We are making a pilgrimage to Haworth, the Yorkshire home of 19th-century British novelists Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë. Mara has recently read Jane Eyre, and Eva’s best friend’s cats are named Charlotte and Emily, so they eagerly assent when I suggest that we detour north from London, where we are visiting my father, to the origin point of one of my great obsessions: the three sisters (and their disappointingly dissolute brother) whose novels, diaries, and letters I’ve read and reread, whose biographies I know like I know my own, whom I take any opportunity to encounter in any medium (the Saturday night before the pilgrimage, I see the Shared Experience theater company’s play Brontë in London).
Still, when I ask myself what I want from this journey, I feel vague and clichéd. Do I think I will better understand the Brontës and their books if I see the moors that inspired them and the town that did not quite nurture them? If so, I am just one in millions: Haworth has been a stop on the literary tourist map since the nineteenth century. Do I want to pay my respects, to acknowledge what the Brontës have brought me by traveling to their resting place? Perhaps, though of course it will make no difference to them. The one thing I do know is that I want to see the moors, because despite all the novels and poems and letters, the photographs and paintings and movies, I’m still not quite sure what moors are, and neither are Mara and Eva. Mara thinks they are like prairie, with lots of tall, waving grass. Eva first thinks they are forest, then decides they must be fields with bushes. I have inchoate visions of treeless landscapes.
Long before we get to the moors, there are smokestacks. From London to Leeds, our train takes us through yellow fields of rapeseed, past fishing ponds intermittently rimmed with small wooden docks and paddocks dotted with grazing horses. But from Leeds to Keighley, and then on the antique diesel train from Keighley to Haworth, I am struck not by domesticated English pastoral, but by the omnipresence of 19th-century industrialism. I’ve read my Gaskell and Dickens, I know the brutality of Manchester mills and northern industrial cities, but I had no idea there would be mills everywhere, lining the tracks, several per town, their baroque smokestacks reaching to the skies, monuments and geographical features at once. I’d thought the references to rioting millworkers in Brontë were forced, a banal homage to a Marxist mode of criticism determined to find industrialism throughout the Brontë oeuvre, not just in Charlotte’s explicitly industrial novel, Shirley. The physical reality proves me wrong. This is the Brontës’ true landscape.
But when we reach Haworth, nothing seems true. England is in the midst of an April heat wave which is thrilling tourists and alarming drought-fearing farmers and television commentators. We’ve packed for driving rain, wind, and cold, but we’re wearing t-shirts and worrying about sunburn. Haworth’s Main Street still climbs up to Patrick Brontë’s church and the parsonage where his family lived and died, but it’s now lined with tourist shops selling knick-knacks, memorabilia, and cream tea. When I look at the omnipresent old photos, it’s clear that the Haworth of today bears little resemblance to the early 19th-century Haworth of the Brontës: the town has expanded dramatically, trees have grown up across the formerly barren landscape, the quaint railway on which we arrived was constructed in the 1860s (the Brontës walked the four miles to Keighley), the reservoir that dominates the near view was dug in the 1870s, the actual church where Reverend Brontë preached was demolished and rebuilt around 1880. This was once the Brontës’ home, but it’s no longer their town.
To get to the moors, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne walked out the back door of the parsonage and there they were. To get to the moors, we walk past the parsonage, between a field and a housing block, through a stile, along the edge of a road, across a parking lot, and through another stile. When we reach the moors (a milestone we mark with squeals and photos), we walk along a dilapidated paved road with moors on our left and cunningly-built stone walls on our right, bordering fields of sheep and lambs (more squeals, more photos). Eventually the narrow road narrows further, to a path, and the pavement stops. Though spring is in full bloom in London, the moors are still winter-brown and beige, their hillocks and tussocks rolling away from us in a dapple of boulders and low-lying vegetation: tall grasses, low bushes, dried ferns, dark moss.
The moors are everything we imagined in general, and more in specific, but this walk has nothing to do with the Brontës. The sun is blazing which is simply wrong: the Brontëan moors are wet and wind-swept, but here there are happy picnickers by the Brontë Bridge and shrieking children paddling in Dean Beck. Eva has had enough and wants to stop and play in the water, but Mara agrees that we should go on toward Top Withins, the abandoned farmhouse rumored to be the inspiration for Wuthering Heights, the house.
Alone on the narrow dirt path that meanders up and down the low hills, Mara and Eva are happy: they get to see more lambs and pretend to be Jane Austen heroines, discussing their beaux and London balls. In the near distance — Eva insists it’s far, but I’m sure it’s not — we see the shape of a house next to a single tree. Now Eva weeps and begs to stop, but I’ve decided that we are a Mommyocracy and we’re going to Top Withins.
We cross a stream and cross it again, pass the rock tumble of another abandoned house, and then we are there. The front walls of the roofless farmhouse loom over the path, but when we go around to the back, there is an opening and we can go inside. The moor itself has grown up within the walls and we can climb their ruins. The wind is finally blowing, cooling the sun, and from the tops of the walls we see more moors, undulating to the horizon.
Like the rest of Haworth, this is not the Top Withins Emily Brontë knew — back then it was a working farm — but suddenly it doesn’t matter. This is not a story written by the Brontës, I realize, nor the story of walking in the footsteps of the Brontës, nor even of following the tracks of all the tourists before us. This is our story, the story of the hottest April day in recent memory, when we finally saw the moors and walked all the way to Top Withins, when Eva cried and Mara coaxed her along, when Eva chased the lambs and Mara posed on the rocks like a supermodel, when Mara inched along the top of the wall and Eva climbed around a corner and I sat and watched them and felt the wind on my face and the sun in my hair.
Strangely enough, it is just when I’ve given up the Brontës that I grasp them again. No longer a reluctant moor walker, Eva spots a path behind Top Withins and wants to go on. I follow her up the hill, which leads to another hill, then another. The moors lure us forward, their curves and bends beckoning. Suddenly, I understand why Catherine Earnshaw, the tempestuous heroine of Wuthering Heights, can’t stay away from the moors, how they pull her on, farther into her destiny. Eva turns back to get Mara, and I can’t resist going on to the next rise and then the next, each revealing just enough of what lies ahead to entice me further. In my only moment alone on the moors, I am Catherine – for just a moment. Then Eva returns with Mara and the backpack which I put on my back as we bushwhack our return to Brontë Bridge and Haworth. But that moment, and the whole day, are enough. This is why we came to Haworth.