Ian McMillan: Why it’s the Bronte legend not the books that fascinate me most

Ian McMillan
Ian McMillan
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I know it’s an overused and tarnished phrase, but I reckon that if you’d opened this creaking door in this particular parsonage in the 19th century you’d have seen a real “Northern Powerhouse”, with ideas flying all over the place like steam from a kettle; I’m referring of course to the Brontë family home in Haworth and I think that if you’d wandered around those rooms you’d have been bowled over by the amount of creative white heat being generated by those three sisters and that wayward brother: Charlotte, Anne and Emily Brontë and Branwell would have filled that house with talk, and writing, and laughter and words, words, words, piling up to the ceiling and almost blowing away in the wild Yorkshire wind when we stumbled in with our 21st century ways.

As a young man trying to make a mark of some kind in the world of literature I was fascinated by the legend of the sisters more than the books, to be honest; it’s probably a fabrication to imagine them all at separate desks, all scribbling away at books that were to become cornerstones of our culture, but that was the picture the teenage me had of them, heads down in dimly-lit rooms, feverishly getting the sentences onto the page, as outside the rain pelted down and the thunder roared disapproval.

I was fascinated by the legend of the sisters more than the books

It’s a certain romantic image of the writer that I’m still keen on, even now: the lonely room, the unfettered imagination, the stories somehow being conjured up out of the seething Yorkshire air as trees bent over in the gale. See: I’m doing it myself. There’s something of the Brontës in all of us in Yorkshire who try to read and write, even us coalfield boys from the south of the county.

So I wonder, as I wander around their house in my imagination, what these three remarkable writers have to offer all the Yorkshire people who are writing poems and fiction these days, because there’s no doubt that this county is currently a hotbed of what some call the Verbal Arts?

Well, for me, once I’d thoroughly ingested the legend, I turned to the books, and to Wuthering Heights in particular. In that book I found a universal story, of lost love and missed opportunity, of hopes and dreams and towering emotions set against a landscape that felt oppressively real and mythical at the same time.

And then, in my dream stroll around the parsonage, I encounter Branwell, the sibling who never wrote a book that we can all remember, and so I decide to let him into literary history. Here’s a Brontë fact: Branwell Brontë wrote the greatest Yorkshire work of them all. Yes, that’s right, Ilkley Moor Baht ’at is all his own work. I mean, Wuthering Heights is a masterpiece but Ilkley Moor Baht ’at? Well, I rest my case. Here, on the desk where Branwell wrote his greatest work, just by the hatstand. But where’s the hat?