Published by Asahi, Japan, 2023
Haworth is a former market town situated among the Pennine Hills, in northern England. There are many market towns like it dating back hundreds of years. Yet Haworth has achieved a level of global fame that belies its small size. For this is the birthplace of the Brontes — Charlotte, Emily and Anne — three sisters of the Victorian age (about 1837 to 1901) who, between them, would produce some of English literature’s most enduring works.
Having grown up in what is commonly called “Bronte Country,” I was familiar with their legend, although I never much engaged with it. I didn’t study them at school, and it wasn’t until I’d moved away from England that I read any of their books.
But on a recent trip home to Yorkshire, I decided it was time to get to grips with their lives and legacy. And so, on a sunny, intermittently showery day in mid-March, I made the short trip to Haworth, some 20 or 30 years after my last visit.
Although I don’t recall much from those earlier visits, the slate roofs and the black, millstone grit
of the houses was immediately familiar to me, being little different from the village where I grew up.
The steep, cobbled high street, lined with cafes and boutiques, was filled with tourists. Some had traveled from as far afield as China and the United States and, to judge by the accents, from various parts of the United Kingdom. One lady I stopped and talked with was visiting with her daughter from California.
“I’ve wanted to come here for 50 years,” she told me. “‘Wuthering Heights’ is my favorite book. I named my daughter Emily (after Emily Bronte).”
Like most other tourists, I began my explorations at the Bronte Parsonage Museum, the former family home. It was here the Brontes were raised by their father, Patrick Bronte, an Irish clergyman, and it’s here they penned their most famous works, gathering in the dining room each day to discuss their writing.
While I’m familiar with the main aspects of their story, it’s nevertheless touching to learn just how brief their lives were. Anne and Emily were the first to go, dying from tuberculosis at ages 29 and 30; Charlotte succumbed a few years later. Their brother, Branwell — an aspiring portrait painter — also died young. And yet despite this, they would produce several classics of the English language: “Jane Eyre” (Charlotte, 1847), “Wuthering Heights” (Emily, 1847) and “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” (Anne, 1848). These were all written at a time when female writers were widely looked down upon and discouraged.
There are two other landmarks in the village associated with the Brontes. Opposite the parsonage is St. Michael’s and All Saint’s Church, where Patrick Bronte was curate and where the family is interred (another poignant fact: though his wife and children all died young, Patrick Bronte would live on into his 80s). And next door to the church is the Black Bull pub, where the ill-fated Branwell would pass the time getting drunk and where Charlotte met her publisher, George Smith, for the first time.
Yet the village is only part of the story; for the full Bronte experience you have to get out onto the moors. And after stopping for a packed lunch in the church cemetery while waiting for the rain to stop, that’s exactly what I did.
Few writers are so deeply associated with a landscape as the Brontes. Their novels, like their lives, play out against the Yorkshire countryside. It is here they would spend their afternoons, taking long walks through the bracken and heather — as I did too in my younger days.
For a time, I forgot all about the Brontes as I navigated stone stiles and boggy trails. A lapwing flitted by overhead; grouse clucked from within the purple heather; sheep baa’ed in the fields — all perfectly bucolic. Everyone I passed said “hello” — a friendliness that came as a small jolt at first, after my years of living in hectic, crowded cities in Asia.
One of the more curious things for visitors are the signposts in English and Japanese, for the Brontes are especially popular in Japan. In fact, there have been several books written on this subject, including a recent novel “Yuki Chan in Bronte Country,” by British author Mick Jackson.
Growing up, I remember thinking it strange that people would travel here from the other side of the world, it being fairly ordinary for me. But I’m starting to appreciate the Brontes’ allure — three sisters, each brilliant, each tragically short-lived — and how the Yorkshire landscape is inseparable to their mystique, just as that mystique is inseparable from each other.
An hour later I reached Bronte Falls — a small waterfall nestled beside a rocky stream. This was a favorite spot of the Brontes, according to the local tourist literature I’ve read, and here you’ll find “Charlotte’s Seat,” a chair-shaped rock where Charlotte would sit and contemplate her writing.
Crossing a small stone bridge — known as Bronte Bridge, obviously — I continued along the trail as it followed the hillside until, 30 minutes later, I caught sight of Top Withens, the final stop on my Bronte tour.
An isolated and ruined farmhouse, Top Withens is said to have inspired the setting of “Wuthering Heights,” Emily Bronte’s ghostly, interfamilial tale of thwarted love and revenge.
With its literary associations, there’s something quite forbidding about this ruin, perched on the crest of a hill, beside a gaunt, solitary tree, especially as the skies have darkened.
It was my first occasion to visit here, this site that has become so symbolic of this part of northern England. The landscape was certainly “windswept” and “wild” and all those other adjectives that characterise the novel’s setting. And yet, as long as the weather held, also rather charming. Not so ordinary a place to grow up after all — although it’s taken me 20-odd years to see it.