A set of six rare and significant letters written at various stages in her life by Charlotte Brontë to her best friend Ellen Nussey are headed back to the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth on the Yorkshire moors, which was for many years the family’s home. The museum had to bid for them at Sotheby’s English Literature, History, Children’s Books & Illustrations sale on December 12th, and since the letters are highly desirable, the bidding was fierce. Thankfully they had a grant to get them over the hump.
The pre-sale estimate was a not inconsiderable £100,000 – 150,000 ($161,000-242,000). The modest Brontë museum doesn’t have that kind of cash lying around, needless to say, so they appealed to the National Heritage Memorial Fund, a government-funded organization that gives grants to save important items of cultural heritage at risk of being sold out of the country or disappearing into private collections. The NHMF gave the Brontë museum £198,450, and they needed every shilling of it since the hammer price turned out to be £185,000. The final bill including buyer’s premium was £223,250 ($359,432).
The reason these six letters (and a first edition of the two-volume 1857 biography of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell which was also part of the lot, but that was a negligible part of the value) are so dear is that Charlotte’s letters to Ellen are the basis for much of the Brontë scholarship that exists today. The two met at Roe Head School in Dewsbury in 1831 when Charlotte was 15. They became fast friends from then on, corresponding regularly for the next 24 years until Charlotte’s premature death in 1855. Charlotte edited her proof-sheets of Jane Eyre while staying at Ellen’s house, and Ellen was by her side when Charlotte’s beloved sister Anne died in 1849 while the three were on a trip to Scarborough in the vain hope that the sea air might help Anne recover from the tuberculosis that would claim her life.
Ellen kept all of the letters Charlotte wrote her, more than 500 in the final tally. Charlotte’s husband, her father’s curate Rev. Arthur Bell Nichols, wanted the letters destroyed after Charlotte’s death, fearing that they would somehow tarnish her reputation. Nussey refused, bless her forever for that. For the rest of her life — she died at the age of 80 in 1897 — Ellen considered herself a custodian of Charlotte’s personal and literary legacy, and biographers from Elizabeth Gaskell onward sought Ellen out for her recollections and correspondence.
After her death, the letters were sold, many of them ending up in the Haworth museum collection. These particular six were lent to Elizabeth Gaskell who apparently put them between the covers of the first edition of her biography of Charlotte and forgot about them. They were only recently rediscovered when the volumes, then in a private collection, were opened and the letters found out. They’ve only been known from poorly made transcripts until now, all of them inaccurate, so having the originals is an important addition to Brontë scholarship.
The letters cover the entire span of their friendship. The first one was written on October 18th, 1832, a year after they first met. In it Charlotte describes her return to Haworth after visiting Ellen. The second she wrote when she was teaching at Roe Head School in late 1836/early 1837 and it reveals her despair in the midst of a religious crisis. “I have stings of Conscience,” Charlotte writes expressively, “visitings of remorse, glimpses of holy, of inexpressible things which formerly I used to be a stranger to – it may all die away and I may be in utter midnight but I implore a merciful Redeemer that if this be the real dawn of the Gospel it may still brighten to perfect day….” Another written shortly after that describes Ellen’s departure from the area as “an inscrutable fatality” even though it was only of brief duration. The fourth is from the end of Charlotte’s period as teacher at Roe Head. The fifth is of particularly literary interest as it was written while she was working on Jane Eyre in January of 1847. The last one was written at the end of 1854, just three months before her death. In a classic jinx move, she wrote: “As to infection – I have not the slightest fear on my own account – but there are cases as I need not remind you, where wives have just to put their own judgment on the shelf, and do as they are bid….”
The Brontë Parsonage Museum will make them available to scholars in the museum. They might also scan and upload them to their exceptional online collection of Brontë material.