In 2017 it will be 170 years since three Yorkshire sisters exploded onto the literary scene with their debut novels. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey are all classics, written under the same roof: the parsonage at Haworth, which is now the Bronte Parsonage Museum.
Anyone in search of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë will have this museum on their wish list. Over 7 million visitors have traipsed through the door, despite a dip in visitor numbers in 2015. This is why they keep coming.
Brontës in Haworth
The Brontë family lived in Haworth from 1820-1861, having moved from Thornton so Patrick Brontë, the head of the family, could take up his position as curate of Haworth, Stanbury and Oxenhope. There were six Brontë children, but their mother Maria, followed by the two eldest children, Maria and Elizabeth, were all dead by 1825.
The four remaining children are the ones we remember, soon to be featured in the BBC drama To Walk Invisible:
- Charlotte (1816-1855) – wrote Jane Eyre (1847), Shirley (1849), Villette (1853) and The Professor (published posthumously, 1857)
- Branwell (1817-1848) – an artist rather than a writer
- Emily (1818-1848) – wrote Wuthering Heights (1847)
- Anne (1820-1849) – wrote Agnes Grey (1847) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848)
They lived in the parsonage, next to the church of St. Michael and All Angels. Today, as the Brontë Parsonage Museum, it comes complete with a really cool shop, where you can get your Brontë books stamped or buy some tongue-in-cheek ‘Brontea’ to take home. Aside from the shop, and the prolific displays, the building is largely as it would have been in the 19th century.
Why are the Brontës so Popular?
For many of us, Brontë novels are synonymous with English lessons at school or university. Many teenagers identify with Heathcliff and Cathy’s anguish in Wuthering Heights (er, aside from the bit where Heathcliff digs up Cathy’s body), whilst others prefer Jane Eyre, with the kick-ass heroine who was plain and clever rather than pretty and simpering. The sisters’ books tend to be complicated, gritty and really engaging, which is why they’re still celebrated today.
I recommend The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a forward-thinking book that saw an abused wife leave her marriage and thrive on her own. This was unheard of in 1848, when men basically owned their wives, and domestic abuse was brushed under the carpet. It wasn’t until the 1870 Married Women’s Property Act was introduced that women could keep their own money in a marriage – before then, all their property and savings became their husband’s.
It was also unusual for women to be writers, or indeed to be so well-read. Most women only had basic education and were destined for hard lives, marriage and possibly death in childbirth. Whilst the Brontës all worked, they had the time and space to be creative too.
Nevertheless, the sisters famously published their books under male pseudonyms: Currer (Charlotte), Acton (Anne) and Ellis (Emily) Bell. Explaining the decision, Charlotte wrote, ‘we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice’.
Anne and Emily were also cheated out of money by their shared publisher; Charlotte received her sisters’ missing payments five years after Anne and Emily’s deaths.
The Brontë Parsonage Museum
The museum feels like a time capsule, as you can see everything in situ: the sofa where Emily reportedly died; Charlotte’s craft projects (including shoes she repaired with Emily’s hair); Patrick’s bed, where Branwell coughed his last. You can easily imagine the family living here.
Their servants’ lives are also mentioned, and their aunt, Elizabeth Branwell, who moved in to help care for the remaining children in 1821. She funded their travels to Brussels, and also the publication of their first book, Poems, in 1846.
Branwell’s portrait of the three sisters hangs on the staircase. If you look closely, you’ll see a smudgy background splodge where he originally painted himself in the scene.
Though Branwell was supported by the family, he battled his own demons – drugs and alcohol, plus an affair with his employer’s wife, the aptly named Mrs. Robinson – and he was never as successful as his sisters (think of him as the Rob Kardashian of the Brontës). It must have been hard living up to that kind of talent.
Supporting Modern Writers
The Parsonage Museum, run by the Brontë Society has its own writer-in-residence; in 2016, poet Grace McCleen’s work was displayed throughout the different rooms. It’s great to see modern writers supported by the museum, and to see their work inspired by this landscape.
Next year sees poet Simon Armitage join the Brontë Society and the Parsonage Museum as creative partner, to focus on the bicentenary of Branwell Brontë.
“Branwell’s early promise and swaggering enthusiasm was ultimately overshadowed by the talents of his siblings,” said Armitage, “but even before then he appears to have lost his boyish optimism and fighting spirit, and I’ve found it impossible not be saddened by his disillusionment and decline.”
Central Haworth is a slice of picture-postcard Britain: cobbled streets, narrow lanes, a pub, and a café selling fresh cakes. Sitting beside Haworth Moor and the Pennines, it attracts walkers as well as bookworms. You could also take the 2.75 mile walk to the Brontë waterfall, which the writers often visited over the years, or head to Top Withens, said to have inspired Wuthering Heights.
The Post Office is thought to be in the same spot where the Brontë sisters posted their manuscripts (there are a few local disputes about its precise location). The Rose & Co. Apothecary, which sold opium to Branwell, is still standing, and worth a look for its collection of old pharmacy jars and cabinets.
I visited on a Monday, when a lot of the boutiques and cafes were shut, but I could still get my fill of Brontë-themed gifts (and the soon-to-be-opened Brontë Burrito restaurant). If a long browse of the village isn’t essential to your trip, I’d definitely advise going on a Monday, as it’s so quiet in the museum.
St. Michael and All Angels Church is another obvious stopping point: it contains the family vault, and was where Patrick Brontë served the parish.
More Brontë Travel Facts
- Anne Brontë was buried at St. Mary’s Church, Scarborough. She’d already known she was dying of tuberculosis, and had come to Scarborough to take the air. Anne had hoped to open a school here and had featured the resort in both her novels.
- Emily and Charlotte lived in Brussels, first as students and then as teachers; they honed their French language skills in the Pensionnat Heger on the Rue d’Isabelle, where Emily eventually taught music and Charlotte taught English. You can see Brontë-era Brussels and its modern equivalent here.
- Mass gatherings of Kate Bush fans, all doing the Wuthering Heights dance, have been spotted around the world. The trend began in 2013, when a British theatre group called Shambush! attempted a world record for the most Kate Bush lookalikes performing the song in one place – firstly in Brighton’s Stanmer Park, to tie in with the Brighton Festival Fringe. On 16th July 2016, there were 17 similar gatherings across the world, from Dublin to Auckland, celebrating ‘the most Wuthering Heights day ever’.
The Brontë Parsonage Museum is on Church Street, Haworth, Keighley, West Yorkshire, BD22 8DR. It closes every year from 3rd-31st January to allow for conservation work, reopening for the season on 1st February. Visit the museum and shop between 10:00-17:00 from 1st November-31st March, and 10:00-17:30 from 1st April-31st October.
Tickets are £7.50 (adults), £6.50 (students/concessions), £3.75 (children; under-5s go free) or £18.00 for families (maximum two adults and four children). Book private VIP tours or group visits for parties of 10 or more, via the website.