2016 is the two hundredth anniversary of Charlotte Bronte's birth and it is impossible to escape this fact as articles, programmes and opinions on her and her sisters are all over the place at the moment. I, therefore, decided that I could not miss out on the current surge of interest in all things Bronte, and here are my thoughts for what they are worth.
I have been fascinated by the Brontes since I was in my teens when I worked at Highgate Library, a wonderful Carnegie building opposite the Cemetery. Great place to work and I got to know so many of the readers and their interests. One regular, Leslie Smith (I have never forgotten his name), was a real Bronte enthusiast and I remember him reserving a book called Man of Sorrow by Lock and Dixon, a biography of Patrick Bronte, and his delight when it was his turn to collect a copy. We had quite a chat about it when he returned it and once the waiting list had ended I took it home myself. Jane Eyre had long been one of my favourite books but I knew very little about the family and thought this would be a good place to start.
And so began my fascination with all things Bronte. No need for me to tell you anything about them at all or their life in Haworth, as so many wonderful biographies have been written about each and all of them, the latest being one by Clare Harman on Charlotte which revealed even more about the sisters and I thought I knew most of it. I joined the Bronte Society and one summer day caught the train up to Leeds, then a connection to Keighley and then a bus to Haworth. I remember the excitement I felt as the bus trundled along through the fairly uninteresting Keighley, through to various villages and then through the Dales and then up the cobbled hill which was quite a pull. Nowadays buses do not attempt to mount this steep gradient and a road has built round the village. Good thing for those of us who remember coming down the hill on the top of a double decker bus. After that ride the Big Dipper holds no fears.
I attended the lecture and remember that it was given by Margaret Lane, a well known biographer of that time, who had also written a book on Beatrix Potter. My main thought was how glam she was, blonde and elegant and such a good speaker. Afterwards we all repaired to the church hall where the most sumptuous tea was spread out. No delicate cucumber sandwiches here, but great slices of parkin and fruit bread, scones, cakes and buns and steaming urns of tea. It was wonderful and I reeled out about an hour later totally stuffed to the gills.
I spent the weekend roaming around Haworth and walking on the moors and seeing the Parsonage. As I was staying very close I made sure that I was one of the first visitors one morning and avoided the crowds. I had the place to myself as I was on the doorstep waiting for the museum to open and oh my goodness, how to describe my feelings as I walked into the parlour where the sisters use to write and work, there was the table they used to walk around and the room felt as if they would come in at any moment. The bedrooms were tiny and the upstairs study even smaller and how they must have fitted in I do not know. I remember going through the entire house in a state of bemusement and only left when the first hordes arrived and the peace was shattered.
I was staying five minutes walk away at a Bed and Breakfast run by Mrs Scarborough. Her husband had died the year before and she had decided to take in guests to help with her income and to keep her busy. I was one of her first visitors and she was very nervous but an absolute sweetie. One evening she invited me into her living room and we had tea and she got chatting and told me that her great great great, not sure how many greats, aunt had been a servant at the Parsonage which threw me somewhat. She told me tales and stories that had been passed down the family via this connection and then finally said 'I have something upstairs to show you, I am sure you will be interested' and brought down a cardboard box, put it on my lap and told me to look inside. I opened the lid and wrapped in layers of tissue paper was a square of lace. 'Go on take it out' she said. So I did. It was very small and very old and very fine. 'That's Charlotte Bronte's wedding veil' said Mrs Scarborough at which point I nearly passed out with excitement. She told me that it had been in her keeping for years and when I gently suggested that it might be a good idea to give it to the Bronte Society and Museum so it could be preserved, snorted indignantly 'Wouldn't give that lot anything' she said and wrapped it up and put it away again. There was quite a lot of resentment and resistance to the Society then and I gather, now, as many of those living in Haworth felt they had taken over without consultation and they rather resented it.
I did not visit Haworth again for some time - I left the Bronte Society as, with apologies to any sane members who may read this, I found the majority of them slightly weird. In fact, they were barking and many of them were obsessed with either Cathy from Wuthering Heights or else thought they were reincarnations of Emily. One women pinned me to the wall and told me in great detail how she had been Emily in another life at which stage I decided perhaps it was best to leave.
When I did go back I found that Mrs Scarborough had died but when I went through the Parsonage again and into the exhibition room at the back I spotted the wedding veil, on display, and with a small placard saying that it had been given to the Museum by Mrs Scarborough. I do hope that I might have had something to do with her change of mind.
Incidentally, her husband was the village blacksmith and made the sign that hangs outside the Parsonage today and every time I visit, and I have been back several times, I look at the veil and the sign and remember that very kind lady who looked after me so well when I first visited Haworth, bursting with excitement and awe......