The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

As soon as the commission to write the biography of Charlotte Brontë had been accepted, Elizabeth needed to collect information from as many sources as she could. 

A portrait painted in oils of Ellen Nussey
Ellen Nussey by Frederic Yates (1854-1919 (public domain)

Her first two points of contact were Ellen Nussey, Charlotte’s friend, and George Smith her publisher.

George Smith

Smith had begun publishing Elizabeth’s work on Charlotte’s recommendation, releasing the novel form of North and South after its run in Household Words had finished.

In July she wrote to George Smith asking him for the addresses of Mary Taylor and her brother. Mary was Charlotte’s school friend from her days in Brussels and had emigrated to New Zealand in 1845 after inheriting money. In England a women was not allowed to enter into trade which was the career Mary wanted to pursue. Elizabeth also asked for material from George Smith’s mother and had written to ‘Miss “Temple” of Jane Eyre, who is married to a clergyman’ (L. 256).

Ellen Nussey

At the end of July, Elizabeth contacted Ellen Nussey at Mr. Nicholl’s suggestion. She  writes:

Mr. Nicholls said he thought that you were the person of all others to apply to; that you had been a friend of his wife’s since she was 15; and that he would write to you to-day, and ask if you would allow us to see as much of her correspondence with you as you might feel inclined to trust me with‘ (BLFC p. 192).

By 26 July, Ellen Nussey had replied to Elizabeth with the promise of material :

‘I have a great many letters (for I have destroyed but a small portion of the correspondence), but I fear the early letters are not such as to unfold the character of the writer except in a few points. You will perhaps discover more than is apparent to me. You will read them with a purpose – I perused them only with interests of affection.’ (BLFC p. 193)

Eventually Elizabeth received at least 300 letters from Ellen which needed to be read, then relevant information selected which would provide interest while protecting the living from anything incriminating or hurtful. This was following Samuel Johnson’s idea of ‘a judicious and faithful narrative’, where judicious allowed for personal discretion in the selection of material.

Ellen Nussey was also able to contact Margaret Wooler, Headmistress at Roe Head School. While Margaret was reticent about meeting Elizabeth in person, she was happy to send material.


By late October, Elizabeth writes to George Smith, ‘I almost fancy that I have material enough, or nearly enough, gathered together to enable me to make a volume’ (L.271) and by November Margaret Wooler’s letter had arrived and: ‘I like them better than any other series of letters of hers that I have seen; (a few to ‘Emily’ those to Miss Nussey, and some to Mr. Smith)’ (L. 272).

By December, Elizabeth had received more letters from W. S. Williams, the literary editor for Smith and Elder writing, ‘I have read them hastily over and I like the tone of them very much; it is curious how much the spirit in which she wrote varies according to the correspondent’ (L. 274).

Harriet Martineau also contributed positively despite their broken friendship after Harriet had said that Charlotte’s mind was too full of love. Click here to find out more about who Harriet Martineau was via Wikipedia.

No Refusal

During the spring of 1856, the search for material moved to Brussels. Elizabeth contacted Laetitia Wheelwright, who was at school with Charlotte and later visited the Heger’s school where Mme Heger refused to see her because of her connections with Charlotte.

Monsieur Heger on the other hand was ‘kind and communicative’. Ellen Nussey writes to Elizabeth: ‘I feel pleasure in your account of Monsieur. He would do C justice for he could understand her nature’ (BLFC p. 204).

However, this visit predicated another journey to Haworth to collect material, some of which pertained to Charlotte’s life in Brussels, and Elizabeth confesses: ‘I am literally afraid’. Her fear was that Arthur Nicholls, who had been against the biography from the outset, would deny her access, so she took Sir James Kay Shuttleworth with her.

Arthur Nicholls relied on Sir James for his living and it would make any refusal awkward. She writes to Emily Shaen of her embarrassment: ‘he had not the slightest delicacy or scruple; and asked for an immense number of things, literally taking no refusal’ (BLFC p. 207).

At the beginning of October 1856 Elizabeth had written over 300 foolscap pages and in her subsequent letter to George Smith there is more than merely a hint that this biography will be incendiary:

Do you mind the law of libel, – I have three people I want to libel – Lady Scott (that bad women who corrupted Branwell Brontë) Mr Newby & Lady Eastlake, the first and last not to be named by name, the mean publisher to be gibbetted’ (L 314) 

It is hardly surprising that by 7 February 1857 when the book was due to be released, Elizabeth conveniently disappeared to Italy for nearly four months.

Dr Diane Duffy, Chair, The Gaskell Society

This post originally appeared on the Elizabeth Gaskell House website and is kindly reproduced here with their, and the author’s permission.