I love Christmas, and I love books, but there’s one set of books that I cherish more than any other – the works of the Brontë sisters. When I heard that there was to be a special candlelit tour of the Brontë Parsonage Museum on December 15th, well I just had to go. Believe me, I wasn’t disappointed.
The Brontë Parsonage was home to Charlotte, Emily and Anne (and their black sheep brother Branwell) from 1820 until 1855 when the passing of Charlotte meant that the world’s greatest literary family had laid down their pens for the last time. It’s situated in Haworth, West Yorkshire and is open to visitors all year round, except January. The parsonage is now bigger than it used to be, after the addition of a new wing by a subsequent rector, Reverend Wade. This wonderful picture by talented artist Amanda White shows what it looked like at the time of the Brontës.
I was so excited as I waited for the tour to begin that I could hardly bring myself to drink the mulled wine laid on, but I somehow managed. The tour was guided by Lauren and Anne, two leading Brontë experts, and the parsonage had been faithfully prepared as it would have been at the time the sisters lived there.
Our first call was the drawing room, where the sisters would walk round the table composing their stories. It also famously contains the settee that Emily died on, refusing to the last to admit she was ill. A servant later recalled how sad it was to see first just Anne and Charlotte walking around the table, and then just months later Charlotte on her own, as tuberculosis claimed them.
We next went into the study that belonged to their father, Reverend Patrick Bronte. As well as his writing desk, it contains the upright piano that was played by Emily and Anne. Jamie Cullum has been to the parsonage to play it as well, but you can’t have it all. The kitchen was home to walnuts and raisins, the ingredients for the Christmas cakes and puddings that the keen cook Emily would have made. The reference to Christmas preparations in Wuthering Heights is the only time that it’s mentioned in any of the sister’s books, nor do they mention it in any of their letters. Nevertheless, there was a very festive feel as we walked around the parsonage.
A real treat was waiting for us in the Brontë library, an area that’s not usually open to the general public. White gloves donned, Anne and Lauren showed us letters that were written by Charlotte herself, as well as one of the incredibly tiny books that the sisters wrote as young children. Their father had brought his children some toy soldiers, and they spent the next years of their lives writing stories for them, and about their imaginary worlds of Angria and Gondal. If ever proof was needed of how important it is to encourage children’s creativity, and fire their imagine, this was it. The writing is so tiny that it can only be read through a magnifying glass, and they even put imaginary adverts in their ‘magazines’ as well.
It was incredibly moving to be so near to work created by the minds and hands of geniuses long gone, a feeling that was reinforced as we ascended the stairs of the parsonage. This portion of the museum exhibits some of the personal belongings of the Brontës and their servants, including Charlotte’s wedding veil, and sketches that the children drew on plaster walls. One of the most touching sights is the tiny bonnet that was made for Charlotte’s expected baby by a friend. She was pregnant when she died aged 39, meaning there would never be any Brontë descendants.
Despite their tragically short lives, and the surroundings of a graveyard, thought to hold as many as 30,000 bodies, and the rolling windswept moors, the candlelit parsonage is an incredibly serene and peaceful place. This really was the perfect start to the Christmas season, and on Christmas Day morning I’ll certainly be picking up a penguin. It won’t be the chocolate bar, or even the lovelorn Monty of advert fame, but those black spined classics that still have the power to transport us to another world. So whether you read Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, or The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall this Christmas, raise your glass to the talents of three truly remarkable women.