The Telegraph & Argus reports the sad news of the death of Barbara Whitehead (1930-2011). Writer of historical romances and crime fiction, author of the only available biography of Ellen Nussey: Charlotte Brontë and her Dearest Nell and former owner of the Brontë's birthplace in Thornton which she helped to restore and make available for public viewing. Regrettably her illness and retirement made it impossible for her to keep it and the house was sold in an auction.
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.
Charlotte Brontë and her Dearest Nell
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.