This time of year makes me long for a good, tortured romance – preferably one involving a windswept landscape, dark and stormy nights and, of course, a graveyard. There’s no better novel of Gothic passion than Wuthering Heights. Ever since first being introduced to Heathcliff in a college English course, I fell under his spell. I argued that he was a misunderstood romantic – not an evil madman as others surmised. He was overwhelmed by a passion that took control over his entire life. Sure, it was a little much to go digging around in the grave of the woman he loved, but what romance!
I had to see this place for myself. In the summer of 1998, just after graduating with my English degree from U.C. Davis, my friend Eric and I took off for England. I had the mother of all literary tours planned for us – the pinnacle of which was Haworth – deep in the heart of the Yorkshire Moors. Getting there was no small feat. After a short jaunt through Cambridge, we hopped on a north-bound train, got off in the industrial city of Leeds and attempted to board another, smaller train to a town called Keighley.
The important thing to keep in mind when traveling through North England is that the spelling of a town name has absolutely nothing to do with the pronunciation. We stood at the ticket booth in Leeds repeatedly asking the best way to get to “Hay-werth, near “Kay-lee”. We were met with confused looks and shrugged shoulders until someone finally said, “I think you want “How-eth, and it’s outside “Keith-ley””. Ahh… that rang a bell and we were promptly given instructions for a circuitous passage by train and city bus.
The train wasn’t so bad. The bus – that was one of the more unpleasant travel experiences of my entire life, which entailed a bevy of freakish characters including a bearded woman, a drunk man who urinated on the seat behind us and another rather hygenically challenged bloke who tried to make off with our luggage. I suppose it was as good an entry as any into the dark and disturbed world of the Brontes.
When we finally arrived in the center of Haworth, in the desolate far North of England, smack dab in the middle of nothing, I knew I’d achieved literary nirvana. It was all within view. The Bronte Parsonage – where the family lived and where some of the greatest literature ever written was imagined. The church where their father served as pastor. The Black Bull pub, where Branwell Bronte drank away his days, the graveyard, and in the distance, the moors. This was all to be explored. First, weary from travel, we needed to make our way to our hotel.
As luck would have it, it was just steps away. The caretakers of the Apothecary Guest House welcomed us onto a small back terrace with a glass of wine. It was lovely. “Are you here because of the book?” asked the caretaker’s wife. “You mean the Bronte books… yes,” I answered, curious why she was shaking her head at my response. “No, the ghost book… everyone’s been coming here because of the book about haunted inn.” My stomach sank a bit at the realization that we had booked a room in a haunted B&B directly across from an ancient graveyard, in a town known for its ability to stir up a rather dark side of one’s imagination. The caretakers went on to inform us that the quaint little hotel in which we were currently sitting had once suffered a destructive fire, consuming inside a young woman who is now known to run up and down the hallways throughout the night. Great, I thought. Just what we needed.
At this point I was ready for some literary ghost hunting, so we set off to explore. I felt immediately a sense of claustrophobia in this tiny, ancient town. The buildings are so close together, and tiny alleys branch off from a single winding road through town. The imposing church is perched precariously upon the shoulders of those buried below it. The graveyard holds generations of families and is literally overrun with crumbling headstones. It is a rather overwhelmingly spooky place.
The large Bronte parsonage, where the family lived from the 1820s through 1850s, stands just above the Church. It is a simple stone home that now serves as a fascinating museum (they even have a blog). Meandering through the dimly lit home and its large, cold rooms evokes a sense of the imagination it instilled in the sisters who endured its solitary walls for so many years. There are samples of the games and stories the girls created during their childhood, including an imaginary world called Angria – written about in miniscule handwriting in tiny books. It’s all so fascinating to me. That these women could establish themselves as literary legends in this forgotten land hidden in the vast northern wilds of England has always commanded my respect.
After touring the museum, we headed back to the guest house for a good night’s sleep before our big day of touring the moors. Of course, a good night’s sleep in a “haunted” inn was elusive as every sound made me imagine the pitter patter of feet running up and down the hall. We eventually made it through the night and awoke to a dreary, drizzly day, perfect for hiking the rugged six-mile trail to Wuthering Heights.
My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath – a source of little visible delight, but necessary.