Sir Francis Spalding: The Harrowing at Brontë Parsonage
- Sir Francis Spalding
- Brontë Parsonage Museum
Originally published in the Bradford Telegraph and Argus, February 1984, and penned by national treasure Sir Francis Spalding, noted art critic, raconteur and bon viveur.
It was with a good deal of trepidation that I accepted the invitation from The Keighley and Mytholmroyd Seven to attend The Harrowing at the Parsonage, dear reader. To these world weary nostrils, the whiff of craven populism was surely in the air! As an august maven of the Brontë Society through many turbulent decades, I recall the atmosphere of heady intellectual radicalism attendant on so many of our landmark endeavours with a misty eye. Who could forget last year’s triumphal repatriation of the notorious 1846-47 cache of Parsonage grocery receipts, long lost to a private American collection and the subject of bitter litigation spanning some 40 years? Or the thrilling discovery and recent acquisition of Anne Brontë’s potato peeler and egg whisk, miraculously plucked from the sundry bric-a-brac of an Otley car boot sale? The subsequent special exhibition of these priceless artefacts attracted literally a dozen visitors over the course of the all too brief duration of its nine month run, proof positive that the rigorously cerebral need not be out of step with a spirit of brisk commercialism! Vulgar efforts to excite casual curiosity from the widest possible audience of non-experts are perhaps inevitable in a worsening climate of swingeing funding cuts and austerity measures. Indeed, the Seven’s proposition to occupy the Parsonage and raise the Brontë sisters from the dead via a complex three-month ritual cycle of meditation, fasting, self-flagellation, blood-letting, psilocybic hallucination and Cthulucene sex magick seemed on initial inspection to scrape the bottom of the barrel in terms of easy crowd-pleasing spectacle. With the humblest of apologies to the excellent wimmin of the group who committed to proceedings with such white knuckle bravura, it is my positive delight to eat crow. It’s a rare gig that seems set to usher in a new matriarchal world order, at a stroke grinding the omnipresent violent machinery of white male supremacy to dust beneath its wheels…Brava!
To give any kind of faithful account of the tumultuous sequence of events that were to unfold within the limits of this short newspaper article seems doomed to certain failure, and yet for posterity’s sake, I must try. Fragmentary impressions that glitter like a reflection lost in the shards of a broken mirror must stand in for objective reportage. And so: Something of a carnival spirit was very much in evidence as a select gaggle of chattering celebrants boarded the charming Keighley and Worth Valley steam train at midnight to journey to the ever picturesque village of Haworth, attended by berobed devotees of the Seven. As I sipped absently on a bitter cocktail of wolfsbane and ayahuasca from the wizened gourd proffered on entry to the carriage, and watched soot film my ill-advised linen suit with a rueful eye, the scrolling West Yorkshire landscape undulated beneath the unearthly luminescence of a full moon. The zodiac wheeled a phantasmagoric celestial dance overhead, too immense to comprehend, and the toy-like train nosed its path on flimsy track through the vast and blasted majesty of moorland hill and valley, trailing puffed clouds of billowing smoke in its wake. I meditated on my ultimate ascension to the glistering firmament as a twin crematorium tower drifting plume, and rotted quietly in my crumbling mortal frame with trickled tears of self-pity puddling in my lap. Voyaging through the inner space between my atoms and quivering to the rhythm of the Sphinx for the remainder of the journey, I reflected that I was without question somewhat blimped and skeeted. I disembarked with the other similarly crunked passengers, pausing only to vomit discreetly into one of a series of intricately carved ceremonial buckets placed thoughtfully for the purpose in the ticket hall.
The mysterious devotees of The Seven, faces concealed by the voluminous cowl hoods of their floor-length scarlet robes, next beckoned our assembly to join a silent torchilt procession winding through the darkened cobbled streets of Haworth. I cannot recall the details of our journey with any degree of reliable clarity, though I apparently elected at some point to shed the encumbrance of my clothes in favour of scooped dripping handfuls of sucking wet mud smeared about my pale skin for cover and a strange mask woven of plaited straw bound tightly to my head. Agog and twitching with blank terror, I came slowly to consciousness, swaying and muttering unfamiliar arcane incantantions amidst the hot feral stink of an oily nude throng. As my fuddled eyes adjusted to an ambient sulphurous glow that seemed to emanate from no distinct source, I perceived that we were evidently clustered about the large polished table in the dining room of the Parsoange. Familiar collection objects were arranged in ordered formation amongst outsized geodes and carefully ringed with salt – here a blackthorn walking stick, there a stack of handwritten manuscripts, Charlotte’s bracelet woven of Anne and Emily’s intertwined hair…the potato peeler! And the whole strewn with extravagant garlands of hensbane, lavender, belladonna and meat. Dimly visible dripping hieroglyphs crudely fingered in something akin to blood on the floral chintz walls commenced to flame with lilac fire as Diannic Wiccan High Priestess and celebrated clairvoyant Eugenia Splott stepped forward to throw back her hood and emit ear-splitting banshee wails quickly chorused by the remaining Six. And at once, filament tendrils of molten gold threaded about the congregation, straining ever upwards. The connective pulse of the tangled roots that lie beneath the foundations thrummed electric in our veins. We saw the rippling ceiling overhead spark and sudden blaze into swirling kaleidoscope fire. But the floorboards splintered and cracked to give way to a tide of mud churning and boiling and slow collapsing into a crumbling void. And our mouths were open and screaming but we could not hear it. We clawed in vain for purchase in a complete derangement of all of our senses as the floor fell away, and the foul pestiliential soil was is in our eyes and in our ears and in our nostrils as we tumbled to the abyss!
And it is here that any semblance of coherent memory gives way to gibberish and hallucination. I have supplied an artist’s impression of The Harrowing’s final manifestation, based on collected witness statements and my own scrambled recollections (possessed of a perturbing consistency), and leave you to draw your own conclusions. Whether the Brontë sisters did indeed pierce the veil to adopt the form of a monstrous serpentine necked three headed hydra remains something of a moot point. As fundraising commences to rebuild the near decimated Parsonage, we encourage literary enthusiasts to pledge what you can in support.
Reknowned polymath and beloved national treasure Sir Francis Spalding needs no introduction; famed for decades for a winning combination of acidulous camp and vivid bloodshot urgency in his writing for page and stage, he is less cultural commentator than firebrand intellectual adventurer. As Miskatonic University’s Emeritus Professor of Ectomplasmic Manifestation and Teleportation, his pioneering experiments have widened to build complex systems of interdimensional and interspecies communication, occupying territory somewhere between séance, string theory and horse whispering. Recent high-profile research residencies include Lund University Nose Collection, CERN (European Organisation for Nuclear Research), Brown Mountain College (Faculty of Ventriloquism and Experimental Magic) and the Icelandic Phallological Musuem. Spalding is well known for his work in experimental broadcasting, scooping the 2019 Peabody Innovation Award for his thought provoking Burn The Horse series, realised variously as podcast, holographic lecture stadium tour and cross-galaxy telepathic projection. His current blockbuster exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute shines a much needed light on the dwindling folk tradition of corn dolly manufacture in rural England. The Last Straw tours Europe throughout 2021/22, though infestation by a mysterious but virulent species of weevil during the Covd-19 crisis has laid waste to a number of the exhibits; perhaps the finest known examples of the Essex Ring Terret, Leomininster Fist and Cornish Neck were sadly lost to the scourge.