In 2013 the award-winning Bradford-based writer initiated the idea of a literary trail celebrating the Brontës that would also showcase talented contemporary women writers.
Four stones were engraved with poems, written by Kate Bush, Jeanette Winterson, Jackie Kay and Carol Ann Duffy, representing each of the sisters and their legacy.
They were then placed in the landscape that inspired the Brontës’ writing and each stone has a walk associated with it. The project was launched in July 2018 at Bradford Literature Festival.
That year also saw the publication of Stewart’s well-received novel Ill Will sparked by the mystery surrounding Heathcliff who in chapter nine of Emily Brontë’s extraordinary story runs away, returning three years later, quite changed. Stewart’s novel, which is every bit as gritty, shocking and visceral as Emily’s, imagines what Heathcliff got up to during his absence.
“While I was researching both those projects I did a lot of walking up on the moors,” says Stewart. “I also recreated the walk that Cathy’s father Mr Earnshaw made in Wuthering Heights on foot from Yorkshire to Liverpool and the walk that Heathcliff takes in my book – I wrote that section of the book as I walked.
"It was a new way of writing for me – and it really opened things up. I started to think that something that hasn’t really been done before is a kind of hybrid memoir in which the reader walks the landscape with the writer.”
Hence his latest book Walking the Invisible: Following in the Footsteps of the Brontës which encourages people to visit significant locations connected to the Brontës.
“Walking up on the moors, I felt I gained a more profound understanding of the texts,” he says. “I first read Wuthering Heights when I was about 17 and I revisited it when I was writing Ill Will.
"Being out in the landscape definitely gives it another layer – I realised I hadn’t engaged with it fully before. So I think it is really important to encourage others to experience that and get out there.”
The book also contains maps of all the Brontë Stones walks, designed and beautifully illustrated by cartographer Chris Goddard, in the Wainwright tradition.
“When I was a kid I lived in a very urban area and didn’t really do any walking but I used to go to the library and look at the Wainwright books,” says Stewart.
“There is a lot of social history in them and he talks to people along the way; as a child I found them fascinating. Even though I had never been to the places he was describing, I just enjoyed the walks in my head.”
Aside from encouraging people to walk in the landscape, Stewart hopes his book might also lead to a reassessment of the literary sisters and explode some of the myths that have grown up around them. “The coarseness or roughness of the Brontës has been smoothed out over time,” he says.
“I think the heritage industry has done them a bit of a disservice by softening them and I want this book in part to restore their edginess.”
Walking the Invisible is published by HarperCollins on June 24.