The Bront"e Sisters: Writing the Lonely Wilds
HOW large a part does geography play in our lives? Is there a particular place where we flower best? How important, for instance, was the isolation of Haworth, rimmed by the wind-stroked moors of West Yorkshire, to the realization of the Bront"e sisters' genius? These were some of the questions I had as I rode the train from London to Leeds, to Keighley and then by bus to Haworth, the childhood home of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bront"e.
Charlotte Bront"e's ``Jane Eyre'' and ``Villette,'' Emily's ``Wuthering Heights'' and Anne's ``Agnes Grey'' are treasured far beyond the confines of the English-speaking world. What indeed would life be like without these impassioned tales?
A pilgrimage to Yorkshire and the hilly stone-covered village of Haworth, situated on the industrial spine of England, seemed a necessary literary excursion that summer.
As I approached the village after a 3-hour train ride from London, the bleak weather and the glimpses of the wild heather on the windy moors quite suited my romantic imaginings. So did the prolonged squeak of the heavy door to the 16th-century hostelry in Haworth where I spent the night.
After my arrival, I set out at once to visit the parsonage, now a museum. As I walked up the steep cobbled hill and turned right at the chocolate shop, I found my first surprise. In my romantic vision, the Bront"e children would have been physically isolated, surrounded by the stormy Pennine moors that provided gloomy inspiration for their tales. Yet the imposing stone parsonage is very much a part of Haworth, although it sits at the top of a hill at the village's edge. Haworth, itself, four miles from the bustling town of Keighley, had a distinct industrial life of its own during the Bront"es' childhood.
The Black Bull, a pub where the eldest brother, Branwell, tragically drank himself to death, stands almost literally a stone's throw from his home.
SENSITIVE and graceful as the children were, they shared an earthy West Yorkshire heritage, as well as their father's strong, individualistic Irish temperament. Interestingly, even though the young women wrote under the male pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, contemporary critics took them to task for the coarseness and brutality of the language used in their writings. It was language perhaps more expected from rugged moorland squires.
But they were isolated in many respects by their own talents. The well-annotated exhibits inside the parsonage reveal that Charlotte and Emily were sensitive artists, although Branwell was the one who took up professional portrait painting. Charlotte's drawings of flowers are delicate and lovely. Emily's portrait of her dog is striking.
Musically, only Charlotte lacked fire. Emily played the piano brilliantly, one that still stands in her father's study. Branwell played the church or- gan and Anne sang and accompanied herself.
The Reverend Bront"e - born in a two-room cottage in Ireland, the son of an illiterate farmer - hired both music and drawing masters to develop his children's talents. It was he who bought Branwell the wooden soldiers that were to spur the children's tales of intrigue in Gondal and Angria, tales of politics and passion recorded in minute manuscript in stamp-sized homemade books.
PHYSICAL isolation, then, doesn't seem to have played a role in encouraging the Bront"es' genius. More likely their unusual intelligence isolated them from townspeople - as well as their father's belief that they were ``strangers in a strange land.'' He discouraged meeting or talking with village factory workers and the yeoman on the moors.
I still wondered whether this special place was necessary to the Bront"es' intense tales. If they and Branwell had been brought up in the sociable ambiance of Thornton where they were born, would their genius have flowered in the same way? And suppose they had lived in London? Or could their stories have been written only in the presence of the wild heath?
``In all the lonely landscape round/ I see no sight and hear no sound/ Except the wind that far away/ Comes sighing o'er the heath and sea,'' Emily wrote. My own walk upon the moors, accompanied always by the piercing whistle of the wind, convinced me of their sense of wild freedom. Walking up to Pennistone Hill one views lavender bracken, interspersed with lamb enclosures as far as the eye can see. To Emily, the moors conferred many delights, ``and not the least and best loved was ... liberty.''
The feeling of freedom even the casual visitor feels upon the moors is heightened by the placement of the parsonage. Nearly every living area of the house overlooks the church graveyard, not a passive, gentle graveyard, but one with four-foot-high lichened gravestones crazily askew.
The churchyard ``is so filled with graves that the rank weeds and coarse grass scarce had room to shoot up between the monuments,'' Charlotte wrote.
Certainly the freedom and life-giving properties of the moors are important in their own right.
BUT perhaps it was their juxtaposition with the ever-present graveyard and the grotesquely leaning gravestones that created the tension that was the real crucible of their work. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne's wild, magnificent tales flaunted death; many of their stories are set against the freedom of the moors.
Still the same question: Is there a perfect place for each of us to live, where we flower best? In the case of genius, does it matter?
For the Bront"es, their creative genius fed upon the tension they faced: the constant presence of death, rimmed with the life-affirming freedom of the moors.
By creating great and passionate works, the Bront"e sisters chose life. I like to think their talent would have triumphed wherever they lived.