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]

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.

One for the Road – China: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

As a sidebar to this month’s Chinese Buffet series, throughout August, One for the Road will highlight travel guides, reference books and other recommended reads related to life or travel in China.

Did I mention that I read an entire book while on the train from Beijing to Shanghai? While browsing at the Foreign Language Bookstore on Wangfujing Dajie in Beijing, I came across a copy of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Since my backpack was already overloaded with guidebooks, I really had no business buying another book, but this tiny paperback was whispering to me. After I learned that the plot revolved around a secret trunk of forbidden books, I knew I had to have it.

The tale begins in the summer of 1968, when two boys, both sons of doctors, are sent to a “re-education camp” during the height of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The story revolves around their friendship, the beautiful little seamstress and a mysterious collection of Western classics, hidden in a suitcase in the home of their friend “Four Eyes”. Anyone with a passion for literature will probably find this historical novel to be a quick and enjoyable read. (It’s perfect reading material for an all day train trip through China too!) Written by Dai Sijie, a Chinese filmmaker who has lived in France since 1984, a movie version of the book opened the Cannes Film Festival in 2002.

One for the Road: The Art of Rough Travel

Here’s another book I found while browsing the stacks at Oblong: The Art of Rough Travel from Mountaineer Books was originally published in a much larger version way back in 1855. It soon became “a bible of self-sufficiency for a host of now famous explorers.” Written by Sir Francis Galton, a British anthropologist, inventor, statistician and geographer (among other things), Galton’s journal now provides modern travelers a historical look at the culture of outdoor recreation over 150 years ago.

Subtitled “From the Peculiar to the Practical, Advice from a 19th Century Explorer“, this 2006 condensed edition recounts Galton’s adventures as one of the first Europeans to explore the interior of southwestern Africa. As one reviewer claimed, this delightfully dated book will teach you a bit about how things used to be, but probably leave you feeling forever thankful that we live in a more advanced travel age.

One for the Road: An Anatomy of Roads

My June travels through the Hudson Valley have uncovered some interesting titles about and from the region. Today’s reading suggestion is one I found on the shelves at Oblong Books. It’s a rather unique essay collection from Bard College called An Anatomy of Roads: The Quest Issue, the 44th edition of the college’s literary journal, Conjunctions.

The issue explores “the fascinating, complex process of defamiliarization as the ultimate path to knowing oneself” as revealed in a series of poems and fiction pieces. Bristish author Jon McGregor offers a story of a distraught man who travels to an unnamed island in search of his lost father. David Schuman’s story “Miss” is an eerie modern desert journey in which a man and his daughter, who is convinced that she is a cat, encounters the mother who abandoned him working in a Twilight Zone-like diner in the middle of nowhere. “Kronia,” by celebrated fantasy writer Elizabeth Hand, details a love story that may or may not have actually happened over the course of decades around the world.

These stories and over twenty more have been gathered together in this collective journey of the mind. A few are available online at the archives of the journal’s website.