In February 1820, the Reverend Patrick Brontë was made perpetual curate of Haworth, and in April he moved into the Haworth Parsonage to take up his post. With him were his wife, Maria, and their six children; Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne; Anne being only a few months old at the time. In September of the following year Mrs. Brontë died of cancer, and a few years later still, within a few months of each other, the two eldest children died of consumption (tuberculosis). For the remaining four children, this was to be their home for the rest of their lives. Their father, Patrick, died here in 1861 at the age of eighty-four, having outlived all of his children.
The Parsonage is now owned by the Brontë Society and has become the 'Brontë Parsonage Museum'. The rooms have been restored, as closely as possible, to their appearance when the Brontës lived here. Much of the original furniture is used and many of their personal belongings are on display.
The photograph on the left was taken from the church tower around 1860, about a year before Patrick's death. The picture on the right shows a typical summer scene at the Parsonage in the time of the Brontës.32n
Throughout the summer months, Anne and Emily would often sit writing in the Parsonage garden: Winifred Gerin tells us: 'In after years Martha Brown's younger sister, Tabby, would remember seeing them carrying out their little wooden stools and desks to the bottom of the lawn where, in the shade of the currant bushes, they would sit and write undisturbed for hours.' 33 (Click the right-hand-side photograph for more details of the Brontës' home and garden).
Doesn't the authentic, 1860, picture just make you want to close in and peer through the windows? If we could, what would we see? . . .
THE DINING ROOM
It was here that the three sisters did most of their work. Much of Emily's Wuthering Heights and Charlotte's Jane Eyre were written in this room; as were much of Anne's novels Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
All the furniture in this room is original; though the wallpaper, carpet and curtains are modern reproductions, and the table dates from Charlotte's last years. In the far corner is the rocking chair on which Anne would regularly sit - with her feet resting on the fender; beside it, the sofa on which Emily died. Over the mantel-piece is a copy of Richmond's portrait of Charlotte (1850), and on the right is J. B. Leyland's (sculptor and Branwell's friend) plaster medallion portrait of Branwell. On the table is Anne's writing desk: 'my precious desk, containing my letters and papers, my small amount of cash, and all my valuables . . .' . . . Agnes Grey.
When the sisters first began publishing, they utilised male pseudonyms - or 'pen-names'; the initials of these being the same as their own. Charlotte became 'Currer Bell', Emily became 'Ellis Bell' and Anne became 'Acton Bell'. Their novels, and particularly Anne's, presented themes that were very daring for the Victorian era, and were given bold treatment; no punches were pulled in their depiction of scenes of mental and physical cruelty: these were misinterpreted by many reviewers, who accused the authors of being obsessed with the 'coarse' and 'brutal'. One declared that 'Acton, when left altogether to his own imaginations, seems to take a morose satisfaction in developing a full and complete science of human brutality. In Wuthering Heights he has succeeded in reaching the summit of this laudable ambition.' Another reviewer, who preferred to believe that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was written by a man, rather than a woman, referred to it as: 'one of the coarsest books which we ever perused', warned lady readers not to entertain it, and went on to talk of the 'profane expressions, inconceivably coarse language, and revolting scenes and descriptions by which its pages are disfigured.' One evening, in late November 1848, a few months after their brother, Branwell, had died, and Emily was suffering from consumption; the three were sat in the dining room (shown above). Charlotte made an attempt to amuse Emily and Anne by reading aloud one of the reviews. A few days later she recounted this occasion in a letter to her publisher's literary adviser (or 'reader' - as he was more commonly known), William Smith Williams, who had by this time become her friend:
'The North American Review is worth reading, there is no mincing the matter there. What a bad set the Bells must be! What appalling books they write! Today, as Emily appeared a little easier, I thought the Review would amuse her, so I read it aloud to her and Anne. As I sat between them at our quiet but now somewhat melancholy fireside, I studied the two ferocious authors. Ellis the 'man of uncommon talents but dogged, brutal and morose,' sat leaning back in his easy chair drawing his impeded breath as he best could, and looking, alas! piteously pale and wasted - it is not his wont to laugh - but he smiled half-amused and half in scorn as he listened - Acton was sewing, no emotion ever stirs him to loquacity, so he only smiled too, dropping at the same time a single word of calm amazement to hear his character so darkly portrayed. I wonder what the Reviewer would have thought of his own sagacity, could he have beheld the pair, as I did.' 34n
(I wouldn't mind knowing what Anne's 'single word of calm amazement' was!)
When Charlotte's friend and eventual biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, visited the Parsonage for the first time, in September 1853 (several years after Branwell, Emily and Anne had died), she learned many details about Charlotte's siblings from the Brontës' servant, Martha Brown. Martha told her of their habit of walking around the dining room table each night:
'For as long as I can remember - Tabby [the Brontës' older servant] says since they were little bairns, Miss Brontë [Charlotte] & Miss Emily & Miss Anne used to put away their sewing after prayers, & walk all three one after the other round the table in the parlour till near eleven o'clock. Miss Emily walked as long as she could; & when she died Miss Anne & Miss Brontë took it up, - and now my heart aches to hear Miss Brontë walking, walking on alone.' 35
This room underwent major alterations in 1878 when it was converted into a mere passage-way. It has since been reconstructed as closely as possible to the way it appeared in the Brontës' time. The original furniture has been re-introduced, and all the utensils and pieces of china belonged to the Brontës. A door, just off to the left in the picture, used to lead to a back kitchen, or, more precisely, a scullery - where the washing and other heavy domestic work was done. This scullery existed in an extension at the back of the house: it was demolished by Patrick's successor, the Reverend John Wade.
Despite the Brontës having servants; the three sisters, as they grew older, took their share in the house-work. In 1839 Charlotte wrote 'I manage the ironing, and keep the rooms clean; Emily does the baking, and attends to the kitchen.' 36 Emily would make the week's bread at this table, and often, at the same time, work on improving her proficiency in the German language by studying from books propped up in front of her (as shown here).
In the introduction to her story, 'The Tales of the Islanders', written on 12 March 1829, Charlotte, then aged 12, explained how the 'play' came about:
'The play of the Islanders was formed in December, 1827, in the following manner. One night, about the time when the cold sleet and dreary fogs of November are succeeded by the snow-storms, and high piercing night-winds of confirmed winter, we were all sitting round the warm blazing kitchen fire, having just concluded a quarrel with Tabby concerning the propriety of lighting a candle, from which she came off victorious, no candle having been produced. A long pause succeeded, which was at last broken by Branwell saying, in a lazy manner, 'I don't know what to do.' This was echoed by Emily and Anne.
Tabby - 'Wha ya may go t' bed.'
Branwell - 'I'd rather do anything than that.'
Charlotte - 'Why are you so glum to-night, Tabby? Oh! suppose we had each an island of our own.'
Branwell - 'If we had I would choose the Island of Man.'
Charlotte - 'And I would choose the Isle of Wight.'
Emily - 'The Isle of Arran for me.'
Anne - 'And mine should be Guernsey.'
"We then chose who should be chief men in our islands. Branwell chose John Bull, Astley Cooper, and Leigh Hunt; Emily, Walter Scott, Mr. Lockhart, Johnny Lockhart; Anne, Michael Sadler, Lord Bentinck, Sir Henry Halford. I chose the Duke of Wellington and two sons, Christopher North and Co., and Mr. Abernethy. Here our conversation was interrupted by the, to us, dismal sound of the clock striking seven, and we were summoned off to bed.' 37
Around the same time, Charlotte also wrote 'The History of the Year 1829' - an early section of it reads:
'While I write this I am in the kitchen of the Parsonage, Haworth; Tabby, the servant, is washing up the breakfast-things, and Anne, my youngest sister (Maria was my eldest), is kneeling on a chair, looking at some cakes which Tabby had been baking for us. Emily is in the parlour, brushing the carpet. Papa and Branwell are gone to Keighley. Aunt is up-stairs in her room, and I am sitting by the table writing this in the kitchen . . .' 38
On Monday 24 November 1834, Anne and Emily (at the ages of 14 and 16 respectively) were in the kitchen composing their joint-diary, Emily wrote:
'Anne and I have been peeling apples for Charlotte to make an apple pudding . . . Charlotte said she made puddings perfectly, and she was of a quick but limited intellect. Taby said just now "come Anne pillopuate" (i.e. peel a potato). Aunt has come into the kitchen just now and said "Where are your feet Anne?". Anne answered "On the floor Aunt". . . ' 39n
Despite her reputation of being a somewhat melancholy child, Anne's dry sense of humour, which later became a feature of her novels, is already in evidence.
MR. BRONTË'S STUDY
This was the room where Patrick did most of his Parish work and indeed spent much of his time, often taking meals alone here. The piano was purchased by Patrick for his children sometime around 1833, and was played mostly by Emily and Anne. Emily was reputedly the most accomplished pianist of the family, although Anne also loved music and would often play to accompany herself singing. Many years later, in her reminiscences, Ellen Nussey declared that Emily played the piano brilliantly; and went on to say 'Anne played also but she preferred soft harmonies - she sang a little, her voice was weak, but very sweet in tone.' 40n
A recent visitor to the museum made this remark on the Brontë Mailing List:
'I have just returned from my first visit to England. I spent most of my time in Yorkshire and, of course, I went to Haworth. . . . I want to say what an experience it was. I actually had teary eyes as I stood in this house. The house seems to be expecting the Brontës to return at any moment. I have been in many museums and living history sites, but this was by far the best! Thank you for this wonderful tribute to this exceptional family.'
Linda Philpot, Georgia, USA.
The Brontë Parsonage Museum / The Brontë
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Copyright © 1999 Michael Armitage