Ellen Nussey (20 April 1817 – 26 November 1897) was a lifelong friend and correspondent of British 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.
Nussey was the twelfth child of John Nussey (1760–1826), a cloth merchant of Birstall Smithies, near Gomersal in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and his wife Ellen, née Wade (c.1771–1857). Nussey first attended a small local school before progressing to the Gomersal Moravian Ladies Academy. Nussey and Brontë first met in January 1831, when they were both pupils at Roe Head School, near Dewsbury in Yorkshire. They corresponded with each other 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 him.
Friendship with the Brontës
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 the Reverend Patrick Brontë. Indeed, when in May 1849, Anne decided to make a visit to 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, the three 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 the colossal York Minster. However, it was clear that Anne had little strength left. On Sunday, 27 May 1849, Anne asked Charlotte whether it would be easier for her to come 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".
When Charlotte Brontë married her father's Curate, the Rev. Arthur Bell Nicholls, at Haworth 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 both live as spinsters. After her death Nicholls became concerned that her letters to Nussey might damage his late wife's reputation if they were misused, and he asked Nussey to destroy them, but she refused. Some scholars have claimed that this may have been to a struggle between Nicholls and Nussey over who had control over Charlotte Brontë's legacy. However, after over 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 the death of Charlotte Brontë in 1855 Nussey devoted the rest of her life to maintaining the memory of her friend, and she was often sought out by Brontë enthusiasts and biographers.
Ellen 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 eventually made their way through donation or purchase to the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth in Yorkshire.
- Chronology of Charlotte Bronte's Life
- Barker, The Brontës, p. 592
- Barker, The Brontës, p. 594
- William Scruton, 'Reminiscences of the late Miss Ellen Nussey' 1897
- 'The Letters of Charlotte Brontë' edited by Margaret Smith. Oxford University Press (2004)
- From History to Her Story
- Susan Williams and Tendayi Bloom, 'Nussey, Helen Georgiana (1875–1965)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004