This weekend my feet may be in the Tarn but my head (and heart) is in northern England, more particularly in West Yorkshire where, 200 years ago, one of the greatest British writers was born. Wuthering Heights, her only novel, marked me profoundly as an adolescent and has continued to mark me ever since. She was one of the first feminist writers I read, along with her sisters, and George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell; she was an unrepentant rebel (Wuthering Heights hit the literary scene like a bad smell, it ‘revolted many readers’, was criticised for its ‘coarseness of tone’) and she wrote a stunning, tempestuous, enigmatic love story with the kick of a triple Moscow Mule on an empty stomach. Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote that when Cathy cries ‘I am Heathcliff!’ she is uttering the cry of every woman in love.
In January this year I wrote :
‘For many born in Yorkshire’s West Riding, the Brontë legend enters our lives as naturally as the air we breathe.’
Inseparable from the Brontës and their writing are the moors:
It’s hard to explain the fascination of these ‘high, wild, desolate’ places, chillingly bleak in winter when ‘the four winds of heaven seemed to meet and rage together’, but which, in late summer, are transformed into ‘long swells of amethyst-tinted hills’, ‘all glorious with the purple bloom of the heather’ contrasting with ‘the tawny golden light…of summer evenings’.
After the death of all her siblings, Charlotte suffered from acute loneliness. Writing of her solitary walks across the moors, she said ‘everything reminds me of the times when (the) others were with me… My sister Emily had a particular love for them, and there is not a knoll of heather, not a branch of fern, not a young bilberry leaf, not a fluttering lark or linnet, but reminds me of her. The distant prospects were Anne’s delight, when I look round, she is in the blue tints, the pale mists, the waves and shadows of the horizon.’*
In my last book, The Passage of Desire, there’s a scene where Juliet and her son Oliver take their guests, Alexandra and seven-year-old daughter Caroline, to visit the Brontë Museum
“Caroline had been pestering for a visit to the museum. And so, one bright morning, they found themselves in the shade of the village churchyard on their way to the parsonage. The tower of St Michael and All Angels was just visible as they stepped into a forest of graves, wedged into every available inch of space, the headstones standing shoulder to shoulder like chessmen, some with pointed tops, some shaped like mitres, others representing stars or fleur-de-lys, or crowned with ornate pediments…..Thousands of bodies, it was said as many as forty thousand, lay together in this confined space, a reminder that the now pretty village of Haworth had once been a grim and insalubrious place, home to workers in the textile mills that spread across the valley, fed by the plentiful water pouring down from the rain-soaked moors.
This was not a peaceful resting place, like some (Alexandra) had visited. In spite of the fine day it was dark and chilly under the tall trees where rooks cawed. The graveyard was full of rustlings as the wind passed through the high branches and shook the stands of yew and ibex. White dandelion clocks floated in the unkempt grass. “
Fortunately, beyond the churchyard is the parsonage itself. It may seem rather cramped and primitive by today’s standards, but it is a magical place, full of history, enchantment, inspiration, compassion, imbued by the spirit of those children who lived there and who gathered in the dining room to create their own imaginary universe.
They inhabited a self-contained world, mixing rarely with others, drawing, sketching, inventing plays and fantasy worlds. Voracious readers of whatever they could lay their hands on, from contemporary magazines to the poetry of Wordsworth and Byron and the novels of Sir Walter Scott, they created stories and poems of their own, their fertile imaginations fed by the written word and the ‘purple-black’ moors…
When Branwell’s decline into alcoholism and dementia forced the three sisters to find a way to maintain the family finances, it was in this same room that they sat to work on the novels of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell:
“In the dining room stood the table where the three sisters sat to write.
‘Charlotte and Emily were the famous ones, but Anne wrote two fine books as well. They were all talented. They used to sit here and work together, then walk round the table reading out what they’d written that day.’
‘They really loved each other, didn’t they?’
‘They did. And their brother too, in spite of his problems. He was a talented artist and a poet. We’re going to see some of his paintings.’
Juliet decided to omit the part of the story where three of the siblings had died in quick succession, Branwell and Anne in 1848, Emily in 1849. Nor was she going to recount (to seven-year-old Caroline) the sad reminiscences of Tabby, their faithful servant, describing how, after the other three were dead and buried, she used to listen with an aching heart to the footsteps of Charlotte in the room above, ‘walking, walking on alone’.”
The Brontë Society
Today the memory of the Brontës burns bright through the work they left behind, but also through the remarkable efforts of one of the world’s oldest and proudest literary societies, the Brontë Society, celebrating its 125 birthday this year, responsible among other things for running the fascinating 91-year-old Brontë Parsonage Museum.
This year the focus is on ‘Brontë 200: Emily 1818-1848’, with a rich and diverse programme of literature, music, visual art, exhibitions, talks, children’s activities, workshops, author interviews, walks, films and numerous other events.
And so, dear readers and fellow-passionates, to finish today’s blog, I’m going to put on my commercial hat and invite book lovers and especially Brontë lovers to think about joining The Brontë Society (no, I don’t get a discount or a free bag of chips), and of taking advantage of the numerous perks that membership confers: free admission to the Museum for one year, regular issues of the members’ magazine, priority booking for events, access to the dedicated area of the website and access to many Brontë-related documents (not to mention a warm glow as you sign the cheque). Yearly membership is between £12.50 and £25 depending on age… how many skinny lattes is that exactly? ) And if you’re feeling generous you can add a donation and the glow gets brighter.
Best of all, take a trip to those ‘glorious wild moors, which in after days (the children) loved so passionately’ and see for yourself what it’s all about.
Let’s keep those literary lights burning!
*many quotations in the January blog exerpts (in blue) are from the wonderful Elizabeth Gaskell
The Passage of Desire is the prequel to The French Summer Novels, and is set in Haworth.