Haworth and the Bronte Parsonage

My birthday weekend was spent in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales. P organised the whole trip as a surprise, mainly, I suspect, because I’ve been banging on about how much I want to visit Haworth for years. Literally years and years. It must have been getting quite annoying. Anyway, I wasn’t planning on writing much about the trip but it was Bronte Country and this is a book blog so it only seems right to post a few photos, although I now realise that I might have to divide this into two separate posts in order to squeeze it all in.

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We got the steam train into Haworth from Oxenhope. It’s only a short journey – less than ten minutes – but it feels very Victorian and I quite liked imagining Charlotte and Ann Bronte encased in those wood panelled carriages on their way to see their publisher in London. Although they obviously wouldn’t really have taken that particular route, now that I think about it. Duh. Anyway, you can take the train through to Keighley – which we did later that afternoon – but first we got off at Haworth to do some exploring.

The Bronte Parsonage is only a five minute walk from the station and its well sign posted but up a fairly steep hill. Haworth’s cobbled streets were decked out in bunting and it was a beautifully bright day so everything looked neat and welcoming, far cleaner than they probably did a hundred and fifty years ago I imagine. It was a slow walk up the hill and we kept stopping to admire all the Bronte themed cafes, bookshops and gift shops that dot the High Street. When we finally got there we spent a lovely couple of hours in the Parsonage. I’m not going to say too much about it – you should go, that’s all you need to know – but I will say that for this Bronte fan it was ridiculously thrilling and kind of overwhelming.

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I spent a bomb in the gift shop and then we explored the neighbouring church. The current church was rebuilt in the 1870s so it isn’t the same as the one in which the Reverend Bronte preached but there is a Bronte chapel with some memorials to the family.

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We followed our trip to the church with a nice lunch sitting in the sun outside one of the cafes on the High Street. We returned to the area a couple of days later to explore the surrounding countryside but I’m going to save that part of the trip for another post, just to prevent this one from being obscenely long.

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Forgive the slightly self-indulgent holiday-snappy post. I’m a little bit in love with Haworth.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) by Anne Bronte

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Throughout January I listened to the audiobook version of Clare Harman’s excellent and very sensible biography of Charlotte Bronte on my drive home from work each evening. I always think January is the bleakest of months and I don’t particularly enjoy long stretches in the car at the best of times so as the days passed I was surprised to find myself looking forward to my cosy night-time drives with the Brontes. As the audiobook was drawing to a close I wanted to prolong that nice companionable feeling a bit longer so I went on the hunt for a new-to-me Bronte novel in all the (three) bookshops close to my office. I had an idea that it might be a good time to read Agnes Grey or Villette or (ideally) some of Emily’s poetry, but alas, it was not to be.

The best I could manage was a rather tatty copy of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall which I found squished at the end the Bronte section in Waterstones. It followed a whole shelf and a half stuffed full with beautiful copies of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights which made me feel a little sad for poor, overlooked Anne Bronte.  I was pretty certain I’d read this already (and didn’t think much of it) but my memories were pretty hazy so I parted with the cash and it came home with me. It turns out that the book I read fifteen years ago was possibly one of those abridged versions mutilated by Anne’s horrified publishers in the years after her death. It was definitely much shorter than the version I’ve just read so I had a hard time reconciling this version with the one I very vaguely remember from back then. It’s nice in a way because it made the book feel new-to-me all over again.

Anne’s publishers subjected the book to pretty heavy editing after her death to mitigate some of the negative publicity that both of Anne’s published novels seem to have attracted.  It seems highly unfair now but I expect the novel’s themes were pretty shocking to readers of the time (“Wildfell Hall it hardly seems to me desirable to preserve”, wrote Charlotte later. “The choice of subject in that work is a mistake”).  This is the story of Helen Huntingdon and her radical decision to flee from a drunken, womanising husband after years of torment at his hands. Much of Helen’s story is told in diary format but it’s sandwiched between letters written several years later by Gilbert Markham, her only friend during her months in exile. For once, I wasn’t a huge fan of the diary/letter style but only because it feels like such a direct, confrontational novel; I think it needs a more direct style of narration perhaps.

“… for, since he and I are one, I so identify myself with him that I feel his degradation, his failings and transgressions as my own; I blush for him, I fear for him, I repent for him, weep, pray and feel for him as myself; but I cannot act for him and hence I must be, and am, debased, contaminated by the union, both in my own eyes and in the actual truth…” 

My main fascination with this novel lies in the fact that it so obviously draws upon Anne’s own experiences with her brother Branwell’s decline into alcoholism and drug addiction. It must, I think, have been a bitterly uncomfortable book to write and it gives you a strange sense of how impotent the sisters must have felt as they watched their brother rage and waste away the opportunities offered to him as the only son in the family. The injustice of their situation is mirrored in Helen’s powerlessness to do anything for herself or for husband. Of course, in the eyes of the law and the church Helen’s property is Arthur’s property, she is Arthur’s property, so she is completely at his mercy. Her decision to run away is a radical one but leaves her vulnerable to rumour, suspicion and condemnation.

I enjoyed this book much more than I expected to based on my experiences with the abridged version fifteen years ago. I’m reluctant to spend too much time comparing it to the other Bronte novels I’ve read but I will say that it doesn’t have the romantic brutality of Wuthering Heights but it’s not as restrained as Jane Eyre either. Anne clearly didn’t feel shy about portraying a very real and very common, but rarely discussed, problem in all its grubby sordidness or to say that it wasn’t fair to deprive women of any power to help themselves in situations such as this. The writing isn’t as polished as her sisters’ perhaps but while the subject matter (and all the moralising) may feel a little dated now it’s a much braver novel than it perhaps gets credit for.

I detested Gilbert Markham more than I hated Helen’s wicked husband but it’s weirdly refreshing every now and again to read a Victorian novel in which the menfolk are unremittingly awful in every possible way.

Top Ten Tuesday: facts about me

It’s been a while since my last TTT post. I let them slide back in March and have been waiting for a good reason to go back; this week’s theme is ideal since it’s pretty vague and doesn’t involve racking my brains for ten books that tenuously fit the given topic! The general idea this week is for a series of bookish facts about me, but I’m rubbish at following very basic instructions so….

Earlier this week I was thinking about how certain books can end up tied to specific times and places in our memories, so I’ve adapted the question to suit this instead. Here are some books and the memories that they spark for me:

1. I read The Great Gatsby during one lonely night in a Polish convent.

2. I read Primo Levi’s If Not Now, When? when I should I should have been writing my Masters dissertation (and I’m eternally grateful to my then flatmate for hiding the book so I could get some work done).

3. I read Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries series when I was far too old and I’m not ashamed.

4. I read Pride and Prejudice over several long days in a hospital waiting room when my nan was sick.

5. I read The Lovely Bones against my better judgement and have regretted it ever since.

6. I read Rebecca whilst hidden in a field of long grass by a river at the height of summer.

7.  I read P.S. I Love You at work and was very nearly fired from the horrible retail job I was doing at the time.

8. I read Jane Eyre three times in a week when I was thirteen and off school for the Easter holidays.

9. I read 100 Years of Solitude whilst lounging by a swimming pool in the south of France with my sister by my side.

10. I read Twilight because my friend hated it so much and I was curious.

That’s it for another Top Ten. I’ll try not to leave it quite so long next time!

Top Ten Tuesday: My favourite female characters (some of whom are also introverts…)

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke And The Bookish. This week there was no set topic, I was free to choose my own… 

This started out as just a plain old list of some of my favourite female characters in literature but it got out of hand pretty quickly…. I kept thinking about how much I hate it when writers think that a female character has to be ‘feisty’ in order to be interesting. I mean, honestly, that word is overused. I can’t see it or hear it without wanting to headbutt something.

It makes me wonder about all the introverts out there who aren’t represented in fiction. Why don’t we get a look in? Can you have a strong, interesting female character who isn’t (urgh) ‘feisty’? Or are the thoughtful, more reserved, characters destined to always be the weak and simpering damsels in distress?

Eventually I decided I was being a bit unfair on the world of literature, partly because it turns out that quite a few of the characters on my list fall somewhere towards the ‘introvert’ end of the spectrum. Clearly they do exist. It got me to thinking though, are they on my list because there’s something more relatable about characters who have more going on inside? Or am I just drawn to characters who seem a little more like me?

And then I started to wonder, why does everything have to be so black and white? Why should any character be an extrovert or an introvert? Or clever or stupid? Or kind or cruel? Aren’t the best characters the ones who are a little bit of everything and nothing and one thing one day and another the next? The ones who are like actual people.

And then I thought: Stop it, just write the list….

1, Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith. The first time I read this book I felt like I’d known Cassandra forever. Her narration is so easy to read and she’s so likeable that it’s impossible not to get swept up in her life. Like any normal human being she’s sometimes surprised by her own feelings. I like that.

2, Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. There’s something about Esther that makes me uneasy but I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on what it is. I suspect it’s possibly because she’s so perfectly written that you almost feel like you are descending into the darkness with her. It’s quite unsettling.

3, Jane Eyre in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. She doesn’t have much to say for herself but there’s so much going on under the surface with Jane. I love the fact that she absolutely insists on doing what she thinks is right, in spite of all the entreaties from the man she loves and even though she knows it will make them both bitterly unhappy. It’s hard not to respect that (even if you do kind of want to give her a good shake…).

4, Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling. No introduction needed. I’m pretty sure we can all agree that Hermione is the best character in HP, right?

5, Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch by George Eliot. I won’t lie, I hated Dorothea for ages. She comes across as very self-righteous in the beginning but you eventually learn that she just wants to feel like her life has some value. She’s full of so many worthy intentions but she makes some really daft choices.

6, Dinah Glass in The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross. Without Dinah that wicked headmaster would be ruling the world by now and then where would we be? Huh? That little girl kicked ass.

7, Miss Marple in the Miss Marple books by Agatha Christie. Never underestimate Marple, that’s the first rule of book club. She sees, hears and understands everything, all over a nice cup of tea and a piece of fruit cake on the lawn. The old dear runs rings around all those patronising, young detectives.

8, Amy March in Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott. I know Jo and Beth get all the love and I admit they’re pretty great but I think Amy deserves a little recognition. She’s vain and whingey and has a weird obsession with limes that I’ve never understood….. She’s not as placid as Beth and Meg, nor as fiercely independent as Jo, but you could argue that she matures, and learns, the most over the course of the novel. She’s a nicer person at the end of it.

9, Guinevere Pettigrew in Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson. I’m ridiculously fond of this book and of Miss Pettigrew, the downtrodden, middle-aged governess who turns up for a job interview and gets caught up in a glamourous whirlwind of parties, filmstars, nightclubs and fashion shows. It’s silly but I’m always thrilled for poor Miss Pettigrew. I’m glad she gets to have some fun for once.

10, Estella in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. I’m usually a bit dismissive of Dickens’ female characters but I’ll make an exception for Estella (and Miss Havisham too in fact). I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Estella, I feel sorry for her. There’s a bit at the end of the book where she says to Pip, “Suffering has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken but I hope into a better shape…” It’s practically my favourite thing ever. 

So there we have it, some of my favourite female characters. Is there anyone you’d add to the list? Who have I missed? (Besides Elizabeth Bennett obviously!).

In the interests of fairness I may well devote my next TTT freebie to my favourite men in fiction!