A birthday between friends: Ellen Nussey (20 April 1817–26 November 1897) and Charlotte Bronte (21 April 1816–31 March 1855)

 “Friendship, however, is a plant which cannot be forced. True friendship is no gourd, springing in a night and withering in a day. When first I saw Ellen I did not care for her; we were school fellows. In course of time we learned each other’s faults and good points. We were contrasts still we suited. Affection was first a germ, then a sapling, then a strong tree. Now, no new friend, however lofty or profound in intellect not even Miss Martineau herself could be to me what Ellen is: yet she is no more than a conscientious, observant, calm, well-bred Yorkshire girl. She is without romance.” Charlotte Bronte describing her friendship with Ellen Nussey in a letter to Mr. Williams dated January 3, 1850.


Portrait of a young woman looking over her right shoulder towards the viewer: head held high; broad, open features, large almond-shaped brown eyes, high arched eyebrows, long nose, full highly colored pink cheeks and lips: glossy brown shoulder-length ringlets cover her head, part of a bow visible at back right; bare shoulders with a ribbon around neck. It is said to be a portrait of Ellen Nussey by Charlotte Bronte. This drawing was found amongst Ellen Nussey’s effects between May 18-19, 1898. It is now housed at the Bronte Parsonage Museum.

Does anyone else see that Ellen Nussey and Charlotte Bronte were born one day and one year apart? How have I never come to realize that fact before? On April 21, 1816 Maria Bronte nee Branwell gave birth to Charlotte  Bronte in Thornton in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England. Twelve months later, on 20 April, 1817 Ellen Nussey nee Wade (1771-1857)  gave birth to Ellen Nussey also in West Riding of Yorkshire, England in a small house on Smithies Moore Lane.The youngest of twelve siblings, her father John Nussey (1760-1826) was a cloth merchant of Birstall Smithies. Upon his death in 1826, their mother Ellen Wade Nussey moved her twelve children into their Grand Uncle Richard Walker's home called  Rydings. Years later, Ellen Nussey's old friend Charlotte Bronte would name a grand house Thornfield in Jane Eyre. Rydings is believed to be used as the model for it. 

 Young woman at table by Charlotte Bronte, 1838
owned by Ellen Nussey
Bronte Parsonage Museum
Ellen Nussey’s education was varied. For instance, at a young age she first attended a small local school before entering into Gomersal Moravian Ladies’ Academy. Finally, on 25 January 1831 Ellen Nussey walked into  Margaret Wooler’s school at Roe Head. It was here a fourteen year old Ellen met fifteen year old Charlotte Bronte. In 1836, Ellen Wade moved her family to Brookroyd in Birstall into a much smaller house than Rydings.  So begins the lifelong friendship between two young girls from Yorkshire England.

Charlotte Bronte by George Richmond

Ellen Nussey would visit Charlotte at Haworth often eventually becoming fast friends with her sisters Emily and Anne. She even earned the approval of their father, Rev. Patrick Bronte. Ellen was always present or nearby during all of the Bronte sisters life events good and bad. She would be a good friend to the three sisters but there was that bond between she and Charlotte, especially. Their friendship even survived Charlotte's rejection of a marriage proposal from Ellen brother's Henry. Now, that's true friendship. Come on girls didn't you fight sometimes? Go days or months without speaking because of a huge row?

Well apparently their friendship survived all three sisters novel publications and lives as authors. It wasn't until the engagement of Charlotte Bronte to her father's curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls late in life that Ellen Nussey became jealous. She didn't communicate with Charlotte for a while. It couldn't have been very long because Ellen was one of two witnesses when Charlotte married Nicholls at Haworth in June of 1854. She was also Charlotte's only bridesmaid, so I guess they made up!  When Charlotte died in March 1855, Ellen dedicated herself to preserving her friend's memory.
Charlotte Bronte's life was filled with family, hearth and home. She worked for a year teaching at her old school Roe Head. She left because she was unhappy and unfulfilled. She was also a governess briefly. Her time in Brussels as a student ended up in heartbreak for her while her sister Emily thrived. She never stayed at one place for very long. Her one constant was her writing, sitting at the rounded table in that tiny room at Haworth. Through every upheaval and happy event she used her feelings, experiences and people she met in her novels: 
Jane Eyre 1847, Shirley 1849, Villette 1853, and The Professor 1857.

 I can understand Charlotte's restlessness, yearning for adventure while still keeping people at bay; only cherishing those she knows and loves. I am much like that myself.  One gets bored easily and seeks out fun and happy times but then has numerous interests it is easy to get overwhelmed by situations and people around you. Charlotte wanted romance but wouldn't admit it. She had three proposals during her lifetime. Marrying quite late in life to a man her father did not care for and a proposal she initially rejected. Lucky for her,  Rev. Arthur Bell Nicholls persisted. Briefly, Charlotte became Mrs. Nicholls and their time together was her happiest. Sadly, pregnancy did not work out for her and it aided in her death in 1855.  
 Arthur Bell Nicholls in 1861

Charlotte Bronte left her legacy as did her sisters and brother. On the other side you have spinster Ellen Nussey who came from the same place, same time, a large enough family with demons of its own. Although, there is not much detail about her life aside from her well known friend Charlotte. She is the keeper of the flame as it were. She preserved her correspondence with Charlotte Bronte which thankfully provides a quite wonderful understanding of who Charlotte was as a friend. Through the Bronte family documentation we know who she was as sister, teacher, governess but only Ellen Nussey let us into her personal world so we could meet her friend of twenty four years (1831-1855).

 “The life of Charlotte Bronte, viewed apart from her high gifts and genius as an authoress, was a very unsensational life; for the most part it was a life of domestic duty, self-sacrifice, fidelity to whatever she believed to be right, fortitude in suffering, and patient resignation under all inevitable trials. What is said of Charlotte may, with almost equal truth, be said of Emily and Anne; thugh they differed greatly in many points of character and disposition, they were each and all on common ground if a principle had to be maintained or a sham to be detected. They were all jealous of anything hollow or unreal. All were resolutely single-minded, eminently courageous, eminently simple in their habits, and eminently tender-hearted. 

I could no longer refuse or delay to set about giving, as a tribute of justice to herself, a few more of her own words, the words of her heart and feelings, as they were elicited by the common accidents and incidents of daily life. The doing of this involves some sacrifice; but to shrink from possible annoyance or discomfort when duly called upon in defence of one we have loved, is indeed to be cowardly and craven-hearted, and unworthy of Charlotte Brontes faithful love and friendship.”  Ellen Nussey describing her friend Charlotte Bronte (and her sisters) in Scribner’s Monthly, May 1871.

Is that all Ellen Nussey has given us? I just find it a bit sad that although she lived to the age of eighty years old, what do we know about this woman? If it were not for meeting Charlotte at school and the Bronte family connection who would Ellen Nussey be? We would never have heard of her. How do you live such a long life and have not that much to show for it. Maybe she was content and think me foolish for such thoughts but she didn't marry? Was she proposed to? Did it matter to her?

 Ellen Nussey in old age 1895

On the morning of Friday, November 26, 1897 Miss Ellen Nussey passed away in her Yorshire home. She was the life-long friend of Charlotte Bronte, and the chief, if not sole, personal link existing in connection with that gifted family. Lady Morrison and Ellen Nussey were close friends for more than ten years, 

“In person Ellen Nussey was not striking, but she was sprightly, attractive coquettish, no doubt, in her younger days and intelligent; her manners charming; every word and gesture bearing emphatically the stamp of truth; while her voice, mellowed and modulated to a peculiarly gentle cadence, was exceedingly pleasant to hear. I have often sat beside her, and heard with unfeigned interest her sparkling talk about the Bronte family; have heard her relate incidents and anecdotes in the lives of the sisters, which seemed to me better than any information to be gathered from books. Miss Nussey told me that she considered Branwell, the brother, the cleverest, and most talented of the whole family, and, but for his misused powers, he could, had he chosen, have outstripped his sisters in literature. Many of the incidents which she related go far to prove that Charlotte Bronte was keenly alive to humor, her life, she was at all times open to, and rejoiced in, its gaiety and sunshine. That Ellen Nussey is the prototype of ‘Caroline Helstone’ in Shirley cannot for a moment be doubted. It may be remembered that in one part of the book Caroline was described as wearing a brown dress with a pink bow. When I inquired of Miss Nussey if this also was taken from herself, she said that she was wearing that particular kind of attire at the time Shirley was written. It is to Ellen Nussey that the public is, and will ever be, indebted for authentic information with regard to the Bronte family. But for her, no history of these remarkable people could have gone forth to the world in a truthful and reliable form.”  The Bookman, Volume VI, September, 1897-February, 1898



Kevin Marsh said…
Hello Kimberly,

Lovely photographs and some interesting observations.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Kevin,
I'm glad you enjoyed my article and observations.
Thanks for stopping by!
Loretta Proctor said…
This is a most interesting article, Kimberly. I didn't realise their birthdays were so close either. No one really remembers Ellen Nussey as she was indeed a shadowy figure behind Charlotte. I can see why they got on so well. Charlotte needed a down to earth companion, someone less restless than herself. Charlotte was very sensible herself. But Romance...she had that... or rather passion...in spadefuls and it would seem Ellen didn't. Thanks for the article! xxx
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Lorri,
I know. I wonder if they ever celebrated their birthdays together as best friends? I hope I brought Ellen Nussey out of the shadow a bit more. Good point. Charlotte did need someone to ground her a bit and Ellen Nussey seemed to be the one constant. Especially when Charlotte was jealous of her sisters or there was sibling issues. Thanks so much for stopping by!
WoofWoof said…
Thanks again Kimberly for a wonderfully researched, fascinating piece! One of the things that does strike me is Ellen being one of 12 siblings! Her mother was 46 when she was born - you can only imagine what life must have been like for her poor mother. Then to lose her father when she was 9. It must have been hard for her mother to be widowed with all those children (though no doubt some were grown up by then). I suppose we will never know if life was happy when they had to move to the big house to stay with the rich relative (or if it was a bit like it was for Jane Eyre with her aunt and cousins). As for her later life, with 11 siblings, I expect she would have had a lot of nieces and nephews. Hopefully she got some happiness from being an aunt. Hopeless romantic that I am, I can't help wondering if she was secretly in love with Branwell given her comments about his abilities? Thanks again for such an interesting piece. One of the things I love about your blog is the way that it shines a light on people who were quite obscure but had a connection with someone well known. It makes me think of that last bit of Middlemarch where George Eliot talks about how history being made up of the lives of countless ordinary people (or something like that!)
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi WoofWoof,
So lovely to hear from you again. I cannot thank you enough for your support and such kind words about my research, articles, and most importantly what I bring here. I hope you are out enjoying the nice weekend! :)