As you will already know, dear devoted reader, my second book is coming out in the autumn with McFarland press. This book is a volume of collected essays by scholars from around the world and I feel deeply privileged to have been part of this project. We are nearing the end of the marathon now, having recently received the proofs of our manuscript.
In order to work with uncluttered mind I decided to spend a few days away from London, hieing me to Haworth for a little writing trip. Haworth village is where the Bronte family lived and completed the majority of their writing, including Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, etc. What better place to simmer oneself in the nectar of creative juices?
I’m a devoted Jane Eyre reader, returning to it at least once a year. And on this trip it had special resonance, for Jane Eyre is full of the trappings of Orientalism and the Orient–think of Mr Rochester’s horse, Mesrour, and Jane’s talk of a fanciful book of tales from the Orient which is her only escape from the nasty Reed family, the Oriental imagery in the game of charades at Thornfield (several articles have been written on this theme–have a look at Joyce Zonana’s on feminist Orientalism within the text to start with.) So many of the articles in our forthcoming book expound on this same concept: belly dance as a space of escape, of imaginitive freedom not afforded in other areas of life. Yet our chapters also discuss the dangers of projecting imagined values, meanings, and morals onto others; there is an anxiety about this among dance scholars and among the belly dance community more generally. It is a question I always enjoy exploring and I was so happy to reconnect with the chapters again in such a portentous place.
Haworth is picturesque but in a harsh way. It teeters on a steep hill surmounted by a Victorian church. The graveyard of St Michael and All Angels is distinctly the creepiest graveyard that I ever did see. According to an informational sign, there are between 20,000 and 60,000 bodies buried in that compact piece of ground, the bodies themselves contributing to the steepness of the land, no doubt. Boy, do all those bodies ever give the impression of pushing up from the ground, as if they’re too crowded and want to get out. Even on the most picturesque summer’s day the Dales has ever seen (for who, aside from your faithful correspondent, has ever returned from a day on the moors with a sunburn?) that graveyard is an oppressively Gothic place. All the flat slabs on the ground are haphazard, part-sunk and part-lifted, like they’re being shouldered aside from below. The rows of headstones are claustrophobically close together and as covered with moss and cobwebs as you might wish. Evidently the graveyard was a major source of water pollution in the village in bygone days (including when the Brontes were living there, a fact which they campaigned vigorously to change), so the dead really were reaching out to contaminate the living. Mark me, if there ever is a zombie apocalypse, it is going to start in Haworth. Firebrands at the ready, folks.
I was very fortunate to have two days of unremitting sunshine, a rare enough sight in Britain but especially so in Yorkshire (according to my hosts, that is!) Even with this, the dales and moors looked more forbidding to my eyes than the gentle rolling hills and moorland I was used to from living in Devon. Devon has that beautiful lush red soil; Yorkshire is much stonier. There are little stone walls dividing the fields instead of the more southerly hedgerows–they serve the same purpose and are even rather similar in height and width but give a very different impression. Not a bad impression, mind–but suddenly the difference between the wilderness, the harshness and almost eerieness of the landscape in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and the very different way that nature and landscape are employed in Jane Austen’s work takes on much richer shades of meaning. (Though having said this, I did get several bucolic snapshots of fields full of buttercups, rather jolly-looking cows, and a little babbling brook. Plus I got to stay in a farmhouse with a rather friendly dog and a cat called Milton. So it’s not all bleak rushing about on the moors trying to enact intergenerational revenge.)
I also had the chance to learn more about the life of the Bronte siblings while visiting Bronte Parsonage Museum–very edifying, if rather sad. The four eldest girls, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, and Emily were sent away to a boarding school to learn how to become governesses, two returning home due to severe illness and both dying very quickly. Charlotte’s two remaining siblings also died young, both within a year of each other. Suddenly the dull and seemingly endless chapters about Lowood School in Jane Eyre are not ‘the bit to skip over to get to Thornfield’ anymore. And Jane’s rapture at finding herself with kin again near the end of the book, just when she thought herself utterly alone and friendless: what a comforting yet grief-filled thought that must have been for Charlotte.
But nothing compares to the sadness of Patrick Bronte, father to the siblings: his wife died shortly after they moved to Haworth, after which he outlasted all of his children, at the end cared for by Charlotte’s widower husband. She herself died less than a year into their marriage, it is believed during pregnancy.
It is very strange visiting the Parsonage which left me with a simultaneous impression of absolute joy at being one of a coterie of young educated woman with the freedom to pursue creative impulses of the imagination while being surrounded by like-minded people, an impression of the love, respect and affection that the family evidently held for one another, and the converse of heavy sadness at losing all the people you held most dear one after another. Not to mention (before everybody all got tuberculosis all of a sudden) constant worry at how they were all going to support themselves–the family was not a rich one and governessing was in essence an unavoidable fate for all of them; an oppressive situation for such imaginative minds–they described it as such in letters and journals.
My one tiny note of disappointment was that among the books by and about the Brontes in the little gift shop, The Eyre Affair was not featured. The Thursday Next novels are a glorious literary detective romp with a very eccentric-British sci-fi bent. It is in fact one of the reasons I wanted to go to the Parsonage and I feel it deserves a place on the shelf. But the museum is very much worth a visit, it’s very well-run by the Bronte Society.
All in all, a brief trip but a very full–and fulfilling–one. And I’m about due to start Jane Eyre again.