Mary Taylor was a close friend of Charlotte Bronte, and a source of inspiration to her. They met, together with Ellen Nussey, at Roe Head School in January 1831 when Charlotte was 14, and Mary and Ellen were 13 – and they all continued to correspond for the rest of Charlotte’s life. Ellen was someone Charlotte could confide in, but she turned to Mary, who was more confident and daring than she was, for encouragement and advice, and for intellectual stimulation.
Mary Taylor was a fascinating woman in her own right. She was a strong-minded woman with a sense of adventure (see Joan Bellamy’s biography ‘More Precious than Rubies’. Mary Taylor: friend of Charlotte Bronte, strong-minded woman, 2002). Like Rose Yorke, Charlotte’s character in Shirley, she refused to be confined by the accepted roles of early Victorian single women – “She cannot and will not be a governess, a teacher, a milliner, a bonnet-maker, nor a housemaid”, as Charlotte said in a letter to Ellen in 1841; although Mary had much more respect for a woman – single or married – who worked for her living than for one who lived in idleness. As she once remarked in a letter to Charlotte, “I can talk very well to a joiner’s wife, but seldom to a merchant’s” (July 1848).
Mary, like Rose, was “sometimes a stubborn girl…her mother wants to make of her such a woman as she is herself, – a woman of dark and dreary duties, – and Rose has a mind full-set, thick-sown with germs of ideas her mother never knew” (Shirley, Chap. 9). Mary had ideas of travel, of independence, of setting up her own business, and of writing – all of which she did. On first reading Shirley, Mary called Charlotte “a coward and a traitor” for not allowing Shirley or Caroline, the two central characters, to do the same (letter to CB, 1850). The whole of Shirley can be seen as a debate on the role of women, or ‘the Woman Question’, as it was dubbed then. This was a hot topic at the time since there was estimated to be half a million more women of marriageable age than single men: 30% of the female population between the ages of 24 and 40 were unmarried, and these ‘redundant women’ were a great cause for concern, especially those who seemed to prefer to lead an independent life, and were not following their ‘most honourable function and especial calling’ of marriage… (W.R. Greg, 1862, quoted by Joan Bellamy, in her O.U. Occasional Paper 1, ‘More Precious than Rubies’. Mary Taylor: friend of Charlotte Bronte, strong-minded woman, 1992). Mary Taylor was infuriated by his offensive attitude towards independent women like herself and wrote a series of articles in rebuke published by Emily Faithful, editor of Victoria Magazine, between 1865 and 1870, and later in book form as The First Duty of Woman.
She also wrote a novel, Miss Miles, or a Tale of Yorkshire Life 6o Years Ago, which was a ‘condition of England’ novel which focuses on three young women and their struggles to find independence and happiness. It was published at her own expense three years before her death at the age of 76. On her death in 1893 she received an obituary in The Illustrated London News as “one of Charlotte Bronte’s most intimate friends”. I think she should be remembered for being much more than that.
Find out more about this fascinating woman on my Bronte walk from Red House Museum on Saturday 29th September: