Bronte Parsonage, Haworth, West Yorkshire, England

Photography is not allowed in the Parsonage, so these photos will come from other sources, the exterior and around Haworth.  

I first read Wuthering Heights when I was sixteen and dangerously more clueless than I am now. It was the first book that made me love literature for literature’s sake, as art. Wuthering Heights transcends its story — which is tragic and horrible, obviously — and is a living illustration of how rich life can be when art is a part of it.

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Entrance to the Bronte moors

Emily Bronte opened up a new world of beautiful language.

When you love a Bronte, you are no longer a passive character being entertained but a being with volition.

Visiting Haworth village was an absolute must.

I tried to write something objective, but it all turned into a gush. My apologies.

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The town was exceptionally cold and rainy and abandoned that day. I loved it.

Oh, it was worth it — my sixteen year old self died and went to heaven.

In Haworth, the church seems to be the center of town and next door the beautiful and humble Bronte Parsonage is what is left of the original Bronte family home.

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Haworth Church

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The stone says “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.”

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The Bronte Parsonage

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One of Haworth’s resident church cats

Following Patrick Bronte’s death (the last remaining member of the family) and his son-in-law’s sale of it and its items, its fate luckily fell into the hands of nerds — the Bronte Society. The group was founded 30 years after Patrick’s death, now they own and maintain the parsonage.

Lemme tell you, this is a dedicated bunch. They spent years trying to secure the house and hunt down auctioned off possessions. The desk of Charlotte Bronte recently was anonymously donated and returned to Bronte Parsonage.

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Bronte Street

If you visit and you’re not convinced of the power of the Bronte fandom, look at what happened to Shakespeare’s house in Stratford, England.

After Shakespeare’s death, his home was passed through to another family until it came into the hands of one Reverend Francis Gastrell. By 1759 the Reverend became so fed up with the town of Stratford’s antics and never ending streams of visitors that he demolished it.

It took The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust another 100 years to acquire the place which is now a pile of rubble that can only hope of being recreated. The Bronte Society following suffers no such fools.

What’s left of Shakespeare’s home — Photo courtesy Tom Reedy via Wikipedia

No, following the Bronte sister’s legacy came a dedicated cult following. Can you imagine the implications of a Bronte Society spy operative? This is the kind of nerdiness that I can get behind.

Side note: Upon further investigation of the Bronte Society, I’ve actually found that spy operative antics are not that far off: the society has been under scrutiny in the past few years with the resignation of key leaders and disputes with the town of Haworth. The biggest issue is that factions within the society and the surrounding community disagree on how to make the Parsonage as high profile a tourist destination as say, Stratford-Upon-Avon. 

For all of my teenage adoration, I was worried that my husband would be grinding his teeth in the corner with boredom, but what most touched me about the museum is that Daniel was so intrigued by it. Like really.

Daniel’s not a big reader and when I explained to him the premise of Wuthering Heights he kind of cringed. “Why do people like this book?”

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Okay, I cheated and took this one photo inside…

He hasn’t read it (yet), but the reasons being beautiful language and powerful symbolism and literary might didn’t sway him…but for some reason, the Bronte home did move him.

A few days prior we had gotten to tour Hampton Court a famous “play palace” for Henry VIII and later generations.

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I was obsessed with the Tudors as a child thanks to all of those historical fiction journals based on the leading ladies of court. And yet, neither Daniel nor I really found Hampton Court to be really inspiring – fun to look at some points, because of the grandeur, but not uplifting so to speak: leaving Hampton Court we felt a little sick thinking about all of that extravagance compared to all of the poverty around during the time. It comes from the culture that we grew up in, American privilege and all (not that we’re the best examples of denying excess to help the impoverished) and it couldn’t be shaken off.

But Bronte Museum drew the opposite reaction. Their modest house, for all of its lack of insulation, is warm and inviting and it really gives you that feeling that this was once a happy home with some interesting characters. Daniel really liked this. He’s almost ready to pick up one of the Bronte books.IMG_1704

Another plus to the experience is that we didn’t feel like the guides were trying to push a narrative on us. In Stratford, visiting Anne Hathway’s home, specifically, we felt shoved into believing that Shakespeare was so in love with his wife and that they had a happy companionship forevermore…besides the fact that Shakespeare had illegitimate children and was rarely at his home. We felt that we were allowed to draw our own conclusion in Haworth, all the facts being put before us as we strolled through the home.

You also come to realize that a lot of heartbreak happened here too. But it felt like a well lived in home. The home, if a home can be such, is now a character in our narratives.

Patrick Bronte, the patriarch of the family, was a hard working Irish clergyman from a farm labouring background; he himself was a poet and at times an activist for improved living conditions.

Patrick Bronte — Photo courtesy of Your Paintings

Maria Branwell Bronte — Photo courtesy of Tuga9890 via Wikipedia

In 1819, after the war, Patrick led his wife, Maria Branwell Bronte, and six children to Haworth. It’s here that the Brontes suffered the first of the great family tragedies with the death of Maria. The museum didn’t mention much about Maria, at least that I saw, but you can imagine the devastation the loss would have been to a large, young family.

Until Patrick could remarry, Elizabeth Branwell, Maria’s sister, joined the household to look after the children and home. But, Patrick never did, marry that is, and in the coming years, the two eldest children, Elizabeth and Maria would join their mother, suffering from Tuberculosis. Thus, leaving the home motherless and without their older sisters.

The family that we know — three sisters and their eclectic brother — grow up having lost so much.

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As I walk through the first floor studies one of the spots most striking to me is a grandfather clock that sits in a nook of the stairway.

As Patrick would leave his own front room study for the night, he would check in on his daughters working in the dining room and he would remind them to not stay up too late. It’s this famous clock that Patrick would rewind before heading to bed, probably chuckling to himself, knowing his authority would be brushed off — candles burning low, Heathcliff and Rochester, are being formed by the light.

Featured in the museum is a copy of this piece by Branwell Bronte of his sisters that also hangs in the stairwell.

While the original is actually in The National Portrait Gallery, this copy hangs in the stairwell in the house so that if you stand across to look at it, you also have a view of a haunting sculpture of the three sisters, hand in hand, in the garden. I myself love the painting by Branwell and think it a lovely tribute.

Side note: Anyone seeking to get me a Christmas gift? The Bronte Sisters portrait is a great start. 

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If you look in the middle, you’ll notice that he had at one time painted himself in, but in the end decided otherwise and blotted himself out. Not particularly well, mind you – you can still see his ghostly shadow. But I just love that little factoid.

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Upstairs, past the tiny bedrooms, in a separate annex, we learn the role that formal education for the Bronte sisters played in their lives. Education for the daughters of a poor lower clergyman was not seen as a high priority but the family saw to it otherwise.

Schooling was not always a happy situation for the Bronte sisters. It is the poor conditions of the Cowan Bridge School that are speculated to be the cause of Maria and Elizabeth Bronte’s early deaths.

The trauma that this school inflicted upon the girls can be best seen in Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, where the most famous Mr Brocklehurst earned his character, among others. Emily, even after being moved to Miss Wooler’s school — a haven for Charlotte, who would make lifelong friends here — found no refuge and eventually went back home to the Parsonage.

Cowan Bridge School — Photo courtesy of Karl and Ali via Wikipedia Creative Commons

Charlotte most benefitted from her time at school, but it was in the Parsonage that the Bronte children grew as writers.

Beginning with childhood stories that they made up together of far off lands and magic, the girls encouraged each other in long evening sessions in the dining room by candlelight (although, later Charlotte would hinder the publication of some of Anne and Emily’s works following their deaths, including Wuthering Heights, seeing especially Emily’s works too dark for publication).

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The Parsonage has only a few plaques to read in each room. But it’s simply being in the space that is the most inspiring. Their belongings are very carefully placed in their original rooms so that the experience, the air, affects you most. Two hundred years after its last occupants have gone, the house is still alive.

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Life in Haworth was not safe, hygienically, and the Museum accounts for this unfortunate part of Haworth too.

Without a sewage system, the mortality rate in Haworth was 25.8 years of age according to the 1850 Babbage Report. And when you know that Branwell died at age 31, Emily at 30, Anne at 29, and Charlotte at 38, in this context, the Brontës’ lifespans seem almost fortunate. Because they lived at the top of Main Street rather than the bottom, the sewage waste of town drained away from them and because they had access to their own water supply via a well in their back yard they added a few years more to their short lives. Dysentery, cholera, typhus, malnutrition and smallpox avoided them unlike so many others at this time.

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Haworth Church Graves

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The pub where Branwell allegedly began his descent into alcoholism.

What I appreciated most about this humble museum is that it didn’t try to skirt around the issues. It didn’t try to beat visitors with a sugar-coated narrative. All of the care and love that so many dedicated literature fanatics have placed into the home — you can tell. It shows, Bronte Society, it really does.

Bronte Parsonage is a true home – it is a place of love and happiness, a place of mourning and a retreat from caprice. It doesn’t try to hide its skeletons: we already know them from history. But what it does illuminate is this beautiful human need for family and acceptance. Highly recommend.

Although, admittedly, I’m a sucker.

Read more about trails around Haworth that will take you to Top Withins, the speculated inspiration for Wuthering Heights. IT WAS THE BEST.

When to Go:

I went mid-day in the middle of May and even then rain is most likely going to plague your stay if you plan to be outdoors. My biggest tip is to be flexible and to allow yourself at least an hour to explore the house. The museum closes at 5PM (530 during peak season April – Oct) and so be flexible and visit the museum when you need shelter from the rain. Chances are, you’ll leave the house with much better weather than what you started with.

How to Get There: We took a bus from Leeds that dropped us off within 0.5 miles of the main Haworth village. Trains to Haworth are a bit tricky unless you’re visiting during a busy tourist time.

Good Eats: Daniel and I had the BEST meal in Haworth at The Cookhouse just across the museum on the main strip. There are tons of cute little shops and pubs along, many are pretty touristy, but still good and reasonably priced.

Tips: The museum doesn’t have a bathroom and it’s not terribly wheelchair friendly, I don’t think I actually saw a lift. But their website just asks that you let them know when you’re visiting so that they can accommodate special needs.

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