“I was a mile from Thornfield, in a lane noted for wild roses in summer, for nuts and blackberries in autumn, and even now possessing a few coral treasures in hips and haws, but whose best winter delight lay in its utter solitude and leafless repose.”
Thus described by Charlotte Bronte’s heroine, Jane Eyre, her first solitary walk along the lonely country lane in the failing light of one January afternoon at around three o’clock. She has set out to deliver a letter for Mrs Fairfax. The depth of the winter it may be, Jane’s spirit is strangely upbeat. To impress upon her reader the colourful imagery of fruitfulness and fertility on the one hand and the soundless of her surroundings on the other, Jane emphasises: “If a breath of air stirred, it made no sound here”.
It is a landscape free from auditory distraction, for “there was not a holly, not an evergreen to rustle, and the stripped hawthorn and hazel bushes were as still as the white, worn stones which causewayed the middle of the path”. The visual imagery continues to fill our minds’ eye: “Far and wide, on each side, there were only fields, where no cattle now browsed; and the little brown birds, which stirred occasionally in the hedge, looked like single russet leaves that had forgotten to drop.”
Secretly, I like to imagine that the road between my village and the village less than a mile down the road is the very route that Jane embarks on from the opposite direction on that January afternoon when she meets the love of her life, Mr Rochester, when “[s]omething of daylight still lingered, and the moonlight was waxing bright”. Nowadays, the road is still flanked by mixed hedges, with hawthorn blossoms at this time of the year. Both sides of the road are still fields – whilst the south side is planted with wheat, sheep graze on the north side.
Charlotte Bronte visited Norton Conyers in 1839. It has been suggested that Thornfield Hall is, in many significant respects, based on this house that Jane considers to be more like “a gentleman’s manor-house, not a nobleman’s seat”. Did Bronte ever walk up to Melmerby through Wath? To do so, she would have walked past St Mary’s Church in Wath. Indeed, venturing out of Thornfield Hall, Jane notices the bells were tolling three as she “passed under the belfry”. Standing on the eastern end of Wath towards Melmerby, St Mary’s Church completes the picturesque charm of this chocolate box village. It is entirely conceivable that Bronte also noticed this prominent landmark, had she taken a stroll down Wath during her sojourn at Norton Conyers Hall.
Bearing to the right after the church, the road rises steeply towards Melmerby. Coincidentally, Jane tells us: “This lane inclined up-hill all the way to Hay”. The railway did not arrive in Melmerby until 1848, nine years after Bronte’s visit to Norton Conyers. The geographical divide between the two villages would have been less distinctive. Ingeniously, Bronte marks the half way point with a stile, atop of which she watches the sun go down behind Thornfield, “sank crimson and clear”, in the west. Then she turns “eastward” and paints a most charming picture of Hay:
On the hill-top above me sat the rising moon; pale yet as a cloud, but brightening momentarily, she looked over Hay, which, half lost in trees, sent up a blue smoke from its few chimneys: it was yet a mile distant, but in the absolute hush I could hear plainly its thin murmurs of life.
Even to this day, Melmerby is still known for being a friendly village. It has been suggested to me that the railway, with all the goods and passengers, broadened the minds of the villagers. They talked to the servants from Norton Conyers who found themselves snub elsewhere. In this context, Jane’s appreciation of the “thin murmurs of life” sounds even more heart-felt, given her dubious status as a governess.
But she needn’t have cared. The traveller is neither young nor handsome who would have intimidated Jane. Instead, “the frown [and] the roughness of the traveller” set her mind at ease, so much so that Jane fails to give her reader a fuller description of Hay as her thought was brimming with the images of “a dark face”, “stern features” and “a heavy brow”.
Post Mrs Fairfax’s letter she does after all. My thought turned to Bronte again. Did she ever pay Melmerby a visit whilst staying at Norton Conyers? Did she ever get as far as our cottage which would have been standing for over fifty years?
Thus I mused as I cycled home from Norton Conyers this afternoon.