Going to a manufacturing town
It was a perfectly windy & foggy day for a pilgrimage into Brontë-country. Taking a gleaming train at touristy-amiable York to commercially-prosperous Leeds, and then changing there for a shabbily rattling & puffing train to Keighley, the Yorkshire manufacturing town close to Haworth village where the Brontës lived.
Riding that train amongst particularly surly & rough looking men I read what Elizabeth Gaskell had to say (1) on the nature of Yorkshire people and on the looks of Keighley:
“the practical qualities of a man are held in great respect […] and if [virtues] produce no immediate and tangible result, they are rather put aside as unfit for this busy, striving world”. “Nothing can be more opposed [to] any stately, sleepy, picturesque cathedral town in the south than […] such a new manufacturing place as Keighley in the North. […] Nearly every dwelling seems devoted to some branch of commerce.”
Leaving the train-station I immediately exult in the sheer grimy fogginess of it all, avidly taking in the vista of brick chimneys, mills and rows of greyish-yellowish work-man’s houses. But mind you, this is not some miserable decaying industrial town – oh no, it literally thunders with activity, what with the continuous flow of lorries and vans roaring by.
Walking to the center I am struck by the peculiar nature of the many shops – how very no-frills, how eminently useful &practical their trade seems: “tailor & clothing alteration”, a furniture shop , a vacuum-shop and, by far my favorite, “Tools Solutions for Trade and DIY”.
The center of town does have some stately dignity – not the pompous parvenu buildings as in Leeds or Liverpool, but earnest buildings in tune with this un-assuming, industrious town. As Mrs Gaskell perhaps a tad over-optimistically (2) remarked: “ Yet the aspect of Keighley promises well for future stateliness, if not picturesque-ness. Grey stone abounds; and the rows of houses built of it have a kind of solid grandeur connected with their uniform and enduring lines. […]”
Meekly queuing at the bus-station I almost have to giggle at how in character with the town my fellow-travelers are: sturdy men & women clad in sensible rain-wear and carrying bags out of which protrude sensible wares such as leek, onions, screwdrivers etc. How utterly un-bookish, un-romantic, un-gothic and un-oversensitive they seem – in short, what a perfect no-nonsense backdrop for the simmering Brontë-genius…
But on drives the bus to Haworth, on that winding road through foggy valleys … leaving me to imagine Mrs Gaskell’s evocation of the Brontë-sisters’ return home from a Keighley-book-trip: “they were allowed to get books from the circulating library at Keighley; and many a happy walk, up those long four miles, must they have had, burdened with some new book, into which they peeped as they hurried home”.
And then, there is Haworth …. saved from touristy cobble-stone romance by the grey-ness and wetness of the day, by the sheer solidity of all those thick bricks which have weathered many a storm, by the uncompromising surrounding vastness of foggy vales & hills.
I climb on foot to the top of the hill, to the Brontë-parsonage and the graveyard. It’s a genuinely English-gothic graveyard with congregations of old moss-covered gravestones, pushed aside by age-old trees . And yet, I did not find it sinister, not even in the silently pouring rain. No not sinister at all, rather melancholy- peaceful, perhaps thanks to the tranquil resignation those worn stones and ancient trees inspire.
None of the Brontës are buried in the graveyard, but on my retina lingered the memorial inscriptions reproduced in Gaskell’s book (3). They all died so young …. only the father grew old, surviving his wife, his children …
Inside the church (not the one the Brontës knew, it was rebuilt in the late 19thC) there’s a gilded memorial tablet with some dried flowers another pilgrim has left.
And in the half-dark lights up the imposing presence of a bible …. opened on some pages out of Genesis, listing a whole genealogy of “names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt” .
The moors ....
But my true Brontë moment came, standing in a field near the parsonage, looking out into vast grey spaces, listening to the howling winds.
Standing there, slightly swaying in the blowing gale, unconsciously almost adopting that pose of Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’, one leg straight, the other slightly bent to brace myself against the pounding winds. And yes, the pure power of those sights & sounds – one can well imagine those moors being a great resource for the imaginative Brontës.
“This is an autumn evening, wet and wild. […] The wind cannot rest ; it hurries sobbing over hills of sullen outline, colourless with twilight and mist. Rain has beat all day on that church tower. “ (4)
Seeking refuge from the rain in the parsonage, it indeed looks welcoming & bright & cheerful – and so full of books & letters testifying to the irrepressible imagination & creativity of the Brontë children. As Gaskell evokes: “the sound of the night-winds sweeping over the desolate snow-covered moors, coming nearer and nearer, and at last shaking the very door of the room where they were sitting – for it opened out directly on that bleak, wide expanse – is contrasted with the glow, and busy brightness of the cheerful kitchen where these remarkable children are grouped”.
And yet, there’s the sofa upon which Emily died ….and there’s the “gnawing pressure of daily-recurring cares” – the stints as governesses (5) to make up for a lack of a stable, sufficient source of income, a debauched brother, a father going blind, ….
Afterwards, in a tearoom, eating some very English pie and drinking (of course) tea with milk I read on in Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë. What a tribute from one great woman writer to another! And such empathy and loving insight Gaskell shows when she writes of Charlotte: “The deep and exaggerated consciousness of her personal defects – the constitutional absence of hope, which made her slow to trust in human affection, and consequently slow to respond to any manifestation of it – made her manner shy and constrained”. (6)
And yes, CB’s was undoubtedly a shy, sensitive and melancholy nature but she also had a ferocious sense of integrity & autonomy as well as great resources of perseverance and determination in the face of adversity . Both of her great novels, Jane Eyre & Villette feature heroines with such precious internal resources. Though they may well be too sensitive and impressionable for their own good, they do show great resilience and self-respect (ie respect also for the “self without society”).
However dejected and powerless and at times hopelessly depressed Villette’s Lucy Snowe may be, never ever does she relinquish her integrity (7).
And ah, Jane Eyre, emerging from all travails “unbroken in spirit and integrity” . Blessed be this Jane Eyre who, far beyond melodrama and conventional morality , stubbornly maintains :
“I can live alone, if self-respect and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure, born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld; or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give”
“The more solitary, the more friendless, the more un-sustained I am, the more I will respect myself”
Note that the Oxford edition has Gaskell’s text supplemented with 10 (!) pages of Explanatory Notes & with at least 10 (!) notes per page (obviously this blog's footnotes' apparatus still has some way to go)
(1) Elizabeth Gaskell – The Life of Charlotte Brontë
(2) Or rather it’s Gaskell’s admirable ability of doing justice to both “North” (manufacturing & commerce) and “South” (cathedrals & colleges) ; not only does she lack any condescending attitude vàv the “North”, she has a real appreciation of the North’s merits, all the while being an insightful critic of the social abuses its commercial drive spawned (cf also her excellent novel ‘North & south’
(3) Maria Brontë (mother): ‘departed to the savior in the 39th year of her age’; Maria Brontë (daughter of the aforesaid) died in the 12th year of her age ; Elizabeth Brontë who died in the 11th year of her age; Patrick Branwell Brontë who died aged 30 years ; Emily Brontë who died aged 29 years; Anne Brontë, died aged 27 years; Charlotte Brontë, she died in the 39th year of her age
(4) Out of CB’s “Shirley”, as quoted by EG in The Life
(5) And governess life being so uncongenial to the sensitive yet staunchly autonomous natures of the Brontë –sisters.
(6) In modern parlance this “absence of hope” , this absence of natural “buoyancy of expectation” would be called a lack of “sense of entitlement” (thanks for the formulation, Moss, yet again). And yet, also without hope, without arrogance or presumption, enterprise and perseverance are possible …
(7) Yeah well – I so love Villette, therefore I ‘ll indulge in lavish quotations even though they’re not quite fully relevant to the post (or are they ….?)
- Lucy Snowe soliloquy: “a sorrowful indifference to existence often pressed on me – a despairing resignation to reach betimes the end of all things earthly. […] If [hopes] knocked at my heart sometimes, an inhospitable bar to admission must be inwardly drawn. […] I dared not give such guests lodging. So mortally did I fear the sin and weakness of presumption”
(& when pondering going for a walk or not on a secluded path: ) “For a long time the fear of seeming singular scared me away; but by degrees, as people became accustomed to me and my habits, and to such shades of peculiarity as were engrained in my nature – shades, certainly not striking enough to interest, and perhaps not prominent enough to offend, but born in and with me, and no more to be parted with than my identity”
“and in quarters where we can never be rightly known, we take pleasure I think, in being consummately ignored”
&also in Villette, the outdoorsy moors-girl CB writes thus passionately about wandering about in London: “Prodigious was the amount of life I lived that morning […] I went wandering whither chance might lead, in a still ecstasy of freedom and enjoyment; and I got – I know not how – I got into the heart of city life. I saw and felt London at last: […] I mixed with the life passing along; I dared the perils of crossings. To do this, and to do it utterly alone, gave me, perhaps an irrational, but a real pleasure. Since those days, I have seen the West-end, the parks, the fine squares; but I love the city far better. The city seems so much more in earnest: its business, its rush, its roar, are such serious things, sights, and sounds. The city is getting its living – the West-end but enjoying its pleasure”