Deborah Wynne, University of Chester
The first of my visits to the Brontë Parsonage Museum occurred in 1973, while the most recent in 2014 and each visit has been important in stimulating my engagement with the work of the Brontë sisters. The first visit took place when I was a child. I accompanied my mother on a trip organised by the Extra-Mural Studies Department of Keele University. My mother and her friends, working-class women who had plucked up the courage to attend a weekly English Literature class in the local community centre, were reading Wuthering Heights. During the trip to Haworth I caught their excitement about the novel and longed to read it. I remember opening my mother’s copy and not understanding the first page at all. As I shuffled through the Parsonage with the rest of the summer holiday crowd, listening to my mother and her companions buzzing with fascinating information about Emily’s novel, I knew that I had to find out more about the Brontës.
By the time I made my second trip to the Brontë Museum, I’d read all of the novels and was very keen to see Haworth again, believing that my enjoyment of the novels would be enhanced by another visit to the Parsonage. So I caught a series of buses from Manchester to Haworth in the summer of 1987 accompanied by my small daughter. I had plans to start my undergraduate studies that autumn and had been rereading many of the major novels of the Victorian period. This trip was memorable for our walk on the moor, where we picked a sprig of heather in memory of Charlotte bringing a sprig for Emily just before she died. My daughter still has the heather today, curled up in its pretty little bottle.
I was a lecturer when I visited Haworth for the third time in 2006. I’d organised the trip for my third-year Women’s Writing students. We were studying Jane Eyre and loving every minute of it. Our visit took place on a hot May day, and before we toured the house, we sat in the cold basement of the Parsonage listening to a fascinating lecture by one of the Museum’s education officers. The freezing temperature led to some of us developing a mysterious illness soon afterwards; the symptoms were sore throats, chest pains and difficulty breathing. It was obvious what had happened: in the Brontës’ cellar we had caught the lingering germs of ‘consumption’! I even had a hectic flush. Strange to say, though, we all completely recovered within a few days. This was something of an anti-climax. When I’d been confined to bed I’d imagined headlines such as ‘The Brontë Parsonage Museum: The Death Toll Rises’.
My most recent visit to the Brontë Parsonage Museum was in the spring of 2014, again accompanied by my daughter. We had wanted to revisit Haworth for sentimental reasons. However, I also needed to gain some inspiration for a book chapter I was writing on the literary pilgrimages to Haworth which took place in the fifty years after Charlotte’s death. We spent a long time looking at everything in the Museum – much longer than on any previous visit – and tried to imagine the house as it was when it was the home of the Brontës. We also spent longer in the gift shop and bought many irresistible odds and ends, before going out to take photographs of the house from the adjacent churchyard. Seeing the Parsonage from a short distance, standing among the graves, the house for the first time became actualised for me as a house (rather than a museum). It felt as though I was intruding on the privacy of a home as I stared up at the windows hoping (as so many Victorian visitors hoped) to see the ghost of one of the sisters returning my gaze. This feeling was both intense and embarrassing. My only consolation is that thousands of others have felt a similar irrational longing to find ghostly traces of the sisters. The longing I have felt when visiting the Brontë Parsonage Museum has always prompted me to do more reading. This time I bought a copy of the Brontës’ juvenilia and am reading it now.