Brontë Parsonage Museum: A Time Machine to Explore the Mesmerising Lives of the Brontë Sisters
Updated On: November 22, 2023
Like The Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, The Franz Kafka Museum in Prague, and The Naguib Mahfouz Museum in Cairo, The Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, West Yorkshire, England stands as a time machine, waiting for literature enthusiasts to take them back to the terrific yet tragic lives of the Brontë sisters.
For if there ever was a time machine, readers would be the ones who use it the most.
On the one hand, they can satisfy their prolonged urge to see how their favourite writers lived and what shaped their existence, their struggles, and their genius. In fact, no genuine reader can deny this shiver they get when they see their favourite writer’s belongings, from their handwritten drafts, pens, and even boxes of cigarettes to their desks, glasses, suits, ties, or dresses.
On the other hand, some readers, myself included, get to make sure that those writers were human beings like them and not creativity machines. When you think of it, it is sort of reassuring.
That is why, and for many other reasons, of course, people visit writers’ museums. It is like going on a lively journey back through the years and maybe centuries of history. And if the museums are hosted at the former houses of the writers, and if the writers themselves happened to be geniuses, visiting their museums is indeed a never-to-miss experience.
The Brontë Parsonage Museum
Listed as a national heritage site in the UK, the Brontë Parsonage Museum displays an extensive collection of personal items that belong to Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë, the three famous 19th-century literary sisters.
Before it was turned into a museum, the parsonage was the Brontës’ lifetime residence. This is where they were born, grew up, built their imaginary worlds, and wrote their poems and novels that helped with women’s rights and influenced the change in women’s position in society.
Having said that, most of the items displayed at the parsonage are more connected with Charlotte Brontë. She was the most prominent member of the Brontë family. Her novel, Jane Eyre, has been a worldwide success ever since it was published in 1847. And the parsonage, later a museum, was the birthplace of such a masterpiece.
Charlotte was also the most professionally active among her siblings, the most prolific, and the one who outlived them all.
The story of the Brontës
The parsonage is a two-floor building with multiple rooms that was built in 1778. The father, Patrick Brontë, was originally an Irish priest. But then he was given a job at the Church of St Peter in Hartshead so he moved to the UK with his family.
In 1820, Patrick Brontë started working at St Michael and All Angels Church in Haworth. So he was given the parsonage to reside in with his family. Charlotte, the most famous of the Brontë sisters, was already four years old when the family moved to the parsonage.
Only a year or so after the family had moved to the parsonage, the mother, Maria Branwell, died of cancer. Three years later, Charlotte, Emily, and their two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, left the parsonage as their father sent them to a boarding school in Cowan Bridge in Lancashire.
The conditions at the school were horrible, and the school system was incredibly cruel and petrifying. The Brontë sisters were bullied by their fellow pupils for coming from a poor family. And Charlotte specifically was mistreated because of her short-sightedness which compelled her to stick her nose to the books to be able to read.
And there was also the punishing system that humiliated the pupils and intended to hurt them both physically and emotionally.
The devastating conditions at the school caused both Maria and Elizabeth’s health to deteriorate so dramatically that they developed tuberculosis. This urged the school to send them back home in Haworth. First, Maria, extremely ill, arrived, but sadly she died in May 1825. Around a month later, Elizabeth also arrived home and died of the same disease.
The sudden tragic loss of two of his daughters only nine months after they had joined school forced Patrick Brontë to take his surviving daughters, Charlotte and Emily, and send them back to their family parsonage. And this was when the normal family residence started to witness the literary growth and development of the Brontës.
The first spark of creativity
After the loss of Maria and Elizabeth, Charlotte became the oldest of her surviving siblings: Branwell, Emily, and Anne. So she took on the responsibility of taking care of them. The realisation of having no one but one another influenced a more profound bond among the Brontë siblings. So they spent all their time together, playing and creating imaginary worlds.
They made up stories and acted them out at home. They occupied their time by designing characters with a high level of clarity and detail which is not very common for children of their age.
Then the Brontë siblings started moving these worlds to paper. Charlotte and Branwell together did the most part and created a novel called Glass Town which Emily and Anne also participated in. The story was about an imaginary cosmos where different characters with various thoughts, emotional struggles, and desires lived.
Glass Town was something like a comic novel. It was written on episodes and published in a local magazine that Branwell created and distributed within the limits of the Haworth parsonage.
As Charlotte grew older, she was the one in her family that left the parsonage more frequently. For instance, in 1831, at the age of 15, she enrolled in a school called Roe Head where she spent one year.
Charlotte’s second school experience was apparently better than the first one. She did learn many things and utilised the time to learn and deepen her passion for writing. In 1833, she left the school and returned to the parsonage to join her siblings. She cared especially for their education, passing to them the knowledge she got from school.
Two years later, in 1835, Charlotte left the parsonage again for the same school, Roe Head. But this time, she returned as a teacher. She spent the next three years working, educating children, and writing.
However, Charlotte was also struggling with loneliness, deep sadness, and desperation because all of her previous friends had already returned home. She was left behind without any proper company and poetry was the only thing that gave her escape from her sorrows.
And because she had been quite literarily prolific at the time and was able to make good progress in writing poems, Charlotte decided to pursue a career as a poet. So she sent a letter to Robert Southey, who was a famous Romantic poet at the time, asking him for support and encouragement.
Though deep down she was yearning for some uplifting, Charlotte, I believe, never expected the harsh reply she received from Southey. It seems like the famous poet spared no effort to kill her dreams and rather disregarded them when he said, “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation.”
But discouragement did not really stop Charlotte and she kept writing poems anyway. Yet, in the meantime, she thought she would try her chances finding a job. That is why she became a governess after she left the school in 1839 at the age of 23.
A governess was a private tutor who was hired to teach families’ kids at home instead of sending them to school. While on the job, Charlotte did not often stay at the parsonage with the rest of her family. Instead, she was offered residence at the family house she was working for.
Meanwhile at the parsonage, the Brontë siblings worked on their literary skills, writing poems and coming up with short stories. Branwell, in particular, left the parsonage at some point in time to study art in London or to work. He showed great talent in painting and translating books from Latin to English.
On the other hand, Branwell also showed some quite irresponsible attitudes. He was pretty unbalanced and undisciplined. He often quit his jobs and lacked willpower to do hard things. Moreover, he developed a nasty drinking habit and used drugs. Eventually, he fell into debt.
Though he was a grown-up already, Charlotte was still feeling some kind of responsibility toward her younger brother Branwell. This forced her to stay at her job as a governess to support him, although she hated it as families mistreated her and sometimes even humiliated her.
The parsonage as a boarding school
In 1841, Charlotte quit being a governess and returned to the parsonage. She and her sister Emily decided to open a boarding school at the family residence. It was quite large enough to host numerous pupils. But before that, both sisters needed to qualify themselves for the job, improve their teaching skills, and master French.
So Charlotte and Emily enrolled at a boarding school in Brussels. This experience was fruitful, and both girls worked so hard that they could draw the attention of the school’s principal, Mr Constantin Héger.
However, destiny forced the sisters to return to the parsonage when their aunt Maria Branwell died in 1842. With the loss of another family member, Emily decided to stay at the parsonage to support her brother Branwell, her sister Anne, and her ageing father, Patrick. On the other hand, Charlotte returned to Brussels and continued her studies.
After a year full of good education, hard work, poems, and developing affection toward Mr Héger, Charlotte left the school and returned to Haworth. She was then well-prepared to open the boarding school with Emily.
Another point that encouraged Charlotte to make this suggestion was her inability to stay away from her family anymore. She wanted to take care of her ageing father, who was 67 at the time, and opening a school at the parsonage would guarantee her all that she wanted.
So the Brontë sisters did their best to prepare the parsonage as a boarding school to become suitable to host pupils. When they were finally done, they printed out booklets and spread them to advertise their school and encourage families to enrol their children there.
However, the Brontës’ bad luck decided otherwise. Unfortunately, the new school at the Haworth parsonage did not receive any children, apparently because it was too far already. Consequently, the Brontës decided to abandon their project altogether and shut down the school that did not, in fact, open.
Not having a job and refusing to return to private tutoring, Charlotte, in addition to Emily and Anne, decided to pursue a career in literature. And once again, the parsonage became their arena of creativity.
One thing that was in common between the three sisters was poetry. By this time, they had already written numerous poems. So they used a section of their aunt’s legacy to fund the publication of a joint book with a collection of their poems.
Yet, instead of using their real names, they used the pen names: Currer Bell, Ellis Bell, and Acton Bell so as to refer to Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. That said, they did not do this by their own free will but Victorian society kind of forced them to.
In the 19th century, and as Robert Southey reported in his reply to Charlotte, women were only expected to be daughters, wives, and mothers whose primary duty was to take care of other people, whether they happened to be parents and little siblings, husbands, or children. But poets? Writers? Philosophers? That was extremely odd.
So the Brontë sisters chose male names to eliminate any biassed judgement on their poetry. They wanted critics to evaluate it based on its true quality, not who wrote it. However, that did not help much, for the book did not sell but only two copies.
Despite such a failure, the Brontë sisters were not discouraged at all. We can even say that it fired their enthusiasm more, so they kept writing. And they sent their manuscripts to publishers with the hope of getting a chance for publication. But for a period of time, they never really received but rejection letters.
In this matter, Charlotte was the first to send a novel, her first novel, which she called The Professor. Not very surprisingly, it was rejected too. Yet, what was different this time was that the publisher encouraged her to send in any longer manuscripts she may write in the future.
So prolific Charlotte did not have to wait long before she sent a longer manuscript. In fact, she had already started working on one way beforehand. As a result, in August 1847, Charlotte mailed the final draft of her second novel, Jane Eyre, utterly unaware of how it would become her gateway to worldwide recognition as well as her eternal legacy that would immortalise hers for centuries to come.
Luckily, the publisher who was interested in longer writings by Currer Bell did keep his promise. We can fairly say he was pretty impressed by Jane Eyre, as controversial as it was back in the 19th century. So the novel was published shortly after Charlotte had sent it, in October 1847.
Interestingly, both Emily and Anne also got published soon afterwards. Emily wrote the other Brontë masterpiece ‘Wuthering Heights, and Anne wrote ‘Agnes Grey‘. And they were all published under the male pen names the Brontës chose for themselves.
All three books became successful beyond the imagination of the Brontë sisters. Nonetheless, Jane Eyre received more recognition compared to Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey thanks to its distinctiveness.
Speaking of that, many speculations were raised about the true identity of Currer Bell. The possibility of him being a woman fired a backlash against Jane Eyre. The story was different. Some people even called it controversial and improper as it shows women in a quite unlikely way than what was accepted as normal back then.
Despite that, Jane Eyre was a great success. Even the resistance and harsh critique it received contributed to spreading the word about it and increased its sales. Then Charlotte’s publisher invited her to go to London and reveal her true identity in front of other writers. So she left the parsonage for the first time after quite a long while, a creative while.
In London, Charlotte got to meet other novelists, writers, and biographers, with most of whom she developed acquaintances and even friendships with some of them. But even with this, she did not stay long in London and frequently went back to Haworth.
Everything seemed so good until the Brontës were struck again by destiny. Soon after Charlotte became a little famous, she lost her beloved company at the parsonage when her three siblings died shortly after one another.
In September 1848, Branwell died of a chronic lung disease that he apparently developed through his bad habits. He was 31 when he died. Two months later, Emily died at the age of 30 of tuberculosis and then Anne met the same fate and died in 1849 at the age of 29.
Charlotte was then in the spacious parsonage living with her old father, who had become almost completely blind by this time. She wrote another novel, Shirley and a third one which she called Villette. Though Shirley was not as well received as Jane Eyre, Villette was quite successful.
In 1854, Charlotte, the only remaining of the Brontë siblings, got married to Arthur Bell Nicholls, who was an acquaintance of her father. At first, she rejected his proposal, but after giving it some thought, she agreed.
The family parsonage, which had not witnessed but tragedy and feverish creativity, was suddenly turned into a fairyland. And marriage was apparently Charlotte’s happiest time of her entire life.
Since she was highly attached to the parsonage and never really wanted to abandon her father, besides the fact that the parsonage is large, Charlotte and her husband Nichollos lived together there and took care of the old Brontë.
Shortly after getting married, Charlotte became pregnant. However, she experienced some pregnancy complications, which made her suffer from severe vomiting and often lost consciousness. And it was not long until she died, precisely on 31 March, 1855.
By that time, Charlotte had already been so widely recognised that many people used to show up at the parsonage for visits or at least taking short glimpses at the private life of the famous, female, controversial writer.
Patrick Brontë, the father, was the one who outlived all of his immediate family members. After Charlotte’s death in 1855, he lived at the parsonage with his son-in-law Nicholls for six more years and then he died in 1861 at the age of 84.
The empty parsonage
When the last Brontë died, Charlotte’s husband Nicholls moved to Ireland and took many of her items with him. Numerous friends and servants took other items from the parsonage as keepsakes.
Then the rest of the items that belonged to the family, especially those belonging to the Brontë sisters, such as their novels and poems manuscripts, were sold in auctions and featured high prices. The parsonage itself was apparently returned to the church which was its original owner in the first place.
More than thirty years later, in 1893, The Brontë Society was founded to restore and reserve all the Brontë items in one place. These were now national treasures, and preserving them back was the best way to keep the Brontë sisters’ memory alive.
The idea to restore the Brontës’ belongings was suggested by the chief of Bradford library in West Yorkshire. So The Brontë Society spared no effort in looking for, buying, and collecting what they could reach from the Brontë items.
What also helped more was that many owners who possessed some Brontë items donated them to society.
After two years of such feverish search, so many items were collected that they were ready to be displayed in a museum.
Interestingly, The Brontë Society is one of the oldest literary societies ever established in the West while the first one was formed at Yale University in the US back in 1753.
The first Brontë museum was hosted in a building above the Yorkshire Penny Bank in Haworth. Visitors flocked to see the Brontë sisters’ intimate belongings. By 1896, around 10,000 people had already visited the museum.
In 1928, the church put the parsonage for sale at £3000 (that is now worth £209,475.83). Sir James Roberts, who was a businessman based in Yorkshire and a member of The Brontë Society, bought it. He did not intend to use the parsonage as a residence. Instead, he thought it would be much more convenient to turn it into a museum to host the Brontës’ items.
Consequently, Sir James Roberts restored the parsonage almost as accurately as it was while the Brontës lived in it. At the same time, he equipped it as a museum to host the large collection of the Brontë items. Then, he gave that new museum to The Brontë Society.
The museum received even more distinctiveness when an extensive collection of the Brontë manuscripts, first editions, and letters arrived. They were owned by the American publisher Henry Houston Bonnell who bequeathed them to the museum.
Following the same example as Bonnell, more and more Brontë items’ owners bequeathed their collections to the Brontë Society. This allowed the museum to get hold of the largest collection of the Brontë belongings which is now referred to as Brontëana.
As of 2022, The Brontë Society is 119 years old and is still active in preserving the Brontë legacy and heritage. There are several branches of the Brontë Society in Europe, for example, in Italy and Belgium. Other branches are also in the United States, Australia, and Canada.
These societies organise local events to discuss topics generally related to literature or specifically to the Brontë sisters. The Brontë Society also encourages starting related branches in countries that do not have a branch.
Distinct Brontë belongings
Hosting the sisters’ belongings in the Brontë parsonage was such a great idea as it makes a visit such a lively experience. It feels like witnessing what the sisters’ lives were like two centuries ago; exactly like going back in time.
And the museum parsonage is full of belongings that influence such a distinct experience. For instance, there are the Brontës’ books kept in a small library in what used to be their dining room. Interestingly, the library is open for visitors to use with permission.
There is also the mahogany desk at which Charlotte wrote her novels. In fact, it was the latest item to join the rest of the collection. It is not known who or how many people owned that desk. However, it was given to the museum in 2011 by an anonymous person who bought it for £20,000 two years earlier.
The parsonage also displays the sisters’ fully furnished bedrooms and some of their clothes; original, 19th-century gowns. One large display cabinet, for instance, shows one of Charlotte’s outfits. The dress was light blue and had a creamy cape placed on the shoulders. There was also a dark-blue bonnet, shoes, and a Victorian umbrella or parasol.
In addition, a shop has been added to the museum where visitors can buy different items, from books, gifts, cards, and stationery, to prints, posters, maps, arts, and even tasty local Yorkshire treats. The shop revenue is used to support the museum and keep it in an excellent state to continue welcoming visitors.
Located on Church Street, Haworth, Keighley, Yorkshire, the Brontë Parsonage Museum is open for visits most of the year. It only closes for the month of January for renovation, cleaning, and decoration.
Items are specially taken care of during this time. If any of them needs more renovation or restoration, it is sent out for that. Sometimes the arrangements also change. The items on display are exchanged for others in storage, etc.
For visits, the Brontë Parsonage Museum is open from Sunday to Wednesday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, where the last entry is usually by 4:00 pm. It is also open on 28 August which is a summer bank holiday in the UK and on New Year’s Day, both from 12:00 pm to 5:00 pm. On 2 January, the museum is open from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm.
The museum is closed from 24 December to 27 December.
Since the museum receives the most visitors during the summer, it is highly recommended they book tickets online and check whether or not the museum is for sure open on the very day of visit. That said, on busy days, visitors may need to queue for some time before entry to avoid over-crowdedness inside the museum.