by Judith Fein

It’s a gray, dismal, rainy day in northern England. What a perfect time to visit that bastion of gothic girlhood–where the Bronte sisters lived, wrote, repressed their emotions and most of them died. Haworth is the ideal location for romantics who have read and loved Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights or Ann Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall. A group of Bronte fans, all probably dreaming of the wild and passionate characters of Heathcliff and Catherine, huddles under umbrellas at the Bronte homestead, in front of the old stone church.

A hundred and fifty years ago, the Brontes’ austere father, Reverend Patrick Bronte, preached his sermons here. Today, there is a local band accompanying a modern-day preacher. Any bona fide Bronte enthusiast can easily picture the three little girls standing here in the rain, enthralled. The parishoners look down at their well-worn song books, and they begin to sing. Their voices waft over the parish graveyard that the girls walked through every day. It’s these gray, lugubrious tombstones that fueled the girls’ imaginations, offering up character names and telling tales of infact mortality, typhoid and personal tragedy.

The Bronte home, otherwise known as The Parsonage, is open to tourists, and the Victorian interior has been preserved intact. There’s the piano the girls played, the dining room table which Charlotte, Emily and Ann circled as they read and critiqued each others’ writing at night. There is a palpable aura of sadness around the sofa where Emily expired, stoically concealing her tuberculosis from her loved ones until hours before her demise. And there’s the back kitchen where the motherless girls learned to knead and cook and carve.

In Charlotte’s room, visitors express their amazement that such an enormous literary talent was lodged in such a tiny body. Her delicate dresses, mittens and boots look as though they could have been worn by a child. Perhaps the greatest thrill is looking at the astounding books the girls wrote as children. These action-adventure-romance-fantasies are hardly more than an inch-and-a half tall, covered with thousands and thousands of words in handwriting so minuscule that the girls almost went blind from creating them.

As visitors proceed through the Parsonage, they learn about the “other” Bronte– brother Branwell, an artist, poet and consummate sufferer, who, by the way, has lately garnered quite a fan club of his own. Branwell bucked convention and slipped into a dissolute life of alcohol and opium. Armed with this provocative information, many tourists opt for visiting Branwell¹s nearby watering hole, the Black Bull, after they leave the Parsonage. The locals don’t like to speak ill of the Brontes, but the pub manager concedes that Branwell spent some of his darkest hours there, drinking himself into a stupor. He was often among the last customers to leave.

By now the Sunday service has ended, and tourists are permitted to enter the dark, dank church. A group is gathered in sad silence near the main altar, and a small plaque reveals that this is where Charlotte and Emily are buried, under the flagstone.

One can¹t help but wonder why, after a century and a half, so many people make pligrimages to Haworth and why the Brontes still have such a hold on peoples’ imaginations. Robert Barnard, chairman of the Bronte society, has a theory: “I think the novels touch a chord in people. They are Romantic, they are Gothic. As my mother-in-law said, every woman should have a Heathcliffe in her life. She meants that a passion of that sort–an overmastering passion between two people– is something everyone should experience. My mother-in-law would have worn Heathcliffe down to a frazzle.”

Barnard reveals what visitors respond to most when they visit the old Bronte haunts. “I think it is the parsonage. I sometimes stand upstairs–I like to do it in the late afternoon, when the crowds thin out. I hear people coming out of one of the rooms saying it’s incredible. It really is what they wanted from the house. What they’d always imagined the house to be like.”

Although it is now a popular tourist destination, the town of Haworth still has the original shops, the cobblestone streets and the school building where Charlotte taught. On the outskirts of the city are bridges, castles and buildings that inspired the settings in many of the Bronte novels. But there’s nothing quite like taking off your shoes and running through the moors that Emily loved so well. Once again, Barnard waxes eloquent: “The moors turn purple around August or September time and then the moorland becomes a great blanket of purple–an astonishing sight. Emily’s first mature poem was about this heather waving in the breeze.”

Braving the rain and the cold, a hardy group of Bronte fans runs through the moors with buoyant abandon. When dinner time comes, exuberant tourists converge on the local pubs and gather around buffet table groaning with Yorkshire pudding, mutton and pies made of various internal organs. It is the fitting end to a perfect Bronte day. As the visitors head off to their cars, campers and tourist buses, there is the strange stillness in the air. If you listen hard, you can almost hear the footsteps of the Bronte girls, somewhere in the distance, as they trundle off to bed to dream up those passionate novels that have fed and nourished so many literary souls.

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