No doubt many of you are familiar with the Jane Eyre link to Norton Conyers, but for those of you who aren’t, and in recognition of the bi-centenary celebration of Charlotte Brontë’s birth, I shall endeavour to explain.
Charlotte, aged 23, and in want of a situation, undertook a temporary position as governess to the Sidgewick family who resided at a property called Stonnegappe, in Lothersdale, near Skipton. The family was comprised of John Benson Sidgewick (1800-1872), his wife Sarah Hannah (1803-1887) and their four children: Margaret, William, Matilda and John Benson. Charlotte was employed during June and July 1839 and was not fond of the charges in her care, writing to her sister Emily on 8th June, ‘The children are constantly with me, and more riotous, peverse, unmanageable cubs, never grew.‘
Mrs Sidgewick’s father, John Greenwood (1763-1846), had a summer residence called Swarcliffe near Ripley which the family visited for several weeks. Swarcliffe is 12 miles south-west of Ripon and Norton Conyers is yet a mere four miles further north. It is understood that Charlotte visited the property during this time and incorporated elements of the house in her portrayal of Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre, including the legend about a mad woman confined to the attic which dates from the eighteenth century.
Charlotte had a rather difficult time with the Sidgewick’s, proclaiming ‘a private governess has no existence, is not considered as a living and rational being except as connected with the wearisome duties she has to fulfil’, and was in serious need of a holiday, which she undertook during September and October of that same year, with one of her closest friends, Ellen Nussey who she had attended school with. They stayed near Bridlington and Ellen later recalled that it was on this five week break that she learned more of Charlotte’s time with the Sidgewick’s and the marked impression the visit to Norton Conyers had made.
Charlotte commenced writing Jane Eyre in August 1846, finishing a year later. The general description of Thornfield Hall ‘three stories high, of proportions not vast, though considerable: a gentleman’s manor house, not a nobleman’s seat’, together with more detailed descriptions within the novel, such as the library, the secret stair providing access to the attic rooms plus the relics stored on the third floor, makes Norton Conyers easily identifiable. The furniture Jane Eyre recalls seeing in the attics had been removed from Nunnington Hall which had been sold earlier that year; whilst Stonnegappe morphs into Gateshead Hall. Coincidentally, Frederick Greenwood, brother to John of Swarcliffe rented Norton Conyers in 1848.
Although no written declaration of Charlotte’s visit to Norton Conyers exists, there is an important verbal testimony and many clues which signifies this was the case. As such, its contribution to a well-loved classic helps to define its own heritage.