Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:52 am
Who was the third Brontë sister? It’s a good question for quiz night down at the Olde Rupturede Ducke. There was Charlotte and Emily, of course – the authors of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights respectively. But who wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall? Tracy Brontë, perhaps? Or Chelsea? No – if you’re a literary ignoramus like what I am, let me put you out of your misery; it was Anne – who also wrote the lesser-known novel, Agnes Grey. My reader, an erudite soul, of course not only knew the answer but was also inwardly screaming that there were five Brontë sisters – plus a brother – who all had tragically short lives. And probably the best place to start to get a sense of them is in the West Yorkshire town of Haworth, where they lived – and mostly died.
Haworth is one of those preserved fragments of the past nudging alongside what is, in parts, a bit of a post-industrial mess. It does make you wonder, not for the first time, about government spending priorities over recent decades. Haworth village itself is a sanitised late Georgian-Victorian kind of place, with a picturesque steep, cobbled, main street – a northern version of Shaftesbury’s Gold Hill. It has some alluring little shops, with a touch of kitsch here and there, and plenty of options for coffee and a bun; or maybe something a little stronger. My aforementioned reader knows that somewhere selling decent coffee and buns is a welcome ingredient when having a Good Day Out; and that a decent pint of ale when staying overnight is pretty much essential. So Haworth ticks a lot of boxes and is fun to briefly meander around. Contrary to the impression you get from the hype, however, it wasn’t created especially for the Brontës in expectation of becoming a destination for the literary tourist. Haworth’s growth was due mainly to the textile industry and the many hundreds that worked in it. By the early 19th century, when the Brontës lived there, it is estimated that it had some 1200 working handlooms – to be replaced by factories soon after. Now, it boasts its credentials as the World’s First Fair Trade Village (whatever that means) and a Mecca for Brontë pilgrims, a village virtually defined by that one association. Various events are held there through the year, though the intriguingly named ‘Scroggling the Holly’, which used to take place just before Christmas and featured Victorian costumes, Morris dancing and, naturally, Santa Claus, is sadly no more. Amongst the emporia you will find a traditional sweet shop, Mrs Beightons’, selling lots of sticky filling-removers from glass jars. Then there’s the Cabinet of Curiosities, once the apothecary which still has wonderful original shop fittings in it. When I visited Haworth for the first time, it used to flog all manner of fascinating stuff, like carbolic soap, patent rat-dissolving fluid and sadistic looking scrubbing brushes; now it seems to specialise in delightfully fragrant bath preparations, many cunningly disguised as tasty-looking cupcakes etc, as well as somewhat unusual, and sometimes a little macabre, ornaments and knick-knacks.
Turn right out of the Apothecary and you’ll see the Old White Lion Hotel, one of several tempting hostelries, where I once had a breakfast carelessly described on the menu as “Heart Attack on a Plate.” Opposite the Apothecary is the church of St Michael and All Angels, which has a stunning west window and several other notable features – including the Brontë burial chamber. Next to the church is the school, where Charlotte taught, and which is sometimes open; it hadn’t changed much, last time I saw it. The church is relatively new, the previous one being pulled down in 1879 having been judged structurally unsafe and insanitary because water from the adjacent graveyard seeped in. The graveyard, sloping up toward the moors, has a lot to answer for and has to be seen to be believed. It holds an estimated 42,000 graves, their grim slabs and monuments crowding in on each other as if huddling together for security in the after-life. Rooks caw incessantly from the tall trees whose roots must surely disturb the dead. Walking through is like being thrust into the set of an old Hammer Horror movie – you half expect to see Vincent Price or Peter Cushing to come looming out of the mist in cape and top hat.
Then, just behind the church is the Parsonage, where the Brontës lived. This should be an elegant, Georgian, house; and, in some ways, it is. But there’s an omnipresent sense of darkness and death about the place, not only because of the tragically short lives of the Brontë siblings who lived there, but also because of the dominance of the neighbouring cemetery. It gets worse when you learn that it was the shocking living conditions of 19th century Haworth that resulted in the graveyard being so packed. An investigation in 1850 by engineer Benjamin Hershel Babbage – at the instigation of the Brontës’ father, Patrick – revealed a real-life horror story. Haworth’s’ residents lived in overcrowded, poorly ventilated, housing with wholly inadequate toilets and water supplies. The lack of sewers resulted in human and other waste, including offal from the slaughterhouse, being retained for months; excrement ran down the street. In fact, appallingly, the water supply was contaminated with decomposing matter leaching in from the graveyard. The average life expectancy in the Haworth that the Brontës knew was a mere 25.8 years; 41.6% of infants died before they reached the age of six.
It is less obviously morbid Inside the Parsonage, now a museum run by the Brontë Society, which, I was astonished to discover, was founded as long ago as 1893. It also introduced me to a hideously ugly term, ‘Brontëana’, which I suppose demonstrates the flexibility of the English language as much as it does the near-fanaticism of some Brontë worshippers. Nevertheless, the Parsonage is extremely well-presented (though I can’t show you that, because they don’t allow interior photography), and it is absolutely fascinating. Even an old cynic like me was impressed to stand in the room where great works were written. The story of the Brontës is a contrasting one of achievement and heartbreak. Patrick, father of Charlotte, Emily and Anne etc, became perpetual curate (priest in charge) to Haworth in 1820 and the Parsonage was the Brontë family home until Patrick’s death in 1861, aged 84. Despite very modest origins in Emdale, County Down, Patrick became a Cambridge scholar at St John’s College, where he studied theology, and changed his name from Brunty to the more affected and pretentious Brontë along the way. He was by all accounts an accomplished writer himself, as well as a dedicated curate who worked hard for his parishioners – as we have seen. But he outlived his wife, Maria, who died aged 38, probably from cancer, the year after the move to Haworth, as well as all six of his children. The oldest two, Maria and Elizabeth, died aged 10 and 11 in 1825, seemingly of tuberculosis contracted whilst attending Cowan Bridge School for clergymen’s daughters, 40-odd miles away in Lancashire. Charlotte (b 1816) and Emily (b 1818) were both withdrawn from the school, which appears to have been a horrendously cruel place; Charlotte drew on her experiences there to create Lowood School in Jane Eyre. Anne, born in 1820, never attended. Their brother Patrick, known by his second name, Branwell, and born in 1817, was an aspiring painter, but also an alcoholic and drug addict who died in Haworth aged 31 in 1848. He bought his laudanum (opium) in the same apothecary that will now sell you luxury bath bombs, and drank himself silly at the Black Bull (not my personal choice of beers, but where would we be if everyone had good taste?). Bad Branwell was followed to his grave a few months later by Emily, in her 30th year, and in 1849 by Anne who was just 29. The sofa on which Emily is said to have died, maintaining to the end that she wasn’t really ill, is in the Parsonage – though she probably passed away in bed. Anne, the Brontë sister people often forget, expired just 8 months after her brother and a mere 5 months after Emily. Anne is buried in St Mary’s churchyard, Scarborough, the only one of her immediate family not to be interred in the Brontë vault at Haworth. Charlotte married Arthur Bell Nicholls in 1854, but she too died the following year, aged 39. Tuberculosis (consumption) was instrumental in the deaths of all six Brontë siblings – though drink and drugs played their part in Branwell’s demise and some believe that Charlotte’s death was caused by acute dehydration resulting from excessive morning sickness; her unborn child died with her.
What strikes me most about these talented people is how much they achieved in the pitifully short time they had. Charlotte, Emily and Anne were prolific writers from an early age, and Branwell certainly churned out the pictures. Granted, they did not suffer exactly the same stresses experienced by the working classes around them, but they were by no means wealthy enough to enjoy a life of leisure and certainly shared the same general health risks. By heck, though, did they cram a lot in; it is humbling.
Given their limited lifespan, there seems to be a surprisingly large number of places associated with the Brontës for the true pilgrim to visit. For example, there’s Norton Conyers House near Ripon, said to be the inspiration for Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre. Six or seven miles to the south east of Haworth, near Bradford, is the village of Thornton, where Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell were born. In fact, the family has its very own long-distance footpath, the 42 mile (67 kilometre) Brontë Way between Gawthorpe Hall in Lancashire and Oakwell Hall in West Yorkshire. Really keen fans stand outside the house where Maria Branwell lived, before she became Mrs Brontë, 400-odd miles away in Penzance, For visitors to Haworth, though, there’s the lure of the rugged moorland on the doorstep, said to have been favourite walking country for the Brontës, as well as providing them with inspiration for their work. Most famously, you can pace across the rugged hills (or dance, like Kate Bush) to Top Withens, the farmhouse – now completely ruined – alleged to have been the model for Wuthering Heights itself, the Earnshaw home (except it probably wasn’t). Further afield is Ponden Kirk (Penistone Crags in Wuthering Heights) with Ponden Hall (Thruscross Grange) on the way.
You can of course start these walks from different places. I set off from Haworth church with Daughter of Britain and her boyfriend one bleak January afternoon, getting as far as the so-called Brontë waterfall, chair and bridge before giving up in bad light. Near the waterfall is a plaque, on which are the words:
are Thy works!
In wisdom hast
Thou made them all:
the earth is full
of Thy riches.
Father Almighty, wonderful Lord
Wondrous Creator be ever adored
Wonders of nature
sing praises to You,
Wonder of wonders –
I may praise too!”
– which is nice, if somewhat over the top, particularly as there’s apparently a similar plaque at the Grand Canyon The waterfall, chair and bridge are all supposed to have been Brontë family favourites, but – and I don’t wish to appear ungrateful – none of them is particularly remarkable. Alas, neither the stick that Charlotte swished through the air and playfully beat Arthur with, nor the stone she stubbed her toe on, could be found…if they had, you can be sure they’d be in the guidebook
The distance to Top Withens from Haworth is actually not great – 3 to 4 miles, depending which route you take, but the terrain and weather can make progress slow. The walk does take you past one of the alleged tangible outcomes of the 1850 Babbage Report, Lower Laithe Reservoir, built to provide a better water supply to Haworth and its neighbours. If so, it was shameful that it wasn’t completed until 75 years later, in 1925 – though I also read elsewhere that Haworth did get a clean water supply in 1856.
Time and energy may be saved getting to Top Withens by starting from the village of Stanbury. Mrs Britain and I did this on a breezy autumn day of mixed skies; at times it was so windy that it was hard to keep the camera steady. The signposts from Stanbury claimed a distance of just 1½ miles to our destination, though successive signs announced the same figure, which was rather disconcerting; maybe the Sign Master bought a job lot. Incidentally, you may notice that some signs directing you to Brontë locations in the area are in Japanese (as well as English), due to the girls’ immense popularity with Japanese tourists. I hope our visitors are advised that they need to be reasonably fit to do these walks, and to dress appropriately; in poor weather, I imagine it can be pretty grim on those moors.
Originally known as “Top of the Withens”, Top Withens (or Withins) is thought to date from the second half of the 16th century. A William Bentley divided his estate between his three sons in 1591, probably creating three farms – top, middle and lower Withens. The Bentleys would have derived their income from weaving as well as dairy and sheep farming. It must have been an incredibly tough existence; even now, it would be a challenge. So – this is Brontë Country. Whilst the views are undeniably dramatic and impressive, and it was probably healthier than 19th century Haworth, it struck me as a desperately isolated, unlovely, place, with little to recommend it. Indeed, it crossed my mind to wonder why on earth the Bentleys and their successors didn’t move somewhere nicer – like the Isle of Wight. I’m guessing Top Withens eventually became unviable; it was last inhabited in the 1920s, has been disused since the 1930s and is now completely ruined. In fact, ruined structures pepper the landscape. Moreover, those in the know say that the building Emily Brontë described in Wuthering Heights bore no resemblance to Top Withens whatsoever; but, as a plaque placed on the wall by the Brontë Society says, “the situation may have been in her mind when she wrote of the moorland setting of the heights.” So there you go; but unless you’re a complete Brontë fruitcake, or Japanese with walking attire, you may conclude that a visit is probably not worth the effort anyway.
Further afield (because we can), the buildings of the Cowan Bridge School for clergymen’s daughters that killed the two older Brontë sisters are still there. They sit on the western edge of the small village of Cowan Bridge next to the old Kendal-Leeds turnpike, now the busy A65, and there’s a small plaque to mark the association. The old bridge is still there over the bubbling Leck Beck and there are some interesting looking, probably 18th century, farm buildings on its east bank. These days, the school buildings are private dwellings known as Brontë Cottages, maybe a little tired round the edges except for No 2, Brontë School House, which has been lovingly restored as a holiday cottage. The school moved to nearby Casterton in 1833 and survived in a new form as part of Casterton School until that was absorbed by Sedbergh School in 2013. Brontë fans and trivia lovers, like me, will tell you that the girls used to walk 3½ miles across the fields to the beautiful church of St John the Baptist at Tunstall.
Finally, in our brief exploration of the Brontës, we journey far east, to the seaside town of Scarborough, and Anne’s grave in St Mary’s churchyard. She had grown to love Scarborough whilst working as a governess and, when she fell ill, hoped the sea air would revive her. She journeyed the 70 miles from Haworth with Charlotte and a friend, Ellen, stopping en route in York, and arriving on Saturday 25 May 1849. By this time, she was very frail and asked Charlotte whether it would be better if she returned to die at home. The doctor’s advice on Sunday was that the end was very near; and the following day she was gone. Charlotte made the decision to bury her in the town and the funeral apparently took place two days later. It seems that only Charlotte, an old school teacher who happened to be in town and, presumably, friend Ellen, attended. Charlotte commissioned a headstone, but returning 3 years afterwards found a number of errors on it. The errors, whatever they were, were seemingly corrected – but the inscription still has Anne’s age wrong.
The original headstone reads
Here Lie the remains of Anne Brontë
The text contains one error
So there she is, overlooking the colourful houses, busy harbour and slot machines of Scarborough. The house she died in was on the site now occupied by the Grand Hotel – which has itself also seen better days.
Some mysteries… there must be a reasonable explanation as to why Charlotte decided that her sister should lay at rest remote from everyone else in the family, and then be interred so swiftly without even allowing time for her father to attend the funeral. Perhaps it was a matter of expense. Shortage of cash may also explain why Charlotte did not discover that the text on her sister’s tombstone was incorrect for 3 years. Finally, it appears that Charlotte prevented further publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – possibly because she considered it unsuitable; or was she jealous? The novel was published in 1848 under the pseudonym ‘Acton Bell’ (was this inspired by Arthur Bell Nicholls, the man Charlotte married?) and quickly sold out. But it was widely considered to be revolutionary in its treatment of issues such as alcoholism, domestic violence, sex and vice in general: sounds like a ‘must read’ to me. And a good reason to remember the third Brontë sister at the next quiz night.
Haworth is just off the A6033, about 4 miles south of Keighley (pronounced ‘Keithgley’, not as in ‘Minogue’). And spot the Keighley and Worth Valley (steam) railway while you’re there. Parking can be a pain: I always find myself in a grotty, badly maintained, car park above the church, with inadequate ticket machines; maybe some of the money brought in by the thousands of visitors Haworth receives each year could be used to improve village facilities.
There are several links in this article, to various websites of interest. For information about the Brontës, probably the best place to start is the Brontë Society.