A Half-Century of Greatness: The Creative Imagination of Europe, 1848-1884

By Frederic Ewen; Jeffrey Wollock | Go to book overview

Chapter Two
The Novel and the Crisis of Conscience
The Brontës—The Caged Rebels ofHaworth

I wish you would not think me a woman. I wish all re-
viewers believed “Currer Bell” to be a man; they would
be more just to him. You will, I know, keep measuring
me by some standard of what you deem becoming to my
sex; where I am not what you consider graceful, you will
condemn me … Come what will, I cannot, when I write,
think always of myself and of what is elegant and charm-
ing in femininity; it is not on those terms, or with such
ideas, I ever took pen in hand; and if it is only on such
terms my writing will be tolerated, I shall pass away from
the public and trouble it no more. Out of obscurity I
came, to obscurity I can easily return.

—Charlotte Brontë to G. H. Lewes, 1849

The village of Haworth, in Yorkshire, was in the early nineteenth century—to use the words of one of its visitors—a “dreary, black-looking village,” defying, through a steep ascent of its roadway, the footing of a visitor. The street leading to the top was paved with flagstones, so placed that pedestrians, horses, and carriages would not slip back. Past uninviting stone dwellings, one clambers till one comes to the church, the churchyard, and finally the Haworth parsonage. Today, hundreds upon hundreds of pilgrims make their way as to some shrine of a “saint” or “martyr,” once the home of the three Brontë sisters; and the modest parsonage ranks second in popularity only to that other “shrine” at Stratford on Avon. Many come to Haworth to honor literary genius; others, heroic womanhood.

Such posthumous celebrity would have astounded no one more than a certain visitor, who, in the fall of 1853, two years before Charlotte Brontë's death, made her way to the home of the last surviving of the three sisters. This was Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell, her future biographer, herself a novelist of some distinction. She had met Charlotte Brontë a few years before and had been deeply impressed by her personality, perhaps even more than by her celebrity as the author of Jane Eyre.

This was Mrs. Gaskell's first view of Haworth. Standing at the front door of the parsonage, she reflected on the loneliness of the spot. “Moors everywhere, beyond and above,” she wrote. “Oh! those high, wild, desolate moors, up above the whole world, and the very realms of silence!”1

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