Not long ago, I visited Howarth, an idyllic village nestled in the beautiful West Yorkshire. At the heart of this charming settlement lies an ancient cobblestone street, meandering down a steep hillside from the mountaintop. In the distance, the remarkable Yorkshire hills and mountains grace the horizon, painting a picturesque scene. However, the true allure that draws countless tourists here rests in the former abode of the Brontë sisters, situated not far from the terminus of the old street atop the mountaintop.
The illustrious trio of literary giants—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë—left an indelible mark on the literary world with their masterpieces, such as “Jane Eyre,” “Wuthering Heights,” and “Agnes Grey,” along with a plethora of evocative poems. Anne, in particular, spent the majority of her life in Haworth. When they were mere children, their father assumed the role of the local church’s pastor, prompting the family’s relocation to Haworth and their residence in a distinctive parsonage. Today, this two-story dwelling has been lovingly transformed into the Brontë Museum. Inside its hallowed halls, we beheld the very rooms where the three sisters collaborated, witnessing the living room, kitchen, and dining room adorned with period-appropriate furnishings. Upstairs, most of the original bedrooms have been converted into exhibitions housing artifacts meticulously collected by the museum, all of which once belonged to the Brontë family. The museum’s efforts were commendable, enabling us to glean profound insights into the lives of these remarkable literary figures and their familial ties.
What struck me most profoundly was the untimely demise of the three sisters. From their earliest years, they, along with their brother Branwell, engaged in a shared pursuit of literary creation. In 1846, the sisters independently published a collection of poems, shouldering the financial burden themselves. The subsequent year witnessed the publication of Charlotte’s “Jane Eyre,” which catapulted her to fame at the age of 31. That same year, Emily, aged 28, unleashed “Wuthering Heights” upon the world, while the 26-year-old Anne unveiled her literary gem, “Agnes Grey,” establishing herself as a prominent new voice. Alas, tragedy befell the family as Branwell succumbed to death at the tender age of 31 in 1848. Merely three months later, Emily succumbed to illness, and Anne, within half a year, succumbed to the same affliction. Among the siblings, it was Charlotte who endured the longest, yet her life was tragically cut short at the age of 38 in 1855. It is worth noting that two younger sisters had also perished at the age of ten, while their mother met an untimely demise, leaving only their father to witness the passage of 84 years.
During the mid-19th century, the average life expectancy in Britain barely exceeded 40 years, and Haworth’s rustic countryside likely harbored even lower expectations. Nevertheless, the Brontë family resided in a pastoral haven, enjoying relatively favorable living conditions. What then led to the premature demise of these gifted siblings? Was it the woollen industry prevalent in the region? At the time, the cause of their deaths was attributed to “consumption,” colloquially known as tuberculosis.
Tuberculosis, caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis, primarily spreads through the respiratory tract. Symptoms manifest as a persistent cough, chest pain, fever, and night sweats. Within the Brontë household, Branwell succumbed first, and the three sisters dutifully tended to him. Given the confined living space, infection was an unfortunate consequence. During the 19th century, when they resided in Haworth, no cure for tuberculosis existed, and mortality rates following infection were alarmingly high. Emily and Anne became tragic victims of this merciless disease. Curiously, tuberculosis was not recognized as an infectious ailment at the time, leading early biographers to attribute the sisters’ untimely deaths to grief over the loss of a sibling. It would not be until the mid-20th century, with the advent of antibiotics, that a cure for tuberculosis emerged.
Most of the Brontë sisters’ literary works drew inspiration from the scenic Yorkshire countryside that enveloped their lives. The undulating hills and desolate moors evoked a peculiar allure within their writings, effortlessly evoking romantic sentiments. Today, this region is aptly referred to as “Bronte Country.” However, during the era when the sisters resided in this poetic landscape, the air and water sources were vulnerable to contamination, and malnutrition-induced weakened immune systems were commonplace. Once infected by pathogens, they could only rely on their own defenses. As I strolled along the ancient streets of Haworth, I envisioned the Brontë sisters treading the same paths. The world they created was enchanting, but I must confess, I harborno desire to revisit the era in which they lived.