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My first stop is Haworth, 5o miles west of York. Here in the first half of the 19th century, the three Brontë sisters imagined a world of demonic villains, madwomen in the attic. and dispossessed spirits in such novels as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.
The Brontë family parsonage sits at the top of the hilly town. Once I park my rental car and climb the stony spine of Haworth's main street. what immediately strikes me is how swallowed up the time appears. Photos show the house framed by a few small graves. But in reality the cemetery swamps the parsonage, the high jagged tombstones lined up in wildly slant-ing rows that record the town's body count. Typhoid, cholera. and tuberculosis plagued Haworth in the 19th century, and more than 40 percent of children died before the age of six. Their short lives are etched everywhere in the sprawling graveyard. One tombstone features the names of six babies, all lost to a stonemason father who sculpted a sleeping child, resting its tiny doomed head on a tasseled pillow, at the base of the grave.
Clearly the Brontë sisters were sketching from life when they wrote of death. Maybe they glimpsed theirown fate, too. Emily Brontë would be laid to rest beneath the bleak town church at the age of 30.
Ann Dinsdale, the collections manager of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, explains to me later that the local drinking water flowed from moorland spring to village wells and pumps by way of the cemetery grounds. Historians link that tainted water to Haworth's high death rate. "The Brontës had their own private well." Dinsdale notes. "but since the parsonage is bordered on two sides by the churchyard. it's possible there was contamination to their drinking water, too."
The home, now owned by the Brontë Society, doesn't offer much relief. As I trail through the dim rooms. I can't help but feel a little claustrophobic, especially in the tiny dining room where the three sisters wrote, sharing space at a small central table. "They would walk around the dining table every evening discussing their writing." Dinsdale says. It isn't until I step outside, into the ocean of wild grass, that I breathe freely again. It's easy to imagine Emily's ecstasy. embodied by the unfettered passion of her characters Heathcliff and Catherine, when she broke loose on these moors. (Raphael Kadushin)