The North Yorkshire moors are as much of a living, breathing entity now as they were when the passionate and brooding Brontës lived amidst them. The moors, like the Brontës, are primeval in the force and fluidity of their moods. When the sun shines and a gentle breeze blows through the heather, gorse and long grass, rippling green, gold and purple in the light, it’s all liquid air and luminous colours, as if the cares of the world can’t touch their ancient sweep. But these are rare interludes, and the moors at night or in inclement weather are forbidding.
Darkly opaque and oppressive, the moors can turn into a slavering beast, especially when a constant rain turns large tracts into treacherous swamps. And in strong wind and storm, they become the embodiment of elemental passion and its inevitable destruction, which defined the lives and works of the Brontës.
When Emily professed in Wuthering Heights, “My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary,” or when Charlotte declared in Jane Eyre, “I am not an angel… and I will not be one till I die: I will be my-self. Mr. Rochester, you must neither expect nor exact anything celestial of me—for you will not get it,” they were channelling the power of the landscape that gave them breath and inspiration.
Trekking through these stunning vistas on a clear autumn day, we see none of the danger and darkness, just technicolour scrub and bright blue skies. Our long, bracing walk, with many diversions along the way—from the replica Brontë parsonage set up for the BBC film To Walk Invisible, to encounters with fat, happy sheep, to moments of unabashed amazement at the beauty around us—brings us to the pretty village of Haworth where the Brontës spent much of their lives. We know it to be pretty because we’ve been here before, but approaching it from the back, we find ourselves at their austere parsonage first; the shuttered school beside it and the spectacularly spooky cemetery in front. Haworth from where we stand is more bleak than beautiful.
Stepping into the house, now a museum dedicated to the lives and works of the Brontës, we feel a mix of awe and pity. Fabulous women of prodigious talents lived here, to which every room and exhibit bear testimony. Be it the clean lines of their spartan furniture, the reams of brilliant writing they produced as children, or their letters to each other, revealing their innermost thoughts. This last aspect saddens as much as it impresses me, just like the chair where young Emily spent her last writing days, and Branwell’s portentous painting in which he is blotted out.
But beyond the memento mori of remarkable lives snuffed out too soon, there is a profound silence. “Silence is of different kinds, and breathes different meanings,” Charlotte mused in Villette.
And it’s true: the almost elevating hush of the house is different from the meaner silence of the neighbouring Sunday school with its cold, comfortless classrooms, where Charlotte taught briefly till success allowed her to escape teaching altogether. “I scarcely knew what school was; Bessie sometimes spoke of it as a place where young ladies sat in the stocks, wore backboards, and were expected to be exceedingly genteel and precise.” This muteness too is distinct from the unnerving, lull-before-the-storm stillness of the Gothic cemetery at the foot of the parsonage, where every grave is overlaid with a stone slab, as if in anticipation of the dead rising from their rest.
Once you’re out of the green and pleasant garden, where you can still hear the Brontë children playing in their fantasy worlds of Gondal and Angria, the mood changes quickly. Along the Main Street, Haworth is postcard-pretty with its brightly coloured shopfronts and charming, old-world tea rooms. The elegant antiquarian bookstore in particular grabs our attention. Its window, full of yellowing treasures, draws us in.
As soon as we leave the store, our arms full of literary loot, we are sucked into the seductive sweet shop across the street, which holds as many delights for us as it does for our children. We sidestep the lure of the pub, unlike poor Branwell, of whom Anne may well have been thinking when she wrote, “I see that a man cannot give himself up to drinking without being miserable one half his days and mad the other,” in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Despite the unhappiness, beautiful Haworth, looking now much as it did then, provided what comfort was to be found in the Brontë sisters’ lives. They would likely have dropped in to the same upbeat bakery, the same cheerful post office and the park full of flowers in bloom on their daily strolls. Emily might have stolen away to this very park on a fine day like the one we’d picked to visit, when she wrote, “Every leaf speaks bliss to me, fluttering from the autumn tree.”
And though the moors gave them far more by way of inspiration, it is here we want to leave these gloriously gifted Brontë women, so passionate, and even compassionate, in the face of tragedy. Here, where there is sunshine and light and merriment—once and for all.
Shreya Sen-Handley is a columnist and illustrator for the British and Indian media. Her short stories have been published in three continents and her HarperCollins India book, 'Memoirs of My Body' is out now.