Charlotte's strong-minded friend was an inspiration and an ally
Mary Taylor, Ellen Nussey and Charlotte Brontë all met at the same time at Roe Head School, Mirfield, in January 1831. Charlotte was 14; Mary and Ellen were both 13 - but despite being Charlotte's junior, Mary was far more daring and confident from the beginning. They were to share a lifelong friendship, and a long correspondence.
Charlotte based the character 'Rose Yorke' in her novel 'Shirley' on her dear friend; and, like Rose, Mary was not content to live within the parameters enclosing the lives of most Victorian women. “She cannot and will not be a governess, a teacher, a milliner, a bonnet-maker, nor a housemaid”, wrote Charlotte in 1841.
Mary Taylor was born in 1817 at Birstall, in what is now the county of West Yorkshire, England, one of six children of banker and wool-merchant Joshua Taylor and his wife, Ann Tickell. The family's home was the Red House, Gomersal, where they had lived for the preceding 150 years, but they were not wealthy. Mary and the only other girl in the family, her sister Martha, were sent to board at Roe Head, which was only a few miles from their home in Gomersal, but were keenly aware of their financial difficulties, which seem to have influenced Mary's feminist views on women having the right to work.
When Mary's father died in 1840 he left a trail of debt, and Mary became convinced she would benefit from starting all over again by emigrating to New Zealand. Her youngest brother William Waring Taylor emigrated to Wellington in 1842, but Mary first spent several years studying music, French and German, and teaching in Germany and Belgium, before eventually joining him in 1845. Charlotte wrote of her friend's departure: 'To me it is something as if a great planet fell out of the sky'. Not long after her friend's arrival in New Zealand, Charlotte helped her out by sending £10 to buy a cow.
Mary and her cousin Ellen Taylor, who also emigrated to New Zealand to be with her, started up a draper's shop, and also traded in wool and cattle. They learned how to do their own bookkeeping, and lived over the shop. After Ellen's death from tuberculosis in 1851 Mary continued to run the shop, but in 1860 she returned to England, and lived in Yorkshire for the rest of her life.
It was not only her famous friend who wrote novels: Mary wrote a novel of her own, 'Miss Miles, or a Tale of Yorkshire Life 60 Years Ago', about three young women and their struggles to find independence and happiness, and self-published it at the age of 73. She died in 1893, aged 76.