Lisa Byrne on celebrating the lives of the Brontës

Lisa Byrne

Lisa Byrne - Credit: Archant

Columnist (and aspiring novelist) Lisa Byrne joins in the bicentenary celebrations for one of Yorkshire’s most remarkable families.

The Bronte sisters. Photo: J.P.Humbert Auctioneers/PA Wire

The Bronte sisters. Photo: J.P.Humbert Auctioneers/PA Wire - Credit: PA

If Thomas Hardy’s literary genius brings the West County to life and Charles Dickens evokes Victorian England, then surely Yorkshire’s strongest literary connection must be with the Brontë family. And we continue to heap praise upon these three seemingly innocuous sisters, described by their publisher as ‘rather quaintly dressed little ladies, pale faced and anxious looking’.

Anyone lucky enough to visit their former home, Haworth Parsonage, will probably concede that it still seems to possess their ghosts. You can imagine them rattling away, discussing ideas at the parlour table and playing with their toy soldiers in the bedroom. Since their deaths, the Brontës’ home has remained virtually untouched, which makes the atmosphere even more suffocating, verging on sinister, but also totally thrilling.

Throughout this year, and for the next four years, there are numerous activities to commemorate the work of the family under the banner of Brontë 200 – celebrating the bicentenaries of the birth of four of the children: Charlotte this year, Branwell next year, Emily in 2018 and Anne in 2020.

The Brontë Society has arranged a huge number of events including talks by renowned novelists Maggie O’Farrell and Tracy Chevalier on the influence of Charlotte Brontë’s ground-breaking novel Jane Eyre, and Treasures by Candlelight, where you can tread in the footsteps of the clan through the historic rooms of the parsonage and view treasures from the museum library at close quarters.

A few weeks ago, traffic in Micklegate, York, came to a standstill due to filming of the hugely anticipated one-off TV drama about the family called To Walk Invisible, written and directed by Sally Wainwright of Happy Valley fame. The programme takes a unique look at this extraordinary family, showing how through sheer hard work and tenacity, the three remarkable sisters overcame barriers to produce some of the greatest novels in the English language.

Talking about the BBC drama, Sally Wainwright said: ‘This is such an exciting and ambitious project and we have already had a huge amount of interest in it. Something about the lives of these three brilliant, talented Yorkshire women seems to touch people at a very deep level.’

I recently read a wonderful new book on the Brontës called A Life in Letters by Juliet Barker. Despite being over 400 pages long, I finished it in two days. It’s an incredible collection of personal letters, making their long deceased voices come to life. I was surprised to find that rather than being the shy wallflower who hid behind her writing desk in the parsonage, Charlotte stormed down to London together with her sister Anne to convince her publisher that the Brontë novels were written by three separate people rather than just one person.

Charlotte took a shine to her handsome publisher George Smith, though he sadly said of her: ‘It may seem strange that the possession of genius did not lift her above the weakness of an excessive anxiety about her personal appearance; but I believe that she would have given all her genius and her fame to have been beautiful.’

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I’m currently a quarter of the way through writing my first novel and I can’t explain what a hard slog it is. I find it very difficult to imagine how those women managed to be such prolific authors in a world where they had to create pseudonyms, Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell and, during their lifetime, only took brief trips away, being mainly based at the imposing but stifling parsonage. But, as well as being inspired by the stunning, if often bleak countryside, a few unrequited relationships and the loss of family members at a young age, I think the family also shared intense and joyful relationships full of love and adoration. And their legacy is bound to live on for another 200 years. I even named my own daughter Brontë after Yorkshire’s greatest literary family.

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