Charlotte Bronte and her dearest Nell

Charlotte Brontë and her 'dearest Nell' (Smith Settle 1993)

In January 1831, a chance meeting in a Yorkshire school between a new arrival and a homesick pupil was to develop into the most important friendship of the two girls' lives. That homesick pupil was fourteen year old Charlotte Brontë, and the new arrival was to become her 'dearest Nell' - Ellen Nussey.

As the two girls grew into adulthood, their friendship strengthened and deepened. They confided in one another at every important point in their lives, and corresponded constantly. Ellen was a frequent visitor to Haworth Parsonage, as was Charlotte to the Nussey family home. Ellen was, Charlotte told her, the closest to Emily outside the family. Ellen's brother proposed to Charlotte; with Ellen she visited his vicarage at Hathersage, and nearby North Lees Hall was the inspiration for Jane Eyre. Indeed, many of the themes, characters and settings in the novels can be traced back to Ellen’s own background.

Charlotte 's experience of the society in which Ellen moved formed the background of her novel Shirley, and its character of Caroline Helstone was based on Ellen. Charlotte’s final letter to Ellen was penciled in her last illness; and it was Ellen who suggested to Mr. Brontë that Mrs. Gaskell be asked to write a posthumous biography of Charlotte.

Ellen, the closest friend of the family, was the last surviving link with the Brontës after their deaths. To Bronte enthusiasts she was 'the mine from which they take their ore'. Although Charlotte's husband had demanded their destruction, Ellen kept her collection of some 500 letters from Charlotte. 'What would we have known of the sisters but for you?', said a contemporary, and were it not for Ellen, we would know very little about the Brontës today.

Charlotte Bronte and her 'dearest Nell' - the result of twelve years' research, much of it based on previously unseen Nussey family archives - presents the clearest picture yet or this deep, lifelong friendship. Everyone interested in the Brontës owes Ellen a debt. In her own right, Ellen is fascinating; as an aid to understanding the Brontës, she is invaluable.

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