On the Trail of England's Victorian Literary Ladies Book-Loving Tourists Visit the Settings Used by Three Famous Novelists
Ruth Johnstone Wales, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
I didn't meet Heathcliff coming over a rise on Emily Bronte's moors. But the imagined landscape of "Wuthering Heights" did come alive as I walked a well-worn track into the Yorkshire hills.
The weather - appropriately blustery and damp - intensified the "you are there" feeling. A fictional setting became fact. Emily and her sisters, Charlotte and Anne, wrote the famous novels that both shocked and captivated their Victorian readers in the village of Haworth nearby. The parsonage in the English midlands where they grew up looks much as it did in the 1850s, after Charlotte's "Jane Eyre" had achieved its great success.
Within an easy drive of the small cobblestone village street are other places that influenced or were featured in Bronte novels. For modern readers of classic writers who want to experience scenes and sights associated with favorite authors, a trip organized around fiction with a strong sense of place can provide an unusual adventure - literature in three dimensions. The tour I took focused on Victorian women novelists. From Boston, we flew (via Newark, N.J.,) into Manchester Airport, a sleek, modern facility that allowed us to avoid the hassle of London's Heathrow. A comfortable, small motor coach then took us to Oulton Hall near Leeds, a former Victorian mansion set in a lovely park, now an elegant small hotel. There we joined the rest of our group of 17. In addition to exploring Bronte country for several days, we visited locations associated with writer Elizabeth Gaskell. She was a friend of Charlotte Bronte and her first biographer, as well as a noted novelist and contemporary of Charles Dickens. The town of Knutsford in Cheshire was the model for Gaskell's best-known book, "Cranford." We explored the village on foot. Our expert guide pointed out features such as Mrs. Gaskell's childhood home, and shops and inns described in her stories. The hotel where we stayed on the main street dates to the 14th century and appears in more than one of her tales. In the town center is a Mediterranean-style tower erected in 1907 as a memorial to Mrs. Gaskell's works. It seems oddly out of place in a town named for King Canute. George Eliot (born Mary Ann Evans) was the third author whose trail we traced in several places: Stamford, where "Middlemarch" was filmed; the town of Nuneaton in Warwickshire, which has a museum, a statue of Eliot in the town square, and an extensive collection of materials about her in the library; and the farmhouse where she was born on the estate her father managed. Eliot described the estate house, Arbury Hall, in one of her short stories, "Mr. Gilfil's Love Story." The estate house was also used in the film "Angels and Insects." It's a fairy-tale "Gothicized" palace created in the late 18th century by Sir Roger Newdigate, who remodeled the original Elizabethan mansion over a period of 50 years. …