Charlotte's oldest friend, and prolific correspondent

Ellen Nussey first met her lifelong friend Charlotte Brontë in January 1831 at Miss Wooler’s school Roe Head, Mirfield, where they were both pupils. Ellen was 13 and Charlotte 14.

 

The twelfth child of a relatively affluent cotton merchant from Birstall, 20 miles from Haworth, Ellen was born April 20, 1817. She was a steady, conscientious and reliable friend for Charlotte, and the Reverend Patrick Brontë approved their friendship. Visiting the Parsonage often, she was soon also a friend of Anne and Emily. It was during her time at Roe Head that she began her correspondence with Charlotte, which lasted until the end of Charlotte’s life, and which is responsible for so much of what we know today of Charlotte’s life.

Ellen’s brother Henry asked Charlotte to marry him in March 1839, but she gracefully refused his suit, writing: I have no personal repugnance to the idea of a union with you -- but I feel convinced that mine is not the sort of disposition calculated to form the happiness of a man like you... you do not know me, I am not this serious, grave, cool-headed individual you suppose -- You would think me romantic and eccentric -- you would say I was satirical and severe.

Ellen’s friendship with Charlotte survived her brother’s rejection, and 10 years later she was one of only two friends Charlotte asked to accompany her and Anne on what was to be Anne’s last trip to Scarborough, where she died. Ellen’s presence was a huge comfort to Charlotte at what was an agonisingly difficult time in her life.

Charlotte also asked Ellen to be one of her two witnesses when, in June 1854, she married her father’s curate Arthur Bell Nicholls. Ellen was not enthusiastic about the marriage – it is believed she had imagined herself and Charlotte living as spinster friends into old age – yet she did appear as a witness, and remained Charlotte’s friend until her death nine months later in March 1855.

Hundreds of letters from Charlotte’s side of their correspondence still exist, and 350 were used by Mrs Gaskell as the basis for her seminal biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857). Arthur Bell Nicholls asked Ellen to destroy them after Charlotte’s death, but happily Ellen refused.

She died, aged 80, on November 26, 1897, at her house, Moor Lane House, Gomersal, West Yorkshire. She never married, and had no children.
 

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