Monday, August 10, 2015

Visiting Jane Eyre

My daughter just now left the house for the start of her senior year of high school. I didn't take a photo, though I should have: her standing on the steps holding a sign saying, "Twelfth grade." She wouldn't have let me but it's a nice idea.

Last night we were both sprawled on couches, reading. I finished Kate Atkinson's new novel, A God in Ruins, which was brilliant. My daughter was reading Jane Eyre, her assigned summer reading. At one point she let out a sad sigh.

"Helen Burns?" I asked.

"Yes," she said. "Not like you couldn't see that coming, but still."

My daughter told me she'd skipped most of her volume's introduction: "lonely Yorkshire, children dying, all the survivors writing, Branwell crazy, blah, blah...been there."

She wasn't merely being sarcastic: she has been there. We spent two nights in Leeds, England, on vacation this year, and one of the places we visited was the Bronte parsonage in Haworth.

Now, I don't know what images you retain from reading about the Brontes in high school, but when I read about the desolate, windswept, Yorkshire moors I mostly pictured the family struggling on a barren crag, miles from the nearest neighbor. Also, given the rate at which the Brontes died off (mother before her youngest child was two, then the eldest two daughters at ages 11 and 9, then Anne on the living room couch and Emily by the sea, Branwell drinking himself to death, and Charlotte, the survivor, making it all the way to age 38) and the wretched tubercular school the girls were sent to, I pictured a fairly poverty-stricken existence, small fires unable to adequately heat draughty comfortless rooms.

Well. Not exactly. The Bronte parsonage is, like Jane Austen's cottage in Chawton, remarkably unchanged (or restored) from the time when that wildly talented family lived there. It sits like on crown atop Haworth, a village resembling an Italian hill town, all small cobbled lanes winding upwards, and, for the time, it was pretty lush. Carpets, wallpaper, good furniture. Pretty writing desks, books. You can see the actual sofa on which Anne died, as well as her still-bloody linen handkerchief (not making that up), one of Charlotte's dresses, and many samples of writing in the sisters' hands. Haworth has a bustling, intimate feel--of course, it's a prosperous little tourist town now, with open-air seating at Branwell's favorite pub. From what I read and the photos I saw at the little Bronte museum, Haworth used to be fairly unpleasant, with open sewers running alongside the streets and a water supply tainted by the fact that the cemetery was at the very top of the hill. Charlotte's father, in fact, petitioned for a new water supply, and got one. Life expectancy in Haworth during the Bronte's time was not good--but not as bad as in the parsonage itself.

I didn't feel the awe at Haworth that I felt at Chawton, but that's probably because I don't love the Brontes as much as I love Jane Austen. I do like them pretty well, however, and I retain a strong affection for Jane Eyre.

"Is there something wrong with Jane?" my daughter asked, at the start of her reading.

"No," I said, "she's just sad and lonely. Why?"

"Everyone's so mean to her."

"That's because they're hateful," I said. (Is there a tiny bit of Jane Eyre in my character Ada? Maybe. Never thought of that before.) "It gets better," I said.

Reader, she marries him.


  1. Oh, this takes me back. In 1984, I did a study-vacation at Oxford: living in one of the colleges (Brasenose) and studying Dickens for a week and the Brontes for a week, then traveling on my own on a Literary Pilgrimage Tour. (I wish I knew how to put a dieresis over the e in Brontes, but thanks to Mary Norris's terrific book "Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen," at least I now know how to pronounces "dieresis"!) Like you, I found visiting Haworth deeply moving and revelatory (Those miniature books! How could they produce the wee things with the tools at hand!). But strolling through and around dear Jane's cottage at Chawton was truly treading on hallowed ground. Thank you for sharing your, and your daughter's, thoughts.

    By the way, when I read your post about your son's wisdom teeth surgery, I remembered my own son's. He asked the oral surgeon if he could have his teeth. Slightly taken aback, the doctor agreed, provided my son promised to soak them in a dilute solution of bleach before he did anything with them. And what did my son do? He turned the best one of them into an earring, which he still wears occasionally.

  2. The miniature books are astonishing. I would love to go to Oxford; it's on my list.

    Oddly enough, my son's oral surgeon handed me a plastic baggie and said, "Here--these are his teeth," without my wanting them at all.

  3. When you go to Oxford, make sure to hear an evensong mass at New College. (I just love the fact that "New" College was founded in 1379.) Incredible music in a breathtaking sacred space.

    Now, I hate to be all nitpick and pedantic, but I can't stand it anymore. I have to point out that the Bronte brother was Branwell, not Bronwyn. I'm perpetually creeped out by the portrait he painted of himself and his sisters . . . and then took a turpentine-soaked rag to, wiping out himself.

    I am SO looking forward to your book-in-progress. I just sold another copy of "The War that Saved My Life" yesterday in the independent bookstore where I work, and I've also had great success handselling "Jefferson's Sons."

  4. Ahhh! I will go back and change all the Bronwyns. That was very wrong of me. Thank you for pointing it out.

    I love independent bookstores; thank you so much for selling my books!


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