“My home is humble and unattractive to strangers, but to me it contains what I shall find nowhere else in the world-the affection which brothers and. Sisters feel for each other.”
Brontë Parsonage Museum (opened 1928)
Historic houses reverberate with secrets, and one is how an isolated parsonage on a windswept moor produced the passion that birthed two immortal love stories. To enter the confessional of the original weird sisters-Emily Jane, Charlotte, and Anne-one can journey to the Brontë Parsonage Museum, a British literary shrine second only to Stratford-on-Avon.
Environment shapes destiny, a theory made manifest by visiting Haworth in Yorkshire, a village encased in amber. The timeless landscape fertilized the imagination of the Brontë sisters who were as linked to one another as paper-doll cutouts. Charlotte described her hometown to her publisher, George Smith, as “a strange, uncivilized little place.” Walking the cobbled streets, one can visualize the sisters standing at the original wooden post-office counter to send out their manuscripts- though their gender made their aspirations far-fetched. In The Black Bull Inn, their brother, Patrick, who went by his middle name Branwell, downed endless bottles of stout. A far different local establishment is St. Michael’s and All Angels Church where the Reverend Patrick Brontë had his pulpit.
The patriarch of the parsonage had moved from Ireland to attend Cambridge where he changed his surname from Brunty to Brontë, Greek for thunder. He fell in love with the Cornish-born Maria Branwell who teasingly called him “My dear saucy Pat.” Their hope was for lives of “eternal felicity.” Two factors that marred their courtship: he proposed in a crumbling abbey, her bridal veil disappeared in a shipwreck. Seven years after their marriage, Patrick declared, “Providence has called me to labour in His vineyard at Haworth.” In 1820, the Brontës moved to their new residence where Gothic gloom emanated from the ancient tombstones over the neighboring church. A year and a half later, the cemetery had another headstone with the passing of Maria. On her deathbed, she had cried out, “Oh God my poor children!” Four years later, the family’s two oldest children, Maria and Elizabeth, died at ages ten and eleven from the Dickensian conditions at the Cowan Bridge School in Lancashire that served as a model for Jane Eyre’s hated Lowood.
Isolated in a parsonage bookmarked by a cemetery and the moors, the children turned to the world of the imagination. Their world of make-belief had begun when Patrick gave his son toy soldiers. The playthings have long disappeared; what remains is prose and poems they composed in miniscule letters in tiny booklets that relayed adventures in the fantasy lands of Angria and Gondal. The Brontë parsonage offered $610,000 for one of these juvenilia but was outbid by the French. Cut from a different cloth than his free-spirited offspring, each evening at nine Patrick retired from his study. After knocking on his children’s door to tell them to mind the time, he climbed the stairs and wound his grandfather clock.
The siblings understood that upon their father’s passing they would lose their home and financial support. Branwell tried his hand as a portrait painter and as a railroad employee though both endeavors proved unsuccessful. He lost his job as a tutor when he had an affair with Mrs. Robinson, his student’s mother. His sisters became governesses, one of the few options available to clergyman’s daughters. Charlotte confided to her diary of her charges who she viewed as semi-feral, “The apathy and the hyperbolic & most asinine stupidity of these fat-headed oafs.”
As much as Haworth alienated the women, it proved their Pied Piper. Charlotte recalled of their reunion, “The highest stimulus, as well as the liveliest pleasure we had known from childhood upwards, lay in attempts at literary composition. We had very early cherished the dream of one day becoming authors. This dream, never relinquished even when distance divided and absorbing tasks occupied us, now suddenly acquired strength and consistency; it took the character of a resolve.” A letter Charlotte sent to Poet Laureate Robert Southey, asking consideration of her poems, received the response that while she had the faculty of verse, “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.”
In 1846, the sisters published their poems under the pseudonyms Currer, (Charlotte), Ellis, (Emily), and Acton, (Anne) Bell. As only two copies sold, Charlotte convinced her sisters to turn to fiction. Emily’s Heathcliff was the archetypal bad boy, though his consuming devotion to Catherine pardoned his sins. Charlotte’s Bertha Rochester proved unforgettable as the mad woman in the attic. Sylvia Plath, in her poem, “Wuthering Heights,” stated they “wrote…in a house redolent with ghosts.”
As the only son, the family’s hopes had been focused on Branwell, whose fragile self-esteem further eroded at his sisters’ success. At age thirty-one, ill from gin and opium, he succumbed to tuberculosis. Of her brother’s passing, Charlotte wrote, "I do not weep from a sense of bereavement -- there is no prop withdrawn, no consolation torn away, no dear companion lost -- but for the wreck of talent, the ruin of promise, the untimely, dreary extinction of what might have been a burning and a shining light." A short time later, after refusing all medical treatment, Emily perished from the same disease. Gravely ill with the affliction that had carried off her brother and sister, Anne left for Scarborough to end her days by the sea. Anne is the only Brontë not interred in Haworth. In a letter Charlotte poured out her grief, "I let Anne go to God, and felt He had a right to her. I could hardly let Emily go. I wanted to hold her back then, and I want her back now. Anne, from her childhood, seemed preparing for an early death. They are both gone, and so is poor Branwell, and Papa has now me only -- the weakest, puniest, least promising of his six children. Why life is so blank, brief and bitter I do not know.”
Upon occasion, Charlotte ventured to London where she socialized with famous authors. William Makepeace Thackeray called her “a very austere little person,” and one evening took pains to avoid “the She Author.” He assumed what troubled Charlotte was she did not feel attractive enough to catch a man. She stood four feet ten inches tall with unsightly teeth, many missing.
And then, dear reader, she married him. Charlotte wed her father’s curate, the Irish-born Arthur Bell Nicholls who she had previously rejected. Nine months later, during her pregnancy, she passed away, likely due to hyperemesis gravidarum. The museum has a white baby bonnet that Charlotte’s friend, a Miss Wooler, had made for the impending birth. In his old age, Patrick Brontë, almost blind, had outlived his wife and children. He remained in Haworth, cared for by his son-in-law.
The parsonage entrance hall opens to the stairway where, on the first landing, the Barraclough grandfather clock yet ticks away the hours. The kitchen conjures yesteryear when the Brontë brood gathered around the fire entranced by their housekeeper Tabby Aykroyd’s tales of the Yorkshire moors. When Emily took over housekeeping duties, the aroma of fresh baked bread filled the air. The furniture and utensils that belonged to the family remain, as if awaiting their return.
Ghosts hover in Charlotte’s bedroom. Maria Brontë passed away there, likely from uterine cancer, in 1821 at thirty-eight-years-old. After his wife’s passing, Patrick moved across the hall. The room’s last occupant was Charlotte who died in 1855. The Reverend had lived through Luddite and Chartist violence; as a result, every morning he fired a bullet across the graveyard. Branwell, after allegedly setting fire to his bed in an alcoholic stupor, took to sharing his father’s bedroom. Branwell died there ruing he had “done nothing either great or good.” The Brontë family lost its last member when Patrick breathed his last at age eighty-four.
The dining room was where the sisters wrote on their mahogany table, sharing inkwells and tea. When tired from sitting, their ritual was to walk around the table, discussing their ideas for Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights, Anne’s Agnes Grey. In the back of the room is the couch on which Emily died. After losing her sisters, Charlotte walked alone. A servant, Martha Brown, recalled, “My heart aches to hear Miss Brontë walking, walking on alone.”
In 2022, a book made by thirteen-year-old Charlotte entitled, “A Book of Rhymes,” returned to the parsonage after a century. On the reverse of the title page, Charlotte offered a modest disclaimer: “The following are attempts at rhyming of an inferior nature it must be acknowledged, but they are nevertheless my best.” The price for the miniature book was hefty: $1.25 million.
Upon exiting the Brontë Parsonage Museum, visitors can either look to the back of the house and imagine Anne, Charlotte, Emily, and Branwell wandering the moors. To those who gaze upon the cemetery, one can recall the final words of Wuthering Heights, “I listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”
The View from Their Window: The moors reminded Charlotte of Anne and Emily. After their passing, the purple heather was no longer a source of comfort, of escape.