Friday, March 25, 2011

Charlotte Brontë's New Zealand connection

I've known for a long time that a friend of Charlotte Brontë's settled in New Zealand, and I recalled a rather non-committal quote from one of her letters: "It seemed to me incredible that you had actually written a book". It sounds like the sort of thing someone might say when obliged to read a friend's book not necessarily to the reader's taste. I came across this quote again recently, and decided to look for more details of Mary Taylor's connection with Charlotte Brontë, and of Mary's life in New Zealand.

Mary (often called "Pag" by friends and family) and Charlotte met at Roe Head School, along with Ellen Nussey, and the three of them were lifelong friends. Mary's family served as model for the Yorkes in Charlotte's novel Shirley, and Mary seems largely to have approved of their portrayal.

In 1845 Mary came to live in Wellington, New Zealand, where her brother William Waring Taylor was already settled. Charlotte described her own loss: "To me it is something as if a great planet fell out of the sky." Perhaps Mary was attracted by the idea of having more freedom of movement in a new colony. She did a little successful cattle trading, and when her cousin Ellen Taylor arrived from England in 1849 they set up a draper's and clothing store together.

Mary also kept an eye on her brother. In a letter of 1846 to Ellen Nussey, Charlotte commented that Mary "is in her element because she is where she has a toilsome task to perform, an important improvement to effect, a weak vessel to strengthen." The weak vessel, it seems, was Waring, who was described as "a kindly, well-meaning muddler" in a contemporary account. Waring was a prosperous businessman, and a member of the House of Representatives, and Waring Taylor Street in Wellington was named after him. But he certainly got in a muddle when Mary was no longer there to look after him, and in the 1880s he was jailed for fraud. There was a move at the time to change the name of the street, but changing street names is such a bother, and there does seem to have been much admiration for his earlier contributions. Waring Taylor Street retains its name to this day.

Ellen Taylor died of tuberculosis in 1851, and by 1857 Mary seemed weary of New Zealand. From a letter to Ellen Nussey: "I have some friends — not many, and no geniuses, which fact pray keep strictly to yourself, for how the doings and sayings of Wellington people in England always come out again to New Zealand! They are not very interesting any way. This is my fault in part, for I can’t take interest in their concerns. A book is worth any of them, and a good book worth them all put together." Mary left New Zealand in 1859, and spent the remainder of her life in England (she died in 1893). Charlotte died in 1855, along with her unborn child, so she and Mary never saw each other again after Mary's emigration.

Mary Taylor was a woman of strong views, and she did not mince her words. She placed a high value on independence for women, and the value of earning their own living to gain such independence. She responded to Charlotte's suggestion in Shirley that work was only suitable for some women with, "You are a coward and a traitor" (see longer quote below). It's clear from her letters that Mary had a robust sense of humour, and I think this "insult" needs to be read in that light, but this certainly doesn't diminish the strength of her feelings on the subject.

Mary had written on and off during her time in New Zealand, but she seems to have worked on her writing more solidly once she returned to England. In the 1860s she had a series of articles published in Victoria Magazine, reflecting her strong feminist beliefs, and in 1890 her feminist novel Miss Miles was published.

After Charlotte Brontë's death her biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, approached Mary Taylor for recollections, and Mary provided "a long, lively account" of their friendship. Unfortunately Mary had destroyed most of Charlotte's letters to her (unlike Ellen Nussey, who provided hundreds for the biography). Charlotte is known to have written with great frankness (at least by Victorian standards) to trusted friends at times, and Mary said in a letter to Ellen Nussey of 1857 "I am glad to hear that Mrs. Gaskell is progressing with the Life. I wish I had kept Charlotte’s letters now, though I never felt it safe to do so until latterly that I have had a home of my own."

Fortunately several of Mary's letters to Charlotte have survived. Here are a few excerpts to give something of their flavour:

April 1949
'I write at my novel a little and think of my other book. What this will turn out, God only knows. It is not, and never can be forgotten. It is my child, my baby, and I assure you such a wonder as never was. I intend him when full grown to revolutionise society and faire époque in history.

'In the meantime I’m doing a collar in crochet work.'

Jul 1849
'About a month since I received and read Jane Eyre. It seemed to me incredible that you had actually written a book. Such events did not happen while I was in England. I begin to believe in your existence much as I do in Mr. Rochester’s. In a believing mood I don’t doubt either of them.
'You are very different from me in having no doctrine to preach. It is impossible to squeeze a moral out of your production. Has the world gone so well with you that you have no protest to make against its absurdities? Did you never sneer or declaim in your first sketches? I will scold you well when I see you. I do not believe in Mr. Rivers. There are no good men of the Brocklehurst species. A missionary either goes into his office for a piece of bread, or he goes from enthusiasm, and that is both too good and too bad a quality for St. John. It’s a bit of your absurd charity to believe in such a man.
'I mention the book to no one and hear no opinions. I lend it a good deal because it’s a novel, and it’s as good as another! They say "it makes them cry." They are not literary enough to give an opinion. If ever I hear one I’ll embalm it for you.
'I have now told you everything I can think of except that the cat's on the table and that I’m going to borrow a new book to read — no less than an account of all the systems of philosophy of modern Europe. I have lately met with a wonder, a man who thinks Jane Eyre would have done better to marry Mr. Rivers! He gives no reason — such people never do.'

April 1850
'I have seen some extracts from Shirley in which you talk of women working. And this first duty, this great necessity, you seem to think that some women may indulge in, if they give up marriage, and don’t make themselves too disagreeable to the other sex. You are a coward and a traitor. A woman who works is by that alone better than one who does not; and a woman who does not happen to be rich and who still earns no money and does not wish to do so, is guilty of a great fault, almost a crime — a dereliction of duty which leads rapidly and almost certainly to all manner of degradation. It is very wrong of you to plead for toleration for workers on the ground of their being in peculiar circumstances, and few in number or singular in disposition. Work or degradation is the lot of all except the very small number born to wealth.'

Aug 1850
'After waiting about six months we have just got Shirley. It was landed from the Constantinople on Monday afternoon, just in the thick of our preparations for a "small party" for the next day. We stopped spreading red blankets over everything (New Zealand way of arranging the room) and opened the box and read all the letters.... On Wednesday I began Shirley and continued in a curious confusion of mind till now, principally at the handsome foreigner who was nursed in our house when I was a little girl. By the way, you’ve put him in the servant’s bedroom. You make us all talk much as I think we should have done if we’d ventured to speak at all. What a little lump of perfection you’ve made me! There is a strange feeling in reading it of hearing us all talking. I have not seen the matted hall and painted parlour windows so plain these five years. But my father is not like. He hates well enough and perhaps loves too, but he is not honest enough. It was from my father I learnt not to marry for money nor to tolerate any one who did, and he never would advise any one to do so, or fail to speak with contempt of those who did.'

1 comment:

  1. Mary Taylor's family home - Red House in Gomersal, West Yorkshire, is under threat of permanent closure as a museum. See the full details at and join the campaign to save it.