Yorkshire: The Bronte sisters and beyond

Yorkshire was, famously, home to the Bronte sisters: Anne, Emily and Charlotte.

The county has many more literary associations, including Caedmon, the first English poet, Laurence Sterne, Edith Sitwell, Elizabeth Gaskell, Bram Stoker (author of Dracula), and Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath – not forgetting that this part of England is also ‘Herriot country’.

This page provides a guide for literary travel and for planning a literary tour of Yorkshire.

North York Moors and Coast

The Brontes

Haworth Parsonage, situated at the top of the village and on the edge of the moor, was the home of the Rev. Patrick Bronte and his family from 1820 until 1861. Here -

Charlotte Bronte (1816-55) wrote Jane Eyre (1847), Villette (1853) and The Professor (1857)

Emily Bronte (1818-48) wrote Wuthering Heights (1847) and some of the most original poetry of the nineteenth century, and

Anne Bronte (1820-49) wrote Agnes Grey (1847) and The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall (1848).

Above is a portrait by Branwell Bronte of his sisters, Anne, Emily, and Charlotte (c. 1834)

Matthew Arnold's elegy ‘Haworth Churchyard’ (1856) was inspired by the death of Charlotte.

Where, behind Keighley, the road,
Up to the heart of the moors
Between heath-clad showery hills
Runs, and colliers’ carts
Poach the deep ways coming down,
And a rough, grimed race have their homes –
There on its slope is built
The moorland town,. But the church
Stands on the crest of the hill,
Lonely and bleak; - at its side
The parsonage-house and the graves.

Matthew Arnold

The Parsonage is now a Museum dedicated to the Brontes, with a large collection of books, manuscripts, paintings, drawings, costumes and relics on display.

It is possible to follow the favourite walks of the sisters to Ponden Hall (the setting of Thrushcross Grange) and Top Withen (the site of Wuthering Heights) and soak in the atmosphere of the brooding village and moors.

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) responded to Haworth and the Bronte legacy in several poems written after walking the area with her husband, the poet Ted Hughes.

Two Views Of Withens

Above whorled, spindling gorse,
Sheepfoot-flattened grasses,
Stone wall and ridgepole rise
Prow-like through blurs
Of fog in that hinterland few
Hikers get to:

Home of uncatchable
Sage hen and spry rabbit,
Where second wind, hip boot
Help over hill
And hill, and through peaty water.
I found bare moor,

A colourless weather,
And the House of Eros
Low-lintelled, no palace;
You, luckier,
Report white pillars, a blue sky,
The ghosts, kindly.

Sylvia Plath

Anne Bronte is buried at St Mary’s Churchyard, Scarborough, having died at 2, The Cliff in 1849. The Grand Hotel replaced the building in 1869. Charlotte visited her grave in 1852.

Ted hughes and Sylvia Plath

Ted Hughes (1930-1998) was born at 1 Aspinall Street, Mytholmroyd, near Hebden Bridge, and lived here until 1937. He wrote a number of poems about his early life in the area. Beyond Banksfield Road, lay the natural world; he collected living creatures, went fishing in the nearby Rochdale Canal and Calder river, and shooting with his older brother, Gerald.

His family attended the Methodist Zion Chapel every Sunday. In the poem ‘Mount Zion’ he described the women ‘bleak as Sunday rose-gardens’ and the men with ‘cowed, shaven souls’. He wrote later that ‘everything in West Yorkshire is slightly unpleasant. Nothing ever quite escapes into happiness’. Ted left his mark in the form of a skull and crossbones outlined in mustard paint on the brickwork beneath the arch.

Writer Sarah Champion lived in the house from 1999 until early 2005. She edited the ‘chemical fiction’ anthology Disco Biscuits (1997), and was briefly on the front page of the Times in April 2004, mistakenly identified as the blogger, Belle De Jour.

Heptonstall

Ted Hughes saw the Calder valley as part of Elmet, the last Celtic Kingdom, and the village of Heptonstall, to which his parents moved in the 1950s, as its centre. His parents lived at The Beacon, just outside Heptonstall, and it was here that Hughes and Sylvia Plath visited and stayed here from August until November 1956, from December 1959 to February 1960 and in December 1960.

After her suicide in February 1963, Sylvia Plath was laid to rest in Heptonstall cemetery.

In May 1969, after his mother’s death, Ted Hughes bought Lumb Bank Manor House, 200 yards from his parental home. However, he was unable to settle there, and further disappointed when his brother Gerald decided not to return from Australia.

In 1971 an intruder set fire to part of the house, destroying manuscripts and journals and in 1972 he allowed the property to become part of the Arvon Foundation.

His west Yorkshire poems, imbued with the spirit of the Brontes and of the local landscape, appeared in Remains of Elmet (1979), a collection he described as ‘about my family’ and ‘my mother’s love of the area’.

Heptonstall Old Church

A great bird landed here.

Its song drew men out of rock,
Living men out of bog and heather.

Its song put a light in the valleys
And harness on the long moors.

Its song brought a crystal from space
And set it in men’s heads.

Then the bird died.

Its giant bones
Blackened and became a mystery.

The crystal in men’s heads
Blackened and fell to pieces.

The valleys went out.
The moorland broke loose.

Ted Hughes

All Creatures Great and Small

Alf Wight (1916-1995) who wrote the James Herriot novels including, It Shouldn’t Happen To A Vet, All Creatures Great and Small and Let Sleeping Vets Lie, moved to 23 Kirkgate in Thirsk, bounded by the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors, to work for Donald Sinclair as a vet in 1940.

He later moved to Thirlby, but still practised in Thirsk, the Darrowby of his novels. The Skeldale House surgery of his novels is now open to the public.

Whitby

Bram Stoker and Dracula

Bram Stoker (1847-1912) who wrote Dracula (1897) stayed at 7 Royal Crescent, Whitby in the summer of 1890 and set chapters 6-8 of the novel around Whitby, the fishing port on the mouth of the river Esk, from where Captain Cook set sail.

There is a Bram Stoker Memorial seat, commemorating the view that inspired Stoker’s Whitby scenes. From here one can see the ruins of the Abbey, the Church and the stone steps and the cliffs to the left where the Russian ship ‘Demeter’ came ashore in a violent storm.

Stoker renamed his vampire Count after borrowing An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia (1820) by William Wilkinson from the local library and reading about a ‘voivode Dracula’ who fought against the Turks. He took verbatim notes and discovered that Dracula means the Devil in the Wallachian language.

Caedmon

The now ruined Abbey was established in 657 by Abbess Hilda. From about 670AD it was the home of Caedmon, an Anglo-Saxon herdsman and the first English poet.

According to the Venerable Bede, Caedmon was an uneducated herdsman who received the power of song and desire to compose verse in a vision. Caedmon put into English passages from the Scriptures, and wrote the devotional 'Hymn to Creation’. There is a commemorative cross on the headland near the Abbey.

Elizabeth Gaskell

Mrs Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865), the celebrated biographer of Charlotte Bronte, stayed at 1 Abbey Terrace, Whitby in 1859 and visited St Mary’s Church, which has many memorials to whalers. It features in her novel Sylvia’s Lovers (1863), where she calls the town Monkshaven.

Dame Edith Sitwell (887-1964) was born in the family’s seaside home, Wood End, by the Crescent. It is now a Museum containing first editions of the Sitwells’ works. Osbert Sitwell set his novel, Before the Bombardment (1926) in the town.

The Sitwell family seat, Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire, remains in the family and is open to groups of visitors only.

Scarborough, on the Yorkshire coast

In Humphrey Clinker (1771), Tobias Smollett had the drowning Matthew Bramble brought safely to the beach at Scarborough. As Bramble was naked and ‘had extravagant ideas of decency and decorum’, the party was forced to leave the next day.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan set his comedy, A Trip to Scarborough (1777) here.

South of the Yorkshire Moors

Shandy Hall

So named after Laurence Sterne and his most famous creation, Tristram Shandy.

Laurence Sterne lived here in the Yorkshire countryside from 1760 until his death in 1768.

Whilst here Sterne wrote the later volumes of his bawdy and innovative masterpiece The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, an account of European travels he had made in 1765 in an effort to defeat the tuberculosis that plagued his later years and to which he finally succumbed, aged 54, just a month after the Journey was published, in his London home at 41 Old Bond Street.

He was buried in a new graveyard near Hyde Park Place but, two days later, his remains were stolen by body snatchers and sold for research. By chance his body was recognised during anatomical examination, so returned and re-interred.

In 1969 his remains were legitimately exhumed and buried in nearby Coxwold Churchyard, where they remain, marked by two gravestones: a white one with black letters which is full of errors, and a second gravestone which corrects the mistakes of the first.

Shandy Hall dates back to the 15th century; it was extended in the 17th century and further modified by Sterne during his time there.

In 1963 Mr and Mrs Kenneth Monkman discovered the house a ruin. They founded the Laurence Sterne Trust in order to restore it to its 18th-Century state and provide a home for Kenneth Monkman’s unique collection of first and early editions of Sterne’s work, which are now on display to visitors in the study where Sterne wrote.

Also in the area:

Castle Howard, Yorkshire

Built for the 3rd Earl of Carlisle, Castle Howard was designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, whose first project this was. He appointed Nicholas Hawksmoor his clerk of works on this and his next project, Blenheim Palace.
Castle Howard is 15 miles north of York

York Minster

A magnificent example of medieval architecture, with one of the finest collections of stained glass in existence. Prayer has been offered here for nearly 1,000 years.