Strolling along Haworth’s main street, I stop every few metres for a photograph of the quaint stone shopfronts and postcard-worthy views over the Yorkshire moors. I find it hard to imagine the village was once a crowded industrial town and a cesspool of death and disease during the early 19th century, when English literature’s great Bronte sisters lived here. At that time, the average age of death was 24.
The girls’ father, Patrick, helped clean up the village’s water supply, the main cause of high infant mortality rates, disease and other deaths. But his own children failed to benefit, as they passed away before he was buried in 1861.
His valiant efforts are documented at the Bronte Parsonage, the Bronte’s former family home which is now a museum. I visit to find out more about the tragedy-tinged lives of Charlotte, Emily, Anne and their brother Branwell.
The Parsonage illustrates a picture of three women who resisted social convention and expectation to realise their unbridled ambitions. It is 200 years since Charlotte was born, and a special exhibition curated by author Tracy Chevalier aims to further explore that contrast between her constrained life and furious determination.
Some of Charlotte’s books and toys are on display, along with examples of her writing and coded letters which scholars believe were attempts by the sisters to disguise their – often outrageous for the times – work.
Charlotte’s life was especially sad towards the end as she outlived each of her siblings, before dying on March 31, 1855, only nine months after marrying curate Arthur Nicholls. Letters she had sent to Constantin Heger, a school master she met in Belgium, reveal a heartbreaking insight into her unrequited love for the man, which no doubt fuelled her creative writing.
Much of that prose was created in the dining room at the front of the house, where the sisters would comment on each other’s work.