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Materialising the Brontë Ghosts: The Brontë Parsonage Museum

Inseparable from the family who once resided there, the Brontë Parsonage Museum evokes the creeping sensation of mausoleum where visitors come to commune with the ghosts of literary past. Since its conception in 1893, the Brontë Museum has become a repository of the Brontë genius, acknowledged as the “best known literary shrine in Britain” (Christine Alexander). The rather quaint parsonage sits at the top of a hill overlooking the village of Haworth in England’s North, the surrounding area now known as ‘Brontë country’. Like many past pilgrimages – including a 21 year old Virginia Wolf – I too set out with determination to witness this sacred place. 

My exhibition began with a romanticised journey out of Leeds and into the countryside, where I then had to hop on a bus which would deposit me in the heart of Haworth. I remembered the village clearly from my previous trip in August the year before, but this time I had the conscience of criticism guiding me through the dull October morning. All of the glow and mystique of midsummer had drained down the steep cobbled hills and left behind the opaque hue of cynicism. 

I paid for my discounted student ticket, and trailed slowly behind the group of primary school students as they squeaked from small room to small room, first taking a moment to acknowledge the headstone carved into the wall of the front garden which marks the path through which each member of the family were carried from the house to be buried in the adjoining graveyard of Haworth Church. From this moment on, it was ensured that my experience inside the house would be enshrined with the knowledge of death, decay, and tragedy that it has been witness to.  

Once inside, you become enveloped by the sensation of the house’s presence and the weight with which it carries the last remaining physical impressions of the family who once lived there. 

Passing from room to room, the descriptions of the objects on display – the sofa on which Emily died, the writing table at which the sisters spent most of their time, the wardrobe which is written into Jane Eyre – consistently emphasise the tragedy and isolation of the sister’s lives. Each object is overtly presented as a symbol of the cost of the Brontë genius. A visit to the Brontë parsonage soon becomes synonymous with an act of ritual worship, a pilgrimage which can be documented into the seams of reality by the final signing of your name into the visitor book. Objects of juvenilia such as the ‘little books’ and pencil drawings on the wall of the children’s study collectively evoke the image of the sisters’ as literary idols from birth, deities in their own right who deserve to be worshipped for the rest of eternity. 

Yet, while the museum has been carefully curated to present an accurate historical depiction of the Victorian home it once was, the reality of this construction is undermined through the reproduced objects on display. Items such as Charlotte Brontë’s wedding dress, a large four-poster bed, and most notably, Branwell’s famous portrait of the sisters, have been recreated and displayed in the museum as the authentic historical objects. Situated within the museum’s context, these items construct an image of reality, evoking a sense of wonder and amazement – until one realises their counterfeit nature. These material objects become the vessels through which the myth of Brontë genius is constructed and solidified. It swiftly becomes impossible to ignore the fact that, whether the objects displayed in the museum are real or recreated, they must be equally worshipped as symbols of the tragic genius and creative spirit of the sisters. 

It was overwhelming to be faced with the obviousness of this constructed reality, this constructed artistic value turned commodity. It’s something I once divulged in and now can’t seem to look past. I was hoping to feel the same awe and trust in the museum that was home to some of my favourite writers, yet all there was to cling onto were the fabricated scraps of paper the sisters left behind.

Words + Images: Immie Church, she/her

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