THE minute we set foot in Haworth, the spirit of the Brontes seemed to surround us. This northeastern English village was definitely the place where Charlotte and Emily Bronte wrote their passionate novels.
Was it the blustery, rainy atmosphere so different from London's sunny day we'd left only a few hours earlier? Or the sight of the steep cobblestone road leading through the banked village? Was it the wild, remote, and wave-like terrain? Whatever it was, there seemed to be a rawness and energy in the landscape.
Once off the steam train that took my son, his girlfriend, and me to the village, we saw no clue as to the direction to the Bront home. Our arrival must have felt just the way it did 150 years ago when a traveler arrived in the village.
I'd visited the homes of other writers - Dickens's and Keats's houses in London - and had made an attempt to visit Steinbeck's home in Salinas, Calif., (though it was closed that day). I'd even made the journey to Joyce's Tower in Dublin. But the truth is, I'd never felt so drawn, so very excited. Maybe it was partly that I'd never visited a woman writer's house, yet it seemed more than that. Maybe it was that the romantic lore of "Wuthering Heights" and the bravery and struggle of "Jane Eyre" had always
moved me so. What was that passion all about? I wanted to see the setting from which those wonderful stories grew.
We hiked beneath a rolling lavender and gray sky in cold August rain, up the steep road of the village, past pubs and shops that were probably not too different from those of the century before. It was 1820 when Methodist clergyman Patrick Bronte brought his wife, Maria, and six small children to this village of 4,600.
We passed the Black Bull pub where Charlotte, Emily, and Anne's brother, Branwell, spent too many evenings drinking; and past Firth's, The Tweed Room, where woolens are sold. The view grew spectacular as the steepness of the incline increased. All around we could see rolling patches of green, bordered with hedges.
It almost seemed we were back in time. The smell of rain and occasional whiffs of food and beer as we passed a pub lured our thoughts to another time and day. The only sounds were a slight patter of rain, an occasional voice or two from others we encountered on the street, and our own footsteps as we tried not to slip on the slick cobbles.
We passed the church near the top of the village (rebuilt since Patrick Bronte served as its minister for 40 years), then the churchyard with its moss-covered headstones. And then we saw the walled entrance to the parsonage.
Somehow I had felt this was a solitary and rare pilgrimage we were making, until I stepped through the gate and encountered probably 25 people with bright umbrellas and slickers. They stood patiently in the rain, waiting their turn to enter this literary shrine.
The proximity of the cemetery shocked me. The front as well as one side of the parsonage's small green lawn was bordered by the looming green and gray stones. The grimness of this sight must have affected the Bront work and lives daily.
Once inside the gray stone parsonage, it is still furnished almost exactly as it was in the Bront day. The couch where Emily died; the table where the girls sat each evening composing stories, and often, it is said, linking arms and walking around the table, telling their tales; the windows where Charlotte later had curtains added (Patrick had feared a fire, so had never allowed curtains in the home when the children were young); the kitchen where Emily baked the family bread while she read German at the
same time; their father's study with the piano played by all the Bronte offspring; the austere slate floors.
And upstairs, Charlotte's room with her going-away dress (Charlotte was the only Bronte to marry), the studio where Branwell worked on his paintings, and a replica of the bed where he died at age 31. The tiny nursery is there too, where so many of the childhood creations of the precocious children took place, where all the little books of the imaginary kingdoms of Gondal, Glass Town, and Angria were first created, and where we saw the window from which the children could so easily look out on the cemeter y and their beloved moors.
THE creation of the small books, written on scraps of paper and sugar bags, grew through times of bitter weather and constant deaths in the village. The somberness and the monotony of the Bront daily lives were perhaps offset as long as Emily, Anne, Charlotte, and Branwell were living in their imaginative tales. These tales continued until the siblings were well into their 20s, and provided excellent training for the Bronte genius.
Later, we went out the back of the house and followed a path to the moors, past slate rock walls, and saw the way the land almost seems to move, like an undulating blanket of green and lavender heather. Sprinkles of rain and a persistent wind accompanied us. The word "wuthering" is said to describe the stormy weather and the sound of the wind in this area.
It suddenly seemed so clear - this was where their creative spirits were forged and born, caught between the cemetery and this wild, turbulent land. In the almost monk-like quarters where they found shelter, their large spirits soared not only into their writing and music, but also into the artwork they all did as well.
All four children enjoyed drawing. Emily copied illustrations from "British Birds" with remarkable patience. Later she turned more to scenes around her, the large merlin hawk, Hero, or her own dog, Keeper. Charlotte nimbly duplicated elaborate engravings. Branwell produced portraits, most notably of his sisters, which are revered not so much for their technique but because of the likeness, which Charlotte's biographer judged as admirable.
THE family always knew loss. Maria, their mother, died soon after the family arrived in Haworth, and only a few years later, the two older girls, Maria, 11, and Elizabeth, 10, died also. They, along with Emily and Charlotte, had been sent to the Clergy Daughters School at Cowan Bridge. Maria had died in an epidemic at the school, and Elizabeth soon after being brought home. When Charlotte wrote "Jane Eyre" she modeled Lowood after the school, and Helen, the little friend of Jane's who dies at the school,
was modeled after Maria. One remaining building of the Clergy Daughters School still stands in the area, as does Thorp Green, where Anne was governess, and Ponden Hall, frequently said to be the original Thrushcross Grange, the civilized home of the Lintons in "Wuthering Heights." And Top Withens, far out on the moors, is the setting for Healthcliffe's home of Wuthering Heights. Nearby Wycoller Hall is identified with Ferndean Manor where Rochester lived in "Jane Eyre," after the famous fire in the story destroyed Thornfield Hall.
The settings for the stories are all here, and grew directly from the Bront lives and surroundings. It is impossible to be in that atmosphere without feeling the spirits of the Brontes and their characters - Rochester, Jane, Cathy, Heathcliff, and the others.
Back in front of the parsonage as we prepared to leave, I noticed a small, carved mossy sign, "This was the site of the gate leading to the church, used by the Bronte family, and through which they were carried to their final resting place in the church."
But I didn't look in the church where I know they are buried beneath the floor. I felt they weren't really in there. Instead I glanced back at the house, and once more my eyes swept the moors. And as the day began to darken I thought I saw their figures coming down the path, their hair blown and wild, their arms full of heather, their minds full of tales.