A few years ago I went to visit my best friend, and as we trawled through Netflix to try and find a show to watch she said ‘How about the BBC series North and South?’ Based on the novel of the same name by the writer Elizabeth Gaskell (originally published in 1855) it follows the story of Margaret Hale as she moves from the south of England to the industrial town of Milton. Needless to say the BBC adaption was fantastic and we binged the whole miniseries! This was my first introduction to Elizabeth Gaskell’s work, and it encouraged my interest in female authors of the 19th century. This led me then to discover the extraordinary friendship between Elizabeth and another prominent writer – Charlotte Brontë.
This friendship was brief but powerful in a number of ways.
They met in 1850 through Sir Shuttleworth at his home in Windermere. They became firm friends, probably due to their literary interests, with both well-known figures in English literary circles. They had a keen respect for each other’s work, although not necessarily their own. Charlotte sent Elizabeth a copy of her volume of poems written with her siblings (originally printed under male pseudonyms) commenting “this little book of rhymes was sent by way of fulfilling a rashly made promise, and the promise was made to prevent you from throwing away four shillings in an injudicious purchase“. In contrast Charlotte lathered praise on Elizabeth’s ‘Moorland Cottage and other Stories’ writing “I told you that book opened like a daisy, I now tell you it finished like a herb; a balsamic herb with healing in its leaves“. This supportive relationship was important, especially when Charlotte was hurt after receiving criticism from another close friend Harriet Martineau who said her novel ‘Villette’ was “intolerably painful“.
Not only were they great supporters of each others work and careers, but they were also there for each other personally, with Elizabeth writing to another friend of her happiness at Charlotte’s engagement to Arthur Nicholls in 1854. Yet this same letter showed Elizabeth’s concern for the continuation of their friendship due to this marriage…
“I am terribly afraid he won’t let her go on being intimate with us, heretics. I see she is, too, a little. However, she is coming to us in May, & I must make the most of her then, & hope for the future. I fancy him very good, but very stern & bigoted; but I dare say that is partly fancy. Still it arises from what she has told me. He sounds vehemently in love with her. And I like his having known her dead sisters & dead brother & all she has gone through of home trials & being no person who had just fancied him in love with her because he was dazzled by her genius.”
Elizabeth clearly greatly values her friendship with Charlotte and worried that Mr Nicholls strong beliefs (he was Anglican and Elizabeth was Unitarian) and personality will come between them, yet at the same time she was happy Charlotte has found the happiness she deserves with a man who understands her traumatic past. Their friendship remained intact until Charlotte’s tragic death the next year in 1855 from pregnancy complications at the age of 38.
This, however, was not the end of their friendship. At the request of Charlotte’s father Patrick Brontë, Elizabeth wrote a biography on the life of her friend published in 1857 ‘The Life of Charlotte Brontë’, which has been described as a “protective biography”. Elizabeth was not objective, but which one of us would be when writing about the life of a much cherished friend? She did not go into any details onto the great passion Charlotte had for the Constantin Heger who was a married man. Elizabeth met Constantin and saw the letters Charlotte sent him, but to protect her friend’s reputation and literary legacy she did not include this scandalous episode in her friend’s life. The biography was incredibly well researched, with Elizabeth accumulating letters from Charlotte’s correspondence with other friends and building a vivid picture of the extraordinary life of one of Britain’s greatest novelists.
So what are your thoughts on Charlotte and Elizabeth? Are you fans of their literary work? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
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Charlotte Bronte by Christine Alexandar ONB: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-3523#odnb-9780198614128-e-3523-div1-d1157742e2532
Charlotte Bronte, British Library: https://www.bl.uk/people/charlotte-bronte
Elizabeth Gaskell, British Library: https://www.bl.uk/people/elizabeth-gaskell
Elizabeth Gaskell by Jenny Uglow ONB: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-10434#odnb-9780198614128-e-10434-div1-d353833e1588