The battle of bonnet town: For years, the glorious Bronte Museum has been a place of pilgrimage for fans of the sisters’ books. But thanks to coronavirus, visitor numbers have plummeted, writes ROBERT HARDMAN
There is a wonderful photograph on the wall of the old parsonage in Haworth. It shows the day this place opened as a museum — back in August 1928.
As far as the eye can see, the road outside is packed with people flocking to poke their noses around a house that has produced some of the greatest English literature.
Tens of thousands have been coming to the Bronte Parsonage Museum every year since. But not any longer. Today, I find an orderly queue of six waiting outside the garden door. For that is the maximum allowed in at a time.
Tens of thousands have been coming to the Bronte Parsonage Museum since 1928
A brass plaque has been arrested at St Michael and All Angels church in Haworth, North Yorkshire where Charlotte and Emily Bronte are buried
The museum has reopened for the first time since the Covid-19 lockdown, having missed out on what would have been a bumper summer season
‘We started off this year in such an optimistic mood,’ sighs Ann Dinsdale, principal curator, who has been here for 31 years (‘Longer than the Brontes!’ she jokes). ‘Now we’re just working out how to survive the winter.’
It should, indeed, have been a bumper summer for this handsome if severe hilltop home where the three prolific Bronte sisters produced such classics as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights while their widowed clergyman father tended to his parish.
This marks the bicentenary of the youngest, Anne, and the museum had been planning major celebrations. The Bronte Society, which runs the place, had also just acquired a much-prized treasure which it had been pursuing for years — the ‘Little Book’, a matchbox-size compendium of jottings by 14-year-old Charlotte Bronte.
It was finally bought, thanks to a £500,000 Lottery grant, and went on show with great fanfare last November. Just four months later, however, it had to be locked away again, along with everything else.
Life has been a constant struggle ever since. The museum depends almost entirely on footfall to make ends meet and that stopped overnight. Nearly all of its 40 staff had to be furloughed, while Ann and a skeleton crew worked out how to turn a small Grade I-listed house into a Covid-compliant visitor attraction.
It is hard enough to reconfigure a shop or an office or a restaurant to suit the coronavirus rulebook. But what do you do with, say, Emily Bronte’s tiny bedroom, just wide enough for a 5ft bed?
It is a situation facing many of our smaller literary museums across the UK and, with every new Covid restriction, the outlook becomes more bleak.
‘We started off this year in such an optimistic mood,’ sighs Ann Dinsdale, principal curator, who has been here for 31 years (‘Longer than the Brontes!’ she jokes). ‘Now we’re just working out how to survive the winter’
Daily Mail reporter Robert Hardman, pictured, travelled to North Yorkshire to visit
The museum depends almost entirely on footfall to make ends meet and that stopped overnight. Nearly all of its 40 staff had to be furloughed
At least the Bronte Parsonage is lucky enough to qualify for a £133,000 grant from the Arts Council as a ‘National Portfolio Organisation’ — a core collection. But many other equally well-loved museums do not.
Yet all these places, however tiny, are not merely sacred to their supporters but to our entire cultural landscape. Collectively, they shape our national identity. No other nation can claim a literary heritage on this scale.
This is no idle jingoistic boast, but hard, commercial fact. Worldwide, who are the most popular on-screen literary characters in history? Number one is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes followed by Shakespeare’s Hamlet. When it comes to the cinema alone, Bram Stoker’s Dracula tops the list.
We do not preserve Charles Dickens’s chair or the spoon with which William Worsdworth ate his porridge just for the sake of it. This is about relating their world, backstory and motivations to future generations who have no idea what it was like to write a masterpiece by quill in a dim, damp room.
You have to see and feel these places. It’s not until you walk through the graveyard alongside the Brontes’ home — crammed with dismal slabs mourning entire families wiped out in quick succession — that you realise how life in 19th-century Haworth, with its appallingly contaminated water table, was also a death sentence. No wonder the Brontes (who lost their two elder sisters to childhood illness) wrote the way they did —and died long before their time.
It explains why museums such as this have such a passionate fan base. After Covid struck, the Bronte Parsonage received an emergency grant from the Arts Council, but things were still desperate. So the trustees launched a public appeal for £100,000.
Donations flooded in from all over the world. ‘Then one night it shot up by £20,000 and I thought: “Oh my goodness. What’s this?”,’ says marketing manager Rebecca Yorke. It was a donation from the literary estate of the poet T.S. Eliot. The custodians of one literary giant had simply wanted to help a kindred spirit.
What’s more, museums like these keep entire communities afloat. Look at Haworth, with its Bronte trails, its Bronte-themed shops, its Wuthering Arts gallery, even a local ‘Brontebus’.
The local council is clearly trying to wean the locals off their Bronte dependency. The road signs simply say: ‘Welcome to Haworth. The world’s first Fairtrade village. Twinned with Machu Picchu, Peru.’ However, everyone knows this place as Bronteville.
The local economy nose-dived when the museum shut back in March. And there was a marked upswing when it reopened in August. ‘We noticed an improvement right away,’ says Sian Sargant of Sian Alison Design.
The museum’s team have made the Grade 1 listed building into a Covid compliant attraction
She sells handcrafted jewellery, none of it Bronte-themed, but she admits the Parsonage is central to everything hereabouts.
Every visitor I meet has come for the Brontes, including the Bird family from Nottingham, all dressed in Regency costume. Like everyone, they have been enthralled to see the dining room table at which all three Bronte sisters scribbled their classics, the sofa on which Emily breathed her last, the bedroom of alcoholic brother, Branwell, the bonnet for the baby who died, with Charlotte, during her pregnancy in 1855.
Visitor numbers are restricted to a fraction of what they were pre-Covid but prices for tickets — which must be pre-booked online — remain unchanged at £9 a time.
The pandemic does have the odd upside. ‘In one way, it’s been good because the route is much less crowded and you’re not pushed along,’ says retired hospital clerk Jan Stavers, from Essex, who is enjoying a week-long, socially distanced Yorkshire staycation.
Jane wrote her novels at the small house, but she spent much of her time at the main one. Now a separate charitable trust, it also houses a huge collection of works by early women authors
To paraphrase Charles Dickens, it is the best of times for the paying public but the worst of times for the poor souls preserving our heritage.
Some people have never had so much time on their hands to read books — or watch box-sets of literary dramatisations.
And it has seldom been easier to pay homage to our great authors. From Yorkshire, I head south to Hampshire and the enchanting village of Chawton.
Here, I wander into a small dining room, overlooking the Greyfriar pub across the road.
This is Jane Austen’s parlour. She completed all her great novels in here, and I am standing right by the tiny, walnut side table on which she wrote them. I am where it all happened, staring out at the same view and yet feel no pressure whatsoever to move along. Because there is no one else around.
For Lizzie Dunford, director of Jane Austen’s House, the situation has become a financial nightmare.
‘People do say how much they have enjoyed the peace and quiet, but it’s leaving us with a big hole to fill,’ she says. Whereas many hundreds might once have passed through every day, the current limit is set at 84.
One of the first things which strikes me at these small museums is how cheerful the staff are. They are facing what may be a terminal crisis, and have certainly missed the most lucrative months of the year, yet they are all, clearly, delighted to be welcoming the public once again.
They have approached this challenge with gusto. Instead of gloomy signs about two-metre distancing rules, visitors to Jane Austen’s house are cheerfully advised to ‘Keep one Mr D’Arcy Apart’.
They have also launched a £100,000 rescue appeal with results which have reduced Lizzie to tears. ‘We received a fiver from a man who said he’d lost his job. He said it was all he could afford, but he wanted to help because Jane Austen was helping him through this pandemic,’ she tells me. ‘It makes me cry just thinking about it.’
There is a similar mood a short walk away at Chawton House, the Tudor mansion inherited by Jane Austen’s brother, Edward, from his wealthy adoptive parents.
Visitors pay £9 each to visit the museum and the tickets must be booked online in advance
When Edward became the squire, he offered a free grace-and-favour home in the village to his widowed mother and two unmarried sisters.
Jane wrote her novels at the small house, but she spent much of her time at the main one. Now a separate charitable trust, it also houses a huge collection of works by early women authors.
Jane loved the place, drawing inspiration from its oak-panelled rooms, its gardens and its sweeping views over the church and park.
Since reopening, chief executive Katie Childs and her team have been flat out with new exhibitions, the café and restaurant in the old kitchens, the shop, the walled garden and even a pop-up cinema showing bonnet dramas.
‘We recently started doing weddings, and we’ve just had our first post-lockdown ceremony’ says Katie.
Though the wedding industry has taken a hit, Chawton House is seeing a spike in bridal interest. ‘We’re an intimate venue and there is a huge backlog at a lot of register offices,’ says Katie.
A future without these places is unthinkable. Yet a second lockdown could be terminal, or else force the sale of national treasures to the highest bidder.
Instead of taking them for granted, we need to realise that they need our help.
Let them disappear and it won’t just be villages such as Haworth or Chawton which are the poorer . . . it will be all of us.
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