Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Visiting Haworth, Bronte Country: In Hindu Businessline

In my head I have written this article with much more melodrama. Visiting Haworth and the famous moors in Yorkshire, England was a lifelong dream. That is where the Bronte sisters - Charlotte, Emily and Anne - lived and wrote most of their books. For some strange reason I had never wanted to visit any literary place as much as Haworth, perhaps because it seemed more inaccessible than most. And then one day in late September earlier this year I went there and it was overwhelming and one day I will write about how overwhelming it was. For now, here is something I wrote for Hindu Businessline's lovely supplement BLInk.

Read it here or see below for a slightly unedited version. 

Published December 10, 2016. 


An English village where the three illustrious sisters lived their short lives, and the wild, temperamental moors that gave us dark, complex characters

There have been many beginnings to this piece. Written and discarded, again and again. None seemed wholly right and I have abandoned them, sent them to join the ranks of false beginnings, words that I had decided did not replicate the language that was tumbling over itself in a hurry in my head, describing things, feeling what I felt.

Perhaps the beginning was really 20-something years ago when as a girl growing up in the hills without enough books to match a voracious reading habit, I reached for, wayyyy before I was meant to, grandfather’s library and met the Brontes sisters. Before the Brontes there were the Russians. But that is not a story that has a place here, today. The beautiful hardbound books with black and gold covers felt too heavy in my hands, I remember. But perched upon a windowsill with Stewart Hill in the background, these classics felt familiar, like it was a story from a slightly eccentric aunt’s backyard. The mountains outside were a reassurance, but the moors would soon take over. Though, it was only a month or so ago that I understood what a moor was, 20-something years after I mouthed that word to myself aloud in a Google-less world, wondering which planet’s landscape it might most closely resemble. I was as much into astronomy in those days as I was into writers whose lives were as dramatic as the heroines they wrote.

And then, many, many years later I found my way to Haworth, where these writers, long recognized as amongst the greatest in English literature, lived. The Bronte sisters – Charlotte, whose 200th birth anniversary is this year (no, the trip wasn’t planned to commemorate that, I promise), Emily and Anne Bronte. And their brother Branwell who tried to paint but failed and then tried to be a drunk and succeeded and died from that success, and their father Patrick who was the curate at the church and though a frail, sickly man, outlived all the children and died an octogenarian. They all lived in this big stone house behind the church, which was called Parsonage because that is what a house allotted to members of the clergy was called. There was, and is, a cemetery in front, which must have been a depressing and all too realistic sight to wake up to every morning, I imagine. But then there were the moors behind the house and they were bleak, cold, windy and maddeningly inspiring, so maybe the tombs weren’t that bad after all.

So they all lived in this big house with an aunt who moved in to help raise the children after Mama Bronte died. Largely ignored by the adults, the Bronte siblings took to making up and then writing down stories and poems in miniscule handmade books, some of which are on display at National Portrait Gallery, London. I went and spent an hour peering into these books and the many drawings and paintings the siblings made – their art, though not at the level of genius as their books – was still mighty skilled. Or so I think. I could forgive the Brontes all follies, as you can tell.

There are a few samples on display at the Parsonage too, now a museum housing their possessions. The rooms are recreated to near likeness of how they must have looked when the family lived there, down to the wallpapers. The kitchen has model bread in the oven, a hand towel hurriedly thrown on the table, a plate set for breakfast, a cupboard with the family’s china on display. The dining room was where the children sat around and amused themselves with stories set in an imaginary kingdom of Angria and where later the girls would write their masterpieces – Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. The tea cosy sits atop the table that continues to bear the signs of constant use, and it seems like the sisters will be back any minute now, to discuss their writings with each other till about 11 o’clock every night.

There are portraits, furniture, artist boxes, drawings, books, penknives, letters and this and thats that fill the museum. Charlotte’s wedding bonnet, faded now, made her look like ‘a little snowdrop’, villagers’ accounts of her wedding to Arthur Bell Nicholls say. And because it is her bicentenary year, there are a few installations that respond to the idea of the miniature in her world, curated by the writer Tracy Chevalier. Another writer, Grace McCleen, was chosen as a writer-in-residence for ’16 (lucky woman!) and published Every Sounding Line, a collection of poetry as a result of the residency. Excerpts are printed and strewn on mantle pieces and window sills throughout the house. I see all this, twice over, once hurrying through because it is nearing closing hour and the next day taking more time than I have ever taken in any other museum.

Your impossible greatness, 

invisible yet present,

in the impossibly small.

The Parsonage, fronted by the church, sits atop a steep road that is the Main Street of Haworth, set with setts.Picturesque photographs of the old street, flanked on both sides by cute little shops selling thingamabobs and old pubs are good for the Haworth brand. The Brontes are very good for business. Apart from the well -stocked Parsonage gift shop, the rest of the village sells more Bronte souvenirs, from jewelry and vintage clothes to books to candles and more thingamabobs and my favourite, jams and jellies inspired by characters from the famous novels. The Black Bull public house (pub as we know these places today), sitting by the entrance to the church, is where the brother Bronte is said to have spent many an hour trying to drown his failure in drink. Opposite that is The Apothecary, a 17th century building now also a hotel that I spend a night at, was where Branwell bought his laudanum from, they say. A red telephone box, so typically British, is in another corner, opposite one cute little Post Office. When you stand in the middle of the road and look out, there are the hills and moors, there in the distance. Everything looks like a movie set; they have good reason to keep it so, given the hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. Some are research scholars, some are fans like me, treating this as a literature nerdy pilgrimage, and a lot are Japanese – there is, inexplicably, a very large number of Japanese tourists that come to Haworth every year. So high are these numbers that directions to the moors and Bronte sights are carved into the signboards in Japanese.

After marveling at tiny shoes and tinier books and marveling at how these kinds of things hold so much interest for a fan, pedestrian as I would have snootily called such endeavors, had it been anything else, another writer even, I head to the moors, seeking The Bronte Way. There is a well-marked path on one side of the parsonage, past a kissing gate, past two friendly, and huge, grazing horses, past ewes on green, green pastures (all too damned picture postcard-like, I grumble into the wind). It is not too late in the morning and there are several joggers and walkers about, most with their dogs. The moors are, to borrow McCleen’s words, ‘…a sea of swells entwined as if fingers in prayer.’

For the three plus months that I have spent in this island country, I have been incredibly lucky with the weather. The famous English summer has been exceedingly good and I realize I am tempting fate, every passing day. It has been mostly sunny and happy as I wind myself down south from high up in the Scottish Highlands. The day I am to walk the moors, a slow drizzle starts. It is nearing autumn and heather, the pink flower of independence that carpet the moors, are dying. By the time I cross the road and find myself on a path, the wind picks up. It is cold, very cold and windy and raining and I just want to go all English and demand a warm fire and a hot ‘cupatea’. I was to walk to Top Withens, a ruin that, even though there is near conclusive proof that it is not so, is popularly believed to have inspired Emily’s portrayal of the Earnshaw house in Wuthering Heights. There is a waterfall and a bridge along the way, a rock where Emily is believed to have sat, gathering ideas. I am too unprepared for this sudden turn in weather and scurry back, seeing the ruins from a distance, somewhere beyond the haze. Appropriate though, I later think, to see the moors the way they were described by the Brontes, as moody, as wild, as perfection. That is the way I will want to remember them.

The sisters walked the moors a lot. I am, like scores before me, trying to look for answers: for how they managed to write such feministic texts from that tiny non-descript village, for what is it about the moors that inspired them to birth such complex, dark characters, for how these shy Victorian women, with all the trappings that came with that age, wrote such fierce, independent heroines, making them radically feministic and ahead of their times by several decades. I am presumptuous of course. As if these answers would speak to me or
…reach with the tip of its finger

to graze my skin with its alien own.

Standing there, with their beloved moors all around me, I believe, like McCleen writes, that if their spirit lives anywhere at all, it must be here and not in the village or the church or the house. I wait for a while. I am not sure for what. But

Instead of a haunting

I was forced to admit

I was extraordinarily


And so it ends. A beginning that begun 20-something years ago.

How to get there:

The nearest mainline railway station is Keighley, from where there are frequent 'Bronte buses' available to Haworth village, a distance of about 4 miles away. The nearest airport is Leeds. Both are very well connected by trains, flights and coach from London.

Where to stay:

There are several B&Bs available in the village, apart from AirBnB places, youth hostels and farmhouses. Visit http://www.haworth-village.org.uk/ for a list of the best ones. The Apothecary (http://www.theapothecaryguesthouse.co.uk/), a 17th century inn, now converted into a guest house is bang opposite the Parsonage and overlooks the famous cobbled streets of Haworth and is a great place to explore the village from.

Special tip:

Pack those walking shoes and rain gear. The best way to have the Bronte experience is to walk the moors and around the village. There are plenty of well marked walking trails. And some excellent pubs that serve whiskeys and beers brewed locally, to relax afterwards.

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