“A splendid Midsummer shone over England: skies so pure, suns so radiant as were then seen in long succession, seldom favour even singly, our wave-girt land. It was as if a band of Italian days had come from the South, like a flock of glorious passenger birds, and lighted to rest them on the cliffs of Albion. The hay was all got in; the fields round Thornfield were green and shorn; the roads white and baked; the trees were in their dark prime; hedge and wood, full-leaved and deeply tinted, contrasted well with the sunny hue of the cleared meadows between.”
Thus Charlotte Bronte, through the eponymous heroine of her novel ‘Jane Eyre’, described the glorious countryside of the Peak District in Derbyshire, having been enamoured by the beautiful, and sometimes wild looking, landscapes she saw during the summer of 1845.
Charlotte, the eldest of the famous writing sisters, had gone to stay in the small Peak town of Hathersage with her friend, Ellen Nussey, whose brother was the local vicar. Charlotte had, at that time, begun to plan a novel about a girl who went from being an unloved orphan to become the mistress of a fine manor house – with a few trials and tribulations along the way.
While staying with the Nusseys, she was taken to call upon their friends, the Eyre family, who live just outside the town at North Lees Hall almost in the shadow of the craggy escarpment, or ‘edge’, which dominates the area. Over the next few weeks, Charlotte visited the Eyres on several occasions, and began to take more than a passing interest in them and their home.
It appears these visits went a long way in providing Charlotte with characters and places to weave into her story. She took her heroine’s name, ‘Miss Jane Eyre’, from the family; she based Rochester’s first wife on stories of a previous owner, Agnes Ashurst, who was reputedly confined as a lunatic in a padded room on the second floor; while the stage where the main acts of this ground-breaking melodrama were to be played out is thought to be North Lees Hall itself, which becomes Mr Edward Rochester’s home, ‘Thornfield Hall’.
The Eyre family had owned the Hall since the 1750s though today this modest Grade II listed Elizabethan tower house, which dates from the 1590s, is owned by the Peak District National Park Authority and leased as a private dwelling.
In her portrayal of the Hall’s interior, Charlotte described a piece of furniture referred to as ‘the Apostles' Cabinet’ which belonged to the Eyre family. “...the shadows ...quiver strangely over the doors of a great cabinet opposite – whose front, divided into twelve panels, bore, in grim design, the heads of the twelve apostles, each enclosed in its separate panel as in a frame; while above them at the top rose an ebony crucifix and a dying Christ.” She later bought this cabinet and took it back to the Bronte family home in Haworth where it can still be seen.
She also described the Hall as “three storeys high; a gentleman’s manor house; battlements round the top gave it a picturesque look”, and if she visited today she would see that little has changed. She describes other places that closely match locations she would also have visited during her stay, including Hathersage itself, which gave her the inspiration for her town of ‘Morton’.
The origin of the name ‘Hathersage’ is disputed, although it is generally accepted that the second part derives from the Old English word ecg meaning ‘edge’. Today, it is one of Derbyshire’s most popular villages, surrounded by ancient legend and this literary connection which has made it a place of pilgrimage for Bronte fans.
Back in the story, Jane leaves Thornfield and finds herself in nearby Moor End, ‘adopted‘ by the Rivers family whom she comes to adore as much as her surroundings, giving Charlotte chance to eulogise about the enchanting Peak District landscapes once more:
“They clung to the purple moors behind and around their dwelling – to the hollow vale into which the pebbly bridle-path leading from their gate descended, and which wound between fern banks first, and then amongst a few of the wildest little pasture-fields that ever bordered a wilderness of heath, or gave sustenance to a flock of grey moorland sheep, with their little mossy-faced lambs: they clung to this scene, I say, with a perfect enthusiasm of attachment. I could comprehend the feeling, and share both its strength and truth. I saw the fascination of the locality.
I felt the consecration of its loneliness: my eye feasted on the outline of swell and sweep – on the wild colouring communicated to ridge and dell by moss, by heath-bell, by flower-sprinkled turf, by brilliant bracken, and mellow granite crag. These details were just to me what they were to them – so many pure and sweet sources of pleasure. The strong blast and the soft breeze; the rough and the halcyon day; the hours of sunrise and sunset; the moonlight and the clouded night, developed for me, in these regions, the same attraction as for them – wound round my faculties the same spell that entranced theirs.”
Jane Eyre was published to great acclaim almost exactly 170 years ago in October 1847 – a noteworthy year for the Bronte sisters, for this year also saw the publication of Wuthering Heights, the only novel written by Emily, and Agnes Grey, Anne’s first novel.
Anne and Emily died at ages 30 and 31 respectively, only just outlived by Charlotte, who had married Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father's curate. At the age of 38 she became his wife, but happiness was short-lived and she died within a year of the marriage, weakened by the early stages of pregnancy in 1855. She did, however, live to achieve public and critical acclaim for her work, thanks to her friendship with publisher George Smith, who introduced her to London society, becoming one of the inner circle of Victorian literary celebrities.