Ridings Hall, Huddersfield Rd, Birstall, WF17 9XA, UK
Gomersal Park Hotel, Moor Ln, Gomersal, Cleckheaton BD19 4LJ, UK
Brookroyd House, Brookroyd Ln, Batley WF17 0BU, UK
Oakwell Hall, Nutter Ln, Birstall, Batley WF17 9LF, UK
Roe Head School, Mirfield WF14 0DD, UK
St Peter, Birstall, Batley WF17 9PB, UK
Ellen Nussey (20 April 1817 – 26 November 1897) was born in Birstall Smithies in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England. She was a lifelong friend and correspondent of author Charlotte Brontë and, through more than 500 letters received from her, was a major influence for Elizabeth Gaskell's 1857 biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë.
Charlotte Bronte has long been suspected of having had a romantic relationship with Nussey. The language of their letters were extremely romantic, with one written by Ellen proclaiming, “If I had but been a man, thou wouldst have been the very ticket for me as a wife.” At one point, Ellen’s brother proposed to Charlotte and Charlotte briefly considered it for the mere reason that it would bring her closer to Ellen:
“Now my dear Ellen there were in this proposal some things that might have proved a strong temptation—I thought if I were to marry so, Ellen could live with me and how happy I should be.”
Vita Sackville West once noted, after reading Charlotte’s letters in 1926, that she knew exactly “what Charlotte’s tendencies really were.”
Nussey was the twelfth child of John Nussey (1760–1826), a cloth merchant of Birstall Smithies, near Gomersal, and his wife Ellen, née Wade (c.1771–1857). Nussey attended a small local school before progressing to Gomersal Moravian Ladies Academy. Nussey met Mary Taylor and Charlotte Brontë in January 1831, when they were pupils at Roe Head School, near Mirfield in Yorkshire. They corresponded regularly over the next 24 years, each writing hundreds of letters to the other. In 1839, Ellen Nussey's brother, Henry, proposed marriage to Brontë, but she found him dull and refused his offer.
Through her frequent visits to the Parsonage at Haworth, Nussey also became a friend of Anne and Emily Brontë, and was accepted as a suitable friend for his daughters by their father. In May 1849, Anne decided to visit Scarborough in the hope that the change of location and fresh sea air might be good for her failing health, and give her a chance to live, she went with Charlotte and Nussey. Before the trip, Anne expressed her frustration over unfulfilled ambitions in a letter to Ellen:
I have no horror of death: if I thought it inevitable I think I could quietly resign myself to the prospect ... But I wish it would please God to spare me not only for Papa's and Charlotte's sakes, but because I long to do some good in the world before I leave it. I have many schemes in my head for future practise–humble and limited indeed–but still I should not like them all to come to nothing, and myself to have lived to so little purpose. But God's will be done.
En route, they spent a day and a night in York, where, escorting Anne around in a wheelchair, they did some shopping, and at Anne's request, visited York Minster. It became clear that Anne had little strength left and on Sunday, 27 May 1849, she asked Charlotte whether it would be easier for her to go home to die instead of remaining at Scarborough. A doctor, consulted the next day, indicated that death was already close. Anne received the news quietly. She expressed her love and concern for Nussey and Charlotte, and seeing Charlotte's distress, whispered to her to "take courage". Nussey's presence during the weeks following gave comfort to Charlotte Brontë, who was writing her novel Shirley at the time. Nussey believed that the character Caroline Helstone was based on herself. Nussey was staying with the Brontës at Haworth on the night of the 1851 census and is shown on the return as "visitor".
For Charlotte Bronte and her lifelong romantic friend, Ellen Nussey, a joint home remained an unattainable dream. The pair had met at school in 1832, and continued a close and passionate friendship throughout their lives, visiting each other frequently after leaving school, sharing a bed when together and exchanging letters complaining about their separation when apart. In the years after leaving schhol, the idea of living together was frequently discussed by the women. In 1836, Bronte wrote to Nussey: Ellen, I wish I could live with you always. I begin to cling to your more fondly than ever I did. If we had but a cottage, and a competency of our own, I do think we might live and love on to Death without being dependent on any third person for happiness. Bronte refused at least three proposals of marriage in her youth, while Ellen Nussey resisted marriage throughout her life. When Ellen Nussey's brother, Henry, proposed to Charlotte in 1839, she wrote to Ellen that she had been tempted to accept in order to be able to live with Ellen, but ultimately she could not agree.
This relationship was no teenager’s crush. It continued into adulthood, maturing into a relationship all too familiar to many with its expressions of affection and devotion, agonising separations, and rocky paths, at one point caused by the deep friendship Ellen developed with Amelia Ringrose in the 1840s. It seems that Charlotte was uncomfortable to the point of jealousy over this relationship, and the situation only eased when Amelia got married.
When Charlotte Brontë married her father's curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls in June 1854, Nussey was one of two witnesses present. Their engagement had caused a cooling in the friendship on Nussey's part, who was probably jealous of Brontë's attachment to Nicholls, having thought they would remain spinsters. After Charlotte's death Nicholls became concerned that her letters to Nussey might damage her reputation and asked Nussey to destroy them, but she refused. Nussey sought to have the letters from Charlotte published until she learned that Nicholls held the copyright. After edited selections from more than 350 letters from Charlotte Brontë to Nussey were used in Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Brontë, he prevented at least one other publication from using them.
After Charlotte's death in 1855 Nussey devoted the rest of her life to maintaining the memory of her friend, and was often sought out by Brontë enthusiasts and biographers.
Nussey died in 1897, aged 80, at Moor Lane House in Gomersal in Yorkshire. Following her death, her possessions and letters were dispersed at auction, and many of Charlotte Brontë's letters to her made their way by way of donation or purchase to the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth in Yorkshire.
Nussey was the great-aunt of Helen Georgiana Nussey (1875–1965), the welfare worker.
Nussey Avenue in Birstall is named after her.
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