Obituaries Of Ellen Nussey, Great Friend Of The Brontës

Exactly 125 years ago yesterday the death occurred of a woman central to the Brontë story: Ellen Nussey. Ellen Nussey was the best friend of Charlotte Brontë, and also a close friend of Anne Brontë and (probably uniquely) Emily Brontë. It was Ellen who travelled to Scarborough with Charlotte and Anne in 1849, and she who carried the dying Anne downstairs on her final day. Charlotte later sent Ellen this brooch and necklace made from Anne Brontë’s hair to remember her by:

Ellen Nussey’s later years saw her working tirelessly to preserve and promote the Brontë legacy. She hoped to leave Charlotte Brontë’s letters to a national museum, or to turn them into a book, but she instead fell victim to fraudsters who ‘borrowed’ the letters and then sold them to collectors overseas. Nevertheless, it is thanks to Ellen Nussey keeping hundreds of Charlotte’s letters that we know so much about the Brontë family. Charlotte herself paid this simple yet beautiful tribute to Ellen while she was alive, but we will follow it with reports of and obituaries for Ellen that came after her death, aged 80, on 26th November 2022. You will also see photographs of Ellen Nussey throughout this post.

Yorkshire Post, 27th November 1897, “Death Of Miss Ellen Nussey: Friend Of Charlotte Brontë”

‘The death took place yesterday at Moor Lane House, Gomersal, of Miss Ellen Nussey, the schoolmate and friend of Charlotte Brontë, at whose marriage she officiated as first bridesmaid. Miss Nussey, who was born at the Rydings, Birstall, lived in the neighbourhood all her life, and at her death was 83 years of age [born a year after Charlotte, she was in fact 80]. The authoress was in her fifteenth year when she met Ellen Nussey at Miss Wooler’s school at Roe Head, and the friendship was a case of love at first sight. In the following year Charlotte paid her first visit to the Rydings, and their acquaintance ripened during the assistant-teachership period which followed. It was not, however, until July, of 1836, that Miss Nussey visited Haworth; and it was two years later (her brother’s proposal of marriage rejected meanwhile [Henry Nussey had proposed to Charlotte]) that they paid a visit together to Mr. Hudson’s, at Easton, near Bridlington.

Six years passed before they had much converse again [in fact, as the letters show, they were in constant correspondence], and then Charlotte was at [Ellen’s home] Brookroyd; nor was there another important meeting until just before the marriage in 1854. Thus it cannot be said that in a friendship unbroken during 24 years they spent a great deal of time together. Nevertheless, it is to Miss Nussey that the public owe the greater part of their knowledge of Charlotte Brontë’s life. The friends kept up a correspondence, in which there were 370 of Charlotte’s letters. When she died and Mrs. Gaskell undertook to write the biography, these were placed in her hands; and her Life Of Charlotte Brontë contains extracts from more than 100 of them, although Miss Nussey’s name is not mentioned. Afterwards Sir Wemyss Reid had access to them, and lastly they were placed in the hands of Mr. Clement Shorter [one of the men who defrauded Ellen] for the preparation of his brilliant book on Charlotte Brontë And Her Circle. Mr. Shorter, indeed, seems to say that the book was begun at Miss Nussey’s suggestion…

Her own personality has always been modestly kept in the background; but one receives from the correspondence a strong impression of her homely good sense, affectionate nature, and admirable simplicity.’

We will pass over a number of inaccuracies in this obituary, except for the article’s assertion that there was no ‘important meeting’ between Ellen and Charlotte for 12 years between 1842 and 1854. In fact there were many visits between the two in those years – many of them hugely significant, including their month in Hathersage together which was pivotal to the creation of Jane Eyre and their 1849 journey together to Scarborough with Anne Brontë to be there with Anne at her passing – obviously not an ‘important’ event as far as the obituary writer was concerned. The same newspaper provided a more personal tribute to Ellen two days later:

Yorkshire Post, 29th November 1897, “A West Riding Lady’s Interview With Miss Nussey”

‘A West Riding lady sends us the following notes of a recent interview she had with the late Miss Nussey:

“Like thousands of your readers, I read with much regret the news of the death of the venerable Miss Nussey, so intimately associated with the Brontë family. Miss Nussey has been waited upon by many persons for literary purposes, but I believe an interview I had with her during the autumn just passed was the last she was able to grant. It was in a state of great nervousness that I found myself at the inner door of Moor Lane House, Gomersal. With my heart in my mouth I saw Miss Nussey come forward to the door. All nervousness, however, vanished under the charming manners of this gracious old lady. Taking me into the drawing-room, I noticed she wore an old-fashioned brown silk dress and a rather modish cap of black, and white silk over her thick white hair. A noticeable feature was her bright eyes when she removed her spectacles. One of the first questions Miss Nussey asked was, ‘What religion are you?’ ‘Church of England, and from a long line of Church-people,’ I replied. My answer gratified her, and I soon found that she was an ardent, nay a passionate Church-woman.

One of the chief objects of my visit was to obtain her opinion on a portion of a letter said to be written by Charlotte Brontë to a correspondent unknown to me and all others to whom the document had been shown. What I had with me was a photograph. Upon inspecting it she said, ‘Undoubtedly the original is Charlotte’s handwriting.’ She soon decided to whom the letter had been addressed – Miss Leah Brooke, of Aldams House, Dewsbury, a former schoolfellow. Miss Nussey gave some interesting particulars about the then girl and her relatives. This led to a chat about Charlotte’s god-parents,the Rev. Thomas Atkinson and his wife, he the successor of Charlotte’s father in the vicarage of Hartshead. In Charlotte’s childhood she was a frequent visitor at their home. There was no vicarage house at Hartshead in those days, and the pair, who loved Charlotte dearly, bore the expense of her education at Roe Head…

Speaking of the Rev. P. Brontë, Miss Nussey said he was very fond of horses and dogs, but not to the extent his girls were; also that in his later years he became somewhat boastful of his conquests with ladies, a failing which much annoyed Charlotte, and which she always tried to check. He was a high-spirited man, full of courage.

In connection with her correspondence with Charlotte, Miss Nussey said she had often been badly treated, and I quite agreed with her when she informed me of the circumstances. This led me to tell her I had heard something of the kind before, and that I had felt diffident about seeking an interview, but that at last I had yielded, the suggestion being that I should ‘beard the lioness in her den.’ She laughed heartily, and exclaimed, ‘That’s exactly what I am, a lioness. I have to be, because of the way I have been treated.’ To me she was all kindness, and the interview throughout seemed to be mutually satisfactory. We parted, but she called me again to the house door, and then with a nervous air said, ‘Remember! All who have anything to do with the Brontës have had great trouble.’

I parted from the venerable lady with much admiration for her mental powers and great manners.”’

Yorkshire Post, 29th November 1897, “Ellen Nussey’s Last Moments”

‘Up to the very last Miss Nussey retained possession of her intellectual faculties. She had been ill for seven weeks with pleurisy, but on Thursday she was able to sit up a little. She was conversing quietly with her lady companion when the end came next day. A sudden spasm, and the long life was over.’

Ellen Nussey, aged 65

London Illustrated News, 4th December 1897

Yorkshire Post, 1st December 1897, “The Funeral Of Miss Ellen Nussey”

‘The funeral of Miss Ellen Nussey, the friend of Charlotte Brontë, took place yesterday in St. Peter’s Churchyard, Birstall. The weather was very inclement, and there was consequently not a very large attendance. The Brontë Society sent a wreath and was represented at the funeral.’

This photo hangs on my wall, I believe it to be the last picture of Ellen Nussey.

It’s sad that such a long life should end with few mourners at her funeral (St Peter’s church at Birstall, where she lies, is at the head of this post), just as Ellen herself had been one of only three mourners at the funeral of someone who lived a far shorter life: Anne Brontë. I hope to see you next week for another new Brontë blog post, and in the meantime I leave you with a final obituary which really sums up who Ellen Nussey was. Thank you Ellen Nussey from all Brontë lovers, and for always being a kind and generous woman to those who needed it most.

The Stormy Passage of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette

Everyone of discernment has a favourite Brontë novel. For me it is Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and I also think its companion piece Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë (the two books were published side by side in 1847) is the most underrated book of all time. All Brontë books are wonderful, but of course we wish there could have been many more of them. Only Charlotte Brontë left us a significant number to choose from, and even she only wrote four completed novels. The choice of favourite Charlotte Brontë novel is a difficult one, but many people would choose Villette – a novel completed exactly 170 years ago today. In today’s new post we’re going to look at the stormy passage of the genesis of Villette.

Villette frontispiece
Frontispiece to the first edition of Villette

Firstly, apologies to anyone who thinks I put too much of Charlotte Brontë into this blog. I had rather an angry message from a reader who complained that the blog was called Anne Brontë but that Charlotte was featured too prominently, so they felt I was diminishing Anne and they were unsubscribing. Anne Brontë is my favourite writer, but I love the Brontë family as a whole, and I think the history of the whole family is vital if we’re to understand Anne – added to which, of course, Charlotte lived longer, wrote more, and left us much more documentary evidence in the form of her letters. So, I hope, dear reader, that you will excuse me if Charlotte continues to be central to blog posts such as this one.

If you’re still here then hopefully you have accepted my apology. By the time of Villette, Charlotte’s life had changed immeasurably since the time when she wrote The Professor and then Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë, or Currer Bell as the reading public still knew her, was by now an established author and her financial situation had vastly improved. Above all else, however, Charlotte was lonely. She had composed her early novels with beloved sisters Emily and Anne alongside her, walking around their dining table together in the evening candlelight, discussing ideas and plot lines. Now, Emily and Anne were dead, and loyal servant Martha Brown revealed to a parsonage visitor :

‘For as long as I can remember Miss Brontë [Charlotte], Miss Emily and Miss Anne used to put away their sewing after prayers and walk all three one after the other round the table in the parlour till near eleven o’ clock. Miss Emily walked as long as she could, and when she died Miss Anne and Miss Brontë took it up – and now my heart aches to hear Miss Brontë walking, walking, on alone.’

The grief Charlotte suffered from at the time of the writing of Villette understandably impacted upon its genesis and upon its content. It is a wonderful novel that grows deeper and deeper page by page, and with an atmosphere uniquely its own that stays with you long after its stormy end.

Indeed the word stormy is a perfect way to describe the novel and its creation, just as the name Lucy Snowe was perfectly chosen for its protagonist – although Charlotte revealed how she had been called Lucy Frost at the time that the draft was submitted.

A letter to George Smith reveals how Lucy Snowe was nearly Lucy Frost

The writing of Villette was a long, drawn out, tortuous process for Charlotte Brontë – one in which long periods of inactivity followed or preceded rapid bursts of composition. Three years had gone by since Shirley had been published, three years during which her publishers Smith, Elder and Co must have longed for a new novel to build on the reputation ‘Currer Bell’ had earned with the reading public, but it was not until 1852 that Villette finally began, slowly, slowly to take shape. (Incidentally, you will see illustrations for Villette drawn by the great Edmund Dulac throughout this post, including in the header above).

 

On 12th March 1852 Charlotte wrote to her friend and former teacher than employer Margaret Wooler: ‘For nearly four months now (i.e. since I first became ill) I have not put pen to paper – my work has been lying untouched and my faculties have been rusting for want of exercise; further relaxation is out of the question and I will not permit myself to think of it. My publisher groans over my long delays; I am sometimes provoked to check the expression of his impatience with short and crusty answers.’

By April 1852 Charlotte wrote to Laetitia Wheelwright to express her state of mind at this time: ‘I struggled through the winter and the early part of the spring often with great difficulty. My friend [Ellen Nussey] stayed with me a few days in the early part of January – she could not be spared longer; I was better during her visit – but had a relapse soon after she left me which reduced my strength very much. It cannot be denied that the solitude of my position fearfully aggravated its other evils. Some long, stormy days and nights there were when I felt such a craving for support and companionship as I cannot express. Sleepless – I lay awake night after night – weak and unable to occupy myself – sat in my chair day after day – the saddest memories my only company. It was a time I shall never forget – but God sent it and it must have been for the best.’

Perhaps inevitably, this deep depression, this profound loneliness and longing for the company of those who were gone, found itself into Villette, as we see, for example, in chapter fifteen:

‘Indeed there was no way to keep well under the circumstances. At last a day and night of peculiarly agonizing depression were succeeded by physical illness, I took perforce to my bed. About this time the Indian summer closed and the equinoctial storms began; and for nine dark and wet days, of which the hours rushed on all turbulent, deaf, dishevelled – bewildered with sounding hurricane – I lay in a strange fever of the nerves and blood. Sleep went quite away. I used to rise in the night, look round for her, beseech her earnestly to return. A rattle of the window, a cry of the blast only replied – Sleep never came!

I err. She came once, but in anger. Impatient of my importunity she brought with her an avenging dream. By the clock of St. Jean Baptiste, that dream remained scarce fifteen minutes – a brief space, but sufficing to wring my whole frame with unknown anguish; to confer a nameless experience that had the hue, the mien, the terror, the very tone of a visitation from eternity. Between twelve and one that night a cup was forced to my lips, black, strong, strange, drawn from no well, but filled up seething from a bottomless and boundless sea. Suffering, brewed in temporal or calculable measure, and mixed for mortal lips, tastes not as this suffering tasted. Having drank and woke, I thought all was over: the end come and past by. Trembling fearfully – as consciousness returned – ready to cry out on some fellow-creature to help me, only that I knew no fellow-creature was near enough to catch the wild summons – Goton in her far distant attic could not hear – I rose on my knees in bed. Some fearful hours went over me: indescribably was I torn, racked and oppressed in mind. Amidst the horrors of that dream I think the worst lay here. Methought the well-loved dead, who had loved me well in life, met me elsewhere, alienated: galled was my inmost spirit with an unutterable sense of despair about the future. Motive there was none why I should try to recover or wish to live; and yet quite unendurable was the pitiless and haughty voice in which Death challenged me to engage his unknown terrors.’

By July 1852 Charlotte’s novel was still not progressing, and she wrote to Ellen Nussey: ‘All is silent as the grave. Cornhill [where her publisher was based] is silent too: there has been bitter disappointment there at my having no work ready for this season. Ellen we must not rely upon our fellow-creatures – only on ourselves – and on Him who is above both us and they. My labours as you call them stand in abeyance and I cannot hurry them – I must take my own time -however long that time may be.’

By October 1852, however, progress was being made rapidly – and it is clear that it is the great mutual love she shared with best friend Ellen, who has just stayed at Haworth Parsonage, which has enabled Charlotte to overcome the dark shadows which fell over much of this year:

‘Dear Nell, Your note came only this morning, I had expected it yesterday and was beginning actually to feel uneasy, like you. This won’t do, I am afraid of caring for you too much.

You must have come upon Hunsworth [home of Joe and Amelia Taylor] at an unfavourable moment; seen it under a cloud. Surely they are not always or often thus, or else married life is indeed but a slipshod paradise. I am glad, however, that the child is, as we conjectured, pretty well.

Miss Wooler’s note is indeed kind, good, and characteristic. I only send the ‘Examiner,’ not having yet read the ‘Leader.’ I was spared the remorse I feared. On Saturday I fell to business [the business of writing Villette], and as the welcome mood is still decently existent, and my eyes consequently excessively tired with scribbling, you must excuse a mere scrawl. You left your smart shoes. Papa was glad to hear you had got home well, as well as myself. Regards to all. Good-bye.— Yours faithfully, C. Bronte¨. I do miss my dear bed-fellow. No more of that calm sleep.’

By 30th October, Charlotte is preparing her publisher for the imminent arrival of her oft-delayed novel, and by 20th November the manuscript of the final volume was sent to George Smith, along with this letter:

‘My dear Sir, I send the 3rd. Vol. of ‘‘Villette’’ to-day, having been able to get on with the concluding chapters faster than I anticipated. When you shall have glanced over it – speak, as before, frankly.

I am afraid Mr. Williams [Smith’s assistant who had first discovered the genius of Jane Eyre was a little disheartened by the tranquillity of the 1st & 2nd. Vols.: he will scarcely approve the former part of the 3rd., but perhaps the close will suit him better. Writers cannot choose their own mood: with them it is not always high-tide, nor – thank Heaven! – always Storm. But then – the Public must have ‘‘excitement’’: the best of us can only say: ‘‘Such as I have, give I unto thee.’’

Glad am I to see that ‘‘Esmond’’ [by Thackeray] is likely to meet something like the appreciation it deserves. That was a genial notice in the ‘‘Spectator’’. That in the ‘‘Examiner’’ seemed to me not perhaps so genial, but more discriminating. I do not say that all the ‘‘Examiner’’ says is true – for instance the doubt it casts on the enduring character of Mr. Thackeray’s writings must be considered quite unwarranted – still the notice struck me as containing much truth. I wonder how the ‘‘Times’’ will treat ‘‘Esmond.’’

Now that ‘‘Villette’’ is out my hands – I mean to try to wait the result with calm. Conscience – if she be just – will not reproach me, for I have tried to do my best. Believe me, Yours sincerely, C. Brontë’

During the writing of this novel Charlotte suffered terribly from a depressive grief that frequently led to bouts of physical illness too. She felt alone and incapable of writing, but at the same time she was being urged to write by her publisher. As she says in her letter above, all she could do was try her best – and when we read Villette today we see that her best was very good indeed.

Villette is a deep, dark, brooding book which is as stormy as the time during which its author was writing it – it is a novel full of ghosts and memories, of tempests imagined and all too real, and it is a novel which is as deeply rewarding to read today as it was exactly 170 years ago when Charlotte placed her manuscript into an envelope and sent it on its way to London and the world. If you haven’t read Villette then I highly recommend it (and I highly wish there was a screen adaptation of the novel too), and I hope to see you next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Captain Arthur Branwell And The Brontë Miniatures

On this day we remember those who lost their lives in conflicts throughout history, and the loved ones they left behind. We remember recent conflicts and think of ongoing conflicts, such as the one scarring Ukraine at the moment as they fight for their very existence with far too little assistance from those in the west. We also remember the two great wars which dominated the twentieth century, and in today’s post we’ll take another look at a Brontë relative who served in the battlefields of France in World War One, and at a fascinating series of miniature portraits he possessed.

Maria Branwell by Tonkins
Maria Branwell miniature – she became mother to the Brontes

It may seem astonishing that a Brontë relative was amidst the hellish spectacle of the first world war, but that’s exactly what Captain Arthur Branwell was. He was in fact just one generation away from Anne Brontë and her siblings, in other words he was a first cousin once removed. His father Thomas Brontë Branwell was the son of Charlotte Branwell (who had kept her surname by marrying her cousin Joseph Branwell). Thomas was given his middle name in tribute to his mother’s elder sister who had married and taken the Brontë name. This sister was, of course, Maria Branwell who married Patrick Brontë on exactly the same 1812 day as Charlotte married Joseph.

Captain A M Branwell
Captain A M Branwell (HU 114269) Unit: 4th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment. © IWM.

Marrying cousins was obviously a popular choice among the Branwells of Penzance, for Thomas Brontë Branwell travelled 400 miles from Cornwall to Haworth to propose to Charlotte Brontë in 1851. After being rebuffed he married a Sarah Hannah Jones. Their son kept up this family tradition by marrying a cousin – named Charlotte Brontë Jones! So we can see that whilst the father failed to marry a Charlotte Brontë the son succeeded in doing so, and it was this very son who found himself in the French theatre of World War One.

Born in 1862, Arthur had served in the Boer War and had actually retired from service by the time war was declared in 1914. Like many in this situation, however, Arthur Branwell was called out of retirement and at first took up a role as an officer in charge of training new recruits. Before long he was in France itself, where he was captured forever in this photograph of the officers of a group of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. The photograph shows Captain Branwell with his supporting officers, two First and two Second Lieutenants.

Arthur Branwell in World War 1

As the caption notes: ‘This group has, alas, suffered severely since the picture was taken. In fact, Lieutenant Maunsell was killed in France, 2nd Lieutenant Gamble was killed in Palestine, Lieutenant Elliott and 2nd Lieutenant Gamble were killed at the Battle of the Somme. Only the seated figure, our Captain Branwell, survived the war and returned to England.

Back in a genteel, and well deserved, retirement, Arthur Branwell attracted the interest of Brontë fans and scholars, not only because he was the closest living relative of the Brontës but because he also possessed Brontë related items and memorabilia.

Arthur Branwell
Captain Branwell miniature

Brontë scholar C. Mabel Egerley visited Arthur Branwell in 1937; whilst Europe, as yet unwitting, moved ever closer to a new war, there was one item in particular that she wanted to see – and she detailed it in the following extract from her essay: ‘Elizabeth Branwell: The “Small, Antiquated Lady”’:

‘Captain Arthur Branwell, the grandson of Joseph and Charlotte Branwell, possesses fourteen miniatures of members of his family. He has most kindly permitted me to see them.

Elizabeth Branwell by James Tonkin
Elizabeth Branwell miniature, she was known as Aunt Branwell to the Brontes

Six of these were painted in 1799 by J. Tonkin at Penzance. They are portraits of Mr. Thomas Branwell and his wife, and of his daughters, Jane, Elizabeth, Maria and Charlotte. In 1799, Elizabeth was 23 years of age. Her miniature shows a girl with soft brown hair, pale brown eyes, and a serious expression. She wears a pretty white dress with a posy of blue flowers at her breast. She resembles her father and sister Maria rather than her mother. In later life, a portrait of her shows still her likeness to Mrs. Brontë, and also to her sister Charlotte, and her cousin Joseph.

On the back of the miniature are the lines I have quoted at the beginning of this paper. They are in her niece’s writing, namely Charlotte, the daughter of J. and C. Branwell, who had carefully preserved these miniatures.

Another of the miniatures is that of Lieutenant Thomas Branwell, R.N., an elder brother of Joseph. He looks a merry, bright, young fellow, with his fresh complexion, brown eyes, powdered hair, and his cocked hat and coat with gilt buttons. There is a strong resemblance between Branwell Brontë and him. Was there any romance associated with him when Elizabeth was one of the belles? Was that the reason of his aunt’s special affection for Branwell, and for her bequest of the Japan Dressing Case with the initials” E. B.” on it, a gift surely from an admirer of her youth? Young Thomas was born in 1778, and went down with his ship, H.M.S. St. George, when she foundered in the Baltic Sea on 24th December, 1811.’

We see then that there was an earlier military hero in the Branwell family too, and this tragic man may just have been the love of Aunt Branwell’s life. Some of the miniatures seen by C. Mabel Egerley adorn this post, and here is the whole which was kept proudly by Captain Arthur Branwell. He was proud of his Brontë links, and we should all be proud that he, and so many others, served our country at its great times of need. Many of them paid the ultimate sacrifice; at the going down of the sun, and in the morning we will remember them.

I hope to see you again next week for another new Brontë blog post.

A Red Letter Day For Charlotte Brontë

The internet has brought us many advances and opportunities, but it has also changed the way we live our lives forever. The art of letter writing is gone for ever, which leaves me wondering if in two hundred years time people will be buying books entitled (for example) ‘The Collected Emails of Kazuo Ishiguro’? Thankfully we will always have letter collections from the great writers of previous generations to look back on, and in today’s post we’re going to look at a timely selection of letters from one of the greatest letter writers of them all: Charlotte Brontë.

November 5th is a day when many of us are thinking about bonfire night celebrations and remembrances of Guy Fawkes. I hope your fireworks night went with a bang, and that any children or animals in your life weren’t too scared by the annual spectacle of noise and light. Charlotte Brontë herself was certainly interested in the Guy Fawkes story, so much so that she name checks him in Jane Eyre:

‘Bessie invited him to walk into the breakfast-room, and led the way out. In the interview which followed between him and Mrs. Reed, I presume, from after-occurrences, that the apothecary ventured to recommend my being sent to school; and the recommendation was no doubt readily enough adopted; for as Abbot said, in discussing the subject with Bessie when both sat sewing in the nursery one night, after I was in bed, and, as they thought, asleep, “Missis was, she dared say, glad enough to get rid of such a tiresome, ill-conditioned child, who always looked as if she were watching everybody, and scheming plots underhand.” Abbot, I think, gave me credit for being a sort of infantine Guy Fawkes.’

My own book The Real Guy Fawkes – the gunpowder plot fascinates me as much as it did the Brontes

Nevertheless, on 5th November 1849 Charlotte found time to write three letters. It was a real red letter day for Charlotte Brontë and for us, for the letters give us a fascinating glimpse into Charlotte’s life at this time, especially the final letter in this triumvirate – the one addressed to W. S. Williams of her publisher Smith, Elder & Co. This letter is very typical of Charlotte’s epistles in that it is both brilliant and moving. I present the three letters now, the first of which is addressed to Amelia Ringrose, a friend of both Charlotte and Ellen Nussey (to whom the second letter is addressed). Amelia was on the brink of becoming engaged to Ellen’s brother George Nussey, but the increasing severity of his mental illness put paid to that and by the time of this letter Amelia was being courted by Joe Taylor, brother of another mutual friend Mary Taylor. Amelia and Joe married and had a daughter named Tim, but tragedy was waiting for the Taylor/Ringroses just as it had waited for the Brontës. Joe died in 1857, Tim in 1858 and Amelia in 1860.

The next letter is to Charlotte’s great friend Ellen Nussey:

Ellen, as the youngest of the eleven Nussey siblings (not all of whom survived into adulthood), was often put upon and in this instance she was in charge of the Nussey household accounts and presenting them to her mother and her eldest sister Mercy Nussey – an onerous task that Charlotte sympathised with. Finally, we see the letter to W. S. Williams:

 

These three letters tell us so much about Charlotte’s life at this time. She savages a critic (of her second published novel Shirley), refutes a family connection to Nelson and above all, remembers her beloved and tragic elder sisters Maria and Elizabeth Brontë. By the time of this trio of letters, all five siblings of Charlotte Brontë was dead. Her letters from this period and beyond are always brilliant, but a vein of melancholy is never far beneath the surface.

WS Williams
W. S. Williams. the recipient of this moving letter

I hope that your day and week ahead will be far from melancholic, and I hope to see you next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Halloween Tales Of Brontë Sisters Hauntings!

It’s that time of year again when things go bump in the night! The clocks have gone back, the evenings are darker, and we can never be sure where that shadow came from or what that rustling noise is! That can mean only one thing: it’s time for another Halloween weekend Brontë blog post.

The Brontë sisters loved the world of the supernatural, as is especially evident in the novels of both Emily and Charlotte Brontë. Perhaps this love came from stories they heard as children from loyal servant Tabby Aykroyd and from their Aunt Branwell, which shows how important sharing stories and folk tales with children really is? It fired up their incredible imaginations and powers of creativity which eventually found outlet in the novels we love today, but some say that spooky encounters aren’t solely limited to their novels – after all, there have been reported sightings of the ghosts of all three writing Brontë sisters, and not always in the places you might expect!

Let us begin with the reported ghost of Emily Brontë, as her spectre is the only one said to appear in the place forever associated with the Brontës – Haworth.

In the early nineteenth century, weaving was the main employment of the Haworth workforce. Eventually large factories and machine driven looms dominated the area and the West Riding of Yorkshire as a whole, but hand loom weavers could still be found who followed the old traditions of warp and weft. A line of old weaver’s cottages can still be seen in Haworth today on West Lane not far from the parsonage itself; dating from the mid-eighteenth century they would have been well known to the Brontë siblings, and on occasion may have been visited by them if they were accompanying their father on parochial visits.

One such cottage, beautiful and evocative, is now Weaver’s Guesthouse, although it has formerly been Weaver’s Restaurant and a Toby Jug restaurant. What stories it could tell. What stories it possibly continues to tell?

For much of the twentieth century there were reports of a ghostly lady making a regular appearance. This grey lady was always dressed in a long grey dress with a bonnet and shawl, and carrying a basket on her arm as if she was making a visit. In 1974 Keith Akeroyd, owner of the Toby Jug restaurant in the old weaver’s cottage, described one of the visitations, and made an appeal for an exorcism, as reported by the Birmingham Daily Post on 30th September 1974:

Birmingham Daily Post 300974

Here we see in print the name that Haworth locals had long given the grey lady: Emily Brontë! It is said that the ghost appears annually on 19th December, the anniversary of Emily’s tragic passing. Could this really be Emily Brontë’s ghost? Further descriptions always describe the grey lady as laughing and giggling; this is not how we usually think of Emily Brontë today, but in fact a letter from Ellen Nussey to Elizabeth Gaskell describes how Emily loved to play practical jokes and then laugh uproariously. Could this be a practical joke that she continues to play on the people of Haworth, 174 years after her passing?

Emily was the most home loving of the Brontës (despite a brief spell as a teacher in Halifax and then as a student in Brussels), so perhaps it’s understandable that people associate her ghost with Haworth, but the ghost of Charlotte Brontë hit the headlines when causing a commotion in a village 50 miles to the south: Hathersage.

Hathersage Vicarage, visited by Charlotte Bronte – and still visited by her?

Hathersage was a place that Charlotte knew well. She had stayed in the village parsonage for a month in the summer of 1845 in the company of Ellen Nussey, whose brother Henry Nussey had been made vicar there. This was a pivotal moment in the Brontë story, as it was in Haworth that Charlotte met the Eyre family of North Lees Hall, and the beautiful Peak District village itself became the Morton of her novel Jane Eyre.

As visitors to the village will soon see, it’s understandable why Charlotte Brontë should have loved Hathersage, but did she love it and its vicarage so much that she never wanted to leave? In February 1927 local newspapers reported a strange sighting:

Dundee Evening Telegraph, 11 February 1927

It is reported here that Charlotte’s ghost has been appearing on an annual basis at the beautiful Hathersage Parsonage she had known and loved. The incumbent vicar’s children, it is reported, often see her ghost, and her appearance is said to terrify the dog. The article also conjectures that her phantom returns to this spot because she was in love with the man who lived there, Reverend Henry Nussey whose proposal she rejected and who at least partially inspired St. John Rivers in Jane Eyre, and because she had found calm at Hathersage in contrast to the misery of Haworth. The article also points out that the ghost of Thomas Eyre, who had lived at nearby North Lees Hall, also haunted the building and that the Psychic Society had offered to help investigate the matter, but their request was not being entertained.

A month later, however, Hathersage’s vicar the Reverend J. H. Brookbank took to the press to deny these claims, saying that the idea that he and his family had seen Charlotte’s ghost was absurd – but perhaps it’s telling that there was no comment from the family dog!

So, if Emily Brontë’s ghost is said to appear in Haworth and Charlotte Brontë’s ghost is said to walk in Hathersage, where would Anne Brontë’s ghost be found? Why, in Long Island, New York of course!

Anne Brontë’s first job was as a governess at Blake Hall, Mirfield in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Once again it was a pivotal moment in the Brontë story, as her experiences of life with the Ingham family there inspired the first half of her début novel Agnes Grey – where the Inghams were portrayed as the horrific Bloomfields.

Anne left her employment at Blake Hall in late 1839, but the Hall remained an imposing presence in Mirfield until the 1950s when it was demolished to make way for a new housing estate, with its once exalted fixtures and fittings sold off piece by piece in auctions that attracted bidders from across the world. Perhaps the architectural highlight of the hall was its grand central staircase, and this was bought by a man named Allen Topping of Long Island, New York. Topping was fabulously wealthy with money no object (think of him as a real life ‘Jay Gatsby’), so he paid for the Blake Hall staircase to be dismantled, shipped to America and then reassembled in his own mansion.

Blake Hall, Mirfield
A piece of Blake Hall can now be found in Long Island

In 1962 Allen’s widow reported seeing a ghostly lady descend the staircase dressed in Victorian garb including a long shawl. Mrs Toppings’ dog started barking but when she comforted the dog, the figure smiled at her. This spectral figure was then seen on a number of occasions, and Mrs Topping sensed that it was the ghost of Anne Brontë!

So, what’s the main lesson we’ve learned from these spooky tales of Brontë hauntings? If you have a dog and you hear it barking at thin air on the 31st October climb swiftly under your duvet and do not, I repeat do not, look at what’s caught their attention!

This has been a bit of fun, of course, so I leave it to you whether you believe in ghosts in general, and the ghosts of the Brontës in particular. On a serious note, however, we also remember at this time of year Elizabeth Branwell. As mentioned earlier, Elizabeth’s Cornish folk tales helped shape the Brontë imagination at a formative age. She travelled to Haworth in 1821 when her sister Maria was on her deathbed, and could have returned to the warmth and wealth she was used to in Penzance, 400 miles to the south, after a suitable period of mourning had been observed.

 

Elizabeth Branwell was not one to shirk her duty, however, and she refused to turn her back on the young nephew and nieces who had so suddenly been left without their mother. Leaving her beloved Cornwall behind forever, Elizabeth Branwell became Aunt Branwell and remained in Haworth Parsonage until her own death 21 years later. She became a second mother to the Brontës, and without her love, support and legacy (quite literally, as it was money left in her will that allowed the publication of the first Brontë books) there would be no Brontë novels today. Well done Elizabeth Branwell!

Halloween is a time for celebrating with loved ones, and it’s a time for indulging in spooky stories – and if you’re looking for Brontë related chills I highly recommend The Brontës: Afterlife, a fabulous new collection of Brontë related short stories with a hint of the macabre!

I hope to see you next week for another new Brontë blog post, and if you do happen to see a grey lady when you turn out the lights don’t be too scared – it might only be Emily enjoying herself!

Charlotte Brontë’s Roe Head Letter Of October 1836

Things didn’t always run smoothly in the world of the Brontës, as we shall soon see in the subject of today’s new Brontë blog post. Things didn’t go smoothly for this website with last week’s post either. After a WordPress update it seems that the post displayed on desktop sites but not on mobile sites, so apologies if you were affected by this – hopefully all should be okay now.

One period that Charlotte Brontë found particularly trying in her life was her time as a teacher at Roe Head school in the hills above Mirfield in the West Riding of Yorkshire (that’s a drawing of it, by Anne Brontë at the head of this post). Charlotte had attended the school as a pupil from 1831 until 1832; it was a very happy time for her, and she made lifelong friends in Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor. In 1835 Charlotte returned to Roe Head in the role of teacher, but she found this to be a very different experience.

Roe Head
This was the classroom where Charlotte Bronte taught

Charlotte, although still in her late teens, was now an adult, and a deep thinker whose mind was preoccupied by thoughts of the real world around her and her role within it, and by the land of Angria which she conjured up from her imagination. As a teacher she found herself frustrated by the inability of her pupils to live up to the standards she herself had set four years earlier and by the time constraints imposed by the role which meant that she had little time to devote to the activity she loved more than anything else: creating new worlds from her own mind.

Map of Angria drawn by Branwell Bronte
Map of Angria, a war torn kingdom, drawn by a young Branwell Bronte

Charlotte expressed her frustrations, and anger, in blistering honesty in what has come to be known as the Roe Head journal, but in fact it was not a diary as such but a series of letters to best friend Ellen Nussey. In these letters she lays bare, with typical honesty, her feelings about herself and others, and it is to one of these letters we turn now, written 186 years ago this month:

There is a deep vein of despair running throughout this letter and others which make up the Roe Head journal. Charlotte Brontë always judged herself harshly and without mercy, and she battled throughout her life against what would today be called ‘imposter syndrome’ – an inability to see the true talents and qualities that others see in you. It is perhaps this that led her publisher and friend George Smith to comment: ‘It may seem strange that the possession of genius did not lift her above the weakness of an excessive anxiety about her personal appearance. But I believe that she would have given all her genius and her fame to have been beautiful. Perhaps few women ever existed more anxious to be pretty than she.’

George Smith
George Smith, who saw Charlotte’s genius and her anxieties

We see further evidence of this many years later in 1849, after the death of Anne Brontë, when Charlotte looks mournfully back at the passing of all five of her siblings and writes: ‘They [younger sisters Emily and Anne] are both gone, and so is poor Branwell – and Papa has now me only – the weakest, puniest, least promising of his six children.’

Charlotte would doubtless be amazed that after nearly two hundred years her name and work is known and loved across the world, and that we can see the true qualities she possessed: strength, determination, kindness and genius. Perhaps this is something we can all learn from? We all have skills, talents and qualities that make others love us, we just need to step back and see ourselves as they do. I’m certainly very pleased to have you as a reader of my blog and as a fellow Brontë lover, and I hope to see you here next week for another new Brontë blog post.