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In the footsteps of Charlotte Brontë


I first read Jane Eyre when I was twelve years old and wished for a long time that I hadn’t. However, my nightmares about the criminally insane Bertha prowling around while the rest of the household slept faded eventually and allowed me to appreciate the story as a whole. If I discount the improbable coincidence of Jane’s flight from Thornfield landing her on the doorstep of previously unknown cousins, this is my favourite Brontë novel. That is why I jumped at the opportunity last week to tour the ‘gentleman’s residence’ believed to have been at least in part the model for Mr Rochester’s house. Norton Conyers has been owned by the Graham family almost continuously since 1624 and Charlotte, who paid a visit in 1839, would certainly have been told the legend of Mad Mary, an unfortunate relative confined to an attic during the previous century.


The discovery of a major infestation of death watch beetle led to this ‘gentleman’s manor house’ being closed to the public for many years. On the day of my visit, Sir James, the 11th baronet, and Lady Graham gathered us all together in the hall (shown above) for a talk on the repair and restoration programme. They even handed round specimens of the offending insects – in plastic boxes, I’m glad to say – and fragments of wood that they had chewed. Disappointment was to follow when we were told that the fragility of the floors had put the attics out of bounds to visitors. The most we were allowed was a glimpse through a door on the gloomy first floor landing of a narrow staircase leading up to what had been the servants’ sleeping quarters. In use when Charlotte visited, it had been blocked up and its rediscovery in 2004 sparked interest worldwide. A photograph on display in the hall showed a sparsely furnished and cheerless garret at the very far end of the attic floor.

There was plenty more to see, including fine furniture, pictures, porcelain, 16th century painted boards and rare examples of 18th century wallpaper but, even on a fine summer’s day, I found the general atmosphere of the place oppressive. Standing on the landing and again in the dark panelled King James bedroom – while still Duke of York, the future James II and his wife are supposed to have spent one November night at Norton Conyers in 1679 – it wasn’t hard for me to imagine how sinister the house would have seemed without benefit of electric lighting. I was very glad to emerge into the sunshine and gather my thoughts in the glorious walled garden.


20 July, 2016 - Make the first comment on this story

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