Walking the Invisible by Michael Stewart review – following in the Brontës’ footsteps

I walked recently through the North York Moors national park and along the Yorkshire coast, reaching Scarborough, and climbed towards its castle high on a clifftop, and to the grave of Anne Brontë, who died aged 29 and is buried in a churchyard beneath the castle. By the sea she so loved, it was easy to see and feel how the landscape of the north so powerfully shaped the literature and lives of the Brontës. This evocative book encourages people to engage with the places that proved so inspirational. As I walk, Anne’s haunting last words to her sister Charlotte echo through my mind: “Take courage.”

“I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading: it vexes me to choose another guide,” Emily Brontë declared. This trailblazing spirit led her to forge a unique path through literature. Here, she becomes a posthumous guide to Michael Stewart as he follows in her footsteps – along with the footsteps of her sisters, brother Branwell and father Patrick – in a series of vividly chronicled walks that explore the geographical and emotional terrain of their writing.

Stewart travels through the north of England, across moors and meadows, up mountains and through cities and villages and along coastal paths. He also voyages into the inner lives of the Brontës, showing how external place shaped their internal landscapes, how the wild fuelled their imagination.

He begins his walks in the Brontë birthplace, Thornton, in west Yorkshire, where Patrick spent his “happiest days” before the untimely death of his wife Maria and two eldest daughters. He also follows part of the Pennine Way to the ruin of Top Withens, thought to have inspired Emily’s farmhouse location of Wuthering Heights. He captures how for Emily “the moors were a place of awe and fascination. It was a land that was alive with a terrible destructive beauty.” These engaging present-tense walks include an excellent account of recreating the walk that Mr Earnshaw took in 1771 when he travelled from Wuthering Heights to Liverpool – Stewart ventures via Littleborough and Manchester with his dog Wolfie, and has some hair-raising wild camping experiences.

“It is a walking book, but it is also a social and literary history of the North,” Stewart writes. Along the way, he perceptively excavates the past, exploring how it was in the north that the Industrial Revolution took off, “thanks to a combination of soft water, steep hills and cheap labour”. As well as fascinating historical context, he paints a vivid portrait of the present day, too, as he walks through landscapes both bleak and beautiful, equally adept at capturing the gloom of an industrial estate and “a brilliant blue and golden orange kingfisher”, which makes him think of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem. He compellingly conjures the force of the winds, the earthy smell of peat bogs, the haunting call of the curlew, the sound of skylarks.

“The idea of being authors was as natural to us as walking,” Charlotte said. Woven through his Brontës journey, Stewart also explores how he developed a love of literature and became an author himself with the sisters at the heart of his books. He recalls how his fascination with the novel Wuthering Heights began when Kate Bush’s single reached No 1 in the pop charts in 1978. His mother was reading the novel while studying an English literature O-level at night school, having left school at 15. “She told me what the story was about. She told me about how, one summer night, after three days of travel on foot, Mr Earnshaw brought a dark-skinned orphan back from the streets of Liverpool to his farm in Yorkshire. She told me about how his daughter Cathy spat at the boy and his son Hindley booted him.”

Stewart borrowed the book from the local library and read it on the bus journey to work in a factory in Manchester. In adulthood he moved to live in Thornfield, the Brontë birthplace, and wrote a novel, Ill Will: The Untold Story of Heathcliff, during his research spending hours walking the moors. He also devised the Brontë Stones project for which Bush wrote a poem dedicated to Emily, left in the landscape.

“I close my eyes and see the landscape in my mind,”Stewart writes. The book is a terrific tribute to the Brontës – and to the landscapes that shaped their literature. It also beautifully shows how landscape grows in the imagination and lays bare the “invisible” world of the heart and mind, and how the places we inhabit shape the people we become. It will send the reader back to Bush’s glorious “Wuthering Heights” and to the Brontës’ brilliant books, and will inspire us to roam the wily, windy wildernesses captured so hauntingly in their work.

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