Happy Mother’s Day to my brilliant mom! And to my mother in law, my sister and sisters-in-law, and to all the moms out there! (I know we are well past British Mothering Sunday, but this weekend is the American holiday. Feel free, all you Brits, to have an extra celebration on us!)
Two glamorous girls– my mom and me– on a beach in South Carolina, where so many of my fist travels took place. Circa 1969.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
Tonight, I’ll be tuning in for To Walk Invisible — the BBC drama about the Bronte sisters that is featuring on PBS Masterpiece. If your passing knowledge of the Bronte sisters is simply that they were successful writers, then you’ve missed a huge swath of their story– the entire furtive, formative swath. The part that was hard, ugly, and, literally, doomed . . . but literarily resilient. But then, could you have expected anything else from a family that lived on the atmospheric Yorkshire Moors and created such stories as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre?
I think you could not.
It might be smart for me to watch tonight’s show and then write this post about the Brontes– both to refresh my memory about their story and to comment on the show itself. But I’m at the computer now, and so I write. Also– before the show has the opportunity to retouch my memory of a trip to the Bronte Parsonage at Haworth– I’d like to tell you what I remember about my trip there, because it had quite an impact on me.
Confession: I was never a big Bronte fan. My sister was the impetus behind our trip to the Bronte’s home. I didn’t dislike the Brontes, I just hadn’t spent much time with them. I probably thought their brand of gothic fiction was more outdated than classic. I was wrong.
But I didn’t see that until I visited their home and learned more about their lives. The conventions of gothic had nothing on the actual lives of the Bronte sisters. Dark, atmospheric tales weren’t just a hook for catching a reader, they were faithful incarnations of the harsh realities of life in Haworth (and at the Bronte home).
Their mother and two sisters died young. Their brother died in young adulthood– of illness and addiction. Emily died four months after her brother; Anne died the next year; Charlotte died six years later (but still only 38 years old). Their father outlived them all, by many decades.
He was quite the exception for the village of Haworth. In the 1800’s, the village was a gloomy place and the average life expectancy was less than 30 years old. There was no real sewage system in Haworth. Sewage often ran in the streets and tainted the water supply. What water there was to start with– which wasn’t much and was of bad quality. Finally– just to add some grim to the grime– the overcrowded city cemetery, which grew more overcrowded each year and had very bad drainage, sat (still sits) at the top of the city hill, further poisoning the town. That is a recipe for death by death.
One more thing–possibly important if you are a Bronte– the village cemetery sits in front of the parsonage. Death on your doorstep: a fine thing to wake up to each morning.
So, if you were a Bronte sister, you grew up in a village where infant mortality was sky high and people of every age had a tough go of it. You lived at the edge of the wild and harsh Moors, quite a distance from any large, urban centers. Your prospects in Haworth were not so very good, your childhood playground was a cemetery, the wind howled, your preacher father married and buried a revolving door of friends and neighbors, and nothing in life was easy, not even a kettle of water for your tea.
No wonder your brother became an addict; no wonder your relatives passed young. No wonder your imagination turned to a rich inner world to pass your days . . . but a world of disquieting stories.
I’m sure tonight’s program will teach me a good many things about the Bronte family that I did not know. I am eager to learn. My first visit to Haworth was around 2006– so my memory is a little fuzzy on details, but not on the overall impression. I’d already been living in Yorkshire for a year, and loved the environs, so it’s not surprising that what struck me most about the Bronte home was the town, the general environs in which this family lived. It was the perfect setting for a gothic tale.
It was a grey, atmospheric day the first time I visited Haworth. The town was picturesque and compact. I remember winding up the cobbled street, passing a sweet shop, a tea room, a pub. Passing tourists. Seeing the tidy parsonage, and its dreary graveyard, at the top of the hill. All perfectly picturesque– especially as you stand at the crest of the hill and look down at the winding street of town, the stone shops and home fronts, and the rolling hills around it.
If you want to see a bit of what my eyes saw, here’s a short YouTube video that will give you a quick glance at Haworth and a view from the top of the town. ( Be warned–the narrator does drone on at the end of the video, “blah blah, polar bears, blah blah”– just ignore that bit. He also says “Withering” Heights, repeatedly– hard to ignore, but try.)
BUT– for all of the beauty, as the grey clouds swarmed the day of my first visit and the air ran chill, I gathered up all I had learned about life in Haworth in the 1800’s, and what I remembered of some of the haunting elements of the Bronte sisters’ tales, and I saw the town differently. I saw the graveyard at the pinnacle of the town, I saw the run off and sewage coursing through the streets below, I saw Branwell (the addled addict of a brother) watching death wash over the streets from the dark pub window. The town itself seemed a little Jekyll and Hyde to me.
Haworth seems like a tale well told, but hard-lived. An amazing place to visit, for certain.
I’ll leave you with two things, below. The first, a portrait that I saw in the parsonage– rather famous– which Branwell painted of the three sisters who survived him. I love (and loathe) it for the fact that Branwell had originally painted himself into the portrait, but (for what reason?) decided to erase himself out of it. It is no subtle erasure. What he leaves is worse than a gapping hole in the middle of the painting: it’s a spectral ghost of himself that (for me, at least) becomes almost more of a focal point than the remaining likenesses of his sisters! I suspect that this will in some ways ring true with the Bronte family story I watch tonight. The ghost of Branwell, the presence of death and despair in Haworth, is largely the energy that created the Bronte stories.
The second nugget I leave for you is a YouTube video that acts as a teaser for the production To Walk Invisible. Enjoy!
About this time last year, Katie and I flew off to London for the weekend to take in some theater, a London Fashion Weekend show, some good food, some history, and a shot of urban living.
Our first night in town, we’d seen the play “The End of Longing” on the West End. The play was pretty good, the stage sets were remarkable (both for their look and for their “rapid changeability”), and our meeting with Matthew Perry after the show went well– no matter what my daughter might tell you to the contrary. (Unless Matthew Perry is actually reading this, in which case, let me take a moment to apologize and say that I’ll try to be much cooler if I ever meet you again, please don’t feel the need to take out a restraining order against me. And, for the record, that person who called out your name before you approached me, thinking it was me, was actually someone standing behind me– and this is why I was totally unprepared for your approach and may have lost it a little. Seriously. I don’t usually blither . . . or shake–it was REALLY cold out too, and I was wearing a sleeveless coat in the middle of winter in London– not practical, but it was really cute, don’t you think? Anyway, Matthew, we got off on the wrong foot, you and me. I’m lots cooler than that. Sometimes. Anyway, embarrassing as it was, I really did mean it– you are great.)
Moving on. . .
Our second night in London required a strong drink to make me forget how I’d embarrassed myself on our first night in London. Katie wanted to go to a rooftop restaurant or bar and soak up a little urban chic. Good plan. But the chicest of the chic would have required reservations much in advance, so we looked for “in and out” bars that would fit the bill. One popped up with potential, and in an area of the city that we know well and has some great views. The rooftop bar at the Hilton Doubletree by the Tower of London.
It fit the bill well. The bar itself was chic enough, if not ultra swanky. The drinks and desserts we ordered while oogling the view were spot on– I went for a Moscow Mule, my favorite go-to, and something cheesecake derived (fuzzy memory, but I remember that the presentation was great).
We sat inside (it being February), but there is a very large and lovely outdoor terrace too, if you find yourself in London during warmer months.
The view as the sun dropped low and disappeared altogether was stunning. I did feel urban, and I did feel chic, as I sipped my Moscow Mule and looked out over the hustle and bustle of London. So much energy and atmosphere rolling out in the streets below and all along the Thames.
First, it’s the urban energy and the architectural artistry that quickens your pulse. But then . . . well, maybe it’s my wistful nature, or maybe it was the Moscow Mule, but I think maybe it’s a universal truth that you look out over a scene like this and you find yourself not just overlooking geography, but gazing at history rolled out before you like a red carpet just begging you to walk it.
The Tower of London alone could suck you into its stories, never to re-emerge in the present. (Because so many people who entered the Tower of London never did re-emerge. So many.) There alone you have 1000 years of history: a history that includes Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard, Guy Fawkes, and Sir Walter Raleigh. A history that includes the prisoner who escaped by dressing as a washer woman and walking out of the gates undeterred– a tale later immortalized by Mr. Toad in the Wind in the Willows. And a history that, despite it’s strong-arm nature, notes its own possibly precarious existence in the legend of the ravens. The flock of ravens that lives at the Tower, considered a menace by some, enjoys nearly sacred status by others. Legend has it that if the ravens ever leave the Tower, the Tower and the Monarchy will fall. This legend is taken seriously, if not somberly: the ravens have their own Yeoman Raven Keeper. (Brexit may be problematic, Parliament may be bickering, but rest assured that the Monarchy doesn’t plan to fall any time soon, and the Raven Keeper will see to that.)
If your gaze slides just west of the Tower and down the Thames, you’ll be strolling into Southwark. Into the history of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, past The George Inn, the oldest (or only) galleried Georgian pub remaining in London, and a favorite drinking spot of the ever-thirsty Charles Dickens. Here, if you are terribly bookish, or prone to the seductive ambiguity of twilight, or more than one Moscow Mule into the night (which I wasn’t), you might get so caught up in the teaming past-life of the London streets you are over-looking (that you might have, in a less wistful mood, entirely overlooked), in their teaming vapors of past-present-literary lives that, each and every one, ask to be explored and understood– well, you might just never re-emerge.
But we did. We drank in the view and wondered at the lights and lives we peered out over, if not into. Then we left our towering view above the Tower. We emerged energized, awe-spired, and feeling rather chic and smart. We emerged ready to tackle more of what our fabulous friend London could throw at us.
If only it had given me one more chance at making a good impression on Matthew Perry.