Inside Haworth: The humble parsonage where the Brontë sisters changed literature

Some of our most enduring stories were conceived at Haworth, the West Yorkshire parsonage which was home to Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte. Jeremy Musson enjoys a literary pilgrimage to its recently restored interiors, which have been beautifully photographed by Justin Paget.

A relatively humble West Yorkshire parsonage occupies a remarkable place in the story of English literature. It was the home of the Rev Patrick Brontë, a widower, where three of the children he raised there, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, became published novelists of lasting repute. Each generation discovers these extraordinary books for themselves and few readers of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall can fail to be curious about the stone walls that contained the short but productive lives of their authors.

It was, in its way, a dignified and secure home, but not without its privations, principally emotional, but also economic and social. A schoolfriend wrote after Charlotte’s death how odd it was that reviewers of her biography by fellow novelist Elizabeth Gaskell never seemed to think it strange that this woman of ‘first-rate talents, industry and integrity’ had lived ‘in a walking nightmare of poverty and self-suppression’.

A year after the family arrived there in 1820, the children’s mother, Maria, died; two elder sisters had also died young (the one son, Branwell, died of consumption hastened by addiction to laudanum and alcohol). Their father, a handsome clergyman who had changed his surname from Prunty or Brunty to Brontë and delighted in wearing high cravats like his hero, the Duke of Wellington, outlived his children, dying in 1861.

The parsonage at Haworth ©Justin Paget / Country Life Picture Library

The parlour or dining room where the sisters wrote their novels. The parsonage at Haworth ©Justin Paget / Country Life Picture Library

A house museum since 1928, owned and run by the Brontë Society, the Haworth Parsonage has been through a number of presentations, of which the latest, completed in 2013, was the result of a two-year programme of research by the University of Lincoln, wallpaper expert Allyson McDermott and Ann Dinsdale, the Society’s Principal Curator and author of The Brontës at Haworth (2006).

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The house was crisply redecorated using contemporary descriptions, surviving bills and accounts, sampling and cross-section evidence to achieve a more authentic reconstruction of its 1850s appearance. The wallpapers are either exact replicas or well-evidenced contemporary patterns of the appropriate colours. Nearly all the items of furniture are authenticated pieces from the Brontës’ period of occupation collected by the Society since the 1890s.

The most exciting recent arrival, in 2015, is the original dining table at which Charlotte, Emily and Anne wrote their novels; every evening, they would walk around it and discuss their writings. After the death of Emily and Anne, a family servant, Martha Brown, used to recall how sad she felt ‘to hear Miss Brontë walking, walking on alone’.

The table had been acquired directly from the house sale in 1861, sold on quickly to a local family, in whose hands it had passed by descent, until its recent acquisition, with generous support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

The parsonage at Haworth ©Justin Paget / Country Life Picture Library

The garden viewed from the front door. The parsonage at Haworth ©Justin Paget / Country Life Picture Library

Known originally as the Glebe House, the parsonage was built in 1778–9. A five-bay, stone and purpose-built clergy residence, with a fine doorcase, it is not more distinguished than many a farmhouse or land-agent’s house, but it sits at the head of the village, looking down across a steep churchyard towards the church of which Patrick Brontë was minister – the mid-17th-century tower remains, but work to rebuild the main body of the church commenced in 1879.

The moors still begin just behind the house – the Brontës’ childhood walks, sometimes by moonlight, and the views from the house were central to their vision of the world. Charlotte remarked to G. H. Lewes of the limitations of Jane Austen’s world and how one sees there only ‘a highly-cultivated garden and no open country’.

The parsonage at Haworth ©Justin Paget / Country Life Picture Library

Candelabra in St Michael and All Angels Church to the rear of The parsonage at Haworth ©Justin Paget / Country Life Picture Library

The paterfamilias was a remarkable figure in his own right. His dignified study suggests something of his character (Fig 3). One of many sons of a poor Ulster farmer, Patrick educated himself up to taking a degree at St John’s College, Cambridge in 1802. He was a curate in Essex and Shropshire and at Dewsbury and Hartshead in Yorkshire before being appointed, in 1815, ‘perpetual curate’ at Thornton, near Bradford. He married Maria Branwell in 1812 and all the writers were born at Thornton – Charlotte in 1816, Emily in 1818 and Anne in 1820.

He wrote of his appointment in 1820 as ‘perpetual curate’ at Haworth: ‘My salary is not large; it is only about £200 a year. I have a good house, which is mine also, and is rent-free’.

The parsonage at Haworth ©Justin Paget / Country Life Picture Library

The staircase and Barraclough of Haworth grandfather clock on the landing at The parsonage at Haworth ©Justin Paget / Country Life Picture Library

Mrs Gaskell, the novelist who befriended Charlotte when she was already well known as a writer, was conscious of the impact of her mother and elder siblings’ deaths on Charlotte. Mrs Gaskell recorded her memories of her visit to Haworth and other conversations; she felt a need to defend the reputation of Charlotte, who had been criticised for ‘coarseness’ and had been attacked as writing in a manner some thought unsuitable for a woman.

Mrs Gaskell wanted to show that Charlotte was an intelligent, well-educated and dutiful parson’s daughter of impressive talent. Modern critics argue that she tried to suppress the intense imagination and sensuality of Charlotte’s writings, but there can no doubt her accounts give a valuable flavour of the house.

The parsonage at Haworth ©Justin Paget / Country Life Picture Library

The moors to the rear of the parsonage at Haworth ©Justin Paget / Country Life Picture Library

She describes the ‘oblong stone house, facing down the hill on which the village stands… The house consists of four rooms on each floor, and is two storeys high. When the Brontës took possession, they made the larger parlour, to the left of the entrance, the family sitting-room, while that on the right was appropriated to Mr Brontë as a study. Behind this was the kitchen, and behind the former, a sort of flagged store-room. Upstairs, there were four bedchambers of similar size’.

She also wrote: ‘Everything fits into, and is in harmony with, the idea of a country parsonage, possessed by people of very moderate means.’

She then noted: ‘Everything about the place tells of the most dainty order, the most exquisite cleanliness. The door-steps are spotless; the small old fashioned window-panes glitter like looking glasses.’ The kitchen was an important feature in the young lives of the Brontë sisters.

The parsonage at Haworth ©Justin Paget / Country Life Picture Library

The kitchen at The parsonage at Haworth ©Justin Paget / Country Life Picture Library

Outside, she was conscious of the ‘pestiferous’ Gothic gloom of the churchyard, but she celebrated the domesticity of the house itself with fires creating a ‘pretty warm dancing light all over the house’. The small first floor room over the hall, which the servants told Mrs Gaskell was known as ‘the children’s study’, was also used as a bedroom by Emily. The children’s aunt, Miss Branwell, who helped look after them, taught the children in her own bedroom over the parlour, which later became Charlotte’s bedroom (now used to display costume and smaller artefacts).

The Brontës made many changes to the interior. Although the largely mahogany furnishing of the house remained much the same in the 1850s as it had been before, Charlotte actively improved the character and decoration of the house early in that decade, overruling her father’s prejudice against curtains. The parlour and the bedroom over it were also both made slightly larger. A later occupant, the Rev John Wade, added a two-storey gabled extension in 1878, and inserted plate glass windows in place of the six-over-six sash windows.

In 1928, Sir James Roberts acquired the house and presented it to the Brontë Society, which had been founded in 1893, and has made it a popular destination for readers, despite its compact size. Nevertheless, it’s a difficult property to present. The society continues to extend the collection, which includes some 7,000 objects (including the furnishings).

The parsonage at Haworth ©Justin Paget / Country Life Picture Library

Close up of the portrait of Charlotte Bronte by George Richmond. The parsonage at Haworth ©Justin Paget / Country Life Picture Library

One of the valuable points of reference has been the handwritten 1861 sale catalogue of furniture and household artefacts. Many pieces were bought locally and remained in the hands of local families or the servants’ families. The only replica is the tester bed in Patrick’s room, which had featured in a sketch made by Branwell.

The hallway, staircase hall and landing have now been repainted a pale blue-grey established by paint analysis; it had been described, by a friend of Charlotte’s, Ellen Nussey, as ‘a pretty dove-coloured tint’. Patrick’s austere study was found to have no evidence of wallpaper and has been painted white.

The parsonage at Haworth ©Justin Paget / Country Life Picture Library

The Rev Patrick Bronte’s bedroom at The parsonage at Haworth ©Justin Paget / Country Life Picture Library

The parlour or dining room has been re-papered. Mrs Gaskell wrote ‘the parlour has evidently been refurbished with within the last few years… The prevailing colour of the room is crimson’. Red curtains woven in crimson ‘union cloth’ (as ordered by Charlotte) have been introduced and a hand-printed paper chosen of a contemporary design, in a crimson trellis pattern against a white background.

A stone-flagged storeroom was converted into a study by Charlotte for her soon-to-be husband, her father’s curate, Arthur Nicholls. She wrote: ‘I have been very busy stitching; the new little room is got into order, and the green and white curtains are up; they exactly suit the paper, and look neat and clean enough.’ They married in 1854 and she died in the early stages of pregnancy the following year.

Remarkably, a scrap of wallpaper from this room was found in the New York Public Library with an authentication by Gaskell. The wallpaper has been re-created from this tiny piece of evidence, as have curtains of a carefully researched contemporary and complementary design. The pattern was printed onto original 19th-century linen.

The parsonage at Haworth ©Justin Paget / Country Life Picture Library

The graveyard to St Michael and All Angels Church to the rear of the parsonage at Haworth ©Justin Paget / Country Life Picture Library

Wallpapers have also been re-created for Patrick’s bedroom, an appropriate 1850s design chosen in a green colour evidenced from surviving paint fragments. Branwell’s studio has been re-papered with an exact reproduction of a surviving scrap and Charlotte’s room has been repainted a blue-green wall colour. There was evidence that most of the joinery in the house was oak-grained in the 1850s, but a decision was taken not to re-create this in the recent scheme.

The Parsonage is an extraordinary place: a compact, credible piece of domestic theatre in which to consider the lives of the Brontës, the world of the 19th century English-language novel and, above all, the triumph of the imagination in the face of adversity.

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