwell in the center. The sisters are, left to right, Anne, Emily, and Charlotte. As you may know, they first published under male pseudonyms. So perhaps we should say, left to right, we see Acton, Ellis, and Currer Bell.

Recently, a disputed photograph of the sisters has made the rounds. Found in France, it shows three women in almost operatic costume, typical of early nineteenth-century traveling clothes. Many biographers and scholars now accept the photograph as authentic. Some still do not, including some of the best scholars as well as some of the guardians of the lucrative Brontë myth/tourist industry. I'm not enough of a scholar to vouch for or against its authenticity. It purports to show, left to right, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne.

Finally, there is one portrait of Charlotte, sketched in 1850 by George Richmond after she became famous for JANE EYRE. She's about thirty-four here. All her siblings are dead. Branwell died of conditions related to alcoholism at 31 in 1848; Emily, of consumption at 30 a few months later; and Anne, of consumption at 29 about six months later. (Two older sisters died years before.) Although not a vain person by any means, Charlotte liked this portrait enough to hang it up in her home when she married her father's curate, George Nichols, in the last year of her life. I see the knowing gaze of a witty if prim survivor. (She, too, would pass early, in 1855 at 38, most likely from dehydration and malnutrition caused by extreme morning sickness or hyperemesis gravidarum.)

Article originally appeared on The Norfolk Library Book Group (http://norfolklibrarybookgroup.squarespace.com/).
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