When we first became interested in female writing friendship, we wrote off Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Brontë as mere acquaintances.
In between their first meeting in the Lake District in 1850, and Brontë’s untimely death just five years later, they met only a handful of times, and, undoubtedly, each of them was closer to other women.
Brontë had been a pal since childhood with the loyal Ellen Nussey. She was deeply influenced by the feminist Mary Taylor, and inextricably bonded with her famous sisters Emily and Ann. In the more sociable Gaskell’s case, she moved in exulted social circles and counted Florence Nightingale and Harriet Beecher Stowe amongst her friends.
But something about the relationship between Brontë and Gaskell kept nagging away at us. We found it intriguing that Patrick Brontë – a man fiercely protective of his late daughter’s memory – had chosen the author of Cranford as her biographer. Brontë’s sojourns to 84 Plymouth Grove, the home of the Gaskell family, also piqued our interest, as did the frequency of the correspondence between the two women.
Wondering whether we had been too hasty in overlooking this pair, we turned to their letters to investigate further. Here, we discovered a relationship based on mutual support, and shared artistic and professional concerns.
We found that Gaskell and Brontë regularly exchanged candid views on literature and publishing, sometimes accompanying their letters with recommended books. On a personal level, Gaskell took the ailing Brontë under her wing. When it came to their writing, though, it was Brontë who provided the greater share of support by acting as a sounding board for her friend’s literary ideas and giving her generous advice on how she could improve her novels.
Brontë even persuaded her publisher to delay the release of Villette, because it would have clashed with the publication of Gaskell’s novel Ruth.
Gaskell would, of course, one day seek to return this generosity by styling her Life of Charlotte Brontë as a tribute to her friend, someone of whom she’d once said, ‘I never heard or read of anyone who was for an instant, or in any respect, to be compared to her’.
Charlotte Brontë included a copy of Wordsworth’s Prelude with her first letter to her literary pal.
This month, we’ll be sending each other a book and writing a dedication on the inside cover.
If you know of any more writer friends that you think we ought to profile on this site, please do tell us about them.
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