Books of Bronte brilliance

Books of Bronte brilliance

Local historian Mike Popplewell continues his look at some of the lesser-known aspects of Spen Valley history... 

The Spen Valley Civic Society rightly pays homage to the Bronte family’s connection with our district in their Fame Trail, despite their more specific links with Bradford and Haworth. 

From Patrick Bronte’s curacy at Dewsbury Parish Church to the recently-defunct Red House Museum, North Kirklees is littered with literary connections to the Brontes.

Charlotte’s friendships with Mary Taylor and Ellen Nussey influenced her interest in this area and, in turn, her novel Shirley was influenced by it.

Birstall and Gomersal in particular feature names like Nussey Avenue and the Shirley Estate.

I recently came across a 12-volume set of books which comprised the novels of the Bronte sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Anne – and the biography of Charlotte by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Although damaged and annotated by a previous owner, the books, The Thornton Edition, published in 1911, clearly demonstrate the enduring popularity of the Brontes. This collection was published 55 years after the death of Charlotte, the last surviving member of the family. They had been bought in Lahore by a British Army officer and the current market price of this specific collection is £300-£400 in good condition.

In each volume there are photographic plates relating to the real places and people who inspired the characters and places named in the novels.

It is interesting to see these places in pictures over a century old, but it is also sad to see some are no longer standing and the future of others remains in the balance.

Red House is pictured in 1911, when it was the home of Dr Richard Waring Taylor, a descendant of William Taylor, a farmer who had the house built in 1660, and was, of course, a distant relative of Charlotte’s long-time friend Mary Taylor. The house became Briarmains, the home of the Yorke family in Charlotte’s novel Shirley.Fame Trail Mary Taylor

With the future of Red House undecided since its closure in December, it is hard not to reflect on its demise without also bringing to mind local historian Mabel Ferrett, author of ‘The Brontes in the Spen Valley’ and the little red booklet on the house itself.

Mabel, born in Ossett, became a resident of Heckmondwike on her marriage in 1947.

This year marks the centenary of her birth on April 30, 1917. She was a founding member of the Pennine Poets group, won countless literary awardsand published an autobigraphy, ‘After Passchendaele’, in 2003.

She died on January 28, 2011, shortly before her 94th birthday.

After retirement she spent many hours at Red House welcoming visitors and enthusing them with her vast knowledge of the Brontes and Spen Valley.

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