To Eyre is Human

norton cony attic room Getty Images
The secret attic room at Norton Conyers.

While we are on the topic of the Bronte sisters (or, at least, we were two weeks ago), there’s one more thing I should mention– an especially juicy tidbit.  Are you listening?  Jane Eyre may be inspired by a true story.

Norton Conyers

This isn’t news in North Yorkshire and the cozy city of Ripon that I once called home.   Just around the corner from Ripon, roughly two or three miles from the roundabout at the edge of town, lies a beautiful old manor house by the name Norton Conyers.   It is a handsome medieval squire’s home, dating back to the 1600’s, which has remained in the possession of one family (the Grahams) for nearly 400 years.  That’s an achievement!

However, the house had fallen into disrepair of colossal proportions: rain poured in, wood-boring beetles swarmed, and very little of the grand house was heated.  Thankfully, Sir James and Lady Graham, when they inherited the home, decided to undertake the many years of work that were required to bring the house back to its intended glory.

There are grander houses in North Yorkshire– Harewood House and Newby Hall are close by– but none with such an “eerie” (Eyre-y?) claim to fame.

Charlotte Bronte visited the home in 1839, possibly while she was a governess to another wealthy family.  According to long-held stories, there was a secret attic at Norton Conyers and a mad woman (“Mad Mary” some called her) was kept there.  Little more is known with certainty–but the tale has long been whispered, and the assumption has been that this local story is what gave rise to Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre.

I only got wind of this rumor in my last year in Yorkshire, but I thought it would be fantastic to have my book club make a visit to Norton Conyers after reading Bronte’s novel.  (This is the book club that my husband dubbed “the book and bottle club,” as he could always tell how well we’d liked and really discussed the book we had been reading by how quickly the book was tossed to the curb and the wine bottles predominated the night.  I’ll neither confirm nor deny the truth to that.)

I placed a call to Norton Conyers, ready to hatch my brilliant plan, only to find that the house was closed to visitors for some time while renovations were being made.  Some long time, as it turned out.

Panel hiding staircase

My sorrow at that news is everyone else’s good luck today, as the extensive restoration work has now been completed and the house does have some (limited) dates when it is open to the public.  AND THERE IS MORE.   Here’s the kicker:  as the renovations began, a secret staircase was discovered, boarded up, dusty, and narrow, with 13 rotting stairs, and hidden behind a hollow panel wall. That staircase led up to a small, windowed room at the outer edge of the attic.  According to Sir James Graham, the stories of such an attic, and its captive, seem to date back to about 60 years before Bronte’s visit.

The staircase that leads to the attic room. . . and that led to a classic novel.


Bronte, apparently, took an extraordinary amount of inspiration for Thornfeld Hall (in Jane Eyre) from Norton Conyers.  There is the broad, dramatic staircase that anchors the house, the rookery, the battlements of the roof, and the large hall that was filled with family portraits (though this is common to stately homes).  But, of course, it is the secret staircase that seals the relationship between Thornfeld and Norton Conyers.

Who was the mad woman at Norton Conyers?  Was “Mad Mary” just a catchy moniker or is she an identifiable historical figure?  Sadly, no one seems to know the details, and I doubt that they ever will.  It would be nice to restore that voice to the story, to understand what took place at Norton Conyers . . . but it’s a story clouded by centuries of intervening years and the sticky cobwebs of  secrecy and shame.  Was it a case of illness (mental or physical) that the family was simply trying to deal with in an age when there was no humane medical or social model to help the infirm?  Was it a case of abuse?  No one knows anymore.  But Bronte has left us with a fine story to sort out what might have been.  A story that, true to Bronte’s time, doesn’t deal particularly delicately with the mad woman, but does delve into the struggles of the other people caught up in the drama.

It was a great story– still is– but it left it to later generations to release that mad woman from her attic.  And, though it’s a story for another day, I’ll say that this makes me think of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald in the early 1900’s.  A modern tale, but still fraught with excess, madness, and tragedy. . . and a mad woman in an attic.  More stories I’ve read, characters (real and fictional) that I’ve loved, and houses I’ve toured.  But, as I say, that’s a story for another day.

  • To read an article in The Telegraph about Norton Conyers and the Bronte connection, follow this link:  Norton Conyers.
  •  A very good short video from the BBC on Norton Conyers and its restoration can be found here:  BBC.
  • To make a visit, contact the property directly: the home is open a limited number of days each year, but the home and gardens are also available for a wedding venue.  (Just don’t choose the “Mad Mary Package”!  Just kidding . . . I’m pretty sure that’s not on offer.)

29 thoughts on “To Eyre is Human

    1. I haven’t read it, but I remember a movie that was made of it. Had no idea of the connection to Jane Eyre. Maybe I’ll run out to the library and see if I can find it– thanks for the tip!

  1. I took the opportunity to visit Norton Conyers last year on one of its Open Days, so had largely heard this story then. But you tell it so well, and in such detail. May I reblog your post please? I can’t improve on your version!

    1. You are so kind! I’d love for you to reblog it. Wow– you visited the house! I’m more than a little jealous– I bet it was brilliant. Any chance you were able to meet Sir James and Lady Graham? I am so impressed with their dedication to the house’s restoration– the amount of time, money, and painstaking attention to detail they put in really speaks to a respect for the place and its history.
      Someday I hope to make a pilgrimage!

      1. We certainly met them. They did the tours, in the engaging way that’s only possible if you’re truly involved in the tale you’re telling. Thanks for letting me reblog. It’ll be next week now, if that’s ok.

  2. A fascinating story! It confirms my conviction that every outstanding novel must have its origin in some real life experiences. There is enough material in this post for someone to write a mystery novel. Happy blogging!

    1. I hear you. I am more and more convinced that novelists are true scavengers of what is already out there in the world. Even the most outlandish stories seem to be rooted in reality. Thanks, as always, for reading, Peter!

  3. They say all legend has a kernel of truth to it. A previous reader mentioned it, but I find Jean Rhys’ treatment of the “mad woman’s” side of the story fantastic in her novel, “Wide Sargasso Sea.”

    1. Rhys’ novel is on my “to do” list next run I make to the local library! What a great tip to get– I look forward to reading it (once I clear four other books off of my bedside table!). I do think so many stories contain that kernel of truth, especially the most compelling stories. A friend mentioned Moby Dick yesterday, and we had a conversation about the real tragedy that Melville’s story was built around. Makes you wonder what stories undergird our other favorite novels!

      1. Yes, so often the stories behind the novels are just as fascinating…”Jane Eyre” has always held an added pathos for me since I learned about Brontë’s own hardships at boarding school, which she heartbreakingly describes in the book.

  4. Reblogged this on From Pyrenees to Pennines and commented:
    Just round the corner from us, on a back road into Ripon, is a fine old manor house, Norton Conyers. It was in such ruinous condition that it was closed for several years while its owners, Sir James and Lady Graham, oversaw its restoration.

    Last year, one one of its few open days, we paid a visit, and I failed to blog about our wonderful afternoon out. But now I don’t have to.

    Ann Stephenson, in her wonderfully varied blog ‘Travels and Tomes’ not only recounts something of the house and its history, but lets us all into a secret. Norton Conyers, with its secret attic and resident madwoman may have provided the inspiration for Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’. How exciting is that?

    You can read all about it here. Thanks Ann, for letting me share this story.

    1. Thank you both, absolutely fascinating, I would love to visit. I loved Jane Eyre when I was younger but having since read Jean Rhys’s book (which is excellent) I can’t feel the same way about Mr Rochester!

        1. Well, if was him or the insufferably priggish vicar, I think I’d have gone for Edward. But more likely taken my inheritance and done a runner.

        2. There was definitely a creepy factor with Edward R. That’s the thing with the Bronte sisters– I know some people who also see Heathcliffe as a romantic, if tormented, figure, but he is scary. Any sympathy I could have had for him flew the coop when he harmed an innocent dog. So, in my book, no romantic hero to be found in the Bronte novels– but still great stories!

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