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On the Trail of England's Victorian Literary Ladies

Book-loving tourists visit the settings used by three famous novelists

I didn't meet Heathcliff coming over a rise on Emily Bronte's moors. But the imagined landscape of "Wuthering Heights" did come alive as I walked a well-worn track into the Yorkshire hills.

The weather - appropriately blustery and damp - intensified the "you are there" feeling. A fictional setting became fact. Emily and her sisters, Charlotte and Anne, wrote the famous novels that both shocked and captivated their Victorian readers in the village of Haworth nearby. The parsonage in the English midlands where they grew up looks much as it did in the 1850s, after Charlotte's "Jane Eyre" had achieved its great success.

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Within an easy drive of the small cobblestone village street are other places that influenced or were featured in Bronte novels.

For modern readers of classic writers who want to experience scenes and sights associated with favorite authors, a trip organized around fiction with a strong sense of place can provide an unusual adventure - literature in three dimensions. The tour I took focused on Victorian women novelists.

From Boston, we flew (via Newark, N.J.,) into Manchester Airport, a sleek, modern facility that allowed us to avoid the hassle of London's Heathrow. A comfortable, small motor coach then took us to Oulton Hall near Leeds, a former Victorian mansion set in a lovely park, now an elegant small hotel. There we joined the rest of our group of 17.

In addition to exploring Bront country for several days, we visited locations associated with writer Elizabeth Gaskell. She was a friend of Charlotte Bronte and her first biographer, as well as a noted novelist and contemporary of Charles Dickens.

The town of Knutsford in Cheshire was the model for Gaskell's best-known book, "Cranford." We explored the village on foot. Our expert guide pointed out features such as Mrs. Gaskell's childhood home, and shops and inns described in her stories. The hotel where we stayed on the main street dates to the 14th century and appears in more than one of her tales. In the town center is a Mediterranean-style tower erected in 1907 as a memorial to Mrs. Gaskell's works. It seems oddly out of place in a town named for King Canute.

George Eliot (born Mary Ann Evans) was the third author whose trail we traced in several places: Stamford, where "Middlemarch" was filmed; the town of Nuneaton in Warwickshire, which has a museum, a statue of Eliot in the town square, and an extensive collection of materials about her in the library; and the farmhouse where she was born on the estate her father managed.

Eliot described the estate house, Arbury Hall, in one of her short stories, "Mr. Gilfil's Love Story." The estate house was also used in the film "Angels and Insects." It's a fairy-tale "Gothicized" palace created in the late 18th century by Sir Roger Newdigate, who remodeled the original Elizabethan mansion over a period of 50 years.

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The elaborate, white, fan-vaulting of the Gothic ceilings, especially in the dining room, is dazzling. Eliot writes, the "dining room ... impressed one with its architectural beauty like a cathedral. ...the lofty groined ceiling, with its richly carved pendants, all of creamy white, relieved here and there by touches of gold. ...this lofty ceiling was supported by pillars and arches.... The room looked less like a place to dine in than a piece of space enclosed simply for the sake of beautiful outline...."

We had lunch at Griff House, Eliot's home for 21 years. The setting for "Mill on the Floss," it is now a restaurant and serves typical country food.

Since this was an outing for readers, it included visits to libraries. In addition to the Eliot collection in Nuneaton, we saw Mrs. Gaskell's manuscript of her biography of Charlotte Bronte, as well as a first edition of Chaucer, at the Rylands Library in Manchester; admired the vast collection of leather-bound volumes in the library at Tatton Park, one of the most complete historic estates in Britain, located near Mrs. Gaskell's Knutsford; and had a private look at the elegant Wren Library in Lincoln Cathedral.

The city of Lincoln was off the track of the literary ladies we were tracing, but for those in the group from the small town of Lincoln, Mass., it was a special treat.

WHILE food for thought was the main meal on this trip, the delicious contemporary cuisine in the hotels belied the bad press about English cooking. Lunch times often offered a free choice to try local fare. In Haworth, some headed for the hearty plowman's lunch at the local pub. A few of us tried a tearoom that featured a delightful modern adaptation of a leek-and-potato soup served in a Yorkshire pudding "bowl."

This tour was created by Heritage Touring in cooperation with two Massachusetts libraries, in Lincoln and in Wellfleet, which received a donation for each participant from their community. The Lincoln Library provided workshops before the trip to discuss some of the novels and biographies of all three writers.

Library Fund-Raising

Literary Tours Offered in 1997

April 13-21 Literary Italy

Florence, Venice

April 28 - May 6 French Literary Heritage

Paris, Normandy, Provence

May 7-15 Jane Austen

Hampshire, England

May 13-21 Wordsworth, Beatrix Potter

Lake District and Yorkshire

May 21-29 Irish Literary Heritage

Dublin to Galway

Sept. 4-12 Literary Southern England

Dorset to Kent

Sept. 17-25 Victorian Women Writers

Yorkshire to Manchester

For more information, contact:

The Travel Station, 2 Lewis Street, P.O. Box 304, Lincoln, MA 01773 (617) 259-1200

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