Last week I was lucky enough to attend a writers’ workshop at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth. The workshop was run by the Scots poet Jackie Kay. Jackie Kay is the writer in residence at the Parsonage (what a
brilliant job that must be!) She is also Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle Uni, an MBE for her services to literature, and the author of several volumes of prose and poetry. So, writing, the moors, Haworth and the Brontës – I was quite excited about the day!
Jackie Kay talked about her research as writer in residence, and the areas which had particularly interested her. One of these was the life of the Brontë sisters’ father, Patrick Brontë . Patrick was Irish, but spent most of his adult life in England. He went to Cambridge, which was a massive achievement for the largely self-taught son of an agricultural labourer, who had been destined by his family to become a blacksmith. Jackie Kay wondered what type of man he had been, to come from such a background and be father to one of the most creative families in literature. He survived his wife and all six of his children.
Another of the Haworth characters that interested Jackie was Tabitha, the family’s maid. Jackie believes Tabitha was herself a
phenomenal story teller, and would regale the children with tales that were far beyond their years. She served with the family for 31 years, and was much loved.
One of the discoveries I most enjoyed finding out about was a poignant list of the household’s goods, which Jackie came across during her research. The household goods were put up for auction after Patrick Brontë died, and include such items as “Sundry Books 5 s/3p” ; “Warming Pan 5s / ” ; “Hair Trunk 12s/ “; and (somehow I found this the saddest): “2 silk umbrellas 10s / 6p”.
Finally, the writing exercise Jackie set us involved choosing one of the rooms in the Parsonage, plus an object we’d seen there, and maybe one of the members of the household. We also had to write down four words that summed up our main impressions of the morning. Then we had five minutes to write what we wanted. (I’m not really explaining this as well as Jackie Kay did, but I’m sure you get my drift!)
Anyway, I decided to put a scene together involving Patrick Brontë reading to the children when they were young. I’m also intrigued by Aunt Branwell, so she, too, appeared in my five minute writing. Aunt Branwell was Patrick’s sister-in-law, and moved from Plymouth to Haworth to look after the family when her sister died. According to Mrs Gaskell, Aunt Branwell ran the household with clockwork precision. I wonder what she made of the sisters and their frenzies of creativity, and of their brother Branwell, who became addicted to alcohol and opium.
In my short scene I made Aunt Branwell into a scary figure, who thinks reading is the height of laziness when there are domestic chores to be done. (I’m sure she wasn’t like this in real life, but it makes a good story!)
So here’s my short Haworth Parsonage scene:-
The girls were in the kitchen, hiding from their aunt. Their father’s bacon and eggs sizzled in a pan over the fire. When he added a fresh tomato, the fat spat and hissed.
‘What happened next, Pop?’ Anne asked.
Their father turned the pages of an imaginary book. ‘…And then the bear grabbed the little girl by her long, long hair, swung her over his shoulder, and carried her off to the woods,’ he roared.
The girls cowered, giggling and terrified, in the corner. A step was heard on the staircase.
‘Sssh.’ Their father slammed shut the imaginary book.
Maybe not my finest work, but I tried to give the impression of a family who grew up loving stories :)
It was a while since I’d been to the Brontë Parsonage, and I thoroughly enjoyed looking round again and seeing the household through Jackie Kay’s eyes. It was a fun morning.
And now a hard question. Which of the Brontë’s novels is your favourite? Or maybe you don’t enjoy them at all! Either way, I’d love to hear from you. And if you’ve ever visited the Parsonage in Haworth, I’d love to hear your impressions.
Hope you’ve enjoyed my small peek into the sisters’ life and household!