Shibden Hall, © Alexander P. Kapp. [Click on this and the following images to enlarge them, and usually for more information about them].
In the autumn and winter of 1838, Emily Brontë was teaching at Law Hill School in West Yorkshire. Nearby, on the slopes of the lovely Shibden Valley, lies a pleasantly Tudor-fronted manor house called Shibden Hall, which was then undergoing extensive improvements. Like another nearby house at a higher altitude, High Sunderland in the village of Southowram, and indeed like Law Hill School itself, Shibden Hall is among the buildings suggested as possible sources of inspiration for the houses in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. More specifically, Shibden Hall has been seen as the "real" Thrushcross Grange. It may not entirely fit the bill. One critic feels that Shibden Hall is "far more modest" than the house Heathcliff reports seeing in Chapter VI of the novel (Dimsdale 31). The drawing-room there, the young Heathcliff tells Nellie Dean, was "a splendid place carpeted with crimson, and crimson-covered chairs and tables, and a pure white ceiling bordered by gold, a shower of glass-drops hanging in silver chains from the centre, and shimmering with little soft tapers" (53). Shibden Hall does seem humbler than this suggests, as well as different in style. Yet the story attached to it still supports a connection with the novel: the true story of a passionate, forbidden love.
Portrait of Anne Lister, attributed to Joshua Horner, c. 1830 (identified
as being in the public domain in Wikimedia Commons).
Law Hill's headmistress, Elizabeth Patchett, had been at school with the young woman who had inherited Shibden Hall in 1826. This was the strong-willed lesbian diarist Anne Lister (1791-1840), who moved into it with her partner, Ann Walker. From the start, the couple's open relationship caused a stir: "While the town had previously tolerated Anne Lister's oddities with a mix of irritation and amusement, Ann Walker moving in to Shibden Hall went too far for them. A female couple not hiding themselves away but living together and sitting side by side at church provoked Halifax society" (Steidele 227). Several critics have suggested that Emily herself was conflicted about her sexual identity. Jean Kennard, for instance, proposes "that many of the frequently noted features of Wuthering Heights — the reversal of conventional attitudes, the sense of taboo, the omnipresence of ghosts, the patterns of inversion and dissolution (particularly as they affect the inside-outside, freedom-imprisonment binaries that dominate the novel) — are all representations of Brontë’s ambivalence over her sexual identity" (18). Any such ambivalence is likely to have come to the surface when Emily made her bid for independence at this time. Kennard follows a much earlier critic, Virginia Moore, in finding "the best evidence" for any lesbian relationships in the poetry written while, and soon after, Emily was at Law Hill" (19). Not unexpectedly, Kennard then specifically ties Anne Lister into her argument, even saying that it is "very probable" that Emily met and was impressed by this young local woman who was unusually bold about her inclinations, and whom the townsfolk liked to call "Gentleman Jack" (21).
The possibility that Emily took away something from her time at Law Hill raises another possibility. Anne Lister had had a whole string of relationships before becoming mistress of Shibden Hall. The earliest had been in her mid- to late-teens, with Eliza Raine, the schoolfellow with whom she had shared an attic room at Manor House School in York. Eliza was one of the two illegitimate half-Indian daughters of a head surgeon at a hospital in Madras (now Chennai), in India. After their father's death, the girls were brought up and educated by his friend in York, and Eliza and her schoolmate formed an intense bond. It was during this relationship that Anne began to use the code, covering her most private experiences, that made deciphering many passages in her diaries so difficult. Eliza's subsequent history was probably as well known in Yorkshire as that of "Gentleman Jack," because she came to an unhappy end: she was confined to Clifton Asylum in York, the very place where George Nussey, the brother of Charlotte's close friend Ellen, spent eight years (see Smith 75, n.3). Such a sad story might well have reached the ears of Emily and, either through her or quite independently, her sister Charlotte.
Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre, as
depicted by Edmund Garrett.
Mr Rochester's deranged Creole wife Bertha in Charlotte's Jane Eyre has always posed questions for critics: "it seems strange that a writer with such progressive, liberal credentials could have created such a negative, racist stereotype of female madness," writes one, going on to adopt the now familiar interpretation of her a symbol of the principled Jane Eyre's "shadow side" (Arnold 229). But Angela Steidele, for one, suggests that this "stereotype" had its independent origin in real life, that is to say, in the real Eliza Raine. Indeed, it is true that when Anne Lister visited her first love at the Clifton asylum, she found her in a condition very like that of Bertha in the novel: "After one of her visits, Anne noted that her first lover spits perpetually" and is so dirty and obstreperous that her gowns are now made, as to the sleeves, like a strait waistcoat, so that she can do no mischief, otherwise she would have struck me" (Steidele 253).
Shirley Keeldar and Caroline Helstone in Charlotte Brontë's Shirley, as depicted by T. H. Robinson.
Steidele is so sure of these connections between Lister and the Brontës that she not only writes of Charlotte as "portraying Eliza Raine in Jane Eyre," but asserts that in her next novel, Shirley, Charlotte took Anne Lister "as a model for her titular heroine" (254). Traditionally, Emily has been seen as Charlotte's inspiration here; but, while only speculative, the case for Lister is quite persuasive. Steidele summarises the parallels: "The rich landowning woman is not interested in marriage candidates but in good business, uses a male first name — which only changed gender as a result of the publication of the novel itself — and ends up in a pragmatic marriage." In the novel, she goes on to point out, "Shirley and her real love, her best friend Caroline, marry brothers" (254). This, of course, seals their bond and makes it aceptable in the eyes of society by making them sisters-in-law. Like Wuthering Heights, Shirley has been seen from a lesbian point of view before. It positively invites such a reading by harping on about the problems that beset relationships between the sexes. "Millions of marriages are unhappy," says Mr Helstone, Caroline's clergyman uncle, who dislikes having to officiate at weddings: "if everybody confessed the truth, perhaps all are more or less so" (98). Still, another critic's approach is perhaps the wisest one here: instead of suggesting "a crude cause-and-effect between Lister's life and Charlotte Brontë's novel," Anne Longmuir feels "it is more appropriate to read Lister's diaries as chronicling ideas and attitudes that were part of Charlotte's world and which open up readings of Shirley which would, before the discovery of Lister's diaries, be anachronistic. In this way, Lister's text allows a more explicitly sexual interpretation of female relationships in Charlotte's novel" (145).
Within this bigger picture, with its special relevance to lesbian literary theorists, various smaller details in the Brontë novels might owe something to Lister's story. For example, the couple's bedroom was known as the Red Room, because of the colour in the Celtic frieze around the walls. Said to be haunted, this room was the setting of the last dramatic act of Ann Walker's life: after burying her partner, who had died in 1840 while they were travelling through Russia, she locked herself inside it. The bedroom door was taken off its hinges, and the distraught woman removed. Considered to be of unsound mind, she was confined to the very asylum in which Eliza Raine was still living. Ann's brother-in-law then took occupation of Shibden Hall, and she never returned there, dying at the asylum in 1854 (see Steidele 301). The young Jane Eyre's eerie and febrile experiences in Mrs Reed's Red Room may possibly owe something to reports about this, as indeed may the two memorable bedroom scenes in Wuthering Heights — when the first Catherine lies miserably ill at Thrushcross Grange, deprived of Heathcliff, and when Mr Lockwood barricades his window against her ghost. Steidele does not discuss this possibility, but does point out that inheritance issues form another common strand between events at Shibden Hall and in the Brontes' fictional worlds. However, in the age of large estates such issues were perhaps even more common than they are today.
In her recent, no-nonsense reappraisal of Emily Brontë, Claire O'Calloghan does not even mention Anne Lister, and looks askance at the idea that either Emily or Charlotte might have had lesbian leanings or relationships. Well aware of this school of thought, and, as a critic, keen to value "queer women writers and the representations of female homosexuality," she is happy to explore Emily's defiance of "traditional gender and sexual norms," but reluctant to go any further than that "without evidence" (160). Tempting as it is to see both sisters working with some knowledge of, and a particular interest in, Lister's life, that seems a sensible position to take.
Arnold, Catherine. Bedlam: London and Its Mad. London: Simon and Schuster, 2009.
Brontë, Charlotte. Shirley. Ed. Lucasta Miller. London: Penguin, 2006.
Dimsdale, Ann. "Locations in Northern England Associated with the Brontës' Lives and Works." The Brontës in Context. Ed. Marianne Thormhälen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 17-35.
Kennard, Jean E. “Lesbianism and the Censoring of ‘Wuthering Heights.’” NWSA Journal 8, no. 2 (1996): 17–36.M.
Longmuir, Anne. "Anne Lister and Lesbian Desire in Charlotte Brontë's Shirley. Brontë Studies 34/2 (2006): 145-155.
Moore, Virginia. The Life and Eager Death of Emily Brontë: A Biography. London: Rich and Down, 1936.
O'Callaghan, Claire. Emily Brontë Reappraised. Salford: Saraband, 2018.
Steidele, Angela. Gentleman Jack: A Biography of Anne Lister: Regency Landowner, Seducer and Secret Diarist. Trans. Katy Derbyshire. London: Serpent's Tail, 2018.
Created 11 June 2022