Discovery of secret stairs brings Brontë to life

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The Independent Culture

The secret staircase which inspired one of fiction's great characters has been uncovered, hidden behind oak panels and just as it was portrayed by Charlotte Brontë.

The secret staircase which inspired one of fiction's great characters has been uncovered, hidden behind oak panels and just as it was portrayed by Charlotte Brontë.

Legend has it that Brontë based the character of the deranged Mrs Rochester - who was locked away in an attic at Thornfield Hall in the semi-autobiographical Jane Eyre - on a true story. She supposedly heard it during a visit in 1839 to the North Yorkshire country mansion, Norton Conyers.

Nowadays, the house has around 2,000 visitors a year and the grand rooms are on show. But, though the Brontë setting is all in place, the reference in the plot to how the attic was accessed has remained a mystery - until a narrow flight of 13 steps was found at the medieval house.

This staircase, revealed when floorboards were removed in an attic room where servants once slept, provides a direct link down to the first floor, true to Brontë's narrative where Eyre sees Mr Rochester go towards the attic: "He went: Iwatched the light withdraw. He passed up the gallery very softly, unclosed the staircase door with as little noise as possible, shut it after him, and the last ray vanished."

A servants' staircase, bearing no resemblance to Brontë's description, had been the only way to access the attic. But Sir James Graham, whose family has lived at the property since 1624, recalled older family members speaking about a hidden staircase. He decided to investigate.

When he and his wife started tapping on wooden panels near where the novel places the steps, in a gallery by the Peacock Room, they heard a hollow sound. They lifted the attic floorboards directly above, discovered the steps and at the bottom found Brontë's staircase door, fitted with a spring to ensure it always closed after use.

"The door at the bottom would have been visible originally, certainly at the time Charlotte Brontë visited, but it was covered when the landing was panelled, we believe, in the 1880s," Sir James said.

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