It’s not as if I don’t do a lot of these. I’ve been to almost every place that has an association with Jane Austen or Charles Dickens. I’m actually staying in the hotel that Agatha Christie stayed in when she disappeared after her breakdown (or after she was attached by a giant alien wasp, if we’re going with the Doctor Who theory). These visits have always been fascinating, intriguing and interesting. But something about the Bronte’s Parsonage really touched me.
The sight of the sofa where Emily died almost reduced me to tears. When I saw the room that Charlotte died in, I felt intense shivers all over. (I was able to look at the bed Branwell died in with perfect equanimity, so it’s not the whole ‘deathbed’ thing affecting me). The room where the three sisters, then two, then one alone, paced round after dark, creating their stories, still has an intense, almost otherworldly feel. This place is special.
Maybe it’s because I’ve always identified with Charlotte – this plain, overlooked woman with the passionate soul, so free and adventurous in her writing, so reserved and shy in reality. Or maybe it’s that the Bronte Parsonage still feels so very much like it must have done in their time – the same furnishings, the same desks and chairs, the same alterations Charlotte made to prepare for a married life. It still feels like that breeze on the back of your neck is the breath of one of the sisters, as if you turn quickly enough you’ll see the edge of Charlotte’s skirt whisk away down the stairs.
The moors themselves are still so close – ten minutes walk and you’re up amongst the heather, on the same path the three of them trod. Wuthering Heights comes sharply to mind when you’re up on Penistone Crag.
I know some people feel these literary pilgrimages are worthless, that is reducing great literature to tourist trappings. And there is a lot of Bronte tourism – there isn’t a Heathcliff Burger Bar anymore, but there is a Villette Coffee Shop. The shop where Branwell bought the opium that killed him proudly proclaims the fact. But I feel there is a still a power in standing in the same room where Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and Tenant of Wildfell Hall were first imagined, and in clambering up those moors to the top where Emily, Charlotte and Anne must have stood and dreamed.