A Visit to Haworth and the birth place of the Brontës' novels.
a steam train arranged by the Society of Authors. This was yesterday's 'Authors North' summer social meeting and, following the meeting in Carnforth last year, a railway theme seems to be developing.
Haworth is something I'd never heard of before: 'an industrial village'. In the early part of the nineteenth century the industrial revolution took over the place, and turned a small agricultural settlement into a miniature version of Manchester. From the railway station
it is a short walk to the mill (photo below). According to Maurice Baren (a member who kindly provided us all with a sheet of information about Haworth) Haworth mill still does what it was built to do: house the looms that weave ribbons and braid. Inside this small block-like building various military paraphernalia is produced: officer ranking braid, sashes and chevron lace - all sorts of insignia to rank and designate, a way of establishing pecking order within the strange closed societies of the armed forces.
The Haworth Parsonage, I discovered, during the excellent talk given by the curator of the museum, was also a badge of honour. Parsonages and Vicarages are, traditionally, grand buildings - usually one of the largest in the village. It was to accord rank and respectability to the office of 'Minister' or 'Vicar' - a kind of medal from the parish. Since they tend to be built adjacent to the place of worship, which in turn tend to be built in the most prominent places possible, vicarages tend to be built on top of the local hill; and the Parsonage of Haworth was no exception.
So from the mill we had to climb a hill. Anna Ganley (from the Society of Authors) had warned us that crampons might be necessary, and I have to report she was exaggerating only very slightly. The inhabitants of Haworth much be extremely fit. From the mill we climbed one hill
and then another and then another. Half way up it was pointed out to us that during the Brontës' time these not only became a series of open sewers in times of heavy rainfall during the Brontës' time, but even worse, reportedly washed down the stinking effluent from the overcrowded Haworth graveyard.
Close to the top we passed by the 'Black Bull' pub where the Brontë brother Branwell bought his drink and laudanum (Edited from cocaine - thanks Steven Wood)
and then ducking through an alleyway past the church arrived at the Parsonage itself.
The talk was excellent and gave a surprising view of this apparently tranquil little place. The Brontës' father was a poor but outstandingly able Irishman. Although his children were brought up in style in the Parsonage the family had no money of their own which was why the girls were sent out to a boarding school for daughters of impoverished clergymen. Their only hope in life was to become governesses, and for this they needed a certain education. But they hated being away from home and the moors and did everything they could to go back there. Later, they seemed to become obsessed with finding a way of supporting themselves so they could stay there: writing novels seemed to be a possible method. Even though Haworth was a squalid dirty place with an average life expectancy of 25 there were compensations. At home they had books, and in the village there were societies which encouraged the villagers to improve themselves with classes and cultural opportunities like concerts. But, most important of all, the Brontës had each other. Together they invented their own private 'second life' complete with heroines, armies, newspapers and books. And it was out of this imaginary world came the novels of the most famous literary sisters in the world: Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë.
After the talk we had a self-tour around the house which was filled with the Brontë's furniture, including, rather ghoulishly, the sofa where Emily died. It is quite a small house, the kitchen especially so.
Then, after a lunch at the nearby Baptist Chapel (chunky delicious sandwiches, warm scones and cream) we had a talk by Juliet Barker.
Juliet used to be a curator at the Brontë museum and then became a biographer. So far she has written seven books (at least) including 'The Brontës' which was a New York Times Notable book and also a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year.
Juliet's talk was highly entertaining - covering anecdotes about the business of writing biographies and the effect it has on her family (they become slightly unwilling experts on the subject in hand) to some of the possible pitfalls. For instance she prefers to write about people long dead because there is little risk of relatives being hurt when scandal is uncovered.
It was from Juliet that I heard about the mill employing 1500 people (which to me seemed an incredible number in so small a village), and how this was beneficial to the Brontës because it meant that with the industrialisation there came amenities such as adult learning.
I bought a book for my mother about the letters of the Brontës. The family tended to write about everything, and were careful to always add the date, and Juliet was able to uncover many discrepancies in the Elizabeth Gaskell*'s account of their lives. It sounds very interesting, and I intend to take a look before passing it on to my mother.
Another interesting point Juliet made was on the longevity of the Brontës. Although each of his children died before the age of 40, Patrick Brontë lived to his eighties - as did all of his many siblings (except for one). She thought that they inherited their weakness from their mother. It is a tragic tale. After the mother and then two eldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died aged 10 and 11, Branwell was the next to go at 31 from alcoholism, then Emily and Anne from TB and Charlotte from some form of sickness, either typhoid or maybe severe morning sickess.
It is the life of Branwell who strikes me as the greatest tragedy, however. As a child he was regarded as the most talented of the family, and yet he destroyed himself before he was able to produce very much. Charlotte, the eldest of his sisters was devastated, and Juliet said there was a word she stabbed out in a letter which indicated her distress: 'obscure'. Branwell was meant to be as successful as the rest of them, but whereas Charlotte left the world Jane Eyre, Emily left Wuthering Heights and Anne The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (generally underestimated, and well worth reading, according to Juliet) Branwell left behind a series of unexceptional paintings. It is a tale often repeated in families, I think - the tragedy of a life wasted by drink and there is little anyone can do to prevent it.
At the end of the talk Juliet sold her books in aid of a charity Caring For Life which supplies accommodation and support for the homeless and vulnerable; looking after some of the Branwells of today perhaps.
Then, after the talk, it was time to go - back onto the trains again. It was a treat of a day - much enjoyed by everyone, I thought. Thank you very much to Anna Ganley for organising it.
*Thanks to Sue Wilkes for pointing out my spelling error here (see comments).