Jane Austen’s patch of England is the “green and pleasant land” of the old Anglican hymn. The tears, aching hearts and (for the most part) happy endings were based on the author’s experiences in the elegant streets of Bath, the cosy villages of Hampshire and the grand estates of Derbyshire. Austen’s greatest female literary competitors lived in a different world. The North West Yorkshire world of the Bronte sisters — Charlotte, Emily and Anne — was more often than not grey, hard and grim. The romantic gloom of the moors permeated the young women’s novels — “Jane Eyre,” “Wuthering Heights” and “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.”
If their books offer a view of love darker than Jane Austen’s, their lives fared far worse. While Austen struggled with writing and failed at love, the Brontes endured short, brutish lives and early deaths, with all but one never knowing their work was a success.
Their sweeping stories were penned in a two-story parish house surrounded by a graveyard in the bleak, claustrophobic village of Haworth in the Pennine moors of North West Yorkshire.
Most of the places that shaped the sad arc of the sisters’ lives are just steps apart in the tiny cobblestone center of Haworth. The Church of St. Michael dates from 1881, a replacement for the one where their father, the Rev. Patrick Bronte, took to the pulpit in the 1820s. Behind it is the tiny parish house ringed by gravestones that, as the novelist Mrs. Gaskell described it, were “round house and garden, on all sides but one.”
Tragedy was a staple of Bronte life in Haworth. The authors’ mother, Maria Bronte, and two eldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died soon after the family arrived. Their passing was not deemed unusual in a time and place where many people did not live past age 30. Life in Haworth could be difficult, especially during the severe winters.
It was only many decades later that it was learned that the high mortality rate in Haworth was linked to poisonous runoff from the St. Michael’s graveyard into the town’s water wells. The church where all the Brontes except Anne are buried sits across from the Black Bull pub, where the sisters’ beloved brother, Branwell, was a regular. Branwell was the reverend’s lone son. He showed promise as a painter and was admitted to the London Academy. But he didn’t last in London and returned home to binge on booze and opium until he died in 1842.
The three sisters wrote at a time when it was difficult for women to get published. They submitted their joint collection of poems under the pseudonym of the Bell brothers — Acton, Currer and Ellis. Despite the gender ploy, the collection was a commercial flop. All changed with Charlotte’s “Jane Eyre,” published in 1847. Soon after, Emily’s “Wuthering Heights” was a success — the drunkard Hindley Earnshaw clearly inspired by her brother Bramwell. Anne wrote the mildly successful “Agnes Grey” before her best work, “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” Success was literally short-lived. Charlotte could enjoy her success with “Jane Eyre,” but Emily died in 1848 before “Wuthering Heights” had received much acclaim. Anne died six months later. Charlotte wrote two more novels, “Shirley” and “Villette.” She struggled for more than two years to convince her father to let her marry the church curate in 1854. She was finally wed in 1854, only to die nine months later.
A small baby’s cap that she knitted for a family friend is on display at Bronte parsonage. It is all the more poignant because Charlotte was pregnant at the time of her death. The Bronte Parsonage with crows in nests overhead is now owned by the Bronte Society. The exhibits try to re-create the look and feel of a 19th-century parsonage.
Near Haworth is the Bronte Stone Chair, a smooth-topped boulder said to be where the young women liked to escape to read and write.
Visitors can cross Bronte Bridge and hike to Bronte Falls. Local tourist offices tout the 40-mile Bronte Way, which takes in locales drawn from the sister’s books. The ruined Top Withins is believed to be the setting for “Wuthering Heights,” while Ponden Hall was the model for Thrushcross Grange in the same book. Ferndean Manor in “Jane Eyre” is based on Wycoller Hall in nearby East Lancastershire. Fans flock to Cowan Bridge in the Yorkshire Dales, the inspiration for the dismal Lowood School in “Jane Eyre.”
On a starkly cold, sleet-driven winter day, Cowan Bridge is a long way — physically and spiritually — from the blooming love of a warm afternoon at Jane Austen’s imaginary Netherfield.