Understanding the sisters as real people: Alex’s postcard from Brontë Country

Alex Bronte country

Why I went…

Before taking this course on the Brontës, I had never read any of their works. As the semester began and I was introduced to these incredible women, I developed an interest and an adoration for their works and for who they were as people; especially as women authors in a time where men were the predominant writers. When I found out about our opportunity to go to the Brontës’ birth place and childhood home, I was ecstatic. I had already learned so much about them but I thought that by going to these places I could develop a deeper understanding of who they were as human beings rather than famous authors.

What I got out of the experience…

I learned much more about the Brontës than I ever thought possible by visiting these literary sites, but not in the way that I expected.  What surprised me the most was the way that they are represented as commodities rather than actual people. The museum itself helped my understanding of these sisters as real people to an extent, but even at the museum there is a gift shop; they are still making money off the works of these authors. All around the town you can buy products with the Brontë sisters’ names on them, including things such as biscuits and alcohol. This gives visitors the impression that the Brontë sisters, or rather their way of life, is an object that can be purchased, but it is not. Seeing Haworth in this way made me become almost defensive of the sisters as people, not as authors. They were very real and they lived normal lives.

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Anne Brontë’s pebbles

By Kim Braxton (PhD Candidate, Keele University)

When Patrick Brontë died in 1861 Charlotte’s husband Arthur Bell Nicholls took a collection of their belongings – predominantly personal items such as their manuscripts, letters, juvenilia, and writing desks – to Ireland and the rest of the household belongings were put up for auction. People from across the country and indeed the world came or sent people to Haworth to obtain something Brontë, but a lot of the real treasures were hidden away in Ireland. Arthur Bell Nicholls hoped to live a quiet, reclusive life with his new wife, but Brontë hunters were soon upon him. It took four auctions for all of the Brontë relics to be obtained by the public: one after Arthur’s death, two during his wife’s lifetime and then one last auction after her death. Amongst these possessions were a small collection of pebbles, nondescript and seemingly irrelevant, pebbles any child could pick up on the beach. And yet Charlotte, then her husband and his second wife, kept them. They were then purchased by a Mrs Chadwick in 1916 at the death of Mrs Nicholls and were finally returned to the Brontë Society in 1947. So what was the significance of these little pebbles? They were found in Anne Brontë’s work basket.[i]

Anne's pebbles

Anne’s pebbles

In 2011, I attended one of the early private tours now run by the Parsonage, which allows visitors special access to certain relics as well as a private tour of the house. One of the benefits of the tour was you were allowed to touch the relics and so I picked up Anne’s pebbles and instantly became upset. Anne collected these pebbles in Scarborough, where she first visited with her charges when she was working as a Governess, and it remained a site of happiness for her. She also went there with her sister Charlotte and her friend Ellen Nussey when she was dying of consumption, and we know from letters that they took Anne to the beach shortly before she died. Whilst the Parsonage cannot confirm which visit the pebbles are from, in my mind these were the pebbles she picked before she died. These were the symbol of a young woman trying to hold onto a world she did not want to leave, to me that was heart-breaking.

Relics and the dead are intertwined; ultimately an item does not become a relic until the being it belonged to is deceased. Pre-Reformation relics were predominantly religious, usually portrayed as the physical remains or belongings of Saints and even Christ. Post-Reformation is when relics became a ‘celebrity’ memento; now people wanted relics of monarchs, heroes, artists and writers. As Deborah Lutz explains, ‘artefacts of beloved bodies still held some of the sublime, fetishistic magic of those outmoded holy relics of bygone days…The sacred moved from the flesh of the saint to that of the beloved individual.’[ii] Furthermore, relics allow us to become part of an historical event through our interaction with them. Anne’s pebbles allow us to be part of her death, to hold in our hands what she held as she faced her demise. But why should these items move us? We never knew Anne and countless people died of consumption during the Victorian period. But we do know her; we have numerous biographies which have detailed her death. Would I have been so moved by Anne’s pebbles if I hadn’t read Ellen Nussey’s description of her death contained in Winifred Gerin’s biography? Nussey writes: ‘The hostess knew that death was near, yet, so little was the house disturbed by the presence of the dying, and the sorrow of those so nearly bereaved, that dinner was announced as ready through the half-open door, as the living sister was closing the eyes of the dead.’[iii]

As a literary scholar, I try to remain focused on the Brontës as writers rather than as people. However, I cannot deny the impact Anne’s pebbles had on me, nor that reading their letters and diary papers, about the lives I know they never had, moves me. As Andrew McCarthy, Director of the Brontë Parsonage, explains, the Brontë relics bear witness ‘in a powerfully moving way, to the Brontës as ordinary human beings. It is for this reason, just as much as the Brontës’ literary achievements, that people continue to make the pilgrimage to Haworth, why these relics have such a powerful effect upon us, and why their history is so compelling.’[iv]

[i] Many thanks to Sarah Laycock at the Brontë Parsonage for providing me with these details.

[ii] Deborah Lutz, “The Dead Still Among Us: Victorian Secular Relics, Hair Jewelry, and Death Culture.” Victorian Literature and Culture 2011; 39, pp. 127-142, (p. 128).

[iii] Winifred Gérin, Anne Brontë (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1959), p. 320.

[iv] Andrew McCarthy, ‘Introduction’ in Ann Dinsdale, Sarah Laycock and Julie Akhurst, Brontë Relics – A Collection History (Yorkshire: The Brontë Society, 2012), pp. 4-5, (p.5).

The conference countdown begins!

Drawing Room, Elizabeth Gaskell's House. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes

Drawing Room, Elizabeth Gaskell’s House. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes

We’re looking forward to welcoming speakers and delegates to Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, Manchester for the Placing the Author conference in a week and a half’s time! The programme and abstracts are now online, covering a diverse range of topics related to nineteenth-century literary tourism.

Registration closes on 14 June and there are just a few places left! Student/unwaged tickets cost £35; waged tickets £45. You can book here.

Get in touch with the conference team (placingtheauthor@gmail.com) if you have any questions.


Getting to Grips with Gaskell

Bronte eraser

Beatrice’s parsonage souvenir

Beatrice Lord, University of York 

Like many people, my first real encounter with Literary Tourism was a secondary school trip to Haworth to see the Brontë Parsonage. Aged twelve, I hadn’t even managed to finish my bulky copy of Jane Eyre beforehand, and I hadn’t yet read any other Brontë novels. My ‘knowledge’ of the sisters came from watching the odd BBC adaptation and Kate Bush’s mystical lyrics to ‘Wuthering Heights’. But wandering around the building sparked a long-standing interest in the Brontës, and in sites of literary significance generally. The teachers and museum had organised a re-enactment of a scene from the novel downstairs, though we were largely left to discover the Brontë workplace and home with our friends.  This experience set up a deeply-engrained image of the sisters’ writing environment, which I return to every time I pick up one of their works. Desperately seeking a physical reminder of my trip to accompany this, in the end I even bought a Jane Eyre eraser from the gift shop with my pocket money. It is a souvenir I’ve kept on my desk to this day, proof of my time amongst the Brontës’ own possessions, much like Amber’s tea-towel.

After this school-engineered foray into Literary Tourism, I independently started to pay more attention to the spaces connected to writers. This often meant simply taking notice of the incidental literary pasts of places I visited. Family holidays to Whitby suddenly became Gothic adventures, and it was a thrill to imagine how Beatrix Potter’s experience of the unspoilt Lake District might compare to mine.

Particularly when studying Mary Barton and Ruth, I found my experience of the novels was truly enhanced by exploring the author’s old haunts.  First-hand comparisons of industrial Manchester with Gaskell’s idyllic Lancashire holiday retreat have undoubtedly shaped my perception of her settings. The city is still full of imposing Victorian churches and the skyline would have shared many of the same features as today. The stunning natural beauty of Silverdale on the other hand, undoubtedly offers a sense of escape. I found myself thinking back to the moment in Ruth when Gaskell’s protagonist spends a contemplative period away from home. Gazing upon vast expanses of water, Ruth awaits the footsteps of the man whom could make this isolation permanent by taking their son away:

And she turned round and looked seaward. The tide had turned; the waves were slowly receding, as if loth to lose the hold they had, so lately, and with such swift bounds, gained on the yellow sands… There was no sign of human life to be seen; no boat, or distant sail, or near shrimper. The black posts there were all that spoke of men’s work or labour. Beyond a stretch of the waters, a few pale grey hills showed like films; their summits clear, though faint, their bases lost in a vapoury mist. [1]

Although Gaskell sets these chapters in the fictional Abermouth, it is easy to imagine her views from Silverdale’s Lindeth Tower (where she penned the novel) went some way to inspiring the descriptions.

Lindeth Tower by Alison Rawson

Lindeth Tower by Alison Rawson [2]

It was this passion for the landscapes associated with Gaskell that really drew me to Placing the Author. The opportunity to work in such a special location as her newly-restored house in Manchester was irresistible. The venue serves as the perfect background for conversing with those with similar intrigue for literary sites and I am particularly excited to witness the kind of atmosphere the rooms present.

[1] Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth. (London: Penguin Books, 1997) (p.243)

[2] Alison Rawson, Lindeth Tower, 26 May 2008, via Wikimedia commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license

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Imaginary Tourism

Jessica Cook, University of South Florida

This spring I taught a course on the nineteenth-century novel at the University of South Florida. In the course description, I referred to the class as a “literary tour of the nineteenth-century British novel.” Though the novels we read were quite different, they all shared an interest in what it means to live in nineteenth-century England. However, this “tour” not only asked my students to take part in a kind of literary time travel to the unfamiliar nineteenth century, it also asked them to imagine a drastically different landscape from our own in Tampa, Florida. Unfortunately, any field trips to Charles Dickens’ London or Emily Brontë’s Yorkshire moors were out of the question. So what does literary tourism look like when one can’t actually visit the site itself?

To begin with, I kept a Google map that pinpointed significant places mentioned in each novel. We charted the characters’ journeys, helping us to better visualize, for example, the wide range of movement in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, from the Yorkshire coast to London to India. At the end of the course, we were able to zoom out and observe each novel’s geographic connections to the others. The students noticed that the earlier novels like Persuasion and Wuthering Heights tended to be more concentrated in one area, while the later novels like Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles were more spread out across various locations, mirroring the mobility of the characters in those novels. They also observed the map reflected thematic aspects of the novels, such as the way the locations in Wuthering Heights were so clustered together they almost appeared on top of one another, reproducing that novel’s suffocating psychological atmosphere.

The students were also assigned a digital research project that allowed them to explore in depth a single location from any novel we read. They presented their research in the digital platform of their choice, discussing how their findings influenced their understanding of the place’s role in the novel. Each student took his or her own imaginary tour through such places as the navy ships in Persuasion, real-life inspirations for Wuthering Heights, Pip’s home in the North Kent marshes in Great Expectations, the London streets in The Moonstone, and Stonehenge in Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Toward the end of the course, I shared the Postcard Project with the students, and we talked more about why we have a desire to make these literary pilgrimages, whether real or, in our case, imagined. As the writers who have contributed to this site have noted, we often form an affection or attachment to these places through the act of reading, long before we ever visit them. Likewise, the critic Lawrence Buell notes, “But the fact that the imaginer hasn’t been there and maybe never will hardly lessens the intensity of such storied or imaged places to induce longing and loyalty.”[1] The act of reading is also an act of imaginary tourism, and perhaps one that can act on the reader just as powerfully as tourism in the more literal sense.

[1] Lawrence Buell, The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), (p.73)

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Four Visits to the Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth

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.

Just a few of the things I bought from the gift shop.

Just a few of the things I bought from the gift shop.

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.

Here we are queuing for the lecture in the Brontë Parsonage cellar.

Here we are queuing for the lecture in the Brontë Parsonage cellar.

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.

In Haworth Churchyard looking towards the Parsonage.

In Haworth Churchyard looking towards the Parsonage.

Introducing our Student Engagement Project


I’m very pleased to introduce the third strand of our conference: the Student Engagement Project. As we plan Placing the Author and run our online projects, Claire, Joanna and I will be assisted by three enthusiastic undergraduates from our respective institutions, Laura Lutton from Bishop Grosseteste University, Beatrice Lord from the University of York, and Holly Williams from Keele University. All three of our assistants have a longstanding interest in nineteenth-century literature and literary culture, and share a curiosity about authors’ homes and the reasons for our enduring fascination with them. Even at this point in their academic careers, they are interested in scholarship, in research and in the production of knowledge. Yet, while many conferences welcome papers from postgraduates and early career researchers, and offer workshops to help them with publications and career planning, undergraduates are rarely included these academic exchanges. We wanted to change this and to create a space for undergraduates to learn about, participate in, and contribute to research culture, develop their own research interests and writing skills, and gain experience in administration and events planning.

The idea for the Student Engagement Project had a long gestation. As a postgraduate at the University of Leeds, I had the opportunity to carry out archival research at both the Brotherton Library and the Brontë Parsonage Museum library at Haworth and to access the literary remains of the authors I was studying. I can still recall the thrill of handling the tiny illuminated books that Branwell Brontë created as a child and the animated, gossipy letter in which Elizabeth Gaskell detailed her first meeting with Charlotte Brontë. These experiences powerfully brought the past into the present. Handling the handwritten documents of famous Victorian authors dispelled the sense of distance from their lived experience and made them seem like living presences.

However, when I started teaching, I found that my students had a very different sense of what research was and how they might engage in it. During my first year of teaching at Bishop Grosseteste, a small university dedicated to widening participation, I encountered students who were curious about the authors and texts we were studying, but who tended to see research as a daunting task that needed to be done in order to meet marking criteria rather than an activity that could be immensely pleasurable and rewarding in its own right. Furthermore, my students seemed confused about what research actually was. I wanted to change their perceptions of research and convey the sense of excitement that could come from accessing original documents and exploring archives. I wanted to help them access and articulate their own critical voices. And I wanted to find a way to introduce them to the exciting and supportive climate of intellectual exchange that Claire, Jo, and I have been fortunate enough to experience. Together, we have developed what we hope will be a stimulating and enriching experience for our three undergraduates.

Over the course of the project, our student assistants will work closely with us as we plan this exciting international conference. They will learn about all aspects of conference organization, be involved in publicity and communications, and help ensure the smooth-running of the event itself. All of this will allow them to develop and demonstrate a range of skills valued by employers. The conference assistants will also have the opportunity to develop their own research interests by contributing to the blog, writing about their own visits to the homes and graves of nineteenth-century writers, and reflecting on their experience of taking part in the conference. It is our hope that they’ll gain a better understanding of why academics engage in research, how it contributes to academic knowledge, and how it can generate impact.

Just as part of this conference explores the varied motivations people have for accessing the physical environments associated with nineteenth-century authors, we hope that Placing the Author will inspire our volunteers to begin to think about how they can access and engage with the writers of the past as critics and scholars.