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Haworth, England: The Tiny Town That Inspired Every Single Bronte Sister Novel

August 13, 2014
Haworth, England
Haworth, England

Haworth, England (Photo: Matthew Hartley/Flickr)

You pronounce it How’it. The cobbled streets of Haworth, a pretty little English village that clings to the edge of the West Yorkshire moors, wind up the hill, and are lined with pubs like the Fleece, Mrs Beighton’s Sweet Shop, selling black and white minds, the Old Lion Inn, Venables Bookshop.

In summer when it’s light until 11 p.m., it bustles with visitors; in winter, under snow, it’s other-worldly and full of ghosts. From every point, as I climb the main street, to the Bronte Parsonage that sits at the very top of the village, there are views of the moors, a huge landscape that reaches into infinity, criss-crossed by the gray stone dry walls, put together without mortar that last forever, a scene more rugged, more powerful than pretty. I feel there are ghosts just over the hill.

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The Bronte Parsonage (Photo: Mary/flickr)

I’m haunted by the feeling that I know this place in my gut, even before I get to the Parsonage. You come here because this is Bronte land. In Howath at this pretty two-story parsonage with a modest garden, Charlotte and Emily Bronte lived and wrote Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, two of the greatest novels of any time, stories of powerful emotions, and women with complex emotional ambition and desires. Gothic in part — there are plenty of storms and the supernatural — they show an understanding of moral ambiguity decades ahead of the times. There are characters still palpably alive: Jane Eyre; Heathcliffe; Mr Rochester. These are imprinted on us by the stream of movies, TV, theatre, beginning in 1910 with a silent film of Jane Eyre. Some of the later version were shot here in Howarth.

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The Georgian parsonage of gray stone and brick, built in 1780s, is now a museum with a dozen Bronte-soaked rooms. In the dining room on a large mahogany table, the sisters wrote their novels. (Charlotte also wrote Villette and Shirley, her sister Anne, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall); over here is the sofa where Emily died aged 30; above the stairs hangs the celebrated portrait of the three sisters by their artist brother, Branwell, who waste much of his talent at the Black Bull Inn in town, in a haze of booze and opium.

Patrick Bronte, a relatively poor country clergyman moved into the parsonage in 1820 with his wife, Maria. By the standards of the time, the rooms are simply furnished but full of moving detail. Emily’s bedroom has the tiny handwritten books written by the girls when they were little. In the hall is the upright piano, which all the sisters played to entertain one another. In Charlotte’s room where she died at 38a re her tiny dresses. She was under five feet. Her white stockings look like a child’s.

All dead by 40.

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Wuthering Heights novel (Photo: Scott MacLeod Liddle/Flickr)

But, then, in their day, Haworth was a crowded industrial town, where water-powered mills replaced the looms villagers used to scratch out a living. Maybe it was this that played on the sisters’ profound human understanding. “I must not forget that these coarsely-clad little peasants are of flesh and blood as good as the scions of gentlest genealogy,” Jane Eyre thinks.

It was also the landscape that drove the books. In the kitchen at the back of the parsonage, the Bronte servant would tell the tales of Haworth and the moors. Walk from the parsonage up to Top Withins, you find the setting for Wuthering Heights. 

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Top-Withens (Photo: Steve Calcott/Flickr)

The open spaces feel infinite; on hot summer days, Jane Eyre says of it, “What a golden desert this spreading moor! On stormy nights, in an age when people were both deeply religious, and believed in the supernatural, they must have seemed literally hellish.

Haworth is a Pennine Village, one of scores of little communities scattered across the Pennine Hills, known as the backbone of England, a spine of hills and mountains that separates Yorkshire from Lancashire. The Pennine Way, a favorite of walkers, and riders, is the oldest footpath in the country.

The Pennine Way, in England’s West Yorkshire (Photo: Peer Lawther/Flickr)

It feels old here, the way the Brontes would have seen it: Primeval. Unknowable. But, then how astonished they would have been to smell the curries from the local restaurants, or to see the Tour de France  stream through the streets as it did this summer, or the way the Heritage Industry ticks over, their own names on everything from cookies to mugs, T-shirts to “quill” pens.

Haworth has been nicely packaged for tourists. There are literary festivals, a 1940s celebration where you can dance to Glen Miller. You can ride one of those Heritage steam trains from Knightly 10 miles away.

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The Pennine Way (Photo: John A-P/Flickr)

Victoria Wood, one of Britain’s funniest comedians wrote a monologue with herself as a Bronte Parsonage guide, who woman who thinks Charlotte would have done better with some blusher or a perm; her account of souvenirs runs to “Bronte video-games, feminine deodorants, and snacks at the Heathcliffe Noshed bar, featuring the popular Bronte burgers.

Yorkshire is the biggest and most ravishing of all of England’s counties, and if you come to West Yorkshire, to Howarth for Brontes, it’s worth tramping the moors or scrambling up and down the Yorkshire Dales, around Grassington, an hour or so from Howarth. Not far off is the Boxtree, one of the restaurants that launched great British cuisine in the early 1960s, and though the cooking is French it is very light and depends on wonderful local produce, game and meat. (It also foisted upon the unknowing world, Marco Pierre White.) And although you might want to spend a night at the Old White Lion in Howarth, you could also drive over to Harrogate, an hour, not more, and a wonderful old fashioned, beautifully kept spa town where the Yorke Arms has terrific rooms and stunning food.

The Bronte-obsessed town of Haworth (Photo: Alison Christine/Flickr)

But the real point is that in Haworth, something astonishing happened, and you feel it in every stone: three young women, solitary, correct, and very young wrote great books by way of sheer talent and imagination.

It’s night, and raining. My friends are going back up to the Parsonage for a lecture on the Brontes’ pets, and then out drinking at the great local pubs. Me, I’ll be in bed in my hotel room, re-reading Jane Eyre as I do every year.

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