Shibden Hall and the Wuthering Heights Connection

‘Wuthering Heights’, the house in Emily Bronte’s novel of that name, has long been associated with Top Withens, the derelict farmhouse on the moors near Haworth, yet this house bears very little resemblance to the house in the book. Law Hill House, Southowram, about 2 miles from Shibden Hall, was considered by Mrs Humphrey Ward (see Introduction to The Works of Charlotte Brontë and Her Sisters,) to be one of the possible models used by Emily Brontë in her creation of the house, ‘Wuthering Heights’. It is closer to it in size and the story of its original owner, Jack Sharp, is remarkably similar to that of Heathcliff. He too was a ‘cuckoo in the nest’: adopted by his uncle, and shown “excessive indulgence”, he came to dominate the family, despoiling their property and degrading a young cousin, in the same way Heathcliff attempted with both Hindley and Hareton (see Winifred Gerin’s biography, Emily Brontë, Oxford University Press, 1971, pp 76-81).

Emily Brontë spent a very unhappy time there as a teacher in 1837-8. It had been opened as a Girls’ Boarding School in 1825 by Elizabeth and Maria Patchett. Elizabeth Patchett was a fine horsewoman and she may, in part, have inspired the character of Catherine Earnshaw who “could ride any horse in the stables”. She knew William Priestley who lived at High Sunderland Hall, a highly impressive building about two miles away (now, sadly, demolished). It is possible that Emily Bronte was inspired by this building, or at least drawings of it which Miss Patchett had in her possession, for the entrance to the Hall was surrounded by some bizarre statues which may well have inspired the “shameless little boys” which surround the door of ‘Wuthering Heights’! (See my article Crumbling Griffins and Shameless Little Boys: the social and moral background of Wuthering Heights in Bronte Society Transactions, Vol. 25, Pt. 1, April 2000). Some parts of these statues found their way to Shibden Hall and can be seen in the grounds.

Shibden Hall itself could have been the model for Thrushcross Grange, the home of the genteel Lintons. It was a typical gentleman’s residence, built originally in the fifteenth century, although it was much altered by Anne Lister in the 1830s when Emily Bronte was living in the area.   The Patchett sisters knew Anne Lister although they did not move in the same social circles.

It seems, then, that one way or another, Emily Brontë’s time at Law Hill had a profound influence on her – she certainly wrote some of her finest poems during this time. You can find out more on my walk on Saturday 27th April 2013: let me take you back in time and tell you the strange history of this mysterious house…

For further reading see:

Barker, Juliet, The Brontës, Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1994.

Brontë, Emily, Wuthering Heights, in The Life and Works of Charlotte Brontë and her Sisters, Vol. V., Smith, Elder, & Co., 1900 (The ‘Haworth Edition’).

Gaskell, Elizabeth, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, Smith, Elder & Co., 1900.

Gerin, Winifred, Emily Brontë, Oxford University Press, 1971.

Pollard, Arthur, The Landscape of the Brontës, Exeter, Webb & Bower, 1988.

Wilks, Brian, The Illustrated Brontës of Haworth, Collins, 1986.

All these books and more are available in the Bronte Collection of the Local Studies section of Bradford Central Library.

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Mary Taylor was a close friend of Charlotte Bronte, and a source of inspiration to her. They met, together with Ellen Nussey, at Roe Head School in January 1831 when Charlotte was 14, and Mary and Ellen were 13 – and they all continued to correspond for the rest of Charlotte’s life. Ellen was someone Charlotte could confide in, but she turned to Mary, who was more confident and daring than she was, for encouragement and advice, and for intellectual stimulation.

Mary Taylor was a fascinating woman in her own right. She was a strong-minded woman with a sense of adventure (see Joan Bellamy’s biography ‘More Precious than Rubies’. Mary Taylor: friend of Charlotte Bronte, strong-minded woman, 2002). Like Rose Yorke, Charlotte’s character in Shirley, she refused to be confined by the accepted roles of early Victorian single women – “She cannot and will not be a governess, a teacher, a milliner, a bonnet-maker, nor a housemaid”, as Charlotte said in a letter to Ellen in 1841; although Mary had much more respect for a woman – single or married – who worked for her living than for one who lived in idleness. As she once remarked in a letter to Charlotte, “I can talk very well to a joiner’s wife, but seldom to a merchant’s” (July 1848).

Mary, like Rose, was “sometimes a stubborn girl…her mother wants to make of her such a woman as she is herself, – a woman of dark and dreary duties, – and Rose has a mind full-set, thick-sown with germs of ideas her mother never knew” (Shirley, Chap. 9). Mary had ideas of travel, of independence, of setting up her own business, and of writing – all of which she did. On first reading Shirley, Mary called Charlotte “a coward and a traitor” for not allowing Shirley or Caroline, the two central characters, to do the same (letter to CB, 1850). The whole of Shirley can be seen as a debate on the role of women, or ‘the Woman Question’, as it was dubbed then. This was a hot topic at the time since there was estimated to be half a million more women of marriageable age than single men: 30% of the female population between the ages of 24 and 40 were unmarried, and these ‘redundant women’ were a great cause for concern, especially those who seemed to prefer to lead an independent life, and were not following their ‘most honourable function and especial calling’ of marriage… (W.R. Greg, 1862, quoted by Joan Bellamy, in her O.U. Occasional Paper 1, ‘More Precious than Rubies’. Mary Taylor: friend of Charlotte Bronte, strong-minded woman, 1992). Mary Taylor was infuriated by his offensive attitude towards independent women like herself and wrote a series of articles in rebuke published by Emily Faithful, editor of Victoria Magazine, between 1865 and 1870, and later in book form as The First Duty of Woman.

She also wrote a novel, Miss Miles, or a Tale of Yorkshire Life 6o Years Ago, which was a ‘condition of England’ novel which focuses on three young women and their struggles to find independence and happiness. It was published at her own expense three years before her death at the age of 76. On her death in 1893 she received an obituary in The Illustrated London News as “one of Charlotte Bronte’s most intimate friends”. I think she should be remembered for being much more than that.

Find out more about this fascinating woman on my Bronte walk from Red House Museum on Saturday 29th September:

Mary Taylor, friend of Charlotte Bronte.

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Thornton and the Bronte Birthplace

“My happiest days were spent there”; so said Rev. Patrick Bronte of the five years he spent at Thornton. The Bronte family, then consisting of Patrick, his wife Maria Branwell, whom he had married in 1812, and his two oldest children Maria and Elizabeth, moved to Thornton from the parish of Hartshead-cum-Clifton in !815. Here were born the three daughters who were to become famous novelists – Charlotte, Emily and Anne – and his only son, Branwell. They had a pleasant social life in Thornton often exchanging visits with Dr. John Scholefield Firth of Kipping House, and his only daughter, Elizabeth, then eighteen. Elizabeth Firth quickly became friends with Maria and her sister Elizabeth Branwell, when she came to stay, and became daughter Elizabeth’s and Anne’s godparent. She had a wide circle of friends who she introduced them to, and it is this congenial company that Patrick particularly missed in Haworth after his wife died.

The importance of the Brontes’ time in Thornton is often overlooked. Although all the children were under five when they left, I believe it formed a kind of lost childhood Eden in their minds. This is where the family was complete: father, mother and children, and where they had kind friends. In Haworth, Patrick said he felt like “a stranger in a strange land”…

Discover Thornton and the Bronte Birthplace with me on these Bronte walks:

The Bronte Birthplace

The Bronte Way to Moscow

The Great Northern Trail Thornton To Queensbury

Thornton Village

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