In search of Sylvia Plath in Bronte country

In search of Sylvia Plath in Bronte country

About 5 locals gossip their way up the hill from one of Heptonstall's 2 stone village shops a tiny deli-cafe and a corner store that doubles as a post office.

They find me lost take me into their custody and offer directions.

"Follow this path" says one in a broad Yorkshire accent "And you will come to the church and its old graveyard. Drop by the New Cemetery 1st. You will be wanting to see Sylvia. She is in there."

Sylvia is Sylvia Plath the brilliant anguished and ultimately tragic poet who took her own life in 1963 aged just 30.

If you come this way it is best to come armed with a little reading first.

Most do but restrict it to the books of the Bronte sisters who lived and wrote in the parsonage, perfectly preserved still, of the village of Haworth about 14 kilometers north west of Heptonstall.

It is a lonely drive between Haworth and Heptonstall across the tops of bleak and beautiful moorland wind tearing at mist sheep dotted across hillsides and the wide landscape interrupted only by drystone fences.

Emily Bronte captured this country for generations of romantics in her novel Wuthering Heights.

West Yorkshire uplands also captured the imagination of the immensely gifted and fragile Sylvia Plath.

She was born in Boston Massachusetts it seems baffling to find her grave half a world away in this obscure and ancient Yorkshire village.

Heptonstall perches on crags high up a steep and narrow road above known as market township of Hebden Bridge,its view the dark and wooded Upper Calder Valley. Beyond those bare moorlands stretch.

Plath discovered wild beauty up here during the final years of her short life.

One of her poems 2 Views of Withens concerns itself with an old farmhouse across the moors towards Haworth called Top Withens that is thought to be Emily Bronte's inspiration for Heathcliff's adoptive home in Wuthering Heights.

Whorled spindling gorse Plath wrote of it in 1957 Sheepfoot flattened grasses/Stone wall and ridgepole rise/Prow-like through blurs/Of fog in that hinterland few/Hikers get to.

So many hikers from distant parts have discovered Bronte country since then that some of the directions on hiking paths these days are posted not just in English but Japanese.

Japanese women come in such great numbers to Bronte country, obsessed with the three literary sisters Emily Charlotte and Anne that academics and social commentators have devoted scholarly works to the phenomenon. So pervasive the annual Japanese pilgrimage to West Yorkshire that British prize winning writer Mick Jackson devoted his 2017 novel Yuki chan in Bronte Country to the subject.

Wuthering Heights has been translated into Japanese more than Twenty times and has been adapted in Japan for numerous stage productions movies and TV series. Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre also has a wide following in Japan.

A common theme to the speculating about all this is that the passion expressed within the Bronte sisters' writing the longing for freedom alongside a repressed violence yet nestled within the comfort of patriarchal society not mentioning all of it set in the barren beauty of Wuthering Heights country finds some deep resonance within Japanese hearts.

It found empathy within the brittle soul of Sylvia Plath.

Plath visited this area of Yorkshire soon after famously marrying the Yorkshire born poet Ted Hughes in 1956.

Theirs was a turbulent relationship and in 1962 Hughes that would become Poet Laureate in 1984 and remained so until his death in 1998 left Plath for another woman.

New Cemetery of the 13th century stone village of Heptonstall to understand that Plath's devoted admirers still blame Hughes for his wife's lonely end her head in her kitchen oven the gas turned on.

Hughes saw to it that Plath's body was conveyed across the moors of West Yorkshire to Heptonstall near where his parents lived where he had played as a child and where he gained inspiration for his brooding poem sequence Remains of Elmet was published in 1979.

Hughes describes in a poem from that sequence,  the West Yorkshire moors thus: Moors/Are a stage for the performance of heaven./Any audience is incidental.

The literary greatness she won in death, Plath's grave is nothing but bare earth bordered by rocks and a headstone bearing the enigmatic quotation: "Even among fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted."

Another link between Yorkshire and the Far East. Chosen by Hughes the quotation is from the allegorical Chinese folk novel Monkey written in the 16th century by Wu Ch'Eng.

Plath's name etched into the headstone that is most intriguing.

Sylvia Plath Hughes it reads or is supposed to do so.

Pilgrims to the grave keep blacking out the word Hughes having never forgiven. The cemetery keepers appear to have given up and on the day I visit, the word Hughes is no more than a smudge.

A few steps away is the old churchyard. Its history back to 1260 when the village's 1st church dedicated to St Thomas A'Beckett was built.

There are supposedly 100,000 bodies lying beneath the ground here and perhaps there are. But the original church is a spooky ruin and the churchyard is dominated by a newer church this one dedicated to St Thomas the Apostle.

I wander around the village encountering no one. It feels empty, dark and brooding and ancient.

A sign on a wall declares that Heptonstall was once an important center of the woollen cloth trade and the town's market hall the oldest town cloth hall in Yorkshire was built by the Lords of the Manor circa 1545-1558. "Here came the yeoman clothiers to sell and the merchants to buy the cloth."

Hughes in his remains of Elmet lamented what was lost from places like this.

"Since 1930 I have watched the mills of the region and their attendant chapels die" he wrote in the preface to the 1979 edition of his work. "Within the last 15 years the end has come. They are now virtually dead ..."

Like Emily Bronte wrote of the enduring power of the landscape declaring it held a "spectacular desolation" a "grim sort of beauty".

Plath that endures here forever now clearly recognised it too and understood in some elemental way that her destiny lay there.

In her poem Wuthering Heights 1961 she wrote of the moorland: "I can feel it trying/To funnel my heat away/If I pay the roots of the heather/Too close attention they will invite me/To whiten my bones among them."

I return across the empty road atop the moor to tiny pretty Haworth where I have found a perfect hotel called The Fleece Inn.

Locals bring their dogs in to the lounge and drink pints the room buzzing with timeworn easy country friendship.

I fill myself with good sausage and mash imagining the Bronte family up the hill in their parsonage dreaming the dreams that still fill bookshelves across the world.

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