“Discover the pioneering 19th century life of early feminist Mary Taylor of Red House, friend and inspiration to Charlotte Brontë. Mary’s exceptional life included emigrating to New Zealand; starting a business; leading expeditions of women mountain climbing in Europe and writing radical feminist articles and books.” (It’s Happening …)
Back in December I visited Oakwell Hall in Birstall to look at the Christmas decorations and promised myself that I would follow up with a visit to the nearby Red House; which also has Brontë connections. In the ‘It’s Happening …’ leaflet which I picked up that day I noted a future exhibition to be mounted at Red House on the topic of its one-time inhabitant Mary Taylor. The exhibition runs from 2 March until 2 June.
No photography is allowed inside the house; but never mind it’s a bit disappointing anyway. Several times in the 1980s I brought my sons here as they laid on some good children’s craft workshops (and still do). For quite a few years it was closed for renovations and yesterday was my first visit since then.
I was told that the house has been returned as nearly as possible to how it would have looked in the 1830s; the time when Charlotte Brontë visited. Some furniture, pictures and fittings are original, or of the period, and the rest have been carefully copied; for example the ‘Brussels’ weave, looped pile carpet in the Parlour, window curtains and bed hangings in the Main Bedroom and wallpapers.
There are very few rooms to visit – The Parlour (left in photo) with waxworks of Mary Taylor (playing the piano) and her mother (stitching tapestry); the adjoining scullery and kitchen; across the hall (which serves as reception and shop) there is the dining room and a study (right in photo). Upstairs you can visit the Main Bedchamber (above the parlour), the Governess’ room and the Girl’s room.
The Taylors were a prosperous, middle class family and Joshua (a woollen cloth manufacturer and merchant) lived here with his wife Anne and their six children. Their daughter Mary (1817-1893) was a great friend of Charlotte Bronte, who often visited Red House and featured the house as ‘Briarmains’ and the Taylor family as ‘The Yorkes’ in her novel ‘Shirley’.
Perhaps the most interesting feature, to me, were the stained glass windows in the Dining Room with painted heads of William Shakespeare and John Milton. Charlotte Brontë describes in ‘Shirley‘.
“Those windows would be seen by daylight to be of brilliantly-stained glass – purple and amber the predominant hues, glittering round a gravely-tinted medallion in the centre of each representing the suave head of William Shakspeare, and the serene one of John Milton.” (Shirley Ch.9)
Mary Taylor (Photo source)
So, having almost galloped through the main house I spent quite some time in the Exhibition Gallery studying the fascinating life of this woman Mary Taylor. One hundred years after her death she is now gaining recognition through Charlotte Brontë’s descriptions, through her letters and through her own published works. Examples of her books were displayed (including modern reprints). She wrote “The First Duty of Women” and a novel “Miss Miles, or a tale of Yorkshire life 60 years ago”. She was a strong-minded woman intent on pursuing her own way of life and living by her own ideals. She was an early feminist and strongly believed in women having their own independence.
She attended Roe Head School near Mirfield (where she met CB) and later The Chateau de Koekelberg in Brussels. She taught in Germany and I was surprised to read that in 1845 she emigrated to New Zealand and was one of its earliest settlers. There she owned a successful shop. She returned to Britain in 1860 and spent the rest of her life in nearby Gomersal. That is, when she wasn’t being a woman after my own heart and leading women’s mountaineering holidays in Switzerland! “Swiss Notes by Five Ladies : an Account of Climbing and Touring in 1874″ was reprinted with a supplement by Peter A. Marshall and Jean K. Brown.
The Secret’s Out with Spen Valley Stories (right)
So that was the house … but there is more. In the converted stables and outbuildings are two more displays. The Secret’s Out all about the Brontë connection with Red House and its local area and Spen Valley Stories : “Everyday community life through a century of change is illustrated through personal stories – displays include Schooldays; Working Lives; At Home; Freetime and Shopping.”
I didn’t have time to investigate these but I will be definitely go back, so watch this space!
Back of The Red House from the main road