Mike Popplewell continues his look at the places and people of the Spen Valley who have links with the Brontes and spotlights Charlotte’s friend Ellen Nussey.
WHILST Bronte lovers are today celebrating the 201st anniversary of Charlotte’s birth, yesterday was the bi-centenary of Ellen Nussey’s birth at the family home, Rydings Hall, now known simply as The Rydings, at Birstall Smithies.
Ellen was the daughter of John Nussey, a cloth merchant, and his wife Ellen (nee Wade).
She was one of 12 children and spent almost her entire life in the Spen Valley. After early schooling in Birstall she went to the Moravian Ladies Academy on Listing Lane, Gomersal, and then to Roe Head, Mirfield, where she met fellow pupil Charlotte in 1831 when they were both young teens.
Mary Taylor, of the Red House, in Gomersal, was also at Roe Head and the three became firm friends.
Ellen’s friendship with Charlotte was to last until Charlotte’s death in 1855, and in those 24 years more than 500 letters passed between them. Ellen’s brother Henry actually proposed to Charlotte at one point, apparently being turned down because he was ‘too dull’.
Although Ellen was one of the witnesses at Charlotte’s eventual marriage to her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, it has been suggested that the long-standing friendship was affected by the ‘intrusion’ of the Rev Nicholls.
There were certainly clashes between Ellen and Nicholls after Charlotte’s death.
He asked Ellen to destroy the letters that Charlotte had written to her, for fear that publication might tarnish his late wife’s image and reputation, but Ellen refused.
Ellen did, in fact, plan to have the letters published but found that Nicholls held the copyright.
Elizabeth Gaskell later used extracts from the 350 letters that Charlotte had written to Ellen as a basis for her biography of Charlotte, although Nicholls did manage to prevent them appearing in another publication.
Following Charlotte’s death, Ellen spent the rest of her life working to preserve her friend’s memory and always believed that the character of Caroline Helstone in Shirley was based on her.
In later life, Ellen moved to Moor Lane House in Gomersal, which once stood in what are now the Gomersal Park Hotel grounds. She died there in 1897, at the age of 80, and was buried in the churchyard at Birstall’s St Peter’s, which itself featured in Charlotte’s works as Briarfield Church.
The Rydings, now offices for a paint factory, was formerly a country house set in parkland stretching from Muffitt Lane to Birstall Smithies and became the inspiration for Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre.