Visiting the Brontë sisters in Yorkshire

People say literary genius is a rare thing, something seen only once in a thousand or a million people. Maybe so, but the Brontës had three (and maybe five) literary geniuses in the same family.

From their father’s parsonage in Haworth, Yorkshire, in northern England, the three Brontë sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne produced some of the most popular books in the English language. Works like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are still read more than 150 years after they were published. They’ve survived the test of time. The ebook edition of Wuthering Heights is currently ranked number 457 at Amazon’s Kindle store, and number 5 in the fiction classics category. Their work has been made into numerous movies and another version of Jane Eyre is coming out next year.

The sisters also prompted literary tourism to Haworth. It started not long after they died and has steadily grown ever since. While everyone comes to Haworth to see the Brontë home and related sights, they also enjoy a beautiful and well-preserved nineteenth century village full of shops and fine restaurants.

Now I have to be honest here and admit that until I went on this trip I had never read a Brontë novel. They were the classics I never got assigned in school and I figured I’d get around to whenever. Before I left for Yorkshire I read Jane Eyre and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The rich prose and sedate pacing definitely belong to the nineteenth century, but the smartass, independent female protagonist belongs to the modern world.

Much of Haworth remains as the Brontës knew it. The Brontë Parsonage Museum preserves their home and tells their story. House museums are tricky to do well. Despite being a museum junkie, some historic homes bore me to death. This one, however, gripped my attention. Besides the usual stuff like the desks they wrote at and the sofas they sat on (and Emily may have died on), there are the little details that make it stick in your memory. In the nursery where they spent their childhood faint pencil drawings can be seen on the wall. While it’s impossible to say if these literary giants doodled these when they were small, it makes you wonder.

There’s also the story of Branwell Brontë. Who? Yeah, that was always his problem. He was their brother, a failed artist and struggling writer living in the shadow of his superstar sisters. He fell into a downward spiral of alcoholism and opium addiction before dying at 31. The above painting of his sisters is Branwell’s work. He originally included himself in the portrait, then unsuccessfully erased himself. He doodled constantly, illustrating letters he sent to friends. One at the museum shows himself in two images. The first is labeled “Paradise” shows him drunk off his ass and shouting, “I am the lord of the manor!” The other is labeled “Purgatory” and shows him hunched over an opium pipe.

%Gallery-104264%The museum also tells the story of their father Patrick, the local pastor who was also a published author. Many a young woman’s ambitions were crushed in those days by domineering fathers who wanted them to get married and get pregnant. Patrick Brontë was progressive enough not to feel threatened by his daughters’ talent and encouraged them in their careers.

Beyond the Brontë parsonage you can see traces of their life everywhere. Patrick Brontë’s church stands nearby and houses the family’s memorial chapel. The pub where Branwell got drunk is just a short stagger away from the apothecary where he bought his opium. The Black Bull Inn still serves up fine Yorkshire ales, but the apothecary shop stopped carrying opiates when they started requiring a prescription. Otherwise it’s a good replica of an early apothecary and still sells traditional cures.

Haworth’s main street is down a steep hill lined with little shops. You can find delicious local cheeses and preserves, a couple of fine tearooms, some excellent secondhand bookshops, and more gift shops than you can shake a copy of Wuthering Heights at. Several historic inns offer beers and beds. At the train station a traditional steam railway offers rides.

But Haworth isn’t all tea and scones and twee little shops. There’s a dark side to the town’s history, full of ghosts, death, and despair. On my second day I discovered I was all too close to the supernatural. . .

This is the first of my new series Exploring Yorkshire: ghosts, castles, and literature in England’s north.

Coming up next: Three nights in a haunted hotel room!

This trip was sponsored by
VisitEngland and Welcome to Yorkshire.

[Photo courtesy user Mr. Absurd via Wikimedia Commons]

Hemingway’s house and museum remains a cat haven: 60 cats can stay

When Ernest Hemingway lived in his house in Key West, Florida, penning For Whom the Bell Tolls and To Have and Have Not, his cat Snowball must already have been busy procreating. Although Snowball is no longer with us–he was given to Hemingway in 1935–his six-toed offspring still live at the house, along with their other cat buds. In all, there are 60 or more.

The cats have been part of the house’s ambiance much to the dismay of folks who don’t appreciate a slew of cats wandering about Key West wherever they please. There was a move to have the cats removed.

According to this Jaunted post, the five-year negotiation about what should happen to the cats is over, and the cats can stay. A fence around the Ernest Hemingway House and Museum was found to be a solution.

Jaunted wondered why it took five-years to make a decision. I’d say perhaps there was a love-hate relationship with those cats.

The tourists who have visited the house seemed to enjoy the felines since they are a living connection to Hemingway. Plus, this literary cat haven helps take care of Key West’s cat population.

When I read about the cats, I was reminded about traveling in Venice, Italy one summer. I have never seen so many cats in one city in my life.

Here’s the link to the museum’s page on the cats. Browse through the names. I’m particularly fond of Spencer Tracy’s photo which you see here. He may look a bit like Snowball is my thinking–a slimmer version, perhaps.

Foyles’ Read Around the World

One of London’s best independent bookstores, Foyles, has been hosting an in-store promotion that armchair travelers may want to know about. Read Around the World is a campaign that highlights literature and authors from different regions around the world. The Foyles grand tour of the continents includes promotions, competitions and events that center around a different part of the world every two months. They highlight cookbooks, travel guides, photography and art books, as well as world music from each region, all hand-picked by Foyles staff.

They are still showcasing Europe titles on their (recently revamped) website and also South America, the next continent to be highlighted in their literary tour. Beginning in December they will shift their focus to Asia, and round out the circumnavigation with a final promotional phase for Australasia. If you live in the UK or will be visiting at all between now and the end of February, be sure to visit one of Foyles locations, and be transported to someplace else.

The World Tour Compatibility Test

We all know that travel can often serve as a good test of a relationship. Here’s a couple that set out to see what would happen to them after taking to the road together. Over at Memoirville, a place where writers can test out their true-life stories, I came across the World Tour Compatibility Test, defined as, “Part travelogue and part convoluted love story…a series of true stories set in exotic locales, as two American writers decide whether to break up or move in together.”

After only two months of dating, Elizabeth Koch, Executive Editor of Opium Magazine and Todd Zuniga, her boyfriend and co-editor, planned a 5-week trip they dubbed “The Opium World Tour.” Their travels took them first to China, then Japan. There were additional destinations after that, but those chapters have not yet been revealed. (A clever way to hook you into wanting to buy the book when it comes out, huh?)

The writing is fresh, funny, heartbreaking…so you may just get hooked. But then you’ll be left hanging with the rest of us. Do they split the rent or split up? As Elizabeth explains, “The ending isn’t happy, but it’s not sad. It’s complicated. Realistic.” Elizabeth began sharing her work-in-progress memoir on December 1, 2006. The tenth and final installment of the story (so far) was posted on May 3, 2007. It’s easy to follow along on the Memoirville website.