acquiring, collecting, reading, adapting

Month: January, 2013

Visits to English Writers’ Homes: Haworth/Bronte Parsonage

I can’t believe how long it’s taking me to finish this series of posts from my trip to England!

I think I’ve put this one off because I wanted to do it justice. Of all the author’s houses I’ve ever visited, I’ve probably never anticipated one more than this, or had a stronger desire to see it. This is because Charlotte Bronte is my favorite author, and I’ve read and loved all the novels of all three Bronte sisters and have a strong attachment to them and to my idea of them and where they lived. So, naturally, with so much pressure, things were bound to be complicated. The trip was very memorable, for some expected reasons, and for some unexpected ones as well.

The first problem was posed by geography. We were staying in the Lake District. On the map, Haworth didn’t look that far away, definitely a day trip. Before visiting, though, I admit that I pretty much conflated all northern England sites (until I looked at a map, I had assumed Haworth was further north than the Lakes, which it is not). Originally, we were planning to take public transportation and spend the night. But then it seemed like a hassle to drag our luggage around, and I couldn’t figure out a decent way to get there on public transport: it seemed like it would take all day, with no time to visit the house.

The one bright spot was that I found out you could take a romantic steam train ride to Haworth from nearby Keighley. I was swooning. Until I found out the train wouldn’t be running that weekend. (Side note: this was the first in a surprisingly long series of failed attempts to ride a stream train, both in England and in America. Now, after being thwarted on so many occasions, I am a little obsessed with the idea of riding a steam train and determined to do it one day.)


This could have been me…

After consulting some English locals on various travel sites, and talking to some people about driving in England, we decided to rent a car and drive there. Everyone assured me it didn’t take long to adjust to driving on the opposite side of the road, and it should only take about two hours to get to Haworth. Only our innkeeper expressed doubts, and tried to convince us to stay in the Lakes instead. (Everyone in the Lake District has the attitude, “why would you go somewhere else?” Which is, in case you’re wondering, a completely justified attitude.)

It turns out that everyone except our innkeeper was a dirty, dirty liar.

My poor mom. I pretty much made her drive there, and it turns out that it is not at all easy to adjust to driving on the opposite side of the road. I think our multiple near-death experiences drew us closer together. I can’t tell you how many times we almost ran off the road, or almost drove into a parked car, or just plain panicked because the country roads were so narrow. There was a lot of honking on the part of English drivers that day. Luckily we were both in the mood to work together and make this happen, because I can definitely see how it could have gone in a totally different direction, in which we hated each other for the rest of our lives. She was an extremely good sport.

It took us about three hours to get there. We couldn’t believe we survived, and of course we were starving. We parked in the first spot we found, which meant we had to climb all the way to the top of the town. It’s a massive hike, let me tell you. I was so anxious to get to the top. And then we got to the old part of town, Haworth Village, where the parsonage was, and it was even decked out for the jubilee.

Haworth decked out for the jubilee

Haworth decked out for the jubilee

The sense of disappointment is difficult to describe. Maybe it’s because of the anticipation, but it didn’t take long for my heart to sink. This little town was ugly. I know I shouldn’t say that, but it was. I can’t even quite explain why I found it so ugly. It probably looks kinda cute in this picture, right? I’ve seen plenty of charming photographs of Haworth, and people who write about visiting seem to enjoy it. It’s hard to tell from what I can provide here, because I didn’t take many pictures — being disappointed and all — but part of the reason I found it so ugly is that, instead of the quaint little town full of cute tea shops and antique bookstores, untouched by time, that I expected to see, it felt instead like… Disneyland. Except, of course, it was Bronteland. Every single shop was named after them: the Villette Coffeehouse, Ye Olde Bronte Tea Rooms, etc. There were souvenir mugs. Which I guess I could have found amusing, except… I could feel how Charlotte would have hated it all. As we sat in the crappy, cafeteria-like Villette Coffeehouse eating frozen Yorkshire pastries heated in a microwave, there was something about the atmosphere all around us that felt so stifling, so unimaginative and conventional. And also so… gauche and embarrassing, to have the whole economy revolve around these writers in such a blatant and uninspired way. Then suddenly, I thought, how awful to have been creative and shy like the Brontes and be stuck in this oppressively bland, soulless town, even surrounded, as it was, by breathtaking landscapes. I could feel where Charlotte’s longing to escape would come from. This sounds bizarre, but it was almost a transcendent moment, as if I could feel what Charlotte would have felt, the bitterness and frustration and even a little anger. (But then, I tend to identify with her a lot…)

After getting over my initial impression and getting some much-needed food, which almost always helps even when it’s pathetic, the visit vastly improved. We poked around and located the parsonage high at the top of the village.


On the steps of the Bronte Parsonage Museum

The parsonage lifted my spirits. The Georgian-style home itself was actually quite neat and charming, just what would be expected. I couldn’t take pictures inside the museum (a running theme with British house museums!), so I can’t show you all the delightful treasures that lay inside: Charlotte’s portable secretary, handwritten notes on mourning stationary, Charlotte’s wedding bonnet, and the impossibly tiny magazines all the Brontes created as children. There was even an exhibit of Branwell’s paintings, which were pretty bad. Poor Branwell.

What really got me, though, was the dining room, which caught me off guard, being right off the entrance. I’m really letting my nerd-flag fly when I tell you that tears immediately sprung to my eyes when I realized what I was looking at. This was the room described in letters and biographies, the room where the sisters talked out their ideas as they walked around the table. This is where they wrote at night, and read aloud to each other. The room even contained the couch where Emily allegedly died. I could imagine them taking turns pacing and thinking aloud.

Bronte's dining room (I didn't take this picture) where the sisters wrote and discussed their work

Bronte’s dining room (I didn’t take this picture) where the sisters wrote and discussed their work

Behind the house, the fields and moors open out into a beautiful view:

the landscape behind the house

the landscape behind the house

And on the other side of the house was the church, with several memorials to the Bronte family.

the church

the church


IMG_2688Feeling more connected to Haworth, we re-entered the village and discovered several additional memorials specifically to Branwell:

Sign about Branwell

Sign about Branwell

Poor Branwell. His infamy lives on.

All in all, despite our death-defying drive and initial letdowns, the pilgrimage was more than worthwhile, being first terrifying, then disappointing, then ultimately very satisfying. Leaving the town, I asked some locals about the heather, which I had hoped I would see blooming. Naturally, it was out of season: we were there in May, and heather blooms in August. But we headed out to the moors to see some real Yorkshire heather anyway. It was very windy, and the heather was stiff and thick and prickly. So my mother and I pretended we were Emily Bronte or her creation Catherine Earnshaw, wandering in the difficult heather on the high, wild, windy moors.



Review of Marmee and Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother

Marmee and Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her MotherMarmee and Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother by Eve LaPlante
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Even a feminist study of nineteenth-century women writers suggested that Abigail exerted no intellectual influence on Louisa, who ‘was taught by her father and also introduced to men of great influence, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau.’ No anthology or biography portrayed Louisa as ‘taught by her mother and also introduced to women of great influence, including Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Lydia Maria Child, and Margaret Fuller.’ Yet that statement, I discovered, is equally true.” — Eve LaPlante, Marmee and Louisa

As others have noted and the quotation above makes entirely clear, the argument of this book is that Abigail May Alcott was an intellectual influence as well as emotional support for Louisa May Alcott. In a way, the claim would seem to be so obvious that it’s incredible it’s never been made before, given the major influence the character of Marmee has in Little Women, and the almost complete absence of Mr. March in that book. Yet at the same time, one could argue that Marmee teaches the girls to be good and self-sacrificing, not necessarily intellectual (though she does encourage Jo’s writing–an important clue that apparently is drawn from Louisa’s own experience). In any case, LaPlante points out, quite rightly, that women’s lives are often lost to history.

It turns out that, from evidence LaPlante uncovers from letters and journals, that Louisa was considered by many, including her father, to be very much like her mother, and that, after Louisa’s success with Little Women, even Bronson wrote that Abigail did not get enough credit for her influence over Louisa. Most of the book is a biography of Abigail, which turns out to be quite enjoyable, given Abigail’s involvement in both the abolition and women’s suffrage movements, as well as her incredible resourcefulness in raising four children on very little income. It’s an engaging portrait of life in nineteenth-century America. And the relationship between Louisa and Abigail is beautifully drawn; late in the book, the description of Abigail’s death in particular (and I’m not one for deathbed scenes) is deeply moving and haunting.

The writing is readable and fast-paced, though hampered by some frustrating traits, such as the author’s over-reliance on direct quotes (sometimes it almost reads like a zagat review!) and a bizarre tendency to end paragraphs with a sentence on an entirely new topic. I also would have enjoyed reading more about Abigail’s relationships with Margaret Fuller and Lydia Maria Child; it seems to have been seen as enough that she had them, but I would have liked more details (though perhaps details are few in existing documents). Still, this is an enjoyable read and has renewed my interest in reading more by Alcott and other nineteenth-century American writers.

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Review of Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens

Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles DickensGreat Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens by Robert Gottlieb
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A good read, and a quick read, about Dickens and his family. I tend to enjoy biographies that are about more than one person, and this certainly fit the bill (though I found myself thinking about reading a biography of Katey Dickens, Dickens’s third and favorite child, as she turned out to be a really interesting person, a painter herself and friends with many artists and writers).

I read this expecting all kinds of dirt on Dickens. I’ve never read a full biography of him, but being a Victorian scholar I knew the stories you always hear about him–his stint in the blacking factory as a child, his infatuation with his sister-in-law Mary, his abominable treatment of his wife after 22 years of marriage (I mean, separation is one thing, but do you need to publicly denounce and humiliate her?), his probable affair with Ellen Ternan, etc. I was glad to read something new about his life and family. But to be honest, he seemed like he was a pretty good father in a lot of ways. I mean, yes, he was exacting and withheld his approval on many occasions. But it seems to me that many of his actions came from being both a self-made man and a “first generation” success, if you will. He came from a family in which most people seemed only to be distinguished by how much money they could lose. He wanted his children to make their own way in the world, the way he had. But then again, how could they, really, since they would always be known as the sons and daughters of one of the most famous men in the world.

The weirdest, most Dickensian part was the chapter on his daughter Dora (named after David Copperfield’s Dora), who died at 8 months. I will say no more; the way Gottlieb tells it is good and creepy.

I would agree with another reviewer that some of the “20th century psychologizing” was a little annoying, and Gottlieb was a little repetitive at times, but overall, this was a good read.

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