I’ve been trying to get to Haworth to visit the Charlotte Bronte exhibition all year. It finishes this month. I was going to go up on July but went to look after my mum after an op instead. Then I went to some workshops and events in Haworth in September but they overran and I got there too late. Finally the Mr said, “Book a hotel, we’ll go up for the weekend.” And so it came to pass that on the last Saturday of November I stood on the doorstep of Bronte Parsonage, excited and expectant, and heard the guide say “I’m afraid we’ve had a power cut and everything’s in darkness. We may have to close.” I explained that I was clearly destined never to see it and he let us in for free, alongside the lady behind us who had “come a long way” and then closed to everyone else.
Once your eyes had adjusted to the light, it wasn’t actually too bad. We could still see the exhibitions – the tiny clothes, the tinier books, the miniscule writing – as well as each room, and the art and displays produced for Charlotte’s 200 anniversary. I feasted my eyes. We went backwards to the normal route round and so ended at the dining room where they wrote their books. By now, we were the last people in there and as we approached the room, the same guide appeared and told us they were going to do something even the guides hadn’t seen before. They opened the blinds in the dining room and revealed it by natural light. (Normally the blinds are down and it’s lit electronically.) It’s a charming room and I felt the same kind of frisson I had when I stood in the Motown studio that Marvin Gaye had used.
We had a lovely chat with the guide (after we’d all gone they were going to open a box of chocolates so he could have been excused for not talking) about the dreadful conditions of Haworth at the time the Brontes were living there – S was struck by the fact that 40% people never made it past their sixth year – and then the guide asked if E had been named after any of the Brontes. I felt terrible telling him she was named after an Austen character instead. “Ah, well it’s the next best thing,” he said breezily.
The church was closed when we emerged so no chance to visit their graves but we ambled through the town instead and pottered in the shops. There was a Victorian Christmas parade on, with carol singers, lights and a fairy scattering sparkly dust on the streets. It was all very jolly and didn’t feel too fake, considering most of the people there must have been visitors.
A stay at the Robin Hood Inn at Peckett Well, near Hebden Bridge for our evening meal and sleep. A lovely inn, really nice people but damn, that room was hot. E loves staying in hotels and was excited the whole weekend about it, waving goodbye to the building when we left. We travelled into Hebden Bridge and parked, deciding to clamber up the hill to visit Heptonstall. This was a recommendation from a Twitter friend and I didn’t know it was going to be such a steep hill, up cobbles covered with wet leaves. For some reason I thought Heptonstall would be a few houses but it was larger than expected, with two pubs and a Christmas craft fair. In days of yore it was a Cromwellian stronghold and saw off the Royalists in the Civil War but we were there because it’s the burial spot of Sylvia Plath.
The old yard has the higgledy piggledy charm of wonky stones sinking in towards each other, as well as the ruins of an older church to one side. I love a good graveyard anyway and we found many families with similar names (lots of Sutcliffes, and many women who spelled their name Susy. Why this should be, I don’t know.) Across the lane from the church is the new graveyard, where the plots are in straight lines and being slowly filled up with modern stones. It was less charming to look at but still very peaceful with lots of birdsong, a really lovely spot to spend eternity.
I first encountered Plath as a 13-year old with a male teacher who taught us her poetry for a short time. He described everything as the result of hysteria and terrible illness, never picking out the beauty or examining the female viewpoint, which as a teacher in a girls’ school was pretty unpardonable. As a result I never gave her a thought until I found The Bell Jar at the university book fair, devoured it, loved it and have treasured her ever since.
I found the grave and drew in to look at it. There were coins on the stone and at the foot of the grave, visitors had planted pens in the earth. I wasn’t expecting to be so moved by the sight of it, and wiped away a few tears before finding a few scattered oak leaves and arranged them.
We slid and slipped down the hill to lunch in Hebden Bridge before making our way home.
I hope E carries on enjoying reading. I hope she loves Jane Eyre. I hope she finds something important in The Bell Jar. I hope people continue to make little pilgrimages like this to celebrate our women writers.
Thank you, Haworth Parsonage, for letting me in.