Romance Wanderlust: Norton Conyers, Inspiration for Thornfield

Romance Wanderlust - a yellowed and burnt edge map with a compass in the corner, with Romance Wanderlust written across itIt’s time for Romance Wanderlust, the column in which I find yet more reasons to leave my everyday cares behind and visit romantic locales instead. I haven’t been to any of these locations, so this is neither an endorsement nor a review – just daydreaming with the help of the Internet.

For those of us who love Victorian literature, there’s a new reason to head to England. Norton Conyers is finally re-opened to the public (for tours, not to stay in, alas). Its bookish claim to fame is that Charlotte Bronte based Thornfield Hall on this building. The claim was significantly bolstered when homeowners found a blocked staircase leading to a sparsely furnished room in the attic, which was not suspicious at all, no, sirree.

The first recorded owner of Norton Conyers was Richard Norton. He and his family supported Mary Queen of Scots and took part in a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I. The Rebellion failed, and Norton’s fate appears uncertain. According to tudorplace.com he fled to Flanders and died in exile. According to genuki.org.uk, he was executed.

In any case, the house passed on to the Musgraves and then, in 1624, to the Graham family. It has remained with the Graham family almost continuously since then.

The front view of the house, with a field of daffodils in the foreground

When the current baronet and his wife, Sir James and Lady Graham took ownership of the house, they decided to renovate and restore it. They had to fight a horrible infestation of deathwatch beetles, which certainly sounds as gothic as possible. They had to replace all the roofs and deal with centuries of garbage that builders had thrown under the house. The found crisp, unfaded wallpaper behind layers of plaster, and in 2004 they found the staircase that led to the secret room. Lady Graham was not, initially thrilled, since this meant she’d have to clean out a whole new room!

Charlotte Bronte visited Norton Conyers in 1839. At that time, it was already a historic site. During her visit, she was told that once upon a time, there was a madwoman who lived in the attic of the house. She loved the house, and used it as a model for Thornfield, including the plot device of a madwoman in the attic.

Today, guests can tour the house and see the secret stairs, although they are still too rickety to go up. The library has been decorated to look like Mr. Rochester’s study. You can have a wedding and/or reception in the 18th Century gardens, although preventing exposure of secret past and current marriages is completely up to you and your significant other.

gardens with a fountain in the center

To be honest, even though I adore Jane Eyre to the extent of slight fanaticism, I’m not sure this house is romantic so much as it’s beautiful and fascinating. Jane doesn’t have a happy ending at Thornfield. For her, Thornfield is a home, but also a place of mystery, a place where she has a broken heart, and a place of nightmares, blood, and fire. For Rochester, it’s a place where he’s tormented by fear, and for Bertha, it’s a place of imprisonment. By the time Thornfield burns down, it’s a relief.

Of course, if there’s an oak tree, which I can neither confirm nor deny, and I can talk my husband into making Rochester’s proposal speech, my feelings about the romantic elements of this house will alter dramatically. In the meantime, I’d love to see the gardens, the study, and the secret stairs, not to mention the rest of the house. It’s about a ninety-minute drive from the Bronte Museum and Parsonage, and would fit so very well with the trip of my dreams (a Bronte/Austen England trip, followed by Scotland). Since that trip isn’t coming any time soon, I’ll just look at more photos of the house while I wait.

Note: The opening times are limited (only a few weekends per year), payment is cash-only due to the unreliable rural internet, and only flat shoes (to protect the floors) are allowed. For more info, check out the house’s website. 

You can also read more about the house at Telegraphe UK here and here.

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