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In 1802 a young man from Ireland named Patrick Brunty arrived at St John's College, Cambridge, with the aim of training to be a clergyman. He came from a poor Irish farming family. Attendance at Cambridge was only possible with the sponsorship of Reverend Thomas Tighe, in whose household this bright boy had served as a tutor. It is thought that Tighe persuaded Patrick to change his name from Brunty to the more distinguished Bronte, the Greek word for thunder. Patrick did well at Cambridge, and entered the Church. He held a number of positions, before meeting Maria Branwell, the niece of a friend, in 1812. Patrick and Maria married and had six children, five girls and a boy. It was with his now large family that Patrick moved to Haworth, a small Yorkshire town in 1820. Patrick was to spend the rest of his life here. Sadly his wife died soon after the move to Haworth, leaving Patrick to bring up the children with the help of servants. The two oldest girls were to die of consumption while they were still at school. His sensitive, intelligent son was to eventually throw away his literary promise, and his life, on drink after a failed love affair. Three of his daughters, Charlotte, Anne and Emily were to become renowned novelists.
Juliet Barker, perhaps the Bronte's most respected biographer, doesn't seem to like modern Haworth. In her book The Brontes she doesn't mince her words:
"Haworth itself has become a monument to the grosser excesses of the tourism industry: the village, surrounded by a sea of car parks, is choked with coaches and cars; the shops, with a few honourable exceptions serving the people who live there, are full of tat, prostituting the Bronte name. It is the power of the legend, not the reality that continues to lure visitors to Haworth."
Oh dear. I have to say I don't remember Haworth quite like this. But even if there is truth in what Juliet Barker says, is it a surprise? The reality of the town would never be able to coincide with the Bronte myth. The Bronte myth was largely created by the nineteenth century writer Elizabeth Gaskell, usually known as Mrs Gaskell. Her influential biography Life of Charlotte Bronte published soon after Charlotte's death in 1855, had described Haworth as an isolated, solitary place on the edge of the civilised world. She said of her first visit to the town: "the sinuous hills seemed to girdle the world like the great Norse serpent, and for my part I don't know if they don't stretch up to the north pole." But Haworth was never this place. Mrs Gaskell lived in London, and for a urbanite like her any town that had views of moors must have seemed to teeter on the edge of the world. Mrs Gaskell also admitted that the source for much of her information on Haworth was a biography of a "clergyman one hundred years ago". In reality the town was not isolated. Bradford, Halifax and Burnley were each only about twelve miles away. The large town of Keighley was only four miles away. Mrs Gaskell had to deal with the contemporary view that the work of the Brontes was largely "coarse and loathsome". By suggesting that Haworth was an isolated and backward place, the supposed roughness of the writing was explained. It also made Mrs Gaskell's story more exciting.
Bronte enthusiasts go to Hawoth to connect more closely with their heroines; and some of them, if they go on a busy day, and if they are not in a good mood, might find a place like that described by Juliet Barker. But if Bronte enthusiasts don't find the heaven of isolation they were expecting, then Emily Bronte's book Wuthering Heights should have prepared them for that. Wuthering Heights is a study of the human yearning for a special place. Heaven itself is a strange concept, a perfect place where nothing can be improved upon, and where in the words of Simply Red, "nothing ever happens". Young Linton in picturing his version of heaven as an "ecstasy of peace" actually wants it to be a place where nothing ever happens. His cousin Cathy on the other hand thinks such a place would be "only half alive". She wanted "all to sparkle and dance in a golden jubilee". In many ways Wuthering Heights seems to suggest that we have to accept places as they are, not as we would wish them to be. Cathy's mother dreamt that she went to heaven, and was not happy there. The angels became angry with her and threw her out onto Wuthering Heights. She dreams of a better place, while the often hellish place in which she finds herself is in some ways preferable to heaven itself. So if you go to Haworth, and are disappointed, just remember that as far as Wuthering Heights was concerned a place couldn't be truly worthwhile if it was perfect. And who's to say what constitutes a perfect place anyway? For Edgar Linton, Thrushcross Grange is a peaceful heaven; for his wife Cathy, Thrushcross Grange is something of a hell. Don't be too critical of the shops full of "tat". Haworth is as it is. You might want something more, but so did the characters in Wuthering Heights. In its imperfections Haworth can be just like the home of Heathcliff, just as imperfect, and with just as much promise.
To get an idea of the Haworth that the Brontes knew, go to Sun Street. While the old village green and the ducking well for nagging wives have gone, Sun Street is little changed since the Brontes' day. Main Street is also little changed, except for a section at the bottom which was demolished and rebuilt in the 1960s. Towards the top of Main Street is Lodge Street, which shows how all the side streets of Haworth once looked. It is a narrow dirt track, six to eight feet wide, with a pavement. Up until the 1850s sewerage ran down streets like this in open drains. Death rates in Haworth rivaled those of the worst areas in nineteenth century London. Patrick Bronte was deeply involved in the attempt to improve these conditions. In reality it is a blessing that we cannot see Haworth as it really was.
The Parsonage in Church Street where the Bronte family lived is now a museum to the Brontes. Advanced booking is essential for groups of ten or more.
The Parsonage Museum
Open Times: Please use contact details below.
Address: Bronte Parsonage Museum, Church Street, Haworth, Keighley, West Yorkshire BD22 8DR
Access: Wheelchair access at the Parsonage Museum is limited. If you telephone ahead individual help may be arranged for you.
telephone: 01535 642323
fax: 01535 647131
web site: www.bronte.org.uk