Withering heights: why the Brontës weren't so in touch with nature after all

The moors shaped their work. But, dear reader, their gardening skills were prosaic at best

Jonathan Brown
Tuesday 03 July 2012 10:48

Their books and poems – even their paintings – evoke the wild beauty that surrounded them at their remote parsonage home.

Yet although the Brontë sisters could conjure the elemental splendour of the Yorkshire moors with their pens and brushes, it seems they were sadly lacking when it came to cultivating nature on the small plot outside their home.

Research carried out while creating a special Brontë-themed garden for this summer's Chelsea Flower Show has unearthed evidence of the sisters' surprising lack of green-fingered talent.

Researchers at the Brontë Parsonage Museum at Haworth, West Yorkshire, discovered repeated references to the women's horticultural failings.

Among them was one from Charlotte's close friend Emily Nussey who described Haworth in 1871. "The garden, which was nearly all grass, and possessed only a few stunted thorns and shrubs, and a few currant bushes which Emily and Anne treasured as their own bit of fruit garden," she wrote.

Two decades earlier James M Hoppin, an early visitor after the cult of the Brontës began to spread after the publication of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, observed "a small flower garden (though rather run to waste now)".

Meanwhile, Charlotte's celebrated chronicler Elizabeth Gaskell, describes the "great change" endured by the author when she moved to Haworth – "a place where neither flowers nor vege- tables would flourish and where a tree of even moderate dimensions might be hunted far and wide".

Tracy Foster, who is designing The Brontës' Yorkshire Garden on behalf of the regional tourism agency Welcome to Yorkshire, conceded that the windswept Pennine conditions were very challenging for both people and plants although the garden flourishes today in the hands of a skilled horticulturalist. "They were obviously very observant and made many comments about individual plants and flowers in their poems and novels and also painted them in exquisite detail so they were obviously very aware," she said.

"But the conditions they had were very difficult and exposed. Maybe they were just too busy producing great literary works to be great gardeners."

The mid-19th century was a thriving time for gardening. The activity had become fashionable among some of the Brontës' better-heeled acquaintances with the arrival of different plant species from far-flung colonies.

Charlotte painted a number of studies of flowers and plants, including wild roses, primulas and even exotic tiger lilies. Her correspondence reveals that Emily, who wrote while sitting on a small stool in the garden, gratefully received seed from Ellen Nussey. Poems such as The Bluebell (The Bluebell is the sweetest flower) and Love and Friendship (Love is like the wild rose-briar) also reveal the women's interest.

The Chelsea garden will have as its centrepiece The Meeting of the Waters – a favourite moorland spot which the sisters would visit as children. Andrew McCarthy, director of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, said: "They were highly attached to the wilderness landscape of the moors rather than the much more cultivated idea of the domesticated garden."

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments