Haworth, England is not a name that will come to mind when one thinks of important locations in England or Great Britain. An unassuming town in industrialized northern England, Haworth’s most famous daughters are the Brontës, titans of 19th century British literature. Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë became internationally famous during their lifetimes for their novels focusing on romance, intrigue, and life in rural, Industrial Revolution-era England. Their novels, such as Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Shirley, loom large in the Western canon and influenced countless writers who came after them. The Brontë also put Haworth on the map, turning it into an internationally known tourist destination, attracting flocks of fans who come to see the land from which they sprang.
At the time the Brontës were alive, the town of Haworth had little going for it. Northern England was the center of the country’s Industrial Revolution, where the majority of the country’s factories and industrial output was located, and Haworth was right in the middle of that development. Located in the middle of the Pennines, a range of hills stretching north to the Scottish border, during the 19th century, Haworth was an overcrowded, filthy slum, full of industrial pollution and development (Gaskell, 25). Due to the pollution, the death rate was unusually high by standards of the time, with nearly half of all children dying before their sixth birthday and an average lifespan of only 24 (Pocock, 34). What makes the Brontës’ connection to Haworth and Yorkshire even more unusual is their heritage. They were not descended from locals in the area, but their parents were both migrants from other parts of the British Isles. Their mother was from Cornwall in southwestern England, while their father was Irish, as indicated by their last name (Fraser, 56). Additionally, despite the popular perception of the Brontës being rural shut-ins, they were actually quite well-traveled, with both Charlotte and Emily Brontë having lived in Brussels (at the time part of the Netherlands, now the capital of Belgium) during their youths.
It was through their novels that the Brontë sisters helped shape Haworth and the outside world’s perception of it. Jane Eyre, the first novel published by a Brontë sister and the most successful, depicted life in Yorkshire as cruel and oppressive, with its descriptions of its heroine’s upbringing in a sadistic boarding school. Upon its publication in 1848, Wuthering Heights scandalized Britain with its graphic depictions of romance and mental instability, deeply polarizing critics (Gérin, 96). The Brontë sisters’ novels also laid bare the ways that the Industrial Revolution had changed Haworth—and England—for the worse. Hygiene and cleanliness in Haworth was poor, resulting in numerous health problems and short lifespans; Emily Brontë herself died at a relatively young age (Pocock, 143). Food was also scarce in supply, leading to nutritional deficiencies among many citizens. Much in the same way that Charles Dickens had called attention to social problems in his novels, depictions of life in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights helped spur on social change throughout the U.K.
It is because of their sharp eye for observing reality that the Brontë sisters left their mark on not only Haworth, but on the world as a whole. Their literary genius helped shape the direction of British and American literature long after their deaths, and their stark portrayals of life in the north of England left an indelible mark on their readers’ minds. The end result of this is that Haworth, England was never the same, and neither was English-language literature itself, thanks to the efforts of the Brontë sisters and their followers.
- Bronte, Emily, and Winifred Gérin. Emily Brontë: a biography. Clarendon Press, 1972.
- Fraser, Rebecca. The Brontës: Charlotte Brontë and Her Family. Ballantine Books, 1990.
- “Haworth, the Bronte parsonage.” YouTube. YouTube, 07 Mar. 2009. Web. 30 Apr. 2017.
- Gaskell, Elizabeth. The Life of Charlotte Brontë. OUP Oxford, 2009.
- McGreevy, Ann Loftus. “The parsonage children: An analysis of the creative early years of the Brontës at Haworth.” Gifted Child Quarterly 39.3 (1995): 146-153.
- Pocock, Douglas CD. “Haworth: The experience of literary place.” Geography and literature: A meeting of the disciplines. Syracuse University Press, 1987.
- Tetley, Sarah, and Bill Bramwell. “Tourists and the cultural construction of Haworth’s literary landscape.” Literature and tourism: Essays in the reading and writing of tourism (2002): 155-170.