Yorkshire Post - YP Magazine

Bleak practice


Michael Stewart’s excellent book takes you up hill and down dale on a journey with the Brontë sisters.

Walking the Invisible: Following in the Brontës’ Footsteps by Michael Stewart

When it comes to the Brontës, Michael Stewart has form. He is the originator of the Brontë Stones project – a literary trail celebratin­g the lives of the three sisters which was launched in 2018 at Bradford Literature Festival. Four poems were commission­ed, written by Jeanette Winterson, Jackie Kay, Carol Ann Duffy and Kate Bush, representi­ng each of the sisters and their ongoing legacy. They were engraved into stones by letter carver Pip Hall and then placed in the landscape that inspired the Brontës’ writing. Each stone has a walk associated with it, devised by Stewart – one from Thornton, the Brontës’ birthplace, to Haworth; and three circular walks for each of the sisters. Also in 2018, Stewart’s excellent novel Ill Will was published. It developed out of his fascinatio­n with Heathcliff ’s “lost years” – the character disappears from Emily’s Wuthering Heights in chapter nine and returns three years later a changed man; Stewart’s well-received book imagined what Heathcliff was doing during that time.

In Walking the Invisible, he explores the locations that fired the Brontës’ creativity. In his introducti­on, Stewart explains that, while he was researchin­g Ill Will and developing the Brontë Stones project, he spent a lot of time walking in the sisters’ footsteps, even recreating the longdistan­ce walk undertaken by Mr Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights from Yorkshire to Liverpool. It was revelatory. Stewart writes: “Up on the moors, I had a profound understand­ing of the texts. I started to connect with their writings in a visceral way. It was like I had discovered another layer and I sank further in. The words and the moors were one.” His aim with this book he says is to encourage others to do the same, to engage with the places that fed into the Brontës’ works, to experience “the uniquely bleak countrysid­e” that was so much part of their lives. He refers to Charlotte’s famous quote: “The idea of being authors was as natural to us as walking.”

Stewart describes the book as “a walking book but… also a social and literary history of the North”. And that is exactly what he gives us. We get details about the locations that fuelled the imaginatio­n of the Brontës – the moors, the places they visited regularly, the homes of the wealthy families who employed them as governesse­s and tutors. Stewart explores how the North was changing at that time, on the cusp of an industrial revolution that would leave it forever altered. The Luddites make an appearance, as do slave traders – the Sill family based in Dent, who owned a plantation in Jamaica and brought back slaves to work on their farm near Whernside. Branwell Brontë, so often overlooked in the family’s story, gets a chapter of his own, touching on the illegitima­te children he may have fathered and his doomed affair with Lydia Robinson, the wife of one of his employers, which led to his final tragic decline. Stewart’s portrayal of Branwell is more sympatheti­c than many.

The tone of his writing is engaging, inclusive, conversati­onal – it is almost as though you are walking alongside him, discoverin­g as you go. A few of the

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