Charlotte Brontё and Mary Taylor

Back in 2014, we profiled Charlotte Brontё’s friendship with the author of Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell. Theirs was a fascinating bond, but – important though Gaskell was to Brontё – another writer, Mary Taylor, had an even greater influence on her life.

Brontё met Taylor, the future author of the feminist novel Miss Miles, in 1831 when they were teenage boarders at Roe Head School near Huddersfield. Their relationship got off to a rocky start when pretty Taylor told the pale, frizzy-haired new girl that she found her very ugly – a typically outspoken remark, and one from which Brontё would never fully recover.

But the pair’s bookish natures and their love of political argument soon drew them together, with Taylor’s bold and radical views opening Brontё’s eyes to fresh ways of thinking, especially in terms of the place of women in Victorian society.

Charlotte Bronte - this image is in the public domain.
Charlotte Bronte painted by J.H. Thompson – this image is in the public domain.

After leaving school the next year they kept in touch by letter and paid visits when they could to each other’s houses: the now-famous parsonage at Haworth where Brontё lived, and Taylor’s home the Red House at Gomersal.

A decade later when they were in their mid-twenties, Taylor’s encouragement gave Brontё a ‘wish for wings’. The two daringly left their native rural Yorkshire and headed for urban Brussels, to continue their education at separate schools in the Belgian capital.

The Pensionnat de Demoiselles Heger-Parent, where Brontё enrolled, was to become the scene of one of the most infamous episodes of her life – the place where she fell desperately in love with her temperamental tutor, the married Constantin Heger.

Taylor, ever hungry for greater independence, soon moved on to Germany and took a position, controversially, teaching young men. Friendless and alone in Brussels, Brontё eventually realised that her position at the Pensionnat was untenable and returned to Haworth.

Taylor, on the other hand, decided to set-sail for an even more distant destination – New Zealand. On learning that the two would now be separated by thousands of miles, a devastated Brontё remarked that it felt as if ‘a great planet fell out of the sky’.

To most, including herself, it looked as if Taylor was the true adventurer. But Brontё was beginning to break new ground too. While Taylor pushed her literary ambitions into the background – concentrating instead on the daily challenges of her brave new life – safe within her childhood home, Brontё was finally getting the chance to write.

In 1847, Brontё tasted success for the first time when the publication of her first novel, Jane Eyre, caused a nationwide sensation.

Mary Taylor (far left), climbing in Switzerland at the age of fifty-seven. We asked the Red House museum for their permission to use this image.

Taylor, who’d continued to correspond with Brontё during her time in New Zealand, returned to Britain in 1860, five years after her friend’s early death. She kept on travelling into her later years. Aged in her fifties, she joined a female mountaineering expedition in Switzerland, which resulted in the jointly-authored book Swiss Notes by Five Ladies.

Owing to the distractions of her intrepid life, her novel Miss Miles wasn’t published until 1890 when Taylor was in her seventies. Like Brontё’s novel, Shirley – for which Taylor provided the inspiration for the plucky character of Rose Yorke – it can be regarded as a book that celebrates the enduring power of female friendship.

This month

Later this month, we’ll be doing another audio interview. This time we’ll be discussing Charlotte Brontё’s novel Jane Eyre, and Mary Taylor’s forthright reaction to the book. If you missed our previous interviews about Jane Austen’s Emma and Maria Edgeworth’s The Absentee, you can catch up on what we talked about then by scrolling down to those earlier posts.

For those who’d like a quick refresher, Jane Eyre is currently BBC Radio 4’s 15 Minute Drama. You can listen to episode one of the adaptation here.

Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell

Image used with the kind permission of Oxford University Press.
Image used with the kind permission of Oxford University Press.

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.