Pilgrimage

Courtesy - http://brontec.thefreelibrary.com
Pilgrimage is a “Long journey of search; especially one of exalted purpose or moral significance.” Going by that definition, two years ago, I undertook a pilgrimage. Not to any place of worship; but it was a personal shrine for me...and my journey was a pilgrimage no less.

On one of our road trips, The Husband gave me a treat...a 70 mile detour on our return route, all the way to the Bronte Parsonage at Haworth – home of the Bronte sisters who have moved me like no other authors. I had a strange sense of restlessness in my stomach. It’s the way you’d feel if you were meeting a long-lost family member for the first time...or perhaps a lover you’d only exchanged anonymous notes with. The traffic, in keeping with the weather, was miserable, increasing my restlessness. Finally we were out of the cluttered roundabouts; out of narrow lanes flanked by tired brick buildings of aging towns...out on to empty roads and vistas of green slopes masked by curling fog.

Carpet in Bronte Hotel :)
We stopped for lunch just outside of Haworth, at the aptly named Bronte Hotel. It was a quiet weekday afternoon with only a handful of guests in the dining area. I could hardly taste the excellent food...I was too busy gaping at the walls, the carpet...everything. It was all filled with her impressions – her silhouette, her portraits. For the kind of shy, reticent person she was, I wondered what Charlotte would say if she saw this. Well, I thought, Charlotte would probably take it in her stride...but Emily...she’d throw a fit for sure.

Outside, the sun came out weakly through a fracture in the clouds. But by the time we were done with lunch, the fracture had healed; the sun had disappeared and a stinging drizzle caused a pressing greyness that I’d visualised only through Bronte novels. Yes, I associate Bronte with roiling clouds and grey-green moors, much the same way I associate Byron with sunny skies, soft grass and ruby lips.  

The streets were narrow, steep and stone buildings frowned upon us from either side as we drove into the village. As we ascended a bend, I saw a church spires slice the grey sky in the distance and thought which one; which one! But we’d reached. I tumbled out of the car even before he had turned off the ignition. The drizzle was a million ice shards on my face. But I was rooted. To my right was her house. To my left was the church where her father had been the pastor. And where she now lies below earth.  

The parsonage is a typical Georgian house. A neat cube with those typical sash windows. I don’t how much of it was renovated. But nothing much of the interior plan has changed as such. The rooms are of modest size. There was one room I particularly wanted to see – the parlour – in this case, also the dining room.  If you’ve dived into Victorian novels, the parlour is the place of action; the epicentre of all the drama. A room that often witnesses the tumultuous, yet quiet lives of women who were allowed very few choices of ‘becoming something’ in life – it was either become a governess or  marry well. A room where the ladies would spend the best part of the day bent over their sewing, drawing or piano. A room that would witness many silent tears, clasped hands and stealthy kisses. The Bronte parlour, however, saw the birth of the most prolific literature that I’ve ever read.

The parlour is a cosy space, with a fire grate, some shelves, and dining furniture. The three Bronte girls – Charlotte, Emily and Anne often spent their time in this room, quite late into the night, pacing around, writing and dissecting each other’s works. How I wished they’d switch of the electric lights. I wanted to see how this room looked...with that opaque greyness of the outside barely lighting the place. I imagined the girls on those cold, cold Yorkshire evenings, as darkness pressed itself against the windows; the wind whistling through the chimneys blowing soot and snowflakes on the grate. This room would be lit by oil lamps; the girls squinting over their manuscripts – arguing, debating, teasing – should Rochester be quite so intimidating? Or should Heathcliff be such a foul tempered heathen?

What kind of spirit it takes to chisel away at a manuscript as if one’s life depended on it? In the girls’ case, in a way it did. They were far too intelligent to settle for ‘marrying well’ or being governesses forever. As women, they were obviously not allowed to take up any other careers that were considered ‘for men’...or in other words ‘unladylike’.  The long winters would have been particularly claustrophobic – there is not much of a chance for any outdoor activity (walking being the principle one) – so the only way these remarkable girls could remain sane was to keep their imaginations active.

It’s not as if it was a peaceful household either. I imagined all those evenings when the girls cowered in the parlour, or in their beds, as their brother, high on booze and opium would start his violent rants, hurling abuses. Once he had even set fire to his own bed. There was no escape for the girls – no loving arms they could fly to, no promises of a life filled with the love of a husband and children to look forward to. Their escape route was only through that coarse paper and nib.

Charlotte lost her beloved sisters and brother in rapid succession. It is the darkest grief that can smother anyone. I thought of the silence of the house then – with only Charlotte scratching away at her paper, or just walking around, as if that physical exercise could somehow dissolve the grief.

Charlotte’s simple wedding dress is held in a glass case. She was a petite woman; almost too close to Jane Eyre in temperament as in appearance I suppose. Simple, quiet; full of fire.  I could not help but smile thinking of her in this pretty dress. Her happiness must have been sweeter, yet bitter – what joy had her siblings been around...especially Anne and Emily. Her wedding was the first happy occasion that house-of-death was witnessing.

I stood in Charlotte’s room. There’s the bed on which she died. She had died full of hope. She’d found her Rochester and her M. Paul Emanuel. She was going to be a mother. How on earth can anyone take that away from her? Wasn’t burying all her siblings not enough? No...the powers that be can’t be that unkind. She died in the hope that she’ll see many tomorrows. I suppose for all the pain that life had flung at her, she had died happy. Like the weak winter Yorkshire sun, life had smiled at her, if only momentarily. Unlike her sisters and brothers, at least she had seen love, success. 38 years...she’d lived long enough someone up there had decided.

I did not realise my breath was hitched, my throat ached and my eyes stung. There are many great authors – but none that have affected me like the Brontes. Their struggle was relentless. The oppressive, inescapable atmosphere at  home; the lack of financial security; the diseases that plagued Victorian England; the lack of nutritious food; their own their frail bodies...and finally a house that seemed to consume the family one by one...it is enough to strike the sturdiest man down – spiritually and mentally. More fearsome than the death and diseases, they struggled against the imprisonment of the mind that was enforced on them...on account of their gender. They made a remarkable escape. An escape that did not require their physical bodies. It is no wonder their words did not emerge merely from of a clever brain. It stemmed from somewhere very deep – where language is immaterial. That is why those words still thrum and throb with a life force. That is why hundreds of years later, a girl growing up oceans away, in a completely different culture, in equally modest circumstances could resonate with those words.

We are lucky. We don’t have to go through the pain Charlotte went through. Life was a vulture that kept pecking away at her – a piece of heart, a shard of mind, a chunk of soul. She took her revenge. Quietly, word by word. Time, that heartless scavenger of wounds, could not erase her...can never erase her.  At the end of the day, the Brontes were not just great writers as far as I’m concerned. They represent the eternal struggle of the human spirit to express itself - despite all the moral, social, religious shackles society squeezes us into.  Have the Brontes inspired me to write better? I don’t know. But I do know that if the words just come from a vocabulary retained in the brain, it’s never good enough.

“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! - I have as much soul as you, - and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you!” Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre.

Yeah. The Brontes...they made me a thinker.

© Sumana Khan 2014



Comments

  1. The best I've read on the Bronte Sisters! Had tears in my eyes.

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  2. Beautiful read. Worthy of 100th!! Charlotte is a metaphor for my friend Aparna's life. Invariably, Bronte Sisters have a special place in my heart too.

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    Replies
    1. Indeed Uma...now that you mention it...what an uncanny reflection Aparna's life was...

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  3. wow, Sumana!!! I never knew so much about the Bronte sisters and a tale told so lovingly!!!

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