Almost nothing is known of Tabitha's life before she entered the Parsonage in 1824 aged 53. She was almost certainly a native of Haworth, and we know of two sisters; Rose, who married a Bingley man called Bower, and Susannah, who married a Haworth man called Wood. Tabitha never married, and while there is no record of her life before she entered the Parsonage, it is thought that she had worked in domestic service and on farms.
Living at the Parsonage 'Tabby' was the Cook/Housekeeper and for the first 15 of her 31 years at the Parsonage, she was the only servant living in, although the Brontë sisters themselves also cooked, cleaned and washed clothes. In December 1836 Tabby slipped on ice in Haworth's main street, badly breaking her leg. Aunt Branwell suggested that she leave the Parsonage to be nursed by her sister Susannah, but the Brontë children objected, even going on hunger strike, and Tabby stayed in the Parsonage nursed by the children. The leg never fully healed however, and over the next 3 years many of Tabby's duties were taken up by Emily.
In 1839 Tabby seems to have retired temporarily, moving into a house in Newell Hill that she had bought with her now-widowed sister Susannah. Mr. Brontë engaged Martha Brown, the 11 year old daughter of his Sexton, John Brown, but the greater part of the skilled and the heavy work fell upon the Brontë girls, with Emily becoming Housekeeper. In 1842, Tabby moved back into the Parsonage where she stayed, sharing the little servants' bedroom with young Martha, for the next 13 years. Tabby died in February 1855 and she is buried with her sister Susannah, and a George Aykroyd who may be a brother, just over the wall from the Parsonage garden.
Personality; Influence According to Mrs. Gaskell, Tabby "abounded in strong practical sense and shrewdness. Her words were far from flattery; but she would spare no deeds in the cause of those whom she kindly regarded"(The Life of Charlotte Brontë 1857). Mrs. Brontë had been dead for 3 years when Tabby came to the Parsonage and the children were looked after by their mother's sister, Elizabeth Branwell. A year after Tabby's arrival, the two eldest children, Maria and Elizabeth, died of consumption. Charlotte and Emily were only nine and seven years old at the time, and as they at least had only a formal relationship with their Aunt Branwell, they found physical and emotional warmth in the kitchen. Tabby was fond of her "childers" and they were fond of her. As Charlotte later wrote, "she was like one of our own family". Tabby took the girls for their walks on the moors, and, with her old-fashioned ways and broad Haworth accent, she was sometimes the butt of their boisterous games.
Tabby was a great storyteller. She knew all the local families, all their complex inter-relationships and disputes, and, despite her belief in the Christian teachings of divine reward and retribution, she held also to the ancient anthropomorphic traditions of the countryside, claiming (according to Mrs. Gaskell) to have known people who had seen the fairies. Emily, who spent more time working in the kitchen than either of her sisters, was particularly close to Tabby, and Tabby's influence permeates the landscape of Wuthering Heights. Tabby has also been identified as the model for Nelly Dean in Wuthering Heights, and for the housekeeper Martha in Charlotte's novel Shirley.
Ellen “Nelly” Dean
Ellen, or Nelly Dean, is the housekeeper of Thrushcross Grange as the novel begins and is the servant of both Catherines. Intelligent and compassionate, she is often more of a friend or relative to the characters in the book than a servant. Consequently, she knows more of the story than anyone else so is able to fill Mr Lockwood in on events.
Sarah, 44, describes Nelly as the go-between for Cathy and Heathcliff. “She feels terribly protective of them. What we don’t see in our adaptation, but is written in the book, is that Nelly grew up with Cathy. It was Nelly’s mother who was in service at Wuthering Heights, so the two of them almost have a sibling relationship separated by their status.
“Nelly also raised Heathcliff so she has maternal feelings towards them both. Nelly’s life is undoubtedly Cathy, because she herself has never married or had children of her own. She’s very much a woman in service bound to the family.”
Despite her role as carer, Sarah says Nelly is helpless when it comes to Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship.
“I don’t think Nelly has any influence or control over how they feel for each other,” she says. “Brutally bound by her status in life, Nelly is incapable of intervening to prevent their relationship. All she can do is stand back from it all.”
Wuthering Heights was filmed last year in areas of West Yorkshire, on vast areas of moorland and stone-built manor houses including East Riddlesden Hall, near Keighley, and Oakwell Hall at Birstall. Did the rugged Yorkshire landscape help Sarah identify with the story?