Elizabeth Gaskell (1801-1865) was fifteen years older than Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855). They led very different lives. While Gaskell was a social extrovert, Brontë led an introverted life. Whether or not this was the true nature of each of these women, it is how they ended up living their lives due to circumstance, experience, and trying to manage the expectations around women in the Victorian era.

Both women burned with creativity and ambition in a time when that was not socially acceptable. Each woman allowed herself expression through the written word. Each woman probably recognized in the writing of the other a common bond. How wonderful to find this camaraderie, to perceive a similar spark in another, and to then come together and offer recognition. This must have been intensely satisfying.

The following quote from a letter written by Charlotte Brontë could have as easily been written by Gaskell:

“A fire was kindled in my very heart which I could not quench. I so longed to increase my attainments—to become something better than I am”(A Life 168).

This fire indeed the women shared.

Read Nasty Women Writers posts about Elizabeth Gaskell:

Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) Part 1 — Having it All

Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865): Part 2—A Voice for Women and the Working Class

Jane Eyre and Mary Barton

Jane Eyre was published under the pseudonym Currer Bell in 1847 and Mary Barton was published anonymously in 1848. Both first-published novels by the respective authors made quite a stir. Both were written while the women knew not of each other. While Gaskell’s authorship was easier to detect, Currer Bell remained a mystery. Gaskell was as curious as any other reader but she long suspected Currer was a she.

Brontë and Gaskell were of different religions and different political opinions. Though Gaskell towed the line outwardly, playing the role of wife and mother and “well-behaved” female while covertly and underhandedly taking her freedom and liberation, Charlotte Brontë did not hide her rebellion and was more forthcoming with her opinions and insurgence.

Each woman was conservative in her own way — liberal in others. They were both strong, independent-minded and deeply committed to their writing and writing lives. This is the place where they most deeply connected and fed each other. While Gaskell subtly condescended to Brontë about her quiet, unfettered life and tried to “save her” from it, she was also envious of the time and space this solitude offered. She was also clear that Brontë possessed true genius. While Brontë loved the busyness of Gaskell’s life and spending time with her daughters in her busy home, she knew she could not tolerate such mayhem as an ongoing experience. She could never have moved at the pace that Gaskell moved. I doubt many of us could.

While Gaskell enjoyed fame and meeting other writers, for Brontë, being a public persona was taxing. That is not to say she did not enjoy that her books were well-received and well-read. Brontë drew much satisfaction and pride out of being a successful writer. It was more the specter of a public that made her shake and tremble from what many people labeled shyness. Today we may attribute it to sensitivity and label her an empath. Or we might call it PTSD.

Brontë’s life was extremely traumatic. She was also chronically ill, which we know now could have contributed to her lack of stamina for activity and social demands. I am of the opinion that shyness was not necessarily her true nature but something brought on through life experience.

Fast Friends

They had read each other’s books, Mary Barton and Jane Eyre already and corresponded about how much they admired each other’s work. After this Brontë sent Gaskell an early copy of her new novel, Shirley in 1849, about which Gaskell sent back a rave review which pleased Charlotte.

At this point she was still Currer Bell and no one knew her real identity though many guessed. Harriet Martineau was one of the earliest to know and describe her to Gaskell in a letter.

In the summer of 1850 they were brought together at the home of mutual friends.

“Charlotte and Elizabeth were thrown together, talking over needlework in the drawing-room, driving in the countryside and boating on the lake. They also paid a visit to the Arnolds at Fox How, which revealed Charlotte’s chronic shyness. In long conversations they explored each other’s tastes, finding that they agreed on some things, such as liking Ruskin, but were far apart on others. Afterwards Elizabeth told Charlotte Froude: ‘she and I quarreled & differed about almost everything – she call me a democrat, & cannot bear Tennyson—but we like each other hearty I think / & hope we shall ripen into friends. In her turn Charlotte Brontë found Elizabeth ‘a woman of the most genuine talent—of cheerful, pleasing and cordial manners and —I believe—a kind and good heart’”(Uglow 248-249).

Quickly after her fame and success with Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë lost her brother  Branwell, followed by her sister Emily, then Anne in less than one year. At age thirty-three, alone with only her father, she was the last remaining child of five siblings. Her mother had died when Charlotte was just five. The constant illness in the family was due to bad water in Haworth caused by the proximity of their home to  the cemetery. Charlotte Brontë was constantly beset with debilitating headaches and a general lack of good health. She was emotionally crushed by the loss of her three siblings who were also her best friends.

A daguerreotype believed to be of Charlotte, Emily and  Anne Brontë

Gaskell meets her after this. In fact, many of the people who came to know her after the success of Jane Eyre, came to know her only after these tragic losses. One can’t help but wonder if much of Charlotte’s reported behavior is actually depression. Certainly, it is grief and bereavement.

Gaskell never knew Branwell, Emily, or Anne. She only ever knew Charlotte without them.

After her third meeting with Brontë, Gaskell declares that she has come to love her. Brontë finds Gaskell’s gregarious kindness to be a sort of balm. Her shyness cannot hold up to it. Gaskell manages to bring her out of it and a true intimacy develops between the women. In 1852 Gaskell shared her novel Ruth with Brontë in various stages for input. Gaskell’s Ruth and Brontë’s Villette came out in 1853. Brontë requested that her publisher hold back on Villette until Ruth had time to go through reviews. Brontë wrote to Gaskell:

“I dare say, arrange as we may, we shall not be able wholly to prevent comparison; it is the nature of some critics to be invidious; but we need not care: we can set them at defiance; they shall not make us foes, they shall not mingle with our mutual feelings one taint of jealousy: there is my hand on that; I know you will give clasp for clasp”(The Life 421).

Though Bronte had visited Gaskell in her home many times, in September 1853 Gaskell made her first visit to Haworth. Brontë urged:

“Come to Haworth as soon as you can: the heath is in bloom now: I have waited and watched for its pure signal as the forerunner of your coming,”(The Life 437).

The moors were almost another family member to the Brontës since they had moved to Haworth. Their mother was from Cornwall, another land of the moors, so it seems to have been in their blood from the beginning. Earlier in The Life of Charlotte Brontë Gaskell describes the season of August:

“The season of glory for the neighborhood of Haworth. Even the smoke, lying in the valley between that village and Keighly, took beauty from the radiant colors on the moors above, the rich purple of the heather bloom calling out an harmonious contrast in the tawny golden light that, in the full heat of summer evenings, comes stealing everywhere through the dun atmosphere of the hollows. And up, on the moors, turning away from all habitations of men, the royal ground on which they stood would expand into long swells of amythyst-tinted hills, melting away into aërial tints; and the fresh and fragrant scent of the heather, and the ‘murmur of innumerable bees,’ would lend poignancy to the relish with which they welcomed their friend to their own true home on the wild and open hills”(The Life 257).

Indeed, by the time Gaskell arrived, the thunderstorms had taken the purple off the heather:

“Then I accompanied her in her walks on the sweeping moors: the heather-bloom had been blighted by a thunder-storm a day or two before, and was all of a livid brown color, instead of the blue of purple glory it ought to have been Oh! Those high, wild, desolate moors, up above the whole world, and the very realms of silence”(The Life 439).

This was the last and only visit Gaskell would make to Haworth while Charlotte Brontë was still alive.

Read Nasty Women Writers posts on Charlotte Brontë:

Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre’s Righteous Anger, British Woman Writer (1816-1855)

Being Poor While Female in 19th Century Woman Writer Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853)

Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley: The Power of Female Friendship

Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor: Equality Achieved

The death of Charlotte Brontë

When she died in March of 1855, Brontë’s father asked Gaskell to write her biography.

Brontë’s husband Arthur Nicholls and Patrick Brontë were worried about gossip and someone else writing the biography and getting it wrong. Patrick put a lot of pressure on Gaskell to commit to it and get it done fast and right. Gaskell had to appease them both as well as others whose letters she had received who wanted themselves represented in particular way. She had gone to Haworth in July to discuss it with them:

“As she left, Patrick Brontë’s last words were ‘no quailing, Mrs Gaskell! No drawing back!”(Uglow 392).

Gaskell worked very hard on The Life of Charlotte Brontë. So earnestly she endeavored to do justice by her friend. She went everywhere, interviewing everyone who knew Charlotte Brontë, had all her letters sent to her, read them, and copied them. Her daughters helped her with the letters, reading, and copying as well.

Of the summer 1855, Uglow writes:

“Arrangements for the summer had already been made. William was off to Switzerland with his friend William James, the Unitarian minister from Bristol. Elizabeth was heading for Fox How, then Silverdale and finally Glasgow, where she and Marianne would go to the British Scientific Association. Nevertheless she continued to pursue her search. In the Lake District she saw Harriet Martineau and bore away more letters. From Silverdale in August she made a brief dash to the Kay-Shuttleworth’s at Gawthorpe and scribbled a note from there to Mary Green agreeing to have the Green girls to stay, and apologizing for her haste: ‘Upwards of 300 letters to read through & copy what is written in 2 days, & every day a journey to take till I land at Silverdale on Monday must be my excuse.’ She wrote to Greenwood, asking him to copy the memorial tablet in Haworth Church, tried to trace the families where Charlotte had been governess and sought local publications on ‘the peculiar customs & c character of the populations towards Keighley’. This background information would create the evolutionary ‘habitat’ of her heroine in the early chapters”(Uglow 393).

Gaskell even went to Brussels where Brontë had studied and then was hired as a teacher. There she met Constantin Héger whom she came to understand was Charlotte’s married love interest and the reason why she had been let go from her position in Brussels by his wife. She felt heartbroken for her friend. She decided not to include this in the biography. She didn’t want to embarrass her friend and rather said she had been fired over a disagreement with Madame Héger. For many, this is one of the chief complaints about Gaskell’s biography. That she left out things that she felt would tarnish Charlotte’s reputation. She didn’t want people to judge her over this. At the time it would have been scandalous. And it didn’t take much to ruin a woman’s reputation. There were letters to Héger from Brontë that she left out. There were other things too. Some people believe there was a romance between Brontë and her publisher which Gaskell excluded. They feel that she made Brontë into a victim and saint that she wasn’t and projected her own morality onto her.

Writing The Life was challenging for Gaskell. She was a novelist, not a biographer. She took it upon herself to round out Charlotte’s reputation because people were often not kind to Charlotte, calling her coarse and vulgar, harsh, and perceiving her shyness as aloofness and coldness.

It strikes me as a rather modern position to think we have a right to know about the sex lives and fantasies of artists whose work we admire. Maybe we don’t. Especially in the time period when Gaskell was writing the biography, extra precautions were needed. Or — maybe Gaskell did apply her own standards to Brontë’s life and prettied it up to what she felt was acceptable. Whatever her reasons for choosing to include and exclude certain materials, I suppose, as the author, they were her choice.

Read Nasty Women Writers post on friendships between women writers: Invisible Connections: The Hidden Web of Women Writers

The above mentioned negative point of view of the Gaskell biography kept me from reading it until now. That was a mistake on my part. Did I need to know that Charlotte Brontë fell in love with a married man and pined for him for years after that? That she was rejected by him and that she was probably embarrassed by the thought of it coming out? I did not need to know that. I could see in her novels that burning desire and love were something the author was familiar with. But since it’s fiction, I did not feel the need to know the details of her own experiences which she drew upon as an author. It was enough for me to read her fiction and know that she knew things that most of us know— love and unrequited love, desire and unfulfilled desire.

Now that I have read it, I can say that I am thoroughly impressed by Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë.

It reads very well and quickly. It’s heartbreaking to read the story of the Brontës even when we know it before. This time it became clear to me that Charlotte Brontë experienced great fame in her lifetime. She endeavored over and over to make something happen. She tried to start a school with her sisters, which is why she went to Brussels. She tried and twice failed to be a governess. She schemed with her sisters; together they were always scheming in the evenings, pacing the parlour where they also wrote and eventually, when the scheming turned into novel plots, that scheming succeeded wildly. Jane Eyre succeeded brilliantly. Eventually Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall did as well. Left alone, Currer Bell became really famous. Had they lived, Emily and Anne would have become famous in their lifetimes as well.

“It was the household custom among these girls to sew till nine o’clock at night. At that hour, Miss Branwell generally went to bed, and her nieces’ duties for the day were accounted done. They put away their work, and began to pace the room backwards and forwards, up and down,—as often with the candles extinguished, for economy’s sake, as not—their figures glancing into the fire-light, and out into the shadow, perpetually. At this time they talked over past cares, and troubles; they planned for the future, and consulted each other to their plans. In later years this was the time for discussing together the plots of their novels. And again, still later, this was the time for the last  surviving sister to walk alone, from old accustomed habit, round and round the desolate room, thinking sadly upon the ‘days that were no more’”(117).

The Life of Charlotte Brontë is tender. It has a woman’s touch, a woman friend’s touch. A fellow woman writer who is showing, front and center, Brontë’s commitment to her work, her seriousness, her professionalism and at the same time, gently, letting us see the person of Charlotte Brontë.

Gaskell fled to Rome when The Life was released which was a habit she had formed, to flee England, or at the very least Manchester, when a book came out to avoid the direct focus on her while the reviews pronounced their judgments. She was dedicated to being distracted. She distracted herself the whole summer with a wonderful holiday in Rome and a bit of romance herself, or maybe just a very large flirtation, with an American man much her junior.

When Gaskell arrived home from her “Roman holiday” there was a lawsuit to contend with over her depiction of the childhood school where two of the elder Brontë sisters had died. To appease others who were upset by what she included and to clear up inaccuracies, The Life went through three revisions.

In 2017, The Guardian named The Life of Charlotte Brontë one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time.

Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Brontë are Nasty Women Writers who were friends.

© Theresa C. Dintino 2024

Gaskell, Elizabeth. The Life of Charlotte Brontë. Oxford University press, 1996. First published in 1857.

Uglow, Jenny. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories. London, Faber and Faber, 1993.