Friday 16 September 2016

Looking for Jane Eyre’s mad woman in the attic: A visit to Norton Conyers in North Yorkshire - Part I

On our way back from the holidays in Ireland we always spend a few days in the UK, usually in Yorkshire, as this is a region we really love. This year the destination was the area around Ripon, and we had a very specific goal set from the start: a visit to Norton Conyers.

Photo © Norton Conyers 
We were staying in The Old Coach House in North Stainley (near Ripon), a lovely B&B and  a real oasis of peace and tranquility (and a pub and restaurant nearby!).

I had done my research in advance and I knew the house was only open to the public on select days and times, but we were lucky: the house was open for visitors in the period that we were staying in the area (27 to 31 July 2016), only in the afternoon with guided tours at 2 pm, 3 pm and 4 pm.
The estate is well hidden amidst trees and parkland, and it took us a while to find the entrance. We had to park the car near the stables and the walled garden, and then a short walk  towards the House. We had to register for the group visit in a little “shed” next to the house and await the guide’s arrival. We received a brochure about the house and its history, written by the present owner, the 11th baronet, Sir James Graham, which made a very interesting read. This was a good introduction to the guided tour we were about to receive.

The side and front of the house

Detail above the front door

The front door

 Norton Conyers is a late medieval stately manor house, a pleasing mix of historic styles,  with Stuart and Georgian additions.  It has been owned by the Graham family (originally from Scottish origin) since 1624 (except for a period of 20 years between 1862 and 1882).  The house is steeped in history and has welcomed a number of noteworthy  guests such as King James II, King Charles I and of course Charlotte Brontë.

Sir James and Lady Graham in the Hall

The Hall

With a little delay we went over to the house via the side-entrance which still contains the bells that rang when service was required in one of the rooms (each bell having a very specific sound for each room). We were personally  greeted and welcomed for our guided tour by Sir James and Lady Graham in the Hall. The first part of the tour consisted of an introduction by the current owners about the history of the house, but also about the extensive repair and restoration work they have been doing since 2005, when they discovered a major death-watch beetle infestation in the wooden floorboards. Many pictures were shown of how the house looked like during the restoration work, we could even see some real carcasses of the destructive beetle (collected by Sir James). During the restoration work, which is still ongoing, fascinating layers of the history of the house have been uncovered and the owners have been able to carry out “extensive  rescue archeology”, as Sir James mentioned in his brochure. The restoration work has been done with great care and a real passion and  respect for the historic structure of the house. As a consequence of their remarkable renovation work, Sir James and Lady Graham received the  Historic Houses Association & Sotheby’s Restoration Award 2014, which proudly hangs on the wall in the Hall.
"The Quorn Hunt in 1822" by John Fernely
in the Hall

A collection of family picture in the Hall

The most interesting part for me was of course the link with Charlotte Brontë, who is said to have visited Norton Conyers in 1839 when she was a governess with the Sidgwick family. Lady Graham pointed  out that the restoration works have enhanced many features of Norton Conyers mentioned by Charlotte Brontë in her description of Thornfield Hall: the battlements around the roof, the rookery, the main broad oak staircase, the high square hall covered in family portraits and of course the famous Mad Woman’s room in the attic.

The “secret” staircase, hidden behind a secret door in the wooden paneling on the landing near the Peacock Room – the supposed model for Mr. Rochester’’s room in Jane Eyre – and  connecting the first floor to the attic rooms, was discovered in November 2004 (after having been blocked up for donkey’s years). “There was no way you could tell from outside that there was anything there”, said Sir James. This discovery aroused world-wide interest because of the striking similarity with the story of Bertha Mason, the mad wife of Mr. Rochester locked up in the attic in the novel Jane Eyre. The secret staircase was probably constructed in the late 17th century to provide servants with a short cut from their sleeping quarters to their workplace. It  was certainly in use when Charlotte visited and she must have heard the story of a “mad” woman  called Mary who was locked in the attic of Norton Conyers in the 18th century. In Jane Eyre the staircase is vividly described by Charlotte and matches the concealed staircase in Norton Conyers perfectly (now officially also called “The Jane Eyre Staircase”). This story has most probably inspired Charlotte Brontë when writing Jane Eyre, as has the house itself.

Picture of: the Mad Woman's room in the attic

Picture of: the concealed staircase towards the attic

 To be continued

Marina Saegerman
27 August 2016

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