Updated: Feb 5
I spent my childhood years only fifteen miles from where the Brontë sisters (and their brother) spent their childhoods and the all too few years of their adult lives. I’d like to say that I grew up in their shadow and that from an early age it was their influence that made me want to become a writer, but I don't think I actually visited Haworth until I was 19. I must have been aware of its vague literary connections, but I don’t remember the village ever being mentioned at school, and like our cousins in Horsforth (a mere 20 minute drive away) who we only ever saw at Christmas, it felt as remote as the Highlands.
My parents split up when I was 18 and in my first of four years at Trent Poly in Nottingham. On weekend visits back to Otley (or ‘Home’ as I still called it then) I’d alternate my stays with Mum and Dad and for the first time started to do things with them as individuals, rather than (with the addition of my younger brother) as the wider family we’d always been until then. With Dad it was drives out to see watercolour exhibitions, games of snooker at the Con Club and walks in the Dales; with Mum it was visits to museums, the occasional trip to the Grand Theatre in Leeds and walks on the moors.
Mum had always loved the old black and white film of Jane Eyre starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, and perhaps it was watching the film together on a wet Sunday afternoon on one of my weekends home that prompted us to visit Haworth and the Brontë Parsonage Museum the next time I was up. And after that first visit we went again the next year, and the next, until it became 'our annual pilgrimage' as Mum called it. We didn’t always pay to look around the parsonage, and we didn’t always walk over the moors to Top Withens, but I’m pretty sure we always stopped for tea and cake at a café and had 'a little potter' round the galleries-cum-giftshops and second-hand bookshops on the High Street.
And it must have been around the time of one of these early visits to Haworth that I read Jane Eyre. Having loved books as a young child, I stopped reading in my early teens and didn’t start again until my uncle gave me a copy of Henri Charrière’s Papillon for my 17th birthday. How strange, I remember thinking, to give me a book for my birthday. And there it sat, untouched on my bedside table for six months or more until one evening, with nothing else to do, I gave it a try. Within a few chapters I was hooked, and after Papillon came Tess of the d’Urbervilles, then Great Expectations, then Jane Eyre. I was a slow reader, still am, and loved the way that this story of Jane and Rochester could transport me out of the depressing malaise of the late 1980’s. Or perhaps it was just lifting me out of my own personal malaise.
Reading Jane Eyre, quickly followed by Wuthering Heights and ElizabethGaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë, made our visits to Haworth more vivid and strengthened my connection with the village and the surrounding moors, as if I was a personal friend to the sisters (and their brother) and they just happened to be out when I called in. Our 'annual pilgrimage' continued for several more years, but then, in 1996, our visits to Haworth suddenly stopped. I had resigned from my job as an NHS manager in Nottingham and moved to China to teach English with VSO for two years. While there I met the woman who would become my wife and on our return we decided to give London a try, liked it, and are still here. My literary influences changed and the writers who meant most to me were poets rather than novelists..
I rarely thought of Haworth or the Brontës, other than as early influencers, forever associated with my early forays into literature during my late teens and twenties. But 26 years on and soon after the last of the Covid-19 restrictions had been lifted, we went to stay in Haworth for four nights. It wasn’t with my Mum this time (who was on holiday with my brother) but with my mother-in-law and our three children. We stayed in a cottage a few minutes walk from the station and from the living room window could look across (as I did numerous times a day) to the tower of St Michael and All Angels’ Church where all of the Brontë family, apart from Anne, are buried.
I’d written a poem about Haworth around six years previously (one of a series about my Yorkshire childhood), but hadn’t been quite happy with it, so took the opportunity of staying in the village to revisit the poem and rewrite the third and fourth couplets. The original poem had ended with me sitting in the Black Bull pub with the sisters’ troubled brother Branwell, but just as he had clumsily daubed himself out of the only contemporary painting of the Brontë sisters (which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery), I scribbled over the lines that featured him.
I was keen to retain the walk to Top Withens though (the supposed inspiration for Wuthering Heights), and that sense of following the sisters across the moor and back to Haworth. We did the walk (senza mother-in-law) on a very wet morning, almost turning back shortly after crossing the little stone slab bridge at Brontë Falls, but ploughed on to shelter within the roofless walls of the old farmhouse when the rain was at its heaviest. Instead of the lines about Branwell, I felt I needed to include some reference to the sisters’ writing, and to their otherworldliness, far from the London literary scene, sequestered with their father in the stone parsonage at the top of the damp, unhealthy village, unaware of their impending greatness and that their work would be treasured for centuries. So I leave them in the parlour, as we look on from the churchyard, just the other side of their garden wall where the original gate would have been. The candle-light in the parlour is the only light in the house and the only sign that the three of them are sitting round the dining table, back at their writing.
On our final morning in Haworth we went to look round the parsonage and I savoured a couple of minutes alone in that small parlour, in awe of what they’d created there and pleasurably befuddled as always to be in a place where something momentous happened. From behind the barrier in the doorway, I stared at the conker-coloured table, took in the dark sofa upon which Emily died at the age of just 30, and acknowledged George Richmond’s portrait of Charlotte which I’d copied for Mum’s 50th birthday.
During our few days in Haworth I was working on my Walthamstow Village poem/print and enjoyed getting up before everyone else to add more details to the map of the village which sits below the poem. I also made a rough sketch of the Haworth print which would be in the same format, with the revised poem sitting above an image of the parsonage at dusk with the looming moor in the background. Walking up the steep high street after so many years, I climbed through a corridor of stone: rain-darkened cobbles; the soot-blackened stone of houses and shops. I therefore chose to incorporate the stones into the title and parts of the image.
And in lieu of line-breaks between each couplet, I positioned an image of the church tower at each corner of the square. The tower didn’t have a clock in the time of the Brontës, but as the blue clock face, lit at night and clearly visible from our cottage, was one of my enduring memories of our trip to haworth, I decided to include it. Instead of the clock hands though, I added in the three sisters’ initials and then, like a sculpture placed on the vacant Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, I was able to add Branwell’s initials too. I’d cut him out of the poem, but kept him in the print.
We'd follow the sisters to Top Withens
and back, our annual pilgrimage of sorts,
loving the moor as they did, as somewhere
to find that wilderness within yourself.
In the darkening village, we'd see them
to their gate, then wait in the churchyard
for a candle to be lit in the parlour,
and we'd leave them so in a blaze of writing.
Castiglione di Garfagnana, August 2022
To buy a copy of the 'Haworth’ print please visit the Prints page on this website or contact me directly at michaelshann1[at]gmail.com