“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” With this simple opening line, Charlotte Brontë presents the confined situation of Jane Eyre. There are any number of ways in which Brontë could have signaled that Jane is trapped. She could have begun her novel with Jane locked in a room by her aunt or her cousins. She could have lodged Jane’s foot in a crevice or thick mud. She could have dressed Jane in constricting clothing that the growing orphan had really outgrown. Instead, Brontë made the point in a way that was probably most meaningful to Brontë herself: Jane couldn’t walk outdoors.
We could, though—and did we ever. Yesterday gave us cloudless skies for our visit to the Brontë home in Haworth, making a walk on the moors not only possible but practically imperative.
We have spent a good deal of time this semester talking about how stories are shaped by the places in which they’re written and, reciprocally, how places acquire meaning from the stories in which they appear. The first line of Jane Eyre is clearly influenced by the Brontë sisters’ habit of walking the very paths we walked yesterday. Charlotte and Emily, in particular, wrote stories shaped by their daily experience of the earth and air in North Yorkshire.
“What the Brontës cared for and lived in most,” wrote Charlotte’s dear friend Ellen Nussey, “were the surrounding of nature, the free expanse of hill and mountain, the purple heather, the dells and glens, and brooks, the broad sky view, the whistling winds, the snowy expanse, the starry heavens, and the charm of that solitude and seclusion which sees things from a distance without the disturbing atmosphere which lesser minds are apt to create.”
The title and poster of the 2016 movie on the Brontë sisters, filmed in several of the locations we visited yesterday, uses walking on the moors as a metaphor for the sisters’ lives and work.
If the Brontës’ experience of this place shaped their stories, however, the stories have now also shaped the place. The little town of Haworth now has Brontë Street, Shirley Street, Branwell Road, and Heathcliff Street—and those are just the ones I noticed myself. The shaping hand of those novels even reaches far out onto the moors. Top Withens is the name of the ruined farm to which we hiked, and the battered old barn bears a plaque that testifies to the mutual influences of fact and fiction that have defined the place:
“This farmhouse has been associated with Wuthering Heights, the Earnshaw home in Emily Brontë’s novel. The building, even when complete, bore no resemblance to the house she described, but the situation may have been in her mind when she wrote of the moorland setting of the heights. This plaque has been placed here in response to many inquiries. The Brontë Society, 1964.”
So the actual setting might have inspired Emily Brontë’s novel, which is now the filter through which many people see that setting. Top Withens, for many people, hovers in a liminal space between fact and fiction.
In fact, Jane Eyre explicitly uses liminal spaces to achieve many of its effects. Several significant encounters in the book occur at stiles, low places in a stone fence that allow humans (but not animals) to pass from one field to another. And throughout the novel, characters ask one another whether they are goblins, elves, sprites, or fairies. A first-time reader is often asking herself exactly what kind of book she’s reading: is this realism, or is it the kind of story where supernatural forces, creatures, and premonitions need to be taken seriously?
It is partly this tension between no-nonsense realism and fantasy that animates Jane Eyre herself. She is noted for the plainness of both her dress and her manner of speaking: she tells the plain truth, sometimes bluntly. There is an old anecdote in Yorkshire of a salesman calling into a shop to see whether the shop owner needs any of his wares, and the owner replies that he doesn’t. Because they’re both plain, direct Yorkshiremen, however, the entire conversation takes only two syllables:
Sorted. Jane has a bit of that Yorkshire directness about her, and she—like the men in the anecdote—might well have picked up this quality from the Yorkshire landscape itself: sparse, vigorous, and elemental.
At the same time, however, Jane is often described as having an elvish elusiveness, the mysterious, superhuman energy of a fairy or a spirit. “You have rather the looks of another world,” Rochester tells her. “I marveled where you had got that sort of face. When you came on me in Hay Lane last night, I thought unaccountably of fairy tales, and I had half a mind to demand whether you had bewitched my horse.”
The moors, too, feel as if they have a quality other than the four elemental ones of earth, air, water, and fire. It is a fantasy landscape, and not just because most of my group photos looked like a still from The Fellowship of the Ring. “Lunar” is the word that always came to mind. If I were riding across this moor when I encountered a plainly dressed young woman on her own, I too might think she had come from another world; and if my horse were suddenly to slip, I too might blame the woman for bewitching my horse. (And there, Lord willing, my similarity to Rochester ends.)
Above, I quoted Ellen Nussey’s memory of the Brontës’ deep love for their natural environment, which included “the charm of that solitude and seclusion which sees things from a distance without the disturbing atmosphere which lesser minds are apt to create.” Nussey continues, however, to clarify the kind of “seclusion” of which she speaks when remembering the sisters and their walks:
“For it was not the seclusion of a solitary person, such as Charlotte endured in after days, and which in time becomes awfully oppressive and injurious. It was solitude and seclusion shared and enjoyed with intelligent companionship, and intense family affection.”
It was a shared solitude: Charlotte and Anne and Emily were alone together. Charlotte Brontë outlived her siblings, however, and eventually she walked these moors alone, haunted by the memories with which they had filled the empty space. It was heartbreaking. I can only imagine that moors became, at that point, the very worst kind of liminal space: somewhere between past happiness and present grief, between literal loneliness and remembered companionship. I hung back from the group a bit on our long return to the bus, walking along with this image of poor Charlotte and gratefully reflecting on the fact that my own companions—the noisy, laughing students up ahead—were very much present.
Well, okay. The above reflections are all well and good, in their bookish sort of way, but I’ll bet that if you asked many of the students what they remember about the excursion to Haworth, they’ll immediately say, “the soup.”
Our guide for the day was the incomparable Johnnie Briggs of Bronte Walks, who took us all around the town, stopping for several minutes in various locations to tell us the full history of the Bronte family, beginning with the story of Patrick (the sisters’ father). Johnnie is a master storyteller who has been doing this for years. He doesn’t use notes, and he knows exactly how to ask questions to keep students engaged. I marveled at his teaching style.
When we first arrived, however, and sat down in a small church room to learn about the birth of Patrick Bronte, he wanted to make sure that we were well fed. There were apples, oranges, and fruit juices on the table. Johnnie himself made coffee and brewed tea for everyone. When returned from our tour of the town to set off on our moor walk, there was bread and cheese. And when we returned from the moor walk, there was all of that—plus a large pot of homemade soup, homemade scones (with jam and clotted cream), and a homemade cake. At several points throughout the day, as more food was revealed, several students turned to me with wide, disbelieving eyes. “Where did you find this guy?”
It turned out to be Johnnie’s birthday, no less. We all sang.
None of the food was fancy. All of it was delicious, and of course all the more so for being unexpected, made by hand, and offered by an exceedingly gracious host. As if a thorough history and vigorous walk were not enough, we also received a master class in hospitality.