In Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Thornfield Hall is home to the novel's Byronic hero, Mr Rochester. It's here that Jane comes to work as a governess to his young ward, Adèle. The house represents a 'field of thorns' that our heroine must traverse, but it's also her first true home and one of the most important settings in the novel. And although Thornfield Hall was a fictitious creation, there's evidence to suggest it was based it on a real place, if not several different places.
I recently had the opportunity to visit North Lees Hall and Norton Conyers, two houses claiming to be the original Thornfield. Both houses boast a connection to the author: Charlotte visited North Lees while staying with her school friend Ellen Nussey in Hathersage and she came to tour Norton Conyers when she was working as a governess in nearby Skipton. And at first glance, both houses match the description in the novel: "It was three stories high, of proportions not vast, though considerable: a gentleman's manor-house, not a nobleman's seat: battlements round the top gave it a picturesque look."
But on further inspection, Norton Conyers seems to match more of the features mentioned in the text: a sunken fence, an area once used as a rookery and most notably, an attic room, where a 'madwoman' was kept in the 18th Century. Just over the battlements on the north side of the house, there's a small, round window belonging to the attic room.
Home to Sir James and Lady Graham, this late medieval manor house has belonged to the noble Graham family since 1624. Not open to the public, the property is currently undergoing major restorations in preparation for a 2013 opening. And it was during some of these recent renovations that workers uncovered a hidden staircase leading to the attic.
The steps lead to the third floor, through a maze of empty attic rooms and to a small room at the back of the house. It's here that a mentally ill woman was kept away from public view. It's not known whether the woman was member of the family or a servant, but the room tells the tragic story of her life.
In the novel, Charlotte Brontë describes Mrs Rochester living in a window-less room, so the Norton Conyers room isn't a perfect match. While visiting the house, Charlotte probably wouldn't have seen the attic, but she would have heard stories of the house's 'madwoman'.