Monday, May 26, 2014

Literary Pilgrimages

On a recent trip to England, I visited museums devoted to two of my favorite authors: Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte. Both museums were similar, in that they were situated in a house actually lived in by the author, with rooms preserved or restored to be as close as possible to how they existed at the time the author lived there. Artifacts (books, manuscripts, clothing, pens, furniture) actually owned or created by the inhabitant are displayed throughout the rooms. There is something about being in the presence of items they actually touched, and walking the rooms and breathing the air formerly occupied by great authors that makes them feel more real to me. It's true that the biographies of Dickens and the Brontes are nearly as dramatic as the fictional events of their novels, which may lead to some of the fascination for me. 

The Charles Dickens Museum

The Dickens Museum is situated on a quiet street in the Bloomsbury district of London. Dickens only lived here from 1837-1839, but during this time he wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. The death of his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth, which impacted Dickens severely, also occurred here. 

After paying the admission fee, visitors are given a floor plan and can take a self-guided tour through the rooms. At the time I visited, along with the Dickens artifacts, selected costumes and props from the recent film The Invisible Woman (about Dickens' relationship with Ellen Ternan) were displayed. I didn't realize this until I had finished my tour, however. I had noticed one dress as being "just like" the one worn by Catherine Dickens in the movie, only to find out at the end that it was the actual costume, and not an extremely well-preserved one from Dickens' own time. 

Touring the museum takes under an hour, and is a good choice for a short, contained activity if one is burned out from the overwhelming scale of London's larger museums.

The Bronte Parsonage Museum

Getting to the Bronte Parsonage Museum requires more time and dedication of energy to get to, at least if one is coming from London. I took a train from London's Waterloo station to Leeds (about 2 1/2 hours) and then took another train from Leeds to Keighly (about half an hour). From Keighly (pronounced Keethly or Keefly, depending on who you ask) you can take one of many bus lines to the town of Haworth. The museum is at the top of the hill.

The day I visited, Haworth was holding a 1940s festival, and most of the shops along the way featured displays appropriate to the time period. A few people were also dressed in vintage costumes. Whether you do it on the way up or the way down, it's worth spending the time to peruse the shops and maybe get a bite to eat. Many of the inns have a history going back several hundred years, and at least two were regularly frequented by Branwell Bronte.


The parsonage museum itself is very similar in setup to the Dickens Museum. Again, after paying your admission fee, you can take a self-guided tour throughout the rooms. As the parsonage was occupied by a succession of curates after Patrick Bronte's death in 1861, many modifications were made to the house over the years. Since acquiring the house in 1928, the Bronte Heritage Society has attempted to return most of the original rooms to they way they were when the Brontes lived there. 

While I respect the writing of all three Bronte sisters, I've always felt the closest affinity with Charlotte, perhaps because she lived the longest and left the largest corpus in the form of novels, letters, and manuscripts, so I've felt I've been able to get to know her the best. There was a time when one might say I had a bit of an obsession with the Brontes. While that has diminished somewhat over time, I will admit to having an emotional response when I entered the dining room, where according to lore the sisters did most of their writing, and walked around the table reading what they'd written to each other. Not to mention the couch on which "it is believed Emily died." 

When I visited, there was also a very nice exhibit about animals in the Brontes' works and life, which featured sketches and paintings of their own pets done by the siblings, as well as illustrations and manuscript excerpts from the novels in which animals are featured. 

After touring the house, one can walk about the grounds, including the churchyard, featuring gravestones going back two centuries. As the family of the curate, the Brontes themselves are not buried here, but in the crypt beneath the church. However, stones for two of their longtime servants, Tabitha Aykroyd and Martha Brown, can be found here. I did not find them myself, as I became distracted by headstones bearing names of my own ancestors.

By the time I returned to London that evening, I was tired by the very long trip, but for me it was worth the time spent. 

For more information on visiting author's haunts in London, see Walking Literary London by Roger Tagholm (Passport Books, 2001). 


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