History Through Letters: Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey

By Veronica Leigh

Friendships are often born in the unlikeliest of places. How they endure the test of time is another matter entirely. For Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey, their friendship lasted for over two decades. They often relied on letters to cope with their distance from one another.

Charlotte Brontë, future author of Jane Eyre, was not pleased to have to abandon her home in the moors and go to Roe Head School for training as a teacher or a governess. Her previous experience at a school resulted in the deaths of her two older sisters. But now as the eldest of the remaining Brontë children, she had to pave the way for the others and become an educator, as marriage was no guarantee in life. There she met Ellen Nussey, a girl her opposite in every way imaginable. Where Charlotte was intelligent and considered plain, Ellen was more of the traditional Victorian—beautiful and elegant. Yet they forged a friendship.

Charlotte remained at Roe Head for a few years, while Ellen eventually left. They visited each other’s homes, but not enough to satisfy them. Determined to stay in touch, she and Ellen corresponded for the next twenty-four years. They exchanged their opinions on a variety of subjects: love, money, literature, marriage, religion… Alas, Ellen’s side of the conversations went unpreserved. Charlotte’s, however, accumulates to over five hundred letters. To Ellen, Charlotte could confide her deepest, darkest secrets. How she loathed teaching and being a governess, and longed to pursue a literary career. She tells the Brontë’s family story through these hundreds of letters. What we know of the Brontë’s and how they lived is largely thanks due to Ellen Nussey, for saving her friends’ missives.

A daughter of an Irish curate, Charlotte and her siblings lived in a gothic-like parsonage on the edge of the moors. They intended for her brother, Branwell, to be the savior of the family and take care of his sisters and aging father. Instead, he fell into dissipation and drugs. She, Emily, and Anne needed to raise the family’s hopes. After the three ventured out into the world and came home in 1845, beaten down by life, they banded together to produce a book of poetry. Later, they published novels, which provided them with a means of support. Their secret endeavor unraveled when Charlotte and Anne had to travel to London to defend their reputations due to a shady publisher. The deaths of Branwell, Emily, and Anne left Charlotte bereft. She found solace in her friendship with Ellen, and in her newfound fame as an author in literary society.

The letters continued for the next few years, but for a while they came to an abrupt halt. Her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, pursued Charlotte romantically. After a rough beginning, she accepted his proposal. When Ellen heard of the engagement, it upset her. She had believed she and Charlotte would eventually live together as spinsters for the rest of their lives. This, coupled with her dislike of Arthur, temporarily upended her and Charlotte’s friendship. It took a year for them to reconcile, but Ellen attended her dearest friend’s wedding.

Yet the ungoverned freedom they had possessed in the previous years no longer existed. At first, Arthur read their letters. Only when Ellen agreed to destroy Charlotte’s missives, an attempt to protect her friend’s reputation as an author lest they fall into the wrong hands, did Arthur promise not to read their correspondence.

Ellen, however, did not keep her promise and continued to cherish Charlotte’s letters.

Like her siblings, Charlotte lacked a strong constitution. We believe she became pregnant and suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum—a severe case of mourning sickness—which led to her death in 1855. Charlotte’s father commissioned Elizabeth Gaskell, a fellow friend and author, to write a biography on his daughter. She went to Ellen Nussey and drew heavily upon the letters for her source material. She published The Life of Charlotte Brontë two years later.

Ellen died in 1897, at age 80, having spent the rest of her life devoted to Charlotte’s memory. Biographers often sought her out for her input. After her death, her belongings and Charlotte’s letters were sold at auctions. The letters found their way into the Brontë Parsonage Museum’s possession, where they remain today.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Veronica Leigh has been published in several anthologies and her work has appeared on GoWorldTravel.com and the Artist Unleashed, and she has published a couple of fictional stories. She makes her home in Indiana with her family and her furbabies. To learn more about her, visit her blog.

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