Friday, July 9, 2010

The Bronte Museum

On a warm afternoon in early autumn, I climbed to the top of the cobbled Main Street in Haworth, observing the serried ranks of shops and homes whose grim stone faces still wear the grey stain of nineteenth century industrial smoke, and I paused at the crest of that steep, winding hill to steady my excitement before turning up the lane that leads to the Brontë parsonage museum.
To my left stood the imposing front entrance to the church of St. Michael’s and all Angels where the Reverend Patrick Brontë began his duties in 1820 as perpetual curate. After following a slight bend in the lane onto Church Street, the famous Brontë home came into view. A few tall trees masked the full glory of the two-story structure as did a high stone wall that enclosed the grounds. Set between the church and the parsonage was a cemetery with its oblong gravestones and large, stone boxes that resembled forgotten coffins still waiting to be interred. Strips of persistent grass crept along the edges of stone, growing among flattened slabs that designated burials of men, women, and children honoured and loved from centuries long past. To my right was a house built around 1830 by John Brown, a stone mason, church sexton, and friend of the Brontës. Attached to the house is the old school room where Charlotte Brontë had once taught the village boys and girls.

I made my way to the opening in the stone wall and stepped onto the front garden of the parsonage museum. My first impression was that the grounds were smaller than I had imagined, but neatly kept with varied shrubs and trees providing a peaceful setting. I walked along the path and faced the museum with its five windows along the second story, its two windows on either side of the front door, and the two story extension on the right, added after the Reverend Brontë had died. The white curtains contrasting with the grey stone suggested a civilized and gracious façade had merged with the darker substance of life.

Here was the home where great works of literature were imagined and penned: Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, The Professor, Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Shirley, and Villette. Hundreds of pages written behind those windows during windstorms and endless rainy nights when the Brontë sisters would light candles, and the silhouettes of their bodies bent over the table would fade with the embers in the fire’s grate. In the imagined silence and stillness of a foggy dawn, brown moors and icy streams visited a corner in my mind’s eye where I saw nature’s elemental power igniting the Brontë soul to speak of passion and truth, and fuelling the mysterious yearning of a lonely spirit determined to unite with her invisible readers.

Charlotte Bronte, a shy, small girl with short-sighted hazel eyes, soft, brown hair and a plain face, could just as easily bury expression while she roamed among strangers as light up with excitement from a thrilling passage of prose. Her thin, tiny frame and poor eyesight held her in check whenever she sat in company, but those eyes were observing her world, and her powerful intelligence was recording events and consuming literature from the solitude of her home.

She once wrote of a 'soft blindness,' but she wasn't speaking about her eyesight. She advised that men prefer women who have mild eyes that never look below the surface, that accept all that is told them and see only what appears to be true, but sometimes even the most downcast eyes have their loopholes: 'I remember once seeing a pair of blue eyes, that were usually thought sleepy, secretly on the alert, and I knew by their expression--an expression which chilled my blood,' that those eyes 'had been accustomed to silent soul-reading.' A woman who studied humanity and whose fine, deep, subtle mind was able to look into another's soul and understand the spirit and the devil residing there. Was she speaking of herself? Probably. A writer needs to look beyond the surface and know the yearnings of each silent soul mirrored and embodied in her characters.

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