Last Monday, November 18th, a little book came up for auction in Paris; a VERY little book, one and a half by two and a half inches. The author was Charlotte Brontë, aged 14, and the tiny volume is one of six miniatures written in the Yorkshire parsonage where the Brontë children grew up. A campaign was launched by The Brontë Society to buy it, and a huge wellspring of public goodwill enabled the organisers to reach, and go beyond, the crowdfunding target of £80,000 showing just how much value we still place on the world of books and literature, and how the amazing Brontë story resonates not only for locals but also for readers all over the world.
‘Go, litel book!’ Go back to Haworth and do homage to thy mistress. According to the latest news it is still in Paris, but has its passport (!) and will head off shortly, hopefully going on display in February 2020 after renovations at the Museum are completed. 2020 will also celebrate the bicentenary of Anne.
You can find out more about the Brontës and even join the society (one of the oldest literary societies in the world) here. There are also numerous videos on YouTube about them (one I particularly like is listed in the links at the end of the blog). But as part of my own personal homage to those sisters, in 2017 I wrote a novella, The Passage of Desire, set in Haworth in the early 1990s. It’s FREE to download this weekend, Saturday 23rd and Sunday 24th November, here and here. (Kind) reviewers have commented:
‘I loved the rich descriptions of the Yorkshire countryside and how the passion evoked in Wuthering Heights is intertwined with the story.
…the Brontë landscape is beautifully described; clearly the writer knows it very well. There are some pleasing literary references which Brontë fans will enjoy…..
…the Brontës float in and out of the story, both literally and metaphorically, and the tale is something of a homage to romanticism.’
I hope those floating Brontë spirits, wherever they may be, are celebrating this weekend. Youpee!
Read on for an extract from The Passage of Desire, in which 7-year-old Caroline, one of the narrators, visits the parsonage museum for the first time with her mother, Alexandra, and their hosts, Juliet and Oliver, and is struck by the miniature booklets.
Chapter 13 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. Some were upright, others listed to the side. Moss and lichen had blurred the blackened inscriptions but it was possible to make out the words if you looked closely. 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. Tuberculosis and other diseases stalked the village streets, carrying off the weak. Sometimes, stopping to look, you would see the names of entire families marked on the headstones. Juliet always got the shivers when she passed through.
Caroline danced from one grave to another squatting down to decipher the words.
‘Here lies Martha, be…love…beloved daughter of James and Eliza…died in the ten, the tenth, year of her age…Luke, in the 2nd year of his age, Mary, in the 6th year of her age.’
She stopped short and slid her hand into Alexandra’s.
‘Why did all these children die, Mummy?’
Alexandra too was feeling uncomfortable. This was not a peaceful resting place, like some she 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.
‘Remember what Daddy told you? In those days, that was Victorian England, the people who lived here were very poor, they didn’t have warm houses and good food. They worked long hours in the mills. Remember when Juliet told you about Wuthering Heights? How cold it gets in winter? People got sick, children died, babies died.’
‘Come on, let’s go look at the museum,’ said Juliet, taking Caroline’s other hand. ‘I bet you’d like to see the room where those sisters used to write their stories, wouldn’t you? And the kitchen where they sat by the fire on winter evenings when the wind was wuthering and shaking the window panes.’
She gave a scary ‘whoo’ and Caroline’s anxious frown was replaced by a tentative smile.
‘Whoo,’ she echoed and gave a little skip, swinging her arms between the two women.
Oliver brought up the rear.
The parsonage reminded Caroline of Juliet and Alan’s house, it had the same big windows with twelve panes of glass exactly the same size surrounded by white painted frames. It stood on a small rise, with grass and flower beds sloping down from the foundations into a flat garden planted with shrubs and flowers.
‘See these?’ said Juliet. ‘They’re called Canterbury bells. And these are hosta. They’re all plants you could find when the Brontës lived here.’
‘That was when Victoria was the Queen?’
They climbed the steps and passed into the hallway. The furniture was old and the walls were hung with dark oil paintings. A grandfather clock ticked. A curved staircase with a polished wooden banister rose to the upper floor.
The first room they visited was Reverend Brontë’s study.
‘Patrick Brontë came to work here as curate in 1820.’ Oliver took over as guide, pointing to a desk covered in books and papers. ‘So, Princess Whatwhyhow, how many years ago was that?’
Caroline’s lips moved silently.
‘Quite a lot,’ she said, eventually.
‘Good answer,’ said Oliver.
‘Patrick was a good man in many ways,’ said Juliet, ‘He did a lot of things for the village, worked hard for the people of his parish, set up a Sunday school, tried to improve their standard of living and health care.’
‘Was he a saint?’
‘Well I suppose some people called him that. But it was hard on his children. Because he had a lot of work, they were usually left to their own devices. Which was lonely for them, but lucky for us, because this house is where the sisters wrote their books. Maybe, if they’d lived in a big city with lots to do and people to visit, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights would never have seen the light of day.’
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 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’.
‘Right. The kitchen.’
Juliet ushered Caroline towards the door. Alexandra paused in front of a sofa that stood against one wall.
Oliver came across to stand behind her.
‘This is where she died, Emily. According to Charlotte. She’d been having pains in her chest for several weeks but wouldn’t see the doctor.’
She turned to look at him.
‘How old was she?’
‘Thirty. Only a few years younger than Mum.’ He shook his head. ‘Charlotte was devastated. She wrote ‘moments so dark as these I have never known’. She’s my favourite one of the sisters, Emily.’
‘Because she died so tragically?’
‘Huh, there was no shortage of tragic deaths. But she was the most solitary of all of the children, shy, didn’t get on easily with people though apparently she was very kind-hearted. She was a creature of the moors. There are stories about how she could talk to animals, she used to bring them home, rabbits, birds, tend to their injuries. Like a vet. She reminds me a bit of our Cath, she used to be out of doors all the time when she was younger, we both did. Mum and Dad named her after Catherine, in Wuthering Heights, did you know that? Along with hundreds of other parents round here. Lots of Cathys in Yorkshire.’
‘I’ve got a copy of Emily’s poems back at the house if you want to read them?’
‘I’d like that. It’s a while since I’ve read any poetry. I used to be quite a fan. Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats.’
He hesitated, then began to recite, his voice little more than a whisper:
“…I am not doomed to wear
Year after year in gloom and desolate despair;
A messenger of Hope comes every night to me,
And offers, for short life, eternal liberty.
He comes with western winds, with evening’s wandering airs,
With that clear dusk of heaven that brings the thickest stars;
Winds take a pensive tone, and stars a tender fire,
And visions rise and change which kill me with desire.’
He stopped, flushed, gave an embarrassed shrug.
‘She called that one The Prisoner.’
‘Yes…are you OK?’
Alexandra had gone deathly pale. She stared at Oliver. In the dimness of the room his eyes were a blazing blue. His jaw was shadowed by stubble, his curly hair sprang up from his head in darkly gleaming spirals. His face could have adorned a Renaissance painting, an angel bending over the manger, a nobleman hunting with his hawk in the Tuscan hills.
As though in a dream, she reached up and gently touched his cheek. The contact lasted less than a second, then she turned abruptly and left the room.
Oliver stood quite still.
Juliet and Caroline were in the kitchen. Caroline was frowning at the table where Emily used to bake at the same time as she studied her German lessons and made notes for her poems. She decided when she got back to school she was going to learn lots of foreign languages and write poetry.
‘Over here there used to be a window,’ said Oliver, coming up behind her and pointing. ‘It’s blocked up now, but you could look out of it, across the moors. Imagine what it was like on a winter’s night, everything outdoors covered in snow, the fire crackling in the hearth, Emily making bread, Tabby telling stories.’
‘Did they have a cat?’
‘Ah,’ said Juliet, looking helplessly at her son. ‘I’m sure they did. Maybe Alan knows, lovey, we’ll ask him when we get back.’
Caroline’s favourite room was the children’s study where they played when they were little. Branwell had a box of toy soldiers that looked like old-fashioned pegs painted red, blue and black. The four children used to make up fantastical stories about them, inventing an imaginary kingdom called Angria where the Duke of Wellington was the hero, fighting wars with different enemies. He and other characters had lots of adventures which the children wrote about in tiny books, using even tinier writing which needed a magnifying glass to read. It must have been nice to have sisters and a brother. But Teresa Knowles had three sisters and two brothers and they were always fighting with one another and getting punished by Mrs Knowles who sometimes ran after them with a rolling pin.
She was still thinking about brothers and sisters later that day. Picking up her pen she began to write in her notebook:
‘Today we visited the Bronte Museum. It is in the old Parsnidge next to the graveyard. There are a lot of babies and other children buried in the churchyard. It was the Victorian age. You could die at any moment. The toilet was outside and you had to queue even if it was snowing. The best thing was the childrens notebooks. Aunt Juliet bought me a postcard of the Bronte sisters in the museum shop like the picture that you showed me. It was painted by Branwell he was not just a drunkerd but also a nice person. Everybody had a lot of brothers and sisters in those days. If I had a brother I would like him to be the same as Oliver. Arnie is a very nice baby but we haven’t seen him this week. On Sunday Frank was cruel to him and pulled his arm and made him cry. Cath has promised to come over and put some desperate damson on my nails. She has rings on all her fingers even her thumb and in her nose and ears and is pretty. I would quite like her for a sister. The problem with having a brother and sister is they could get a disease and die at any minute. Perhaps it is better just to have a dog or a cat. I am really missing Rusty. Thank you for getting me this notebook Daddy.’
Other blogs of mine relating to the Brontës can be found in the archives: March 2015, April 2016, January 2018 and July 2018.
Also on the same subject, check out author Helena Fairfax’s November 21 blog, which links to another blog 😉 by Annika Perry. Let’s hear it for the Brontës and their fans!
Here’s a video (in spite of lots of background ‘wuthering’ at the beginning, all adds to the atmosphere !) by LucyTheReader, showing the moors, the churchyard and the museum.
Have a great reading weekend!