Exactly one year ago we were on the road to Haworth, the Yorkshire village that was the home of the Bronte family from 1820. The place where the famous novels Wuthering Heights,Jane Eyre, Shirley and Villette were written.
My journey was a pilgrimage that fulfilled a cherished dream to visit places connected to history and literature. On this occasion it was also the lure of the moors, hoping to experience that wildness and elation, as well as to discover if there was a way to connect to and better understand the period that the Bronte sisters so vividly described .
What an impact this place has had! One that lingers still. However, in spite of the picturesque scenery, the historic buildings, or even the fame and talent of the Bronte siblings, what impacted on me most was the shadow of death.
The village straggles up a very steep hill, as it is located high on the moors. Haworth, with its cobbled street and old style shop fronts, has that “stepping back into time” effect. Most businesses attempt to keep the Bronte connection and period ongoing. Their home, the Parsonage, is now an excellent and interesting museum. The district pays homage to the Brontes using their fame to attract tourism.
Yet in spite of the tourist styled themes and entertainments it is not hard to imagine how hard life was then. How cruel and arduous it must have been for the horses to pull carriages and wagons up those cobbled inclines, as well as a challenging climb for the villagers who were largely very poor, malnourished and sick labourers and textile workers.
You can almost hear the endless clacking of looms, the whir of the wheels as you go past the houses where the cottage industry families once eked out their lives. At the end of the eighteenth century the big mills powered by water wheels began to replace cottage industry so that the the poor became more wretched, life more of a struggle. It would have been a bleak, noisy and smelly place. Wafting through the streets the stench of poor sanitation, disease and death. Many people had short lives succumbing to illnesses such as typhus, pneumonia, malnutrition, and especially tuberculosis which also claimed the Bronte siblings.
Children had to work from an early age . The information provided by the Parsonage museum states that around 41% of children who lived here died before their sixth birthday. If they were able to reach adulthood life expectancy was not much beyond forty.
We romanticize about the olden days but in actuality life here in the good old days was one of hardship and struggle. That sense of disempowerment, fear, desolation and despair is so well recounted in the novels.
The Bronte’s parsonage home backed onto the cemetery of the church of St. Michael and All Angels, where their father, Patrick, was parson and where most of the family are interred. Opposite the home and cemetery is the school where Charlotte taught at one time.
As evening fell the rooks clustered in the yew trees creating an eery cackling and flapping . This graveyard is said to hold over forty thousand bodies. The grave stones are a rather spooky and stark reminder of too many tragic and short lives .
The Bronte family must have been ever reminded of sorrow and loss. Daily the sobs and moans of mourners would penetrate the house and laneways, worse still the stench of death would have permeated everything. The grave yard was not properly managed so that liquids and slime oozed up into the floor of the church.Towards the end of the nineteenth century Queen Victoria ordered that burials cease as the conditions were so appalling and dangerous.
That Bramwell Bronte frequented the inns, supposedly favouring The Black Bull, and became addicted to opium and alcohol is not altogether surprising. It must have been a bleak and confined life for such creative minds; a life that the Brontes as children attempted to escape by inventing stories and fantasy games.
Seeing their home, seeing the location was a moving experience. Life then was bleak, and one wonders if we have really advanced. It seems the class divide is once again being imposed in our own country, as it is in many others. The schism widening between rich and poor, education and health is creating barriers that favours one group over the other and fills up graveyards with lost dreams and aspirations turning hopes into mourning ghosts.
The anticipation of awe and excitement became rather a deep sadness locked in the stones and that haunts still.