Author and lecturer Dr Michael Stewart has followed in the footsteps of the Brontës for a new book that not only chronicles the famed literary family but also assesses how the north of England has changed over the last two centuries.
Dr Stewart, the University’s Reader and course leader in Creative Writing, has published ‘Walking The Invisible’ a literary study of the Brontës and which, chapter by chapter, also looks at places across the north that inspired the family’s work or played significant roles in their lives.
His novel ‘Ill Will’, which imagined the life of Heathcliff outside of the events in ‘Wuthering Heights’, was released to huge acclaim in 2018.
A year later he contributed to Kate Mosse’s anthology ‘I am Heathcliff’, and he also instigated the Brontë Stones project, a series of stones in and around Haworth featuring inscriptions about the Brontës from leading contemporary writers.
A tour around Haworth and the stunning moors that takes in the Bronte Stones.
‘Walking The Invisible’ begins in Thornton, birthplace of sisters Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë as well as brother Branwell, and traverses the north of the country by visiting both coasts and other locations in Yorkshire and Cumbria.
“It’s a book about the north of England as well as a book about the Brontës because I compare then with now,” says Dr Stewart. “Scarborough, where Anne went to die in 1849, was at that point an up and coming spa town, very prosperous and where the London gentry went to experience the baths. Now it is very impoverished and has one of the highest opioid death rates in the country, so I compare how it was then to now. The contrast is extreme.
“I traced Anne’s last days, when she went to Scarborough with Charlotte, when she was already very weak and fragile. She arrived on a Friday, and she was dead on the Monday, and I visited her grave at St Mary’s church above the town.
“I walked from Haworth to Liverpool, recreating the fictional walk of Mr Earnshaw in ‘Wuthering Heights’ when he returns with Heathcliff.
“Again, it is a case of a place that very different now. I look at how Liverpool was the centre of the European slave trade as around 80 per cent of the country’s income was from slavery, and I look at the likelihood of people being a slave or the child of a slave at that time.”
Dr Stewart’s book also covers the travels of Branwell, the only son of the Brontë parents. A painter and writer, Branwell also found work as a tutor in the town of Broughton-in-Furness, at the time in Lancashire.
“I also visit Broughton in Furness,” adds Dr Stewart, “but the differences are not as marked as with Scarborough. The pubs are there, the streets are cobbled – it’s fairly unspoiled so the comparison is not as stark.
“William Wordsworth also wrote about the nearby hill Black Combe and the landscape around Broughton. Branwell wrote to Wordsworth because he was obsessed with him, but Wordsworth never wrote back to him.”
Dr Stewart adds that, “How Charlotte portrayed the Luddites in ‘Shirley’ was interesting as an example of how history can be distorted and rewritten for fictional purposes.”
To coincide with ‘Walking the Invisible’, Dr Stewart will host a walking tour around Haworth, ‘In the footsteps of the Brontë’s’, on Sunday 4 July as part of the Bradford Literary Festival.