SIDETRACKS & DETOURS & BRONTË TRAILS
Norman Warwick joins a walking group (from his armchair) !
with The Brontes, Michael Stewart and Anita Sethi as they go
WALKING THE INVISIBLE.
Anita Sethi, writing in the Guardian, told us she has walked recently through the North York Moors national park and along the Yorkshire coast reaching Scarborough, and climbed towards its castle high on a cliff-top, and to the grave (left) of Anne Brontë, who died aged 29 and is buried in a churchyard beneath the castle.
´By the sea Anne so loved´, Sethi wrote, ´it was easy to see and feel how the landscape of the north so powerfully shaped the literature and lives of the Brontës´.
Along the course of her walk, Anne Bronte´s haunting last words to her sister Charlotte echoed through Sethi´s mind: “Take courage.”
“I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading: it vexes me to choose another guide,” Emily, the other Brontë sister once declared. This trailblazing spirit led her to forge a unique path through literature.
Sethi then spoke of an evocative new book that ´encourages people to engage with the places that proved so inspirational´.
Here, Anne Bronte becomes a posthumous guide to Walking The Invisible, a new book written by Michael Stewart as he followed in her footsteps – along with those of her two sisters, brother Branwell and father Patrick – in a series of vividly chronicled walks that explore the geographical and emotional terrain of their writing.
I was thrilled to read Anita Sethi´s review of this book, that led me along many walks that already held happy memories for me.
´Stewart travels through the north of England´, Sethi tells us, ´across moors and meadows, up mountains and through cities and villages and along coastal paths. He also voyages into the inner lives of the Brontës, showing how external place shaped their internal landscapes, how the wild fuelled their imagination.
He begins his walks in the Brontë birthplace, Thornton, in west Yorkshire, where Patrick spent his “happiest days” before the untimely death of his wife Maria and two eldest daughters. He also follows part of the Pennine Way to the ruin of Top Withens, thought to have inspired Emily’s farmhouse location of Wuthering Heights. He captures how for Emily “the moors were a place of awe and fascination. It was a land that was alive with a terrible destructive beauty.” These engaging present-tense walks include an excellent account of recreating the walk that Mr Earnshaw took in 1771 when he travelled from Wuthering Heights to Liverpool – Stewart ventures via Littleborough and Manchester with his dog Wolfie, and has some hair-raising wild camping experiences.
It is a walking book, but it is also a social and literary history of the North,” Stewart writes. Along the way, he perceptively excavates the past, exploring how it was in the north that the Industrial Revolution took off, “thanks to a combination of soft water, steep hills and cheap labour”. As well as fascinating historical context, he paints a vivid portrait of the present day, too, as he walks through landscapes both bleak and beautiful, equally adept at capturing the gloom of an industrial estate and “a brilliant blue and golden orange kingfisher”, which makes him think of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem. He compellingly conjures the force of the winds, the earthy smell of peat bogs, the haunting call of the curlew and the sound of skylarks.
´The idea of being authors was as natural to us as walking,” Charlotte said. Woven through his Brontës journey, Stewart also explores how he developed a love of literature and became an author himself with the sisters at the heart of his books. He recalls how his fascination with the novel Wuthering Heights began when Kate Bush’s single reached No 1 in the pop charts in 1978. His mother was reading the novel while studying an English literature O-level at night school, having left school at 15. “She told me what the story was about. She told me about how, one summer night, after three days of travel on foot, Mr Earnshaw brought a dark-skinned orphan back from the streets of Liverpool to his farm in Yorkshire. She told me about how his daughter Cathy spat at the boy and his son Hindley booted him.
Stewart borrowed the book from the local library and read it on the bus journey to work in a factory in Manchester. In adulthood he moved to live in Thornfield, the Brontë birthplace, and wrote a novel, Ill Will: The Untold Story of Heathcliff, during his research spending hours walking the moors. He also devised the Brontë Stones project for which Bush wrote a poem dedicated to Emily, left in the landscape.
´I close my eyes and see the landscape in my mind´, Stewart writes. His book is a terrific tribute to the Brontës – and to the landscapes that shaped their literature. It also beautifully shows how landscape grows in the imagination and lays bare the “invisible” world of the heart and mind, and how the places we inhabit shape the people we become. It will send the reader back to Bush’s glorious “Wuthering Heights” and to the Brontës’ brilliant books, and will inspire us to roam the wily, windy wildernesses captured so hauntingly in their work.´
Michael Stewart and his reviewer, Anita Sethi have led me back through old haunts and reminded me of those Bronte novels that I only became familiar with as a very ´mature´ uni student at the age of fifty.
The author of Walking The Invisible (right), offers inspiration for both summer reading AND walking. Head for the hills of West Yorkshire with Michael Stewart’s literary guide through the walks and nature of the Brontë sisters and you’ll soon be treading the wild moorland that formed the memorable backdrop to literary masterpieces like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.
He was profiled recently in The Lancashire Post who revealed that ´Stewart, who was born and raised in Salford, had still not encountered the Brontës’ books by the time he left his rundown comprehensive school at sixteen to work in a factory. And it wasn’t until he borrowed Wuthering Heights from the library and read it on the bus as he travelled to and from his workplace that his ‘Brontë fever’ was born.
Since those early days, Stewart has become Head of Creative Writing at the University of Huddersfield, and author of Ill Will, which re-imagined Heathcliff’s life, as well as three other novels and a selection of poetry.
He is also the creator of the Brontë Stones project – four monumental stones situated in the landscape between the sisters’ birthplace and their parsonage home, inscribed with poems by Kate Bush, Carol Ann Duffy, Jeannette Winterson and Jackie Kay.
Stewart has travelled all over the north of England in search of their lives and landscapes and now he invites readers to enter into the world as the Brontës would have seen it by following the sisters’ footsteps across meadow and moor, and through village and town.
From Liverpool to Scarborough, and taking in wild, windy – and often unforgiving – scenery, Stewart investigates the geographical and social features that shaped the Brontës’ work and discovered echoes of the siblings’ novels on his series of inspirational walks.
And with the help of an unlikely cast of Yorkshire’s inhabitants, the author has found himself falling further into their lives and writings than he could ever have imagined.
Vivid and evocative, and including a series of beautiful maps of walks, including Dentdale, Law Hill and North Lees Hall in Hathersage, which Stewart devised when creating the iconic Brontë Stones project, Walking The Invisible invites you to experience the Brontës as they have never before been experienced.
Along the way, you will find yourself getting closer to classics such as Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Agnes Grey, discovering the real locations behind their fictional settings, and uncovering the myths that surround this much acclaimed and wholly unique family.
Stewart offers as much a literary guide as a walk through the lives of the Brontës, and a fascinating exploration of the changes that were wrought on this part of West Yorkshire during the Victorian period, Walking The Invisible is an essential companion on any visit to the beautiful countryside around Haworth´.
We have plans to introduce some major exclusive interviews to Sidetracks & Detours over the next twelve months and Michael Stewart would certainly seem a suitable case for treatment. Watch this space.
Anita Sethi (left) was born in Manchester UK, and is an award winning writer, journalist and broadcaster. She is the author of I Belong Here: A Journey Through The Backbone Of Britain, published by Bloomsbury. She has interviewed, leading writers, musicians, artist and politicians and public figures including Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, Billy Bragg, Ian Rankin, Tracy Thorn and Harriet Harman and she is very likely to be the subject of a future major feature, (maybe even of an interview if we can secure one) on these pages at Sidetracks And Detours. (Watch this space, too).