This year the world celebrated 200 years since the birth of one of Britain’s most acclaimed Victorian female writers, Charlotte Bronte.
It is with irony, therefore, that this year will also see the death of a Bronte literary landmark.
Red House Museum in Gomersal is not just a landmark because of its location. It is a landmark because as the former home of the influential Taylor family, it was a setting that provided Charlotte with ideas and inspiration that would permeate throughout the novels for which she would become famous.
As children, Charlotte Bronte first met Mary Taylor at school.
The two pupils developed a close friendship, and Charlotte became a regular visitor to Mary’s home in Gomersal.
Mary’s family were characterised by Charlotte as the family ‘Yorke’ in Shirley, and their home the Red House as ‘Briarmains’. In The Professor, Charlotte combined traits taken from Mary’s father and brother for the character ‘Hunsden Yorke Hunsden’.
Encouraged by Mary to be independent and to travel, Charlotte journeyed to Bussels, accompanied by Mary and some of the Taylor family.
Charlotte’s experiences in Brussels suggest scenes used in both The Professor and Shirley, but most notably in Charlotte’s masterpiece, Villette. Thus, having been a significant influence on three of Charlotte’s four novels, could the Taylors of Red House also have been an influence for Charlotte’s best known novel, Jane Eyre?
Possibly. The answer may be found in the Taylors connections with the nearby Moravian Church settlements at Gomersal and Fulneck, and a discovery made by a retired school teacher in 1997.
It was whilst doing some unrelated research in Fulneck Church archives that the late Margaret Connor first saw the name Jane Eyre. The entry was dated 1843. A Frances Jane Eyre had applied to join the Moravian Church at Fulneck.
Further research in the archives revealed that Miss Eyre had been a boarder at the Fulneck Moravian School as a child, and was now returning as an adult to join the Church.
Margaret was aided in her research when she received an unpublished memoir which confirmed that a relative of Ellen Nussey, a friend of Charlotte Bronte and Mary Taylor, had been a pupil at Fulneck School with Miss Eyre.
Margaret’s findings were published in Bronte Studies.
By the time of Charlotte’s visits to Red House, the Taylors’ relationship with Moravians from Fulneck and Gomersal was long established. As early as 1797, Fulneck’s Moravian Minister John Hartley had accepted an invitation from the Taylors to preach at their chapel. His sermon was well received, attracting a ‘numerous auditory’.
By the late 1830s, at the same time as Charlotte was visiting Red House, the Moravian Minister Henry Lauten was also to be found in the rooms of Red House. He had developed an especially strong friendship with Mary’s father. In 1840, Rev Lauten called upon an ailing Mr Taylor and his family at least 30 times within a 10-month period, comforting and counselling them through Mr Taylor’s painful illness.
When Mary’s father died in December 1840, the Taylors invited Rev Lauten to conduct the funeral and blessing. Mr Taylor undoubtedly made a lasting impression on Charlotte, portraying him as ‘Hunsden Yorke Hunsden’ in The Professor, and as ‘Hiram Yorke’ in Shirley. Rev Lauten must have also made an impression on Charlotte, as he was himself immortalised in Shirley as a German Moravian Minister.
Another character in Shirley is ‘Mathew Yorke’, based upon Mary Taylor’s eldest brother and heir to the family estate, Joshua Taylor. He is the Taylor that Charlotte and Mary remained the most secretive about.
Charlotte is said to have been fascinated by him. Wanting to keep her identity hidden, Charlotte published her novels under a pseudonym. After reading Shirley, Joshua said that the author was either a relative, or someone who knew him intimately. Joshua would become ever closer to the Moravian Church, even closer than his father had been. Shortly before his father’s death, Joshua married a member of Gomersal Moravian Church, Jane Lister Charlesworth. Jane’s family hailed from Hightown, not far from where Patrick Bronte had once lived.
She was a descendant of James Lister, the landlord at the inn where Luddites had plotted their attack on Rawfolds Mill in 1812. Charlotte would use the memory of this attack as one of her themes in Shirley.
Soon after his father’s death, Joshua became a full member of the Moravian Church, and was appointed to the Church Committee. As a member of the committee, there would have been reason and opportunity for him to mix with the Fulneck Moravians, including the real Jane Eyre. Gomersal and Fulneck are a only five mile walk apart.
Conversely, there would have been many occasions, both religious and social, for Moravians at Fulneck to travel to Gomersal, perhaps to be as guests at the Taylors’ Red House, as John Hartley had once been.
There is another connection between Miss Eyre and the Taylors of Red House.
In 1845, Mary Taylor emigrated to Wellington, New Zealand, where she joined her youngest brother William Waring Taylor.
They were soon accompanied in by Miss Eyre’s brother, the explorer Edward John Eyre, who was the newly appointed Lieutenant-Governor in New Zealand. It’s very probable that the Miss Eyre of Fulneck and the Taylors of Red House knew, or at least knew of, each other.
The Taylors would continue to be prominent members of the Moravian Church until the end of the First World War.
Red House Museum closes for good on Wednesday 21 December.