Betweenity, Friendship Across Miles and the Making of Mary Taylor’s Graphic Biography

Rae Joyce got in touch to tell us that she shared our fascination with Mary Taylor, the radical classmate who pushed Charlotte Brontë to earn her living by the pen. We were keen to learn more – not least since, like Taylor, Joyce is a Yorkshire woman living in New Zealand.

I drew Mary Taylor – in truth, she drew me to her.

109 port nicholson image ref As if a great planet fell out of the sky

In early 2016, I was sitting at the kitchen table with my partner batting around ideas for a project in which I could reconcile both of my hemispheres: Yorkshire and Aotearoa. As an English woman in New Zealand, I occupy a position of privilege that doesn’t sit comfortably with my working-class roots. I had always considered myself an underdog in the UK. But I’d recently finished co-editing Three Words, An Anthology of Aotearoa Women’s Comics (Beatnik), a book that sought to redress the erasure of women’s comics history in New Zealand, which forced me to acknowledge the link between comics and colonialism in Aotearoa. The book, and my essay included in it, was something of a stick to the wasps’ nest of the dominant culture of New Zealand comics. My partner, Māori poet Robert Sullivan, a former librarian, knew better than most what I was trying to achieve when he said, “Didn’t Charlotte Brontë have a friend who lived in New Zealand?”

I had read Jane Eyre in my teens and still had my copy. I put it in the laundry room where I had a small school desk and opened my laptop. Although I had a copy of Shirley, I hadn’t read it, so hadn’t yet encountered Rose and her family whose depictions Charlotte drew from Taylor and her family. But as I accumulated Brontë biographies and articles, an outline emerged of a woman I felt a strong pull to make out. Only one academic biography of Taylor had been published, and while I waited for a copy to arrive in the post, I began to draw.

For as long as I can remember, as well as writing, I have drawn and painted. I grew up in a small South Yorkshire mining town, until I didn’t. Which is to say, when the pits were closed, the pit head gear demolished and slag heaps overplanted the way kids scribble to hide their mistakes, I grew up on the edge of a ground-down town, cut off from all but a few houses by the new by-pass road that meant nobody had to drive through the place. At night, I would look out over the whips of birch at the brown-orange haze of streetlights above and the terraces silhouetted against them and wonder why the terrace I lived in was all on its own. Stories were my imaginative escape in lieu of the real thing.

It was a shift in circumstances that drove Taylor to Te Whanganui-a-Tara, as Wellington was known to Māori before Pākehā/Europeans arrived. After the death of her father, the family woollen mill passed to her eldest brother, and with it, her home. Taylor’s father had taught her never to marry for money, encouraging her in the belief that would underpin her writing: women must work. She differed from her best friend Charlotte in that she did not pay heed to social mores that considered work for women to be degrading – she referred to the working-classes as an example for the equality that could exist between the sexes. And by working and living independent of men, Taylor lived by her words. She set sail alone. But she maintained her friendship by letter.

Like Taylor, I travelled to New Zealand to improve my circumstances and to write. I have lived in Auckland almost as long as Taylor lived in Wellington, during which time I have corresponded with my best friend via letter. When my research for Taylor’s biography took me to New York in February 2017, I met my own Brontë in person for the first time.

Unlike the real Charlotte Brontë, Loredana Tiron-Pandit migrated, from Romania to Massachusetts. She is no coward. She is also the best supporter and encouragement a woman could have, and she never baulks from telling me what she thinks (Taylor would have loved her). She also helped me draft the copy of my graphic biography with text boxes that resemble torn fragments of Taylor and Brontë’s letters, because she is brilliant at all things ‘computer’ and I am a Luddite. (Taylor had a lot of sympathy for the Luddites. What an amiable bunch we four lasses would have made!).

As I pored over Taylor’s correspondence with Brontë I could not help but reflect on the letters – proper old fashioned paper letters – I had shared with Lori, how she was my first reader; how much I valued her honest opinion; how much I had come to rely on her and looked forward to her letters the way Taylor did – my driveway is no Mount Victoria, but I climb it with no less enthusiasm to check the mail box! My friendship with Lori was my first port of call for answering my questions of ‘How would Mary feel?’ Always at a distance, always waiting for a reply. And the satisfaction of handling the paper and reading the words in my friend’s own hand – Lori was never far from my thoughts as I shaped my book.144 gomersal brier hall image ref I can hardly explain to you the queer feeling of living...

And this is how my thoughts ran throughout the whole process of researching and drawing then inking the book; it wasn’t me finding out about Taylor, it was me and Lori talking to Charlotte and Mary. Sometimes I confused us. Sometimes I wanted to shake Taylor for her part in colonising Aotearoa. And once, in the Brontë Parsonage Library, I called Brontë a bitch. Taylor found the process messed with her head. Concerned for her health, she wrote to Brontë afraid she would slip into a state of “betweenity”. Body in New Zealand, head in Yorkshire.

I empathised.

Writing as Rae Joyce, Rachel J Fenton co-edited Three Words, An Anthology of Aotearoa Women’s Comics(Beatnik, 2016) and her participation in the NZ Book Council Graphic Novelist Exchange Residency in Association with the Publishers Association of NZ and the Taipei International Book Exhibition resulted in Island to Island, a Graphic Exchange between Taiwan and New Zealand(Dala/Upstart Press). Winner of the Auckland University of Technology Graphic Fiction Prize, Rachel is currently looking for a publisher for her graphic biography of Mary Taylor, Charlotte Brontë’s best friend, which she researched and drew with arts grant funding from Creative New Zealand.

Edited by Clêr Lewis.Clêr has an MA in creative writing from Goldsmiths, University of London, and is  working on her first novel.

If you too have an idea for a future Something Rhymed post, please do get in touch. You can find out more about what we are looking for here.

Behind the Doors of the Red House – former home of Mary Taylor, adventurous friend of Charlotte Brontë

Working on our book, A Secret Sisterhood, has given us the perfect excuse to visit some of the places most associated with our literary heroines.

Some of these, such as Jane Austen’s former home at Chawton, are geographically close to where we live. Others, like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house in the Connecticut town of Hartford, or the site of the school Charlotte Brontë attended in Brussels – both on the agenda for research trips this month – are considerably further afield.

A few are fixtures on the tourist trail, attracting many thousands of literary pilgrims each year; others are not usually open to visitors; others still, though they welcome the public, are nowhere near as well-known as they deserve to be.

A couple of months ago, I returned to my home county of Yorkshire to gain a stronger insight into the close and startlingly frank bond between Charlotte Brontë and Mary Taylor.

Regular readers of Something Rhymed may recall that I visited the Brontë Parsonage with my sister as a child – the two of us spending a long time in the gift shop picking out souvenir brooches bearing the images of Charlotte and Emily Brontë.

Walking on the moors by the Parsonage - as you can see from my scarf, there was a wuthering wind!
Walking on the moors by the Parsonage – as you can see from my flying scarf, there was a typically wuthering wind!

Once again, on this most recent trip, that famed grey-stone building on the edge of the moors was back on my itinerary. But this time I sought out other locations too: the house purchased by the intrepid Mary Taylor in her later years, once she’d returned to Yorkshire from New Zealand; the boarding school she and Charlotte Brontë attended as teenagers; and Taylor’s family residence, the Red House.

Situated in the village of Gomersal, its pleasant gardens and warm red brickwork make Taylor’s old home a welcoming sight. Inside, the marble-like pillars and wide-open balcony above the entrance hall give a markedly different impression from the dim downstairs corridor of the Haworth parsonage where her friend, Brontë, grew up.

The Red House - photographs of the interior of the house, including the stained glass and paintings mentioned in this post are available on their website.
The Red House – photographs of the interior of the house, including the stained glass and paintings mentioned in this post can be viewed on their website.

Thanks to the writings of both women, some features of the Red House felt pleasingly familiar to me.

In her novel, Shirley, Brontë reimagines it as Briarmains – the home of the Yorkes, who she based on the lively and opinionated Taylor clan. And in letters Taylor wrote to Elizabeth Gaskell, when she was preparing to write her biography of Brontë, Taylor recalled her late friend’s visits to the Red House – occasions when the once socially-conservative young Brontë was coaxed out of her usual reticence to engage in lively political arguments with the radical Taylor siblings.

Walking through the rooms of the Red House that day, scenes I’d last experienced in the written words of Brontë and Taylor kept resurfacing in my mind. It was a thrill to go into the back parlour and pick out the pair of stained glass windows and picture of Mount Vesuvius erupting  – mentioned in the pages of Shirley – and to imagine the young Brontë first coming face-to-face with the drama of that painting, and the sparkling purple and amber lights bouncing off the panes of stained glass.

We’ll look forward to sharing many more stories about the Red House, and Brontë and Taylor’s fascinating friendship in our forthcoming book, which comes out in late 2017.

In the meantime, we’ll feature another post about this literary pair, here on Something Rhymed, this month:

Discussing Jane Eyre together in March, made us curious to read Mary Taylor’s ground-breaking feminist novel, Miss Miles. Rather than doing an audio interview, this time we’ve decided to vary things by giving you our thoughts in a video, which we’ll post two weeks from now. We hope you’ll come back then to take a look.

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.