Virginia Woolf’s Journey To Haworth, 1904

Today is a sad day for Brontë lovers worldwide, as we affectionately remember Charlotte Brontë, who died on this day in 1855 in particularly tragic circumstances – when she was looking forward to bringing a child into the world. Tragedy, of course, appears all too frequently in the Brontë story, and in the stories of some of their most celebrated fans.

One of the sure signs of the brilliance of the writing of Anne Brontë and her sisters is that their legacy is an enduring, and still growing, one. They inspire readers across the globe to pick up their brilliant novels and poems, but throughout the years they’ve also inspired numerous writers of the very highest calibre.

Sylvia Plath, for example, wrote a magnificent poem entitled ‘Wuthering Heights’ describing the spiritual feeling she gained from walking on Haworth’s moors. Born in Massachusetts, she is now buried in a churchyard in Heptonstall, just nine miles from Haworth.

Sylvia Plath Wuthering Heights
Sylvia Plath’s Wuthering Heights

Sylvia was a giant of twentieth century poetry who left us too soon, and she shared a love of the Brontës with the woman we’re going to look at now: perhaps the greatest of all twentieth century writers, a genius who revolutionised the novel, and an equally tragic figure: Virginia Woolf.

This week marked the 78th anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s death, as she passed from this world on the 28th March, 1941. Her friend and fellow literary ground breaker T.S.Eliot, upon hearing the news, said: ‘For myself and others it is the end of the world, I feel quite numb.’

Woolf and Eliot
TS Eliot with Virginia Woolf, and his wife Valerie

Virginia’s legacy was large and varied, but universally brilliant, and from Mrs. Ramsay of ‘To The Lighthouse’ to Clarissa Dalloway and the gender swapping, time defying, Orlando, she often takes a brilliant and powerful look at the role of women in society. Perhaps this is one thing that she took from the Brontës.

Virginia Woolf would also have been aware of the difficulties the Brontës initially had in finding a publisher, and how they had to pay to have their first books published. Virginia didn’t encounter this problem, but as she became more celebrated and more confident in her talents, she hated being censored and edited by her publishers. It was this that led her, with her husband Leonard Woolf, to found the Hogarth Press in 1917. Virginia Woolf could now publish her own books without having to see parts struck out by editors who hadn’t any of the genius that she had, but she also used it to publish works by some of the most important authors of the century, including the aforementioned Eliot, E.M. Forster and Laurens van der Post.

Charlotte by Vanessa Bell
A drawing of Charlotte Bronte by Virginia Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell

The very first work that Virginia Woolf had accepted for publication was rather different to the work she would become known throughout the world for. Published in 1904 by the Manchester Guardian it is an account of a literary pilgrimage to the home of the authors who she loved and who inspired her: the Brontës. This is an important literary moment, but an interesting historical document as well; this is before the Brontë Parsonage Museum was opened (although there was already a little museum elsewhere in the village), and we see a very different Haworth to the one we know today – a dark, grimy one much more like the one that Anne, Charlotte and Emily would have known. I leave you now with 22 year old Virginia Woolf’s brilliantly written account of her journey to Haworth, and on this day let’s remember Virginia, Sylvia and Charlotte fondly:

“I do not know whether pilgrimages to the shrines of famous men ought not to be condemned as sentimental journeys. It is better to read Carlyle in your own study chair than to visit the sound-proof room and pore over the manuscripts at Chelsea. I should be inclined to set up an examination on Frederick the Great in place of an entrance fee; only, in that case, the house would soon have to be shut up. The curiosity is only legitimate when the house of a great writer or the country in which it is set adds something to our understanding of his books. This justification you have for a pilgrimage to the home and country of Charlotte Brontë and her sisters.

The Life, by Mrs Gaskell, gives you the impression that Haworth and the Brontës are somehow inextricably mixed. Haworth expresses the Brontës; the Brontës express Haworth; they fit like a snail to its shell. How far surroundings radically affect people’s minds, it is not for me to ask: superficially, the influence is great, but it is worth asking if the famous parsonage had been placed in a London slum, the dens of Whitechapel would not have had the same result as the lonely Yorkshire moors. However, I am taking away my only excuse for visiting Haworth. Unreasonable or not, one of the chief points of a recent visit to Yorkshire was that an expedition to Haworth could be accomplished. The necessary arrangements were made, and we determined to take advantage of the first day for our expedition. A real northern snowstorm had been doing the honours of the moors. It was rash to wait fine weather, and it was also cowardly. I understand that the sun very seldom shone on the Brontë family, and if we chose a really fine day we should have to make allowance for the fact that fifty years ago there were few fine days at Haworth, and that we were, therefore, for sake of comfort, rubbing out half the shadows on the picture. However, it would be interesting to see what impression Haworth could make upon the brilliant weather of Settle. We certainly passed through a very cheerful land, which might be likened to a vast wedding cake, of which the icing was slightly undulating; the earth was bridal in its virgin snow, which helped to suggest the comparison.

Virginia Stephen by George Beresford
Virginia Stephen (later Woolf) at around the time she visited Haworth

Keighley – pronounced Keethly – is often mentioned in the Life; it was the big town four miles from Haworth in which Charlotte walked to make her more important purchases – her wedding gown, perhaps, and the thin little cloth boots which we examined under glass in the Brontë Museum. It is a big manufacturing town, hard and stony, and clattering with business, in the way of these Northern towns. They make small provision for the sentimental traveller, and our only occupation was to picture the slight figure of Charlotte trotting along the streets in her thin mantle, hustled into the gutter by more burly passers-by. It was the Keighley of her day, and that was some comfort. Our excitement as we neared Haworth had in it an element of suspense that was really painful, as though we were to meet some long-separated friend, who might have changed in the interval – so clear an image of Haworth had we from print and picture. At a certain point we entered the valley, up both sides of which the village climbs, and right on the hill-top, looking down over its parish, we saw the famous oblong tower of the church. This marked the shrine at which we were to do homage.

It may have been the effect of a sympathetic imagination, but I think that there were good reasons why Haworth did certainly strike one not exactly as gloomy, but, what is worse for artistic purposes, as dingy and commonplace. The houses, built of yellow-brown stone, date from the early nineteenth century. They climb the moor step by step in little detached strips, some distance apart, so that the town instead of making one compact blot on the landscape has contrived to get a whole stretch into its clutches. There is a long line of houses up the moor-side, which clusters round the church and parsonage with a little clump of trees. At the top the interest for a Brontë lover becomes suddenly intense. The church, the parsonage, the Brontë Museum, the school where Charlotte taught, and the Bull Inn where Branwell drank are all within a stone’s throw of each other. The museum is certainly rather a pallid and inanimate collection of objects. An effort ought to be made to keep things out of these mausoleums, but the choice often lies between them and destruction, so that we must be grateful for the care which has preserved much that is, under any circumstances, of deep interest. Here are many autograph letters, pencil drawings, and other documents. But the most touching case – so touching that one hardly feels reverent in one’s gaze – is that which contains the little personal relics of the dead woman. The natural fate of such things is to die before the body that wore them, and because these, trifling and transient though they are, have survived, Charlotte Brontë the woman comes to life, and one forgets the chiefly memorable fact that she was a great writer. Her shoes and her thin muslin dress have outlived her. One other object gives a thrill; the little oak stool which Emily carried with her on her solitary moorland tramps, and on which she sat, if not to write, as they say, to think what was probably better than her writing.

Haworth's graveyard
Haworth’s graveyard made a big impression on Virginia Woolf

The church, of course, save part of the tower, is renewed since Brontë days; but that remarkable churchyard remains. The old edition of the Life had on its title-page a little print which struck the keynote of the book; it seemed to be all graves – gravestones stood ranked all round; you walked on a pavement lettered with dead names; the graves had solemnly invaded the garden of the parsonage itself, which was as a little oasis of life in the midst of the dead. This is no exaggeration of the artist’s, as we found: the stones seem to start out of the ground at you in tall, upright lines, like and army of silent soldiers. there is no hand’s breadth untenanted; indeed, the economy of space is somewhat irreverent. In old days a flagged path, which suggested the slabs of graves, led from the front door of the parsonage to the churchyard without interruption of wall or hedge; the garden was practically the graveyard too; the successors of the Brontës, however, wishing a little space between life and death, planted a hedge and several tall trees, which now cut off the parsonage garden completely. The house itself is precisely the same as it was in Charlotte’s day, save that one new wing has been added. It is easy to shut the eye to this, and then you have the square, boxlike parsonage, built of the ugly yellow-brown stone which they quarry from the moors behind, precisely as it was when Charlotte lived and died there. Inside, of course, the changes are many, though not such as to obscure the original shape of the rooms. There is nothing remarkable in a mid-Victorian parsonage, though tenanted by genius, and the only room which awakens curiosity is the kitchen, now used as an ante-room, in which the girls tramped as they conceived their work. One other spot has a certain grim interest – the oblong recess beside the staircase into which Emily drove her bulldog during the famous fight, and pinned him while she pommelled him. It is otherwise a little sparse parsonage, much like others of its kind. It was due to the courtesy of the present incumbent that we were allowed to inspect it; in his place I should often feel inclined to exorcise the three famous ghosts.

One thing only remained: the church in which Charlotte worshipped, was married, and lies buried. The circumference of her life was very narrow. Here, though much is altered, a few things remain to tell of her. The slab which bears the names of the succession of children and of their parents – their births and deaths – strikes the eye first. Name follows name; at very short intervals they died – Maria the mother, Maria the daughter, Elizabeth, Branwell, Emily, Anne, Charlotte, and lastly the old father, who outlived them all. Emily was only thirty years old, and Charlotte but nine years older. ‘The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law, but thanks be to God which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ That is the inscription which has been placed beneath their names, and with reason; for however harsh the struggle, Emily, and Charlotte above all, fought to victory.”

The First Brontë Biography: Jottings By W.P.P.

As you’d expect, I love biographies of the Brontës, and of writers in general, and I have many favourites (especially the series by Winifred Gerin). One biography that has special importance in many eyes is ‘The Life Of Charlotte Brontë‘ by Elizabeth Gaskell, and tomorrow, the 25th of March, marks the 162nd anniversary of its publication. It’s special because it was written by a woman who knew Charlotte well, and a great writer in her own right; it’s also the first ever biography of the Brontës, published just two years after Charlotte Brontë’s death. Everyone knows this, but in fact this last point isn’t true.

Whilst deep in research for the Charlotte and Ellen book I’m working on last week, I came across a fascinating notice in the Monmouthshire Merlin – it’s for a biography of the Brontë sisters called ‘Jottings on Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell’, and the review dates from May 1856, a year before Elizabeth Gaskell’s book.

Jottings On Currer Ellis and Acton Bell Monmouthshire Merlin 17 May 56
Jottings On Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell review, Monmouthshire Merlin 17 May 1856

This then is the first ever Brontë biography, but the author remains mysterious as he (I deduce it’s a ‘he’ from a particular section we’ll come to later) goes only by the initials of ‘W.P.P.’ Having discovered the existence of this book, I had of course to track it down. I did so, and read it, and a very enlightening read it is too – some of it is filler, some of it is plain wrong, some of it is bizarre, some of it is beautiful, but it does contain some interesting information I’ve not seen elsewhere. I think it’s time, for all its faults and fascinations, to delve into W.P.P.’s jottings!

Opening Notice

The author provides a strange opening ‘notice’ to the biography, in which they say that they had to write it as quickly as possible, and haven’t even had time to proof read it! Nevertheless, the Monmouthshire Merlin reported it had good reviews and sales. The book is brief, and much of it is taken up by excerpts from Charlotte’s ‘biographical notice’ of her sisters, and with Brontë prose and poetry. Here is the peculiar preface that isn’t guaranteed to build confidence:

“These pages following were written in the intervals of engrossing pursuits – pursuits that left us in little time for “jotting”, or, in fact, for any other employment. We were thus obliged to throw off sheet after sheet as quickly as we could; rapidity being the chief object… we have scarcely had time to correct the proof-sheets as they were handed to us from the printers.”

Jottings frontispiece
Jottings frontispiece

Great Love For The Ladies

“We frankly confess to a great love for the three ladies whose pseudonyms grace the head of this page [this is the opening line of ‘Jottings of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell”]; yet we trust that we have not suffered this love to influence our judgment in the following notice. Some years ago the writer of this paper was gossiping with some literary friends, when the conversation chance to turn on Currer Bell. We then heard the name for the first time, and felt sore ashamed of our ignorance, which we determined should not be abiding… If there be any who are, as we were, without a knowledge of their writings, let them do as we did, and we promise them, they will award us thanks with no sparing hand, for having drawn their attention to such a hidden treasure.”

Jottings opening
Jottings opening page, note the footnote explanation of the Bronte name.

Patrick In Penzance

“Many years ago, the Reverend Patrick Brontë – then living at Penzance – married, against the wishes of his friends, a very delicate young lady, in whose constitution the seeds of that English plague – consumption – were already sown broad-cast, soon to bring forth fruit a hundred-fold.”

[This is the biggest mistake in the biography, Patrick never travelled to Penzance, and met Maria in Leeds; there is no evidence she had consumption, and it is unlikely that Patrick’s friends would have felt this was anything other than an excellent match]

Harriet Martineau On Charlotte After The Deaths Of Her Siblings

“In her deep mourning dress (neat as a Quaker’s), with her beautiful hair, smooth and brown, her fine eyes blazing with meaning, and her sensible face indicating a habit of self-control, if not of silence, she seemed a perfect household image – irresistibly recalling Wordsworth’s depiction of that domestic treasure. And she was this. She was able at the needle as the pen. The household knew the excellence of her cookery before they heard of that of her books.”

Harriet Martineau
Harriet Martineau, Charlotte Bronte’s friend and woman of letters

[This is fascinating, as we hear somebody who knew Charlotte well describing her as beautiful and as a 19th century domestic goddess, qualities we never, seemingly erroneously, associate with her today.]

Arthur Bell Nicholls, Literary Man

“The latter end of the year 1854, Charlotte Brontë married the Rev. A. B. Nicholls, her father’s curate, and, we believe, an occasional Edinburgh reviewer.”

[Another fascinating insight – was Arthur Bell Nicholls really a reviewer for The Edinburgh Review, using a pseudonym? W.P.P, who we heard earlier mixed in literary circles, certainly believed this to be the case, and it shows Arthur as a literary man, something entirely unknown today]

Arthur Bell Nicholls, 200 today
Was Arthur Bell Nicholls really a secret reviewer for a leading magazine?

The Importance Of ‘Jane Eyre’

“Jane Eyre caused a revolution that shook to its centre the very stronghold of King Antiquated Twaddle.”

Charlotte The Anti-Feminist

“Currer Bell was one who detested, as much as any one, those who would seek to drag woman from her own place, and put her in a man’s – thus destroying her most heaven-born attributes, but still she strove, as much as in her lay, to free her sex from those foolish conventionalities that bind women to worthless pursuit, or trammel them with absurd restrictions and inane “proprieties,” as they are misnomered.”

[W.P.P. redeems himself a little with the latter lines, but we couldn’t agree with their opening statement. It’s this, I think, that proves the author was a man.]

A Reputation Built On Rock

“The Bells were highly educated, and their minds were, necessarily, well trained; of their innate purity, there can be no doubt. And, to our minds, they evidenced their true modesty most forcibly. By writing freely and truthfully on all subjects, whether they were what Mrs. Grundy – detestable old bugbear! – would call delicate, or not. Such an honest proceeding would, of course, bring down on them the puny attacks of tiny controversialists; but the reputation of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell is built, not on the sand, but on the rock; and no feeble attempt of still feebler minds would, or could, shake it one tittle.”

[W.P.P. is back in the good books here, with a strident defence of the Brontës against any critics.]

An Increasing Evil

“And now an unpleasant task devolves upon us. Hitherto we have only had to quote eloquent words, or beautiful images of speech; but now we have to play the censor, though we trust we shall not be censorious. The indiscriminate use of foreign language in novels is a prevalent, and we fear, an increasing evil, in the present day… ‘Tis quite sickening. You cannot take up a novel without being stared in the face by whole pages of French, or German, or Italian… Currer Bell makes some of her characters speak French, paragraph after paragraph. Now, as it is an English book, why not say they spoke in French, but that she translated it?”

[To be fair, having struggled with huge sections of French in ‘Villette’ and ‘The Professor’, the author may have a fair point here, even if he does put it a little too vehemently.]

In Praise Of Emily

“Ellis Bell, in ‘Wuthering Heights’, has produced some wondrous characters… As Currer says, some may not consider it advisable to create such a being as Heathcliff; but he, or she, who has the power to do so, is as a god among the writers.”

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Biography

“We would beg to remind you all what a treat is in store for us, since Messrs. Nicholson and Brontë – the husband and father of Charlotte Brontë – have commissioned Mrs. Gaskell, – the talented authoress of ‘Ruth’, ‘Mary Barton’, and, more recently, ‘North And South’, – to write a Biography of Currer Bell, which will, we trust, soon be forthcoming.”

Jottings ending
Before ‘Old Hal’s’ poem, W.P.P. concludes the book with Anne Bronte’s final poem, ‘Last Lines’

What, then, do we make of W.P.P.’s Brontë biography? It’s a product of its time, definitely, but that time was the time of the Brontës – it’s a contemporary voice, and that makes it important. The author has made a number of errors simply because he lacked the information that Gaskell and later biographers had, but his love of the subject shines through. Jottings finishes with the work of another writer under a disguise – one called only ‘Old Hal’. W.P.P writes, “To conclude we give a poem on the Bell sisters, written by one who herself has the spirit of poetry, which shone so brilliantly in them. This is not the only kindness ‘Old Hall’ has rendered us during the preparations of these ‘Jottings’. For this and all others, we take the opportunity of thanking her. May she and hers ever enjoy all they deserve. We indeed “read a power within her soul,” as she herself says, and hope that, in justice to herself and others, she will make it manifest. W.P.P.”
Hal, as in Shakespeare’s plays, is usually short for Harry, but Old Hal is revealed as a woman – it could only therefore be a Harriet; could it be Harriet Martineau, who is earlier quoted within the book? We will never know W.P.P. or Old Hal, but their words can still be discovered, and I leave you now with Old Hal’s poetic tribute to the Brontës:

“Sisters! Your’s the magic art,
To fix the eye, to chain the heart;
To waken mirth, or grief, or rage
As bending o’er your wondrous page,
We read a power within your soul;
A mind that could not brook control,
And list’ning to that master tone.
In its existence lose our own.
Pondering on your chosen name,
O’er my soul a fancy came;
The power that in your writing swells,
Seems to me like distant bells.
Deep, and clear, bursts forth their sound,
Waking mirth, and joy around;
Distant now, and softer sighing,
Tolling faintly, sadly dying.
Ye too must die! Though to the grave,
Laurels bright your footpaths pave,
Fading slowly, one by one,
Sinking like the setting sun,
Ye pass away! But lives the page,
Handed down from age to age.
Yours the never dying name,
Blazon’d on the scroll of fame!”

Views Of Patrick Brontë, On His Birthday

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you all. It has long been tradition in Ireland to name boys born on this day after the great snake scaring saint, and so it came to pass that on 17th March 1777 a baby born in Emdale, County Down was named Patrick. We would come to know him as Patrick Brontë, father of the greatest writing family the world has ever seen.

In my opinion Patrick’s influence for the good on his children, and therefore on their later work, cannot be underestimated, so it’s good to see special tribute being paid to him in the Brontë Parsonage Museum this year. Thanks to reports contained within Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë (originating from the testimony of one former and short serving maid Martha Wright), however, some may still think of him as being strict, bad tempered or cold emotionally.

Patrick Bronte's cottage
The Bronte cottage, County Down where Patrick was born on this day 1777

In today’s post, I’m simply going to let others speak about Patrick Brontë – those who knew him, and who saw a very different man to the one that Gaskell portrayed.

Ellen Nussey on Patrick Brontë

‘The anecdote of the little coloured shoes produced a mental sting that no time would obliterate and I felt that all commonplace readers would fail to see the Spartan nature of the act unless you [Ellen was here writing to Elizabeth Gaskell after seeing a draft of the biography] pointed it out to them, and I was intending to ask you to make very clear and distinct comments on Mr. B’s character – I do not wish anything you have said suppressed, only I think your readers will have to be taught to think kindly of Mr. B’

Nancy Garrs on Patrick Brontë

‘”Mr. Brontë was one the kindest husbands I ever knew, except my own, and an Irishman, as you will know Mr. Brontë was. When one of the young ladies told him I was going to be married he came into the kitchen and said, in his pleasantest way, ‘Why, Nancy, it true you are going to marry a Pat?’ ‘Yes, sir,’ I replied, ‘it is, and if he only proves a tenth as kind a husband as you are, I shall think myself very happy in having made a Pat my choice.’ And I have been happy,” she added to us [former Brontë servant Nancy de Garrs was here talking to a Leeds Mercury reporter]. “My husband is just one of the best men that ever lived; we never have had a word!” “Not one, Nancy?” I exclaimed. “No, not one,” she answered, in her positive way. “Then you think Mr. Brontë was not hot-tempered as represented by Mrs. Gaskell,” we said. “Passionate!” exclaimed Nancy; “why he was just the opposite. I well remember one summer morning came into the kitchen and he asked me to clean his boots, as he was going to Thornton. Being bothered about some other matters, I forgot. So when Mr. Brontë called for his boots they were not touched; but he did not fly into a passion: in fact, he did not say a word, he just put on his hat and walked all the way to Thornton and back in his slippers!”‘

Photograph of Patrick Bronte
Patrick Bronte in old age

‘A kinder man than Mr. Brontë never drew breath.’ [from an interview in the Pall Mall Gazette]

Leeds Intelligencer reporter, February 1837

‘Though he is far advanced in years, and has suffered much from ill health, he displayed his pristine energies and faithfulness. That his life and service in his place may be long continued, is the fervent prayer of every churchman.’

Eliza Kingston on Patrick Brontë

‘I had a letter from my Uncle Brontë last June. He says he was in his 83rd year, but, though feeble, was still able to preach once on Sunday, and sometimes to take occasional duty; his son-in-law, Mr. Nicholls will continue with him. He says strangers still continue to call, but he converses little with them, but keeps himself as quiet as he can. I understand the Brontës were beloved in their own neighbourhood.’ [Eliza was his niece in Cornwall, who Patrick was in correspondence with long after the death of his family in Haworth]

The respect that Patrick was held in is also shown in a report into his funeral in 1862. Patrick had left clear instructions that he wanted neither pomp nor ceremony, but he left this world surrounded by the simplicity of love:

‘Our correspondent informs us that on his early arrival at the village the shops were universally closed, and the silence and solemnity that reigned around showed the deep estimation in which the venerable incumbent was held. At the time the procession was formed hundreds of people were congregated in the church-yard from distant villages around, and upon the arrival at the church ut was found that every pew and available space within that venerable edifice was occupied by an orderly and well-conducted and apparently sorrow-stricken concourse… Not a bell was tolled nor a psalm sung. Everything connected with the funeral was truly simple and unostentatious… The sublime and touching burial service was read amid the audible sobs of the surrounding crowd, by the vicar of Bradford. The Rev A.B. Nicholls appeared to be deeply affected and was supported from the grave to the parsonage by the Rev Dr Cartman.’

If you’re in the mood to read more on Patrick, then I recommend this superb blog post by Nicola Friar that takes an in depth look at his background and his importance in the Brontë story. Also this week, I recommend you take a look at this excellent and informative video blog which gives us a fresh, and important, new look at Anne Brontë’s ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall.’

Haworth church at the time of the Brontes
Haworth church at the time of Patrick’s burial service

Having done that we have time to relax, or to jig about celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, but we also have time to say, ‘Happy 242nd birthday, Patrick Brontë!’

Charlotte And Ellen, And Great Literary Friendships

I’m absolutely thrilled to announce that I will have a new book out in 2020. Provisionally titled ‘Charlotte & Ellen’ it will be published by The History Press, and it will look at the fascinating life of Ellen Nussey, and particularly at her friendship with Charlotte and the rest of the Brontës. Research is going well, and I’m looking forward to travelling to Birstall, Gomersal, Haworth and Hathersage in the next few weeks – I’ve already uncovered some fascinating facts about both Ellen and Charlotte that aren’t in any other book. With this in mind, today is a great day to look at some famous literary friendships, from Johnson to Austen and from Brontë to, er, Brontë.

Charlotte & Ellen by Nick Holland

Samuel Johnson and James Boswell

Samuel Johnson is most famous as the Dr. Johnson who wrote his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755. It wasn’t the first dictionary, as is often thought, but it was certainly the most comprehensive at the time. Johnson spent seven years working on it (is it just me that thinks of Baldrick burning the dictionary in Blackadder at this point?), but he wasn’t always such a methodical worker – he wrote his most celebrated novel ‘Raselas’ in just one week to raise money for his mother’s funeral. He also wrote plays, poetry, literary criticism, works of philosophy, religious sermons and travel books before his death aged 75 in 1784.

Johnson and Boswell
Contemporary caricature of Johnson and Boswell

In 1763 he met the 9th Laird of Auchinleck and instantly formed a strong friendship that would be instrumental to his work in the last two decades of his life. Auchinleck is better known as James Boswell, and his journey with Johnson a year later was the subject of the latter’s book ‘A Journey To The Western Islands Of Scotland’. Boswell later wrote about his great friend in ‘The Life Of Samuel Johnson’, which many people have claimed is the greatest biography ever penned.

Jane Austen and Cassandra Austen

Cassandra Austen was Jane Austen’s lifelong companion, as well as her elder sister. Cassandra was a talented artist specialising in water colours, but of course she could be in little doubt as to where the great talent and genius in her family lay. Cassandra and Jane were incredibly close to each other, possibly because they were the only girls among six brothers. It’s thanks to Cassandra that Jane went to school in 1785, as she was so heartbroken at the potential loss of her big sister that their parents had to let both go together. Their mother commented that, ‘if Cassandra’s head had been going to be cut off, Jane would have hers cut off too.’

Cassandra Austen
A possible portrait of Cassandra Austen

In adult life Jane and Cassandra were equally inseparable, and from 1809 until Jane’s death in 1817 they lived together in a cottage on the beautiful Chawton estate which had been gifted to their brother Edward. Cassandra’s emotional support was always there, and it was this that helped Jane conquer setbacks in her personal and writing life, enabling her to claim a position as one of the world’s most loved creators of fiction.

Anne Brontë and Emily Brontë

Anne and Emily were the two youngest of the six Brontë siblings, and just like Jane and Cassandra Austen these two sisters would also become the closest of friends. Ellen Nussey, who we will come to in a moment, described their closeness more than once, and in one particularly lovely description (typical of Ellen’s fluid and romantic writing style) she said: ‘She [Emily Brontë] and gentle Anne were often seen twined together as united statues of power and humility – they were to be seen with their arms lacing each other in their younger days whenever their occupation permitted their union.’

Anne and Emily Bronte in 1834
Anne and Emily Bronte, together in the pillar portrait by Branwell

Anne and Emily fuelled each other’s creativity from their earliest days, creating their own fictional land of Gondal and later, fittingly, having their books ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Agnes Grey’ published together.

Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey

As you now know, I’ll be saying much more about these two next year – but it’s safe to say that Ellen Nussey played a huge role in Charlotte’s life, and the stability that Ellen’s friendship brought to her life helped give Charlotte the courage and indefatigability she has become renowned for – the courage to create works of incredible genius. Charlotte herself summed up perfectly what Ellen Nussey meant to her in a letter to W.S. Williams on 3rd January 1850. I will leave you with her words, and raise a toast to Samuel and James, Jane and Cassandra, Emily and Anne, Charlotte and Ellen, and to friends the world over:

‘Friendship however is a plant which cannot be forced – true friendship is no gourd springing in a night and withering in a day. When I first saw Ellen I did not care for her – we were schoolfellows – in the course of time we learnt each others faults and good points. We were contrasts, still we suited – affection was first a germ, then a sapling, then a strong tree: now, no new friend, however lofty or profound in intellect, not even Miss Martineau herself, could be to me what Ellen is, yet she is no more than a conscientious, observant, calm, well-bred Yorkshire girl. She is without romance – if she attempts to read poetry or poetic prose aloud I am irritated and deprive her of the book; if she talks of it I stop my ears. But she is good – she is true – she is faithful and I love her.’

The Incredible Life Of Brontë Friend Mary Taylor

This has been a momentous week of anniversaries for Mary Taylor, for the 26th of February 1817 marked her birth, whilst the 1st of March 1893 saw her death. It was a long life for the times, and a very eventful one – she is most known today as one of the two great friends of Charlotte Brontë (along with Ellen Nussey), but she also became a businesswoman, a travel writer, an ardent feminist and a novelist in her own right. This, then, seems the perfect time to remember the real Mary Taylor.

Mary Taylor
Mary Taylor in old age, she was described as beautiful when young

Mary was born in Gomersal in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and her family the Taylors were on the rise. They were heavily involved in the production of red cloth that was used in British military uniforms, and as the Napoleonic wars and subsequent conflicts raged, this proved to be very lucrative indeed. The family lived in the Red House, which was until recently a wonderful museum (that’s a picture from inside it at the head of this post), and they even operated their own bank there.

The Red House
The Taylor home, the Red House in Gomersal

In January 1831, Mary Taylor was sent to Roe Head School, recently opened in the nearby town of Mirfield. She found there a fellow pupil she already knew, from the neighbouring village of Birstall, and from a similar mercantile family: Ellen Nussey. These two soon formed a close bond with another pupil there who was from a very different background; this young woman was a year older than them, small, painfully shy and from a considerably less wealthy background – there was something about her, however, that grabbed your attention; even aged 15 it was obvious that here was a woman of truly unique character and talents, it was of course Charlotte Brontë.

Mary was always honest and a plain talker, and this showed in her description of Charlotte upon her arrival at Roe Head:

“She looked a little, old woman, so short-sighted that she always appeared to be seeking something, and moving her head from side to side to catch sight of it. She was very shy and nervous, and spoke with a strong Irish accent.”

Nevertheless, she and Charlotte soon became firm friends, and Mary often visited the Brontë parsonage in Haworth, after which she famously gave this description of the Brontë sisters:

“I told her [Charlotte] sometimes they were like growing potatoes in a cellar.”

A far better analogy in my mind is that they were mining for diamonds in the dark, but this comment should not be taken as a slight on Mary’s part, who loved the sisters dearly, but rather the difference in their personalities. Mary was not a home lover, never content to simply sit and read, she was a woman who from an early age was in search of adventure. It was this that took her, in the company of her younger sister Martha, to Europe after the sudden death of her father in December 1840. It was found at this point that his wealth had been built on promises, and he left a series of debts behind him, but Mary and Martha still had enough to install them in the prestigious Chateau de Koekelberg finishing school in Brussels.

Mary’s letters to Charlotte at this time fired Charlotte’s imagination, and were the driving force behind her decision to strike out for Brussels herself, in company with Emily Brontë, ostensibly to learn skills that would allow her to form their own school after their return to Haworth. Charlotte was delighted to see the Taylor sisters again, but tragedy struck when Martha Taylor suddenly sickened and died. Charlotte loved Martha greatly, as we can see from the affectionate portrait of her in ‘Shirley’ as Jessie Yorke. Mary herself is Rose Yorke in ‘Shirley‘. Martha’s funeral service, attended by Mary, Charlotte and Emily is remembered very movingly within this novel:

“Certain people who had that day performed a pilgrimage to a grave new-made in a heretic cemetery, sat near a wood-fire on the hearth of a foreign dwelling. They were merry and social, but they each knew that a gap, never to be filled, had been made in their circle. They knew they had lost something whose absence could never be quite atoned for so long as they lived; and they knew that heavy falling rain was soaking into the wet earth which covered their lost darling; and that the sad, sighing gale was mourning above her buried head. The fire warmed them; Life and Friendship yet blessed them; but Jessie lay cold, confined, solitary – only the sod screening her from the storm.”

Charlotte’s tribute to Martha can be seen at the foot of the grave in Gomersal churchyard that serves for both Mary and Martha Taylor; it reads, ‘Martha Taylor – much loved she was, much loving. C Brontë.’

Taylor grave, Gomersal
The Taylor grave, Gomersal

Martha’s death was devastating for both Charlotte and Mary, who after Brussels continued her travels by becoming a teacher in Germany. Mary could not yet return home to live in Yorkshire, it was full of memories of her father’s fall, of her dead sister. In 1845 Mary made the decision to emigrate to Wellington, New Zealand, where her brother Waring Taylor had moved three years later. This was another terrible blow for Charlotte who realised that her chances of seeing her friend again were now very slim. With her usual brilliance at finding the right words, Charlotte wrote of this loss in words that many of us can feel empathy with:

“To me it is something as if a great planet fell out of the sky.”

Charlotte sent Mary ten pounds (worth well in excess of a thousand pounds in today’s money) to buy a cow, and in 1849 she founded her own business. Mary’s cousin Ellen Taylor had by this time emigrated to Wellington too, and they founded a draper’s shop together that proved to be highly successful. In 1851, however, Ellen Taylor died from tuberculosis, and towards the end of that decade Mary sold the business and returned to Gomersal, having first endured the terrible Wellington earthquake of 1855 that destroyed so much of the growing city. It was too late to see her old friend again however, as by the time Mary landed back on English soil in 1859, all of the Brontë siblings were dead.

Wellington 1855
Wellington, New Zealand at the time Mary lived there

Mary returned to Gomersal a woman of independent wealth, and she lived in High Royd, a grand building owned by her brother Joseph. She travelled extensively across Europe again over the next few years, and took particular delight in Switzerland, where she often went climbing in the Alps.

Mary Taylor mountaineering 1874
Mary Taylor (far left) in Switzerland 1874 (from the Red House Museum collection)

She ‘adopted’ a series of Swiss sisters who came to work as maids for her in Gomersal, and she also formed a close bond with a woman called Grace Hirst who many saw as a kind of daughter to her (although others thought their closeness was scandalous). Mary loved nothing more than being in female company, and became regarded as an eccentric, although one with a brilliant mind.

In the 1860s she began to write journalism, and she was passionate about social inequality and particularly about the rights of women. It was this subject that formed the basis of a series of articles published by ‘Victoria Magazine’ between 1866 and 1877. Collected together as ‘The First Duty Of Women’ they place Mary as a Victorian pioneer of feminism.

Even in later life, Mary Taylor showed no signs of slowing down. In 1890, at the age of 73, she had her own novel published: ‘Miss Miles, Or A Tale Of Yorkshire Life 60 Years Ago.’ It was not reviewed kindly, with many reviewers saying it was far too slow for contemporary tastes, but I think it’s well worth a read. In common with ‘Wuthering Heights’ it has sections written in the Yorkshire dialect that may prove hard to read and understand for those outside the county; it also, however, has passages of beauty, light and wit, and it is very well written. Mary’s three key concerns in life are well represented here: the poor conditions in which the working class lived in, religious hyprocrisy, and the importance for women to make their own way in life, rather than submitting to the marital drudgery expected of them.

Miss Miles by Mary Taylor
a page from Miss Miles by Mary Taylor

In 1850, Mary had stated (in a letter to Charlotte Brontë) that she was ‘obstinately lazy’, but she certainly overcame this trait. In her life she supported with friendship one of the greatest writers of them all, she became an excellent scholar and taught in Germany and Belgium, she wrote brilliant articles, completed a novel and stood up for the downtrodden at every opportunity; she climbed mountains, and she knocked down barriers.

Her death in 1893 brought a number of glowing obituaries from publications nationwide, but I will leave you with this one from the Whitstable Times And Herne Bay Herald. It includes perhaps the most beautiful tribute of them all, paid to her many decades previously by her great friend Charlotte Brontë: “She was full of feelings, noble, warm, generous, devoted, and profound. God bless her! I never hope to see in this world a character more truly noble. She would die willingly for one she loved. Her intellect and attainments are of the very highest standard.”

Mary Taylor obituary 1893
Mary Taylor obituary, 1893