The Three Bells
Striking north from the M62 took us through several small towns and villages along the edge of the Pennines. Stone Chair, Queensbury, Mountain, Denholme, and the wonderfully named Flappit Spring pass by as darkness greeted our approach to Haworth in Yorkshire. The streets in the upper part of the town are narrow: we struggled to park behind the 18th century Old White Lion and checked in.
The following morning revealed a fascinating landscape viewed from our bedroom window on the first floor of the inn. Several narrow valleys interlock between fields and moors, some of which are bare and others feature hamlets or farms. How they ever built a railway to Haworth is a wonder. The railway station wasn’t here in the time of the Brontës. There is a scene in the BBC film To Walk Invisible, which was broadcast about a year ago, where Charlotte sets off to walk the four miles to Keighley to send a manuscript to London by train. Later in the film, Charlotte and Anne travel to London to see their publisher, a journey of seventeen hours!
About twenty-five years ago, my wife and I visited the Parsonage where the Brontës lived in the first half of the nineteenth century. I was, of course, aware of the Brontë sisters but I hadn’t read any of their novels. Part of my secondary education was at the type of school that, at the time, was known as a technical secondary. The design of the curriculum meant that I had to opt for science or the humanities at the start of the third year (whatever that is in current terminology – I can never remember how the numbering goes). I chose science, with the result that I didn’t study English literature. Since I retired a few years ago, I have tried to catch up with reading some of the classics of the genre.
Since watching the brilliant film To Walk Invisible, I’ve read Jane Eyre and a book of letters written by Charlotte Brontë: a second visit to the Brontë Parsonage beckoned.
The Parsonage is situated at the highest part of the town, behind the church at the top of the hill.
The extension to the right didn’t exist when Patrick Brontë, the curate of Haworth, lived there with his family. It was added by the curate who took over from Patrick after his death at the age of 74 in 1867.
The open moors lie immediately behind the parsonage. It is easy to imagine the sisters leaving the house to walk and think about plots and characters, away from the bustle of the Parsonage.
The film focuses on the three-year period from 1845 to the death of the sisters’ brother Branwell in 1848. Branwell was not as talented as his sisters and lacked their work ethic. He started and lost several jobs and failed to establish himself as a writer or a painter. He was only 31 when he died, probably of tuberculosis complicated by alcoholism.
The trees that surround the Parsonage weren’t there in the Brontë’s day. Consequently a replica of the house was built high on the moors (where there are no trees) and the interior was reproduced in a studio in Manchester.
The film, written by Sally Wainwright, is an unromantic depiction of the struggle of the sisters in coping with their wayward and often drunk brother and their attempts to get their respective novels published. They chose to publish as men: Currer, Acton and Ellis Bell, Charlotte, Anne and Emily respectively, presumably because they thought that they wouldn’t be taken seriously by a publisher if they presented manuscripts written by women.
One of the very knowledgeable guides told me, in response to my question as to why the sisters chose Bell as their pseudonym, that there are at least two theories. One is that three new bells were hung in the church that was next door to the parsonage. (A different church stands there today.) Another is that bells ring out, which is what the sisters were trying to do in their writing. It is a matter of pure coincidence that Charlotte married a man named Bell, her father’s assistant curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls.
There is a wonderful scene in the film where Charlotte and Anne arrive at their publishers in London in order to clear up the rumour that the novels were written by one man. One of Charlotte’s letters refers to this scene. The two women are looking at a copy of Jane Eyre that is on display in the publisher’s premises. A young assistant looks disapprovingly at the women as they turn pages of the novel.
The reaction of George Smith, the publisher, was a joy to watch. Not only did he learn that one man did not write the novels but that three sisters wrote them.
Another very moving scene in the film shows Charlotte entering her father’s study to show him a copy of Jane Eyre.
“Currer Bell is famous,” he says to her, turning the book over in his hands.
‘It’s me, father, I wrote it,” she tells her disbelieving father.
I don’t remember reading a letter that refers to this event. If it didn’t happen, it doesn’t matter because the scene works beautifully and draws attention to the secrecy implied by the title To Walk Invisible. Charlotte didn’t even reveal to Ellen Nussey, her lifelong friend and frequent correspondent, that she was an author: the level of secrecy was intense.
It was a very moving experience standing in the dining room of the Parsonage, looking at the table where the sisters wrote their now famous novels. I have read only Jane Eyre. I was immediately struck how independent Jane is: a proto-feminist in an age when opportunities for women were very limited. When she leaves Mr Rochester after the disclosure about his mentally unstable wife who lives in the attic of Thornfield Hall, Jane becomes a schoolteacher. She is drawn back to Mr Rochester towards the end of the novel to find that Thornfield Hall has been destroyed in a fire started by his wife. She died in the blaze and Mr Rochester was blinded and maimed. Despite his injuries, Jane’s love for Mr Rochester is as true and strong as it was when she worked at the hall as a governess. The opening line of the final chapter: Reader, I married him. tells us how the story ends.
In the years immediately following the end of the film, tragedy visited the Brontë household: Branwell’s three sisters died within a few years of one another. Emily died in 1848 aged 30 after catching a cold at Branwell’s funeral and Anne passed away in 1849 at the age of 29 while she was convalescing in Scarborough. Charlotte arranged for her sister to be buried there to spare her father from attending the funeral of yet another of his children.
Charlotte lived for a few years after Anne’s death. She died in 1855 aged 38 as a result of complications during pregnancy, less than a year after she married Mr Nicholls. Mr Nicholls stayed on to look after Patrick after the death of Charlotte. He didn’t get the job of curate after Patrick passed away and returned to Ireland, gave up the church and became a farmer.
Even if you aren’t a fan of the work of the Brontës or aren’t familiar with it, the Parsonage is a fascinating place to experience where the three authors lived and worked.
The penultimate scene of the film gives us the view out of the window of the room where Charlotte is slumped on a sofa, weeping at the loss of Anne. The camera then pans outside, where we see today’s visitors to the Parsonage and its gift shop milling about, picking up books and making purchases. It is both a clever and moving scene and serves to emphasise that the Brontë sisters no longer walk invisible. Visitors from the world over visit the Parsonage to see where the three women wrote and became famous for some of the most celebrated works in English literature.