Wordsworth compared his work to a ‘gothic church’, while Proust wanted his fiction appreciated as one would a cathedral: to writers with a sense of their own grandeur, the book is a blueprint of a magnificent, even transcendent, building. Yet could these architects of spatial form have anticipated that, rather than assembling in the stained light of the authorial intellect, many people would later make do with poking around the more prosaic buildings in which they wrote, shat and slept?
It is hard not to feel ridiculous in writers’ homes, especially when you have not bothered to read much of them beforehand (I have visited some of these places fairly sure I have not read a single word of their work). In one of the rooms at Haworth, looking into a glass case containing I-don’t-know-which-sister’s tiny slippers, I wonder what kind of authorial presence the literary tourist is groping after. What is insufficient about the experience of reading that makes visitors seek these other material connections with the author – houses, papers, clothes and, most preposterously, crockery? If anything it is dulling to be amongst these domestic relics, seeing how banal much of a writer’s existence was, how much more ordinary a childhood home than the one evoked in the memoir. The disjunction can be deflating.
Why go then? Over the last few years I have visited writers’ houses compulsively. It would be dishonest not to admit that there is a snobbish thrill in being a tourist of literary tourism; there is great sport in overheard pomposity. Then there is also the creeping dread of what I could be looking at instead. I have battlefield dread – the idea of cruising around the country with a metal detector in the boot and muskets on the mind seems terrifyingly plausible. To fight the fear, I’m sticking with the Brontë bedpan.
Haworth, like Wordsworth’s dingy Dove Cottage, is a big literary draw. This is not some terraced house transiently occupied for a couple of years by a minor poet but the true home of three major writers: Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë. This was the house in which they grew up, wrote their novels and, in the case of Charlotte and Emily, where they died (Anne took herself off to Scarborough). The parsonage and the surrounding moors are fundamentally bound up in their work, but this sense of authenticity is offset by the tourist industry around it. In the early 1970s, when the books were being serialised on terrestrial TV, there were roughly a quarter of a million visitors a year. It is more like 100,000 these days, which is still pretty respectable when a train fare from London to Yorkshire can cost the same as a flight to Marrakesh. As a tourist spot it could not be designed better; the coaches and cars deposit their loads at the bottom of the hill and as the groups bustle up it, cheerful and waterproofed, they are funnelled through the cobbled main street, replete with twee shoppes pushing Brontë tat. So far so expected. The real fun on these kind of trips comes not with this mild commercial assault but with the way the writer’s house has been distorted to better fit the anticipations of the visitor – in an effort to become less ordinary, these houses are turned into a second-hand fiction.
In the past year I have visited two writers’ houses that have been changed like this. The house of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s cousin in Salem, which he used as the model for the House of the Seven Gables, now has a mock-up of Hester Prynne’s shop from the novel (a plot-defining secret passage has been added for good measure). In Mikhail Bulgakov’s house in Kiev, the kitchen is decorated with the graffiti written by the children in The White Guard while in the final room of the tour, a séance from the novel is dramatized. It is unimaginably shit – dimmed lights, cotton wool and coat hangers – and actually quite demanding. You are forced to feign admiration and supress laughter as an unblinking babushka stares into your face.
The Parsonage Museum at Haworth is much too sober to indulge in any of that, and you have to tramp off to Top Withens to get your post-hoc fix. You’re guided up through the moors to this ruined farmhouse by carved wooden signs in English and Japanese, and after a mile and a half you arrive at a patch cleared of heather. From here, the raw sweep of the moors can be absorbed from an incongruous bench, placed near the pile of stones that were supposed to have inspired the Heights. Those determined pilgrims who read the plaque carved into one of the walls might find themselves underwhelmed:
This farmhouse has been associated with “Wuthering Heights”, the Earnshaw home in Emily Brontë’s novel. The buildings, even when complete, bore no resemblance to the house she described, but the situation may have been in her mind when she wrote of the moorland setting of the Heights. (My delighted italics)
This is one of the great signs of the world – it writhes with embarrassment. It is not translated into Japanese.
At this point it is hard to feel any genuine sense of connection with the Brontës and their novels. It is as if the place is reflecting what is most contrived in the Gothic excesses of their novels (Rochester cross-dressing as a gypsy; Jane stumbling wildly through the night only to wind up at the house of her unknown cousins) rather than anything of their authenticity. The Brontës have something of the strange violence of Yorkshire in their books. I am thinking of the imprisonment of frothing Bertha, the death school at Lowood, Heathcliff’s ritualistic hanging of Isabella’s spaniel, and his necrophilia. Defending her sister against immorality, Charlotte wrote in an introduction to Wuthering Heights that Emily’s imagination had been fuelled by local talk, the ‘secret annals’ of a ‘rude vicinage’.
There is a dark streak running through Yorkshire. My mother had been brought up in Doncaster, Hull and Wakefield, the last the long-time home of my grandparents. Visiting them I used to play among the ruins of Sandal Castle – it was the first place I was threatened with a knife, and every story told by the local kids was laced with violence. One of them had a father who worked in Wakefield prison, the oldest high security facility in the country. Its freakish array of prisoners has earned it the tabloid nickname of Monster Mansion: Charles Bronson and Ian Huntley have been inmates, while in the cellar the cannibalistic Robert Maudsley sits solitary on his cardboard furniture in his Perspex cell. Harold Shipman, who studied in Leeds and first practised in Pontefract (where he forged his own pethidine prescriptions) hanged himself in Wakefield.
Yorkshire has spawned a disproportionate number of psychopaths. Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, committed his second attack in 1975 in Keighley, the closest town to Haworth, and would remain at large for another six years. The Pennine Way, which passes by Top Withens, winds through the eastern part of Saddleworth Moor, where Ian Brady and Myra Hindley buried their victims. Stephen Griffiths, who called himself the Crossbow Cannibal after murdering prostitutes in Bradford, has also tried to kill himself in Wakefield prison. Colin Norris, the nurse dubbed the Angel of Death, poisoned his victims with insulin in Leeds. Donald Neilson, the serial killer known as the Black Panther, was from Dewsbury, where Patrick Brontë lived before moving to Thornton. David Peace’s novels, which have best articulated this undercurrent of sinister violence in Yorkshire, have been called ‘Dewsbury Noir’. God’s Own County has something of the devil in it.
The village of Haworth has been varnished in a manner similar to the way the novels have been smoothed, trimmed and tucked for filmic consumption. There is a great story about the 1939 Hollywood production of Wuthering Heights: while happy to toy cheerfully with the plot of the novel, the filmmakers had a crisis of authenticity when it came to the flora. They imported heather from the moors to Los Angeles but in the California sun it flourished, growing to the height of Laurence Olivier’s forehead. Such are the distortions of Brontë country. In the Parsonage Museum, however, it is still possible, with a little patient digging, to disinter a connection between the Brontës and the dark side of Yorkshire.
In one of the cluttered exhibition rooms upstairs, there is a photograph of two men chiselling names into one of the gravestones in front of the parsonage. This would have gone on directly outside the window of the dining room where the sisters worked – Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall were written there – and where they would stay up reading to each other in the evening, walking around the table in the centre of the room. The sound of metal chipping away at stone would have played in the background as they thought and wrote. It was, it transpires, a sound frequently heard.
Haworth was so dismal it is hard to credit. Benjamin Herschel Babbage’s 1850 report to the General Board of Health found that the average age at death for the preceding 12 years was 25.8 years, which was much lower than the surrounding towns and comparable to worst of the east London slums, Whitechapel and St George-in-the East. Mortality rates were worse for children – 41.6 percent of the population died before reaching six years of age. Part of the Brontë myth is tied up with their early deaths – Emily died at 30 in 1848, Anne at 29 in 1849 and Charlotte at 38 in 1855 – but in Haworth terms these girls were survivors. Patrick, their father, was a veritable Methuselah. He died in 1861 at the age of 84, which made him something like 240 years old in today’s money.
The conditions did not augur well for survival. Babbage’s report tells us that there was only one privy for every 4.5 houses (one privy serviced 24 houses), that there no sewers, and that the night soil (shit, piss and ashes) in the middensteads would often get mixed with offal from the slaughterhouse and pigsty drainage. They were flush against the houses and not emptied for as much as month. Their ‘disgusting effluvium’ often spilled over into the street. Little wonder that so many died young. The Brontës apparently did not have much contact with the local poor until they were buried in front of their house. The exception was Branwell. Alcohol is a great leveller and he made many friends as he drank himself to a standstill in the Black Bull. His thrashing and hallucinations got so bad towards the end that Patrick took Bramwell into his own bedroom to watch over his fitful sleep (and his eventual death).
Yet even while they kept apart from the squalor down the hill, the parsonage, or more accurately the cemetery, was contributing towards it. The gravestones were laid flat over the graves in Haworth and, as the cemetery got more crowded, there was not enough room for vegetation. This seems to have inhibited decomposition and caused the leaking-out of what Babbage calls ‘deleterious miasma’; with the parsonage on top of the hill, this was bad news for the residents of Haworth below, especially as there were such problems getting adequate fresh water. A good downpour would cause some of that filth to seep out and down the very cobbled street the tourists now ascend, creating more corpses. Little wonder Babbage declared the cemetery full – between 1830 and 1840, 1344 burials had taken place. That’s a lot of chipping and chiselling.
There is one more irony about Haworth. Emily declined badly when she left for Roe Head in 1835 and then again at Law Hill School in 1838. Whenever she returned to Haworth and the moors, her health improved (until, of course, her death from tuberculosis). Anne also fell seriously ill at Roe Head and had to return, and while Charlotte proved more durable, she found herself miserable whenever she was away from the parsonage for any period of time. As poisonous as Haworth was, it nearly killed the Brontës to leave.