West Yorkshire echoes Gothically of 'Wuthering Heights'
It's probably the most famous address in literature, one we've known since childhood, one that haunts the imagination long into adulthood. Wuthering Heights. It's very name suggests a kind of wild bleakness - of storm-tossed moors and winds slashing their surfaces under gray, unforgiving skies.
No landscape is as charged with literary association as this. So indelibly linked are Haworth Moor, fictional site of ''Wuthering Heights,'' and the Bronte saga that it's impossible to journey here to West Yorkshire without bringing our own fiction to the landscape. Or so I discovered recently as I threaded my way through West Riding, that expanse of moorland that inspired ''Jane Eyre,'' ''Agnes Grey,'' and the other Bronte novels.
Though paeans to the desolate beauty of the Yorkshire moors, the novels owe their very existence to the brutal isolation that engendered them. However evocative, for generations of readers these moors will always be the landscape of orphans and wards; of grim-lipped tutors; cold-water washings; of thin cotton socks during winter services. In short, the Brontes' own experience has stamped itself forever on West Riding's moors.
But that's the problem. Has the Bronte story, as dramatic as the countryside itself, focused our eyes but blinded us to the beauty of Yorkshire's moors? That's what I wanted to find out. Pressing southwest from Harrogate, I was making the hour drive to Haworth, site of the Bronte Parsonage. Winding through valleys dotted with former textile villages, the drive braves the cresting slope of moorland that opens from the Worth Valley.
From Keighley, it's a four-mile journey on the A6033 to the village of Haworth. Poised on a steep gradient, Haworth is a maze of cobblestone streets that climb to its summit. Here, overlooking a cluster of millstone houses, sits the famous parsonage. A two-storied Georgian stone house, flanked by the cemetery and silhouetted by the moors, the parsonage dominates the slanting church square.
In 1855, on her first visit to the parsonage, Charlotte Bronte's biographer, Mrs. Gaskell, noted, ''the wind goes piping and wailing and sobbing round the square, unsheltered house in a very strange, unearthly way.'' Who can blame Mrs. Gaskell, a woman of impeccable common sense, for her momentary lapse into Gothic metaphor? To visit the Brontes' home is to see firsthand the forceful connection between the severity of the landscape and the necessitated richness of the interior life. Like the few trees that grace the horizon, this is an environment that shapes or stunts.
The Brontes' novels, full of loss and longing, find harrowing parallel in their own lives. The parsonage contained it all. It's here in 1821 that the Rev. Patrick Bronte brought his family of six children, which, by 1825, had narrowed to Charlotte, Anne, Emily, and Branwell. Reared by an aunt and a servant, the Bronte children invented the literary epics that foreshadowed the startlingly original novels.
That creative promise soon endured the costly human tests that would be grist for the novels. Sent off to the infamous Cowan Bridge School (Lowood in ''Jane Eyre''), the sisters were later farmed out on lonely stints as governesses. Family reunions - like uninterrupted literary activity - were increasingly rarer. By 1855 Patrick Bronte had survived his children, three of whom - Charlotte, Emily, and Anne - had unknowingly secured themselves a permanent place in English literature.
As we wind past the church where all the Brontes save Anne are interred, their legend weighs heavily. Pausing before the parsonage's white door, we know that we will read this house like a novel, its rooms chapters unfolding the Brontes' story. Nothing prepares one, however, for the domestic warmth and lived-in intimacy that waits on the other side of the door.
Stepping into the narrow sandstone hallway, we see exactly what Charlotte's friend, Ellen Nussey, described in her journal in 1833. Spotlessly clean, the dove-colored walls support a domed archway past which climb a flight of stone steps. Family life centered in the crimson-colored dining room immediately to the left of the door. Huddled around the small table, the Bronte children ate their porridge breakfasts, crocheted, read, and wrote their novels. Occasionally , domestic life spilled into the Rev. Mr. Bronte's study directly across the hallway.
These two rooms are a rich inventory of the Brontes' daily life. Carefully preserved by the Bronte Society, which opened the house to the public in 1927, the rooms gleam with mahogany tables, gilded portraits of Charlotte, glass-fronted cabinets boasting first editions of the novels. In the dining room in particular, we can picture Anne rocking in her chair, Emily sketching on the horsehair sofa, and Charlotte scribbling on her writing desk. At their feet Emily's dog, Keeper, and Anne's spaniel, Flossie, doze noisily.
After her financial success as a novelist Charlotte remodeled the downstairs kitchen and converted the storeroom into her husband's study, but the house remains intact. Climbing the stairway, pausing at the clock Mr. Bronte wound nightly, we face Patrick and Branwell's bedroom, the famous nursery, and Charlotte's final bedroom. A fund of Bronteana, this last room houses the sisters' jewelry, Charlotte's wedding bonnet, her porcelain box from Brussels, and many other personal artifacts.
A more lavish display of Bronteana - down to dog collars, samplers worked by Emily, and Charlotte's paintbox - adorn the exhibition rooms annexed in 1872. Downstairs, the Bonnell Room houses a wealth of Bronte manuscripts, juvenilia, and first editions of the novels and poetry.
But it's outside, on the moors themselves, that visitors should train their sights. After the five-minute drive to Haworth Moor, walk the worn path past the Bronte waterfall to High Withens. Now nearly derelict, this ruined farmhouse, thought by scholars to be the original Wuthering Heights farm, commands an unparalleled view of the moors. The moors, cascading before us, heather-pink against a slate sky, are strangely soothing.
No longer brooding or forbidding presences, the moors reveal what the Brontes always knew. This is the landscape of spirited independence. It was Emily, poet and pilgrim to the moors, who captured it best: I'll walk where my own nature would be leading: It vexes me to choose another guide: Where the greay flocks in ferry glades are feeding; Where the wild wind blows on the mountain side.
Practical information: The Bronte Parsonage is open weekdays from 11 to 4:45; Sundays from 2 to 4:45. Admission is 50p.