How Far Would You Go for a Friend? – An insight into Elizabeth Gaskell’s friendship with Charlotte Brontё

Having featured the literary bond between Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell on this blog, and touched on it in  our book  A Secret Sisterhood, we were delighted to receive a message from Susan Dunne, who is writing the first full-length biography of the friendship between these two authors. If this piece inspires an idea for a future Something Rhymed post, please do get in touch here.

Elizabeth Gaskell (portrait by George Richmond, 1851). This image is in the public domain.

How far should you go to save a friend’s life – risk your own, break the law, face the wrath of family and friends?  It seems that Elizabeth Gaskell would have been prepared to do any of these to save her friend Charlotte Brontё from death caused by pregnancy.

Gaskell and  Brontё met in 1850 and formed a lasting friendship based on their experience as fellow novelists.  Both shot to fame with their first published novels, Mary Barton and Jane Eyre, and both endured the dubious pleasures of being northern English women lionized by London society.  They subsequently met just three times but their correspondence shows a deep mutual respect and affection.

Their friendship went beyond their lives as writers:  Gaskell was a married mother of four girls and she actively promoted Brontё’s marriage to her father Patrick Brontё’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, by trying to find him a more profitable position through engaging the help of the influential Yorkshire parliamentarian, Richard Monkton Milnes. Nicholls was offered two curacies, one in Lancashire and one in Scotland but turned both down to remain in Yorkshire, near to Brontё.   It is ironic that following her marriage to Nicholls in June 1854, Brontё’s correspondence with Elizabeth was curtailed due to Nicholls’s High Church proclivities.  Nicholls was intolerant of dissenters, and in particular of Unitarians like the Gaskells whose faith did not recognize the divinity of Christ.  From the start of her engagement, Brontё knew that her continued friendship with Gaskell would not be easy but hoped that the day would come when Nicholls would ‘see both you and Mr Gaskell’.

Charlotte Bronte – portrait by J.H. Thompson. This image is in the public domain.

By the time Brontё began to suspect that she was pregnant in February 1855, she had had no correspondence with Gaskell since October 1854.  Brontё’s pregnancy was confirmed by the local doctors but all was not well – she began to suffer from what is now commonly believed to be hyperemesis gravidarum, a particularly virulent form of pregnancy associated sickness.  Today the condition, which can lead to severe dehydration and kidney failure, can be treated but in Brontё’s time it was likely to prove fatal.  She died in March 1855, her unborn child dying with her.

The only hope of saving the mother’s life in such a case was to abort the child, but the law did not permit this.  The 1803 Ellenborough Act had made it an offence for any person to perform or cause an abortion on a quickening child, punishable by death or transportation for 14 years.  The law was subsequently amended but it remained an illegal act and certainly not one that would have been sanctioned by the church or churchmen like Brontё’s husband and father.

Despite the official legal, moral and religious stance, in an age when pregnancy posed a very real threat, termination either to save the mother’s life or for economic reasons was not uncommon.  Although necessarily a taboo subject, abortion was far from unknown behind closed bedroom doors.

When Gaskell heard from the Haworth stationer John Greenwood that her friend had died as a result of her pregnancy, her response was unhesitating:  “I do fancy that if I had come, I could have induced her, – even though they had all felt angry with me at first – to do what was so absolutely necessary, for her very life”.  She later reiterated to Brontё’s publisher, George Smith, that she might have been able to save Brontё’s life if she had only known.

Unlike Brontё’s other principle friends – Ellen Nussey, Mary Taylor and her old headmistress and former employer, Margaret Wooler who were all unmarried and childless – Gaskell was no stranger to the workings of the female body. She had been through seven pregnancies by the age of 36 and through her charitable works amongst the textile workers of Manchester would have known that unwanted pregnancies were rife.  For the working class, crude methods of getting rid of unwanted children were employed, including sharp instruments, induced falls and, in the most desperate cases,  infanticide following birth.   For  middle class women, information about abortion was at once covert and overt:  newspaper adverts offering pills which should not be taken during pregnancy were widely understood to be advertising abortifacients. It is possibly this which Gaskell had in mind when thinking about inducing Brontё.

Whether Gaskell could have saved Brontё’s life is a moot point.  Brontё was 38 at the time of conception – a very late age then to have a first child – and she was notably small.  She had once told her friend Ellen Nussey that full woman size chemisettes were too big for her.  Moreover, although she had been well since her marriage, Brontё’s physical health was not particularly strong – given the high maternal mortality rates of the time she was at high risk.

The fact that Gaskell was prepared to both break the law and risk the wrath of those around Brontё to save her friend’s life, suggests that theirs was a friendship that went much deeper than that of their shared writing interests.  Unable to save her friend’s life, she was determined to pay homage to her friend and create a lasting legacy by writing The Life of Charlotte Brontё which came out two years after Brontё’s death.  It has never been out of print.

Susan Dunne is a journalist and researcher.  She is currently writing the first full-length biography of the friendship between Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Brontё.  Her memoir, A Pony in the Bedroom was published by Jessica Kingsley in 2015.

 

Namesake

Due to family illness, Emily has not yet been able to post about her literary pilgrimage. However, we thought that perhaps those of you who missed it last time might be interested in an excerpt from the piece Emily wrote this time last year about her childhood visit to the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth.  

Title page of an early edition of Jane Eyre, showing Charlotte Bronte's pseudonym Currer Bell. Creative Commons licence.
Title page of an early edition of Jane Eyre, showing Charlotte Bronte’s pseudonym Currer Bell. Creative Commons licence.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have some sense of who the Brontë sisters were. My mother had named me Emily, after her favourite of the three, and, once she thought her daughters were old enough to appreciate the atmospheric setting – but some time, I think, before Erica or I had actually read any of the Brontës’ books – she took us to visit the Parsonage Museum at Haworth. This was a place famously popular with Japanese tourists, and somewhere Mum had got to know well herself through her related work for the regional tourist board.

There was a gift shop at the Parsonage, selling brooches bearing the sisters’ images. I, of course, bought an Emily Brontë brooch – thinking that, given my name – this was pretty much a requirement. I also remember feeling momentarily envious that Erica was able to make the choice for herself, by holding the Charlotte and Anne brooches up to the light and trying to decide whose picture she liked the most.

After much chivvying from our parents, who were no doubt keen to get us all outside for our lunchtime sandwiches, Erica finally selected the Charlotte brooch. Later, on the drive home in the car, we sat side-by-side in the back comparing our Brontë sisters. Unlike the dark colours of my miniature portrait of Emily, the Charlotte brooch was all cream and taupe with the merest blush of rose on her cheeks and lips.

There was something not-quite-there about the image, something that hinted at all the elements missing from the artist’s representation of his subject. You couldn’t guess, not from looking at the woman of that picture, that this was someone whose most famous novel had once made her a scandalous figure, because of the way its plot was believed to mount a dangerous challenge to contemporary patriarchal traditions.

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

Even in the biography written by Elizabeth Gaskell, there are many elements missing in her account of Charlotte’s life because, in order to try and resurrect her friend’s reputation she suppressed evidence, for instance, of her love of the married Constantin Héger, and tended to ignore details that might work against her aims of honouring Charlotte ‘as a woman, separate from her character as an authoress’.

Although later biographies have filled in many of these details, there is something about all three Brontë sisters, in fact, that remains enticingly enigmatic. It explains to me why my mother, a life-long lover of mysteries, should have been so drawn to their stories.

The Ghost of Charlotte Brontë

In our first post of October, we mentioned that George Eliot once received a letter from her friend Harriet Beecher Stowe in which she recounted a ghostly visit she’d received from the late Charlotte Brontë. Although Eliot brushed off this tale, telling Stowe that, ‘rightly or not’, she found it ‘enormously improbable’, the strange episode intrigued us. From which of the historic writers we’ve profiled on our website, we wondered, would we most welcome the chance of a visit?

The hardest thing about this month’s activity was making that choice. Katherine Mansfield, for instance, with her Bohemian ways, has always fascinated me. Having spent several months of this year immersed in Eliot’s letters to Stowe, I’ve become more and more interested in the life of the author of Middlemarch, and so I seriously considered writing about Eliot in this post, even though – given her reaction to Stowe – I’m not sure she’d have approved of the exercise.

But in the end I realised that, of all the authors we’ve profiled, it is the same writer that Stowe wrote of so excitedly to her British friend who has most haunted my own imagination over the years.

Title page of an early edition of Jane Eyre, showing Charlotte Bronte's pseudonym Currer Bell. Creative Commons licence.
Title page of an early edition of Jane Eyre, showing Charlotte Bronte’s pseudonym Currer Bell. Creative Commons licence.

Unlike Eliot or Stowe, Austen or Woolf, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have some sense of who the Brontë sisters were. My mother had named me Emily, after her favourite of the three, and, once she thought her daughters were old enough to appreciate the atmospheric setting – but some time, I think, before Erica or I had actually read any of the Brontës’ books – she took us to visit the Parsonage Museum at Haworth. This was a place famously popular with Japanese tourists, and somewhere Mum had got to know well herself through her related work for the regional tourist board.

There was a gift shop at the Parsonage, selling brooches bearing the sisters’ images. I, of course, bought an Emily Brontë brooch – thinking that, given my name – this was pretty much a requirement. I also remember feeling momentarily envious that Erica was able to make the choice for herself, by holding the Charlotte and Anne brooches up to the light and trying to decide whose picture she liked the most.

After much chivvying from our parents, who were no doubt keen to get us all outside for our lunchtime sandwiches, Erica finally selected the Charlotte brooch. Later, on the drive home in the car, we sat side-by-side in the back comparing our Brontë sisters. Unlike the dark colours of my miniature portrait of Emily, the Charlotte brooch was all cream and taupe with the merest blush of rose on her cheeks and lips.

There was something not-quite-there about the image, something that hinted at all the elements missing from the artist’s representation of his subject. You couldn’t guess, not from looking at the woman of that picture, that this was someone whose most famous novel had once made her a scandalous figure, because of the way its plot was believed to mount a dangerous challenge to contemporary patriarchal traditions.

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

Even in the biography written by Elizabeth Gaskell, there are many elements missing in her account of Charlotte’s life because, in order to try and resurrect her friend’s reputation she suppressed evidence, for instance, of her love of the married Constantin Héger, and tended to ignore details that might work against her aims of honouring Charlotte ‘as a woman, separate from her character as an authoress’.

Although later biographies have filled in many of these details, there is something about all three Brontë sisters, in fact, that remains enticingly enigmatic. It explains to me why my mother, a life-long lover of mysteries, should have been so drawn to their stories, and even perhaps why Stowe sat down in the dark well over a century ago now and tried to make contact with Charlotte Brontë.

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’.

Activity

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.