Saturday 16 October 2010

Mad about the Brontës: Dutch journalist Jolien Janzing visits Haworth to research her novel about the Brontës in Brussels

This is a translation of an article by Jolien Janzing originally published in Dutch in the Belgian newspaper De Standaard Der Letteren on 13 August 2010 about a trip to Haworth to research a novel she is writing about the Brontës in Brussels. While there, Jolien met various people in the village including the director of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, the parish priest and a guide who does Brontë walks.

Jolien Janzing established her reputation through widely-discussed articles published in Belgian and Dutch magazines. Her first work,
Grammatica van een obsessie, received excellent reviews.

In a recent article in the Belgian magazine
Feeling, Jolien identifies with Jane Eyre because she too felt like something of an outsider as a child, being Dutch but growing up in Belgium. She recognizes in herself the belief in true love that Jane Eyre had. And she says that Charlotte Brontë inspired her to become a writer herself.


There are some classics which simply never lose their charm. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, for example, or Wuthering Heights by her sister, Emily, which are still being published in no less than 26 languages. And it’s not just the Brontë sisters’ books which continue to sell like cookbooks; the Brontë Parsonage Museum in their native town of Haworth continues to welcome a steady stream of visitors. If anyone should doubt, the Brontës are still alive and kicking!

It’s Monday morning and while the sun is shining in Flanders the barren landscape of the Pennine Hills in West Yorkshire is cold and windy with menacing clouds as wet and oppressive as a bad cough and night sweats. But why am I here actually? In fact I’m working on a novel which looks at the two years Charlotte and Emily Brontë spent in Brussels learning French, So clearly there’s more research to be done back home than here in England, but when I find myself a bit later going up the steep Main Street leading to their father’s parsonage it all becomes clear again. Main Street has hardly changed since Charlotte lived here, even the cobblestones are hundreds of years old, and I can see her walking in front of me, a delicate young woman with a narrow back and slightly hunched shoulders wearing an ill-fitting overcoat. She’s hurrying home, occasionally nodding to a regular churchgoer.


I’m somewhat obsessed by the Brontës and want to see where they lived. My diary is full of appointments with people who know about every aspect of the village and every detail of the family’s history. For my part I quickly read everything Charlotte, Emily and Anne ever wrote, from the poems about their imaginary worlds of Angria and Gondal to their best-selling novels originally published under male pseudonyms. It’s not only their books which fascinate me, but also their private lives. The sisters grew up in Haworth, which at the time was an overcrowded, bustling little town, with their father being an Anglican parson at the head of the parish church. The Brontë girls’ mother had died at a young age and an aunt helped raise them. The four oldest girls, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte and Emily, were sent away to a new boarding school, the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge, but this turned out to be a wretched institution. While there, Maria and Elizabeth contracted a deadly infection and Charlotte endured a number of traumatic experiences which she purged from her system by writing Jane Eyre. Mr Brontë was left with three daughters and a son, Branwell, whom he spoiled horribly and who died at a young age due to a penchant for alcohol and opium. His daughters fared better and became well-known novelists, but they all died prematurely.

At the top of Main Street is the Black Bull pub where Branwell went to drink his ale and whiskey. There is a path on the right which leads to the church and directly behind it is the parsonage. I stand in the front garden and look up at the facade, thinking that the parsonage is certainly not what you would call a humble abode. And even if I imagine away the new wing, the house exudes a certain social status. I turn around and between the low garden wall and the church I see part of the cemetery. Here and there I see a standing tombstone, but most of them have been laid flat on the ground as if the living wanted to prevent the dead from crawling out of their graves, just like Cathy. Time has stood still here and the atmosphere is hazy and somewhat ominous.


It takes a bit of time before I can actually go into the parsonage because there are quite a few visitors there today: Scottish teenagers, Italian students, a bunch of Japanese and a group of Americans. At the threshold I stop for a moment and think about how many times Charlotte walked over it and that this is where Emily whistled to her dog, Keeper. I had expected to feel a lump in my throat when getting so close to the Brontës, but that didn’t happen after all.

From Mr Brontë's study I walk to the dining room with the table where the sisters sat when writing their novels. Andrew McCarthy, the museum’s director, is waiting for me in the kitchen and invites me into his office. There, I ask him if there are always so many visitors.

“Oh yes!” he proudly answers. “Last year we had 73,000 people come to the museum. Our visitors come from Japan, the US and Europe, and of course also from England.” I ask him if he sees more visitors when a television network airs a series based on the Brontës or their books.

“In those cases the influx of visitors is so impressive that we are sometimes afraid that the walls of the parsonage are going to give in” he replies. “Thankfully, it hasn’t ever been as bad again as what we saw in 1973, when the series The Brontës of Haworth was shown on British television. During that year, we welcomed in excess of 250,000 visitors.” Andrew’s bookcase contains a number of recent books on the Brontës, and from this I can see that I’m clearly not the only writer inspired by the reverend’s family. “The legend is still kept alive,” says Andrew. “There’s always a good film version of Jane Eyre in the pipeline, and that invariably accounts for a good deal of publicity. On the other hand, it has to be said that Brontë films are never blockbusters, and that the book is always better than the movie.”


On my way out I go through the museum shop and see an Italian student buy a brand-new edition of Wuthering Heights. With the novel carefully tucked inside her jacket – this is Yorkshire and it’s raining again – she walks out of the shop. The woman at the cash register winks at me and says “That girl has caught the Wuthering Heights bug. Some fans are so enthralled by the novels that they completely forget that Heathcliff, Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey never really existed. They often mix up the Brontë sisters with the characters in their novels. Just yesterday a visitor to the parsonage asked where Heathcliff’s bedroom was.”

Outside I open my umbrella and walk towards the church, but on my way there I stop for a moment at the low building where Patrick Brontë taught Sunday school. Through the dirty windows I see quite a few spider webs, but some desks for the pupils are still there. Charlotte Brontë taught catechism here when she was only 16. Emily didn’t like teaching, because she didn’t really like children. When she worked as a teacher for a few months at a girl’s boarding school when she was twenty, she told her pupils that she cared more about the dog than any one of them. She was a bit strange, that Emily, and possibly slightly autistic.

“Ms Janzing?”

Someone taps me on the shoulder and for a split second I feel like a character in a novel when something dramatic is about to take place. Unfortunately, there is no seductive Mr Rochester standing in front of me but instead a sprightly vicar.

His name is Peter Mayo-Smith and we have an appointment. He takes my arm and leads me into his church. Once upon a time, Patrick Brontë stood here at the pulpit and through his inspired sermons brought together his community.

“He was an exceptional man, Patrick Brontë!” We are sitting in a pew and Peter pulls on his fuzzy beard with a satisfied look. “He was tuned into nature long before there was any environmental movement. The cemetery was over capacity and thousands of corpses were rotting just below the surface of the ground, so Patrick had trees planted to speed up their decomposition. He was also democratically minded and spent time promoting education. The textile barons in Haworth brought orphans up from London to work in the factories next to the river, and Patrick opened a school in the evening to teach them to read and write.”

Peter’s eyes are sparkling and it’s easy to see that Brontë is his role model. He springs up and at the front of the church shows me the family grave where Maria Brontë, her children Maria, Elizabeth, Branwell, Emily and Charlotte, and also Patrick Brontë, were laid to rest. Anne is buried in the coastal town of Scarborough where she was staying while trying to recover from tuberculosis.


Behind me I hear a repressed sob and see a blonde woman in her forties crying. Her daughter puts her arm around her shoulders. We start talking and she tells me “Charlotte, Emily and Anne weren’t beautiful or glamorous, they weren’t models or actresses. No, no, they were ordinary women just like my daughter and I, but we also have a right to be loved.” I suddenly feel a need for fresh air and quickly say goodbye.

Johnnie Briggs, my new guide, is waiting for me at the church portal. He takes me to the cemetery in the pouring rain and tells me about the high rates of child mortality during the 19th century. He has an umbrella with him, but he doesn’t open it. There’s a drop of rain hanging from his nose and his coat is completely soaked, but this doesn’t seem to bother him.

We walk down Main Street and go into Hatchard & Daughters, a second-hand book shop. While looking around I see a book I’ve been trying to find for months: the compendium of Charlotte Brontë’s letters. Mary Hatchard wraps my book in a piece of brown paper. “It’s the personal life stories of the Brontës which continue to fascinate people”, she replies to my question about the secret of their popularity. “The novels are great, but their personal history is even better. It’s a tragedy and people just love tragedies, especially when they happen in the past because then they can watch from a safe distance. Look at Byron and Shelley! Byron, the pale hero who lived off tea and biscuits and died of malaria in Greece, and then Shelley, who was killed in a shipwreck. Their stories will stay with us for centuries. And there are also the scandals: there’s nothing quite like a good scandal to keep a literary figure in the spotlight! Byron slept with his half-sister and Branwell Brontë had an affair with a rich married woman 17 years older than him.”


I ask her what kind of people come in to her shop to buy Brontë novels. “Teenage girls all want a copy of Wuthering Heights. They think they’re Cathy and dream about passion and romance. They’re also the ones who are crazy about the dream-like poems and drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Jane Eyre is mostly popular with women over 40, who remember the book from when they were young and want to read it again.”

Nostalgia is very big in Mary’s shop. On the shelves there are books about World War II and I can also see a Vera Lynn CD. “The UK is losing itself in nostalgia,” sighs Mary. “World War II is still popular, but nobody asks for books on Vietnam or Afghanistan, because we only want to think about misery if it’s associated with victory.”

Mary is from London and lived several years in Amsterdam, but Haworth and its stories have captured her heart. She lives together with her husband and two daughters in an isolated cottage somewhere in the hills, and this makes her a bona-fide Brontaholic.


The following day the rainclouds have given way to a more sympathetic blue sky. Emily was in the habit of taking walks on the moor in the rain and during storms, but I’ve decided to wait for more clement weather. Johnnie recommends that I go to the waterfalls, which was a regular walk for the Brontës. I don’t bring a dog along with me, but I can imagine how Emily’s dog, Keeper, a tough bulldog, must have chased the sheep around.

The sounds of Haworth subside behind me and for the first time since I arrived I feel a certain degree of proximity. No trees grow on these hills and there is nothing except sheep, heather, sometimes in bloom, marram grass and low walls made of stones stacked up on one another so that the wind can whistle when blowing through the cracks. It is an empty landscape and my head is empty as well; there is room for a new story. When I reach the waterfall I go to sit on the rock where Emily liked to sit, with her big feet dangling above the splashing water. I open up the book with Charlotte’s letters. At the end of January, not long after she had returned from Brussels, she wrote to a friend “It seems to me that Haworth is a lonely, quiet place hidden far from the rest of the world.”

Jolien Janzing

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