False friends and true loves ,


It has long been a practice in Bronte circles to treat Ellen Nussey with great deal of affection and consider her Charlotte’s “closest” friend,someone who can be relied on to give accurate representations of the sisters ,branwell and Patrick,,but this is far from the case.Ellen Nussey was indeed a life long and close friend  of Charlotte and did know a great deal of the family’s life and events However she was not often present in their home and was their guest not a permanent member of the household ,even in these more informal times we tend to behave slightly differently when guests or family come to stay ,partly because the putting up of guests involves a certain disruption to normal routines,, perhaps we get up early to free bathroom time for guests,go to bed later or  eat earlier or later ,, to accommodate guests timekeeping  ,eat slightly different foods to accommodate  our guests likes and dislikes ,alter the heating ,seating ,sleeping arrangements, perhaps make sure we appear properly dressed ,perhaps limit conversations on subjects they wouldn’t like or about other people’s lives. Charlotte herself  seems to have had an “Ellen  friendly” persona and also perhaps to have realised her limitations  with regard to discretion ,,she doesn’t for instance tell Ellen about her novel and outright denies being an author at one point.She also is less than candid about some of her reasons for not being able to make trips or have Ellen to stay.Ellen also didn’t particularly like some of the Brontes or their friends so this also colours  her assessments of them and helps create certain misrepresentations of those people.There is also Ellens editing of the letters and retelling of Charlotte’s life in  her desire to create a more important place for herself as closest friend to the famous Charlotte Bronte,,for instance  shamelessly offering Charlotte’s private letters to several  authors and  making decidedly nasty comments about potential “rivals” for Charlotte’s affection,,describing Arthur Bell Nichols as “the man who killed our Charlotte” Ellen ensconced herself at the Parsonage within hours of Charlotte’s death and its her recollections of these painful days which we have ,,I am not sure how we should feel if a friend of a loved one turned up at such a time then began to publish to all a sundry our private griefs,,likewise its again Ellen we have to thank for the details of Anne’s death .Arthur Bell Nichols who will most certainly have met Ellen was horrified when he discovered how openly Charlotte wrote private details to Ellen and asked Charlotte to be more carefull or to make Ellen promise to burn the letters ,,Ellen promised faithfully ,,and yet merely months later was sending off those very letters to Mrs Gaskell


A much closer friend to Charlotte was almost certainly Mary Taylor,her home the Red House in Gomersal is usually considered the model for the Yorks house in Shirley  and the york family in the Novel are heavily drawn from the Taylors.Mary Herself being considered the model on which Charlotte based Rose Yorke

Ellen Nussey later remembered

‘She was pretty, and very childish-looking, dressed in a red-coloured frock with short sleeves and low neck, as then worn by young girls. Miss Wooler in later years used to say that when Mary went to her as a pupil she thought her too pretty to live. She was not talkative at school, but industrious, and always ready with lessons. She was always at the top in class lessons,

(Extract from the excellent  http://kleurrijkbrontesisters.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/letters-from-charlotte-bronte-and-mary.html)

Its is also obvious from Marys Letters to Charlotte that Charlotte was completly candid with her about the publication of not just her novels but those of Anne and Emily ,,so Emily must have given permission for Charlotte to confide the secret to Mary .Charlotte sent Mary an early copy of  Jane Eyre.

Dear Charlotte,—About a month since I received and read Jane Eyre. It seemed to me incredible that you had actually written a book. Such events did not happen while I was in England. I begin to believe in your existence much as I do in Mr. Rochester’s. In a believing mood I don’t doubt either of them. After I had read it I went on to the top of Mount Victoria and looked for a ship to carry a letter to you. There was a little thing with one mast, and also H.M.S. Fly, and nothing else. If a cattle vessel came from Sydney she would probably return in a few days, and would take a mail, but we have had east wind for a month and nothing can come in.

The second letter does suggest Mary was mistaken in who had travelled to London .

‘Wellington, April 10th, 1849.
‘Dear Charlotte,—I’ve been delighted to receive a very interesting letter from you with an account of your visit to London, etc. I believe I have tacked this acknowledgment to the tail of my last letter to you, but since then it has dawned on my comprehension that you are becoming a very important personage in this little world, and therefore, d’ye see? I must write again to you. I wish you would give me some account of Newby, and what the man said when confronted with the real Ellis Bell. By the way, having got your secret, will he keep it? And how do you contrive to get your letters under the address of Mr. Bell? The whole scheme must be particularly interesting to hear about, if I could only talk to you for half a day. When do you intend to tell the good people about you?

‘I am now hard at work expecting Ellen Taylor. She may possibly be here in two months. I once thought of writing you some of the dozens of schemes I have for Ellen Taylor, but as the choice depends on her I may as well wait and tell you the one she chooses. The two most reasonable are keeping a school and keeping a shop. The last is evidently the most healthy, but the most difficult of accomplishment. I have written an account of the earthquakes for Chambers, and intend (now don’t remind me of this a year hence, because la femme propose) to write some more. What else I shall do I don’t know. I find the writing faculty does not in the least depend on the leisure I have, but much more on the active work I have to do. I write at my novel…

When Mary Taylor did write her Novel “Miss Miles” long after Charlottes death she made no effort to “cash in” on her friendship with the famous Charlotte Bronte though she would no doubt have realised that such a link to a famous author would have helped sales of the book


Like Mary Taylor Arthur Bell Nichols was scrupulous in maintaining  Charlotte’s privacy .He was opposed to giving too much of Charlotte’s correspondence to Mrs Gaskell and tried (unsuccessfully) to limit how much of it was used.Patrick had belived that  it would merely be used for backgound information and had been assured of the same by Mrs Gaskel .Mrs Gaskel broke her word to both Patrick and Bell Nichols by publishing many letters more or less verbatium.After Patricks death when the Bronte “legacy ” fell within his direct control Bell Nichols is more or less silent not because he “moved on” or wanted to forget .Arthus Bell Nichols keep a huge number of keepsakes of Charlotte and the family ,,,her portrait hung in his main room for the rest of his life,even after his remarriage and his body  was laid out in front of it on his death .

Arthur Bell Nichols is frequently seen as severe and harsh  yet this is far from the truth .He was always polite about Ellen whatever he may have felt personally about her indiscretions and he won the lifelong affection of the Brontes friend and servant Martha Taylor who often visited him in Ireland ,they kept up a life long correspondence. For Charlotte the time spent married to him was the best and happiest of her life .Despite this in many earlier biographies he falls almost as a dark shadow across her final months ,,Its suggested he is preventing her writing ,stopping her from  writing to Ellen.These are all demonstravily  untrue Charlotte  was in fact writing throughout her marriage .She read  the opening chapter of her new novel to Arthur Bell Nichols shortly before her death a sign of how close they had become as reading  a work in progress was something Charlotte had only ever done with her sisters before so this shows an intimacy of thought and deep level of openness and trust between the two (Ellen never has previews of Charlotte’s work) In reality the only real difference in her life  after her marriage was she  had a close friend  to fill the gap left by the loss of her sisters and pleasant  company at meals and on those previously lonely walks on the moors that reminded her so strongly of her lost sisters .The long hours  after the evening meal and before prayers ,during which she wrote poignantly of her loneliness to Ellen or  when  she had paced alone around the dinning room table  ,are replaced with a picture  of her sitting with Bell Nichols reading alode her latest work or talking about the content of  her letters to friends, ,the final months  of Charlotte’s life are not in shadow but full of light and happiness, full of more varied occupations and interests .

Bell Nichols has often included the wrath of Bronte researchers for his destruction of Bronte papers and items such as Charlotte’s wedding dress, yet it is unlikely he did destroy many of the Brontes papers, as he kept safe so many papers which were mundane in the extreem.He kept and edited for publication Charlotte unpublish novel fragment and kept safe the Bronte portraits we now have.Its true he destroyed the gun group portrait but he kept back from it the portrait of Emily ,,discarding the rest because he felt it was very poorly painted and unlike the sisters .Perhaps given the choice he would also have kept the Gun group but as he was forced to leave Haworth  at very short notice to cross the seas to Ireland  the amount of space he would have for framed paintings would be low ,,he already had the portrait of Charlotte to transport and it seems to me likely that it is at this point he folded up the portrait of the sisters and cropped the gun group,,it’s also not impossible that the gun group painting was  disintegrating ,it was an early attempt by Branwell and his handling of paint may have been less than ideal and it was unlike the pillar portrait hung on a wall subject to damp ,smoke and soot ,


I am very deeply indebted to Anne for all her extremely detailed knowledge and helpful input without which this post would be much less interesting.Anne is a talented artist and has her own blog here



About hathawaysofhaworth

I am a Historian and author living in the north
This entry was posted in brontes, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to False friends and true loves ,

  1. Luv Lubker says:

    What about George Smith? He was a very true friend – according to some things I’ve read – much truer than most people think.

    • Hi yes possibly ,,,,I was mostly wanted to contrast Ellen Nussey and Arthur Bell Nicholes in this post but I have been thinking of a post about Charlottes London set of Friends but never had the chance to get the research done .

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