More than just a domestic, their favourite servant played a huge role in the Bronte family’s lives.
Those who know the Brontes well, have probably heard of their servant Tabitha Aykroyd, (Tabby) who lived with them at the Parsonage in Haworth. In an account written in 1871, by Charlotte’s friend Ellen Nussey, we learn that Tabby was a: ‘faithful, trustworthy old servant‘ and ‘very quaint in appearance.’
Neat and Sober
According to Ellen, Tabby regarded the Brontes as ‘bairns‘ or ‘childer’, insisting on accompanying them on moorland walks. In very few words, we’re given the impression, of a loyal, dilligent and protective woman. We naturally might picture her neatly-dressed, with a sober manner befitting her domestic position and the era she lived in. Tabby was a down-to-earth Northern woman who adopted a no-nonsense approach with the children.
Biographer Elizabeth Gaskell described Tabby as ‘a thorough specimen of a Yorkshire woman of her class, in dialect, in appearance, and in character.‘
‘Tabby lived in Haworth in the days when the pack-horses went through once a week.’Elizabeth Gaskell: The Life of Charlotte Bronte
One of the family
When Tabby joined the Bronte family at Haworth Parsonage in 1824 she was approaching her mid-fifties. Due to the beliefs held during that particular era, a woman such as herself was considered ‘old!’
Francis Leyland (Branwell Bronte’s friend) relates in his book ‘The Bronte Family‘ how the children played jokes on Tabby. The Brontes loved retelling stories acting out plays. The latter practice met with strong disapproval from Tabby. On one occasion their high spirits convinced her they had lost their minds and she ran to her nephew’s house in terror!
The sisters assisted with kitchen chores, blurring class boundaries compared with many of their contemporaries. There clearly existed a familiarity between the old servant and the children, which can be gleaned from Emily’s diary account. In Emily’s words, ‘Oh dear, oh dear,’ she mocks Tabby for accusing her of ‘pitter pottering‘ instead of peeling potatoes. Emily even dares ‘puts a pen in her face!‘
In other respects, Charlotte sometimes found difficulties in her relationship to Tabby, according to Gaskell, since Tabby expected to be kept in the loop about all the family goings-on. Due to Tabby’s hearing impediments, she could not hear Charlotte well, tending to shout out whatever gossip she was told, in the tiny Parsonage! Hence the two of them often took to the moors to hold such conversations in private.
Gaskell explains, ‘when both were seated on a tuft of heather, in some high lonely place, she could acquaint the old woman, at leisure, with all that she wanted to hear.‘
When Tabby slipped and fell on ice, in the Christmas season 1836, she lay on the ground, in pain for a considerable amount of time before anyone heard her cries. Eventually a passer-by rescued her. When she was brought to the Parsonage and the Brontes’ aunt suggested Tabby should stay with a relative, the sisters refused to eat, until their wish was granted that Tabby remain home while they tended her. The sisters feared for her life and shouldered all the chores between them, while nursing Tabby back to health.
Charlotte wrote to Ellen Nussey, Tabby’s accident distressed them all, because she was ‘like one of the family.’
A year later, Tabby sustained an ulcer on her leg. This time she moved out of Haworth Parsonage to live with her sister. She returned to the Brontes in 1843, in much better health.
Tabby was a storyteller for sure, acquainted with local myths and legends. Perhaps her influence shines through Charlotte’s writing when Jane Eyre first meets Rochester on a country road. No doubt, Tabby told Charlotte the legend of the shape-changing devil dog, padfoot or gytrash. The character Bessie, Aunt Reid’s maid, in Jane Eyre could pass for a younger version of Tabby.
As this horse approached, ….through the dusk, I remembered certain of Bessie’s tales, wherein figured a North-of-England spirit called a “Gytrash…..”Charlotte Bronte describing Jane’s first meeting with Mr Rochester
The ethereal continues to be a theme in ‘Jane Eyre‘ as Rochester continuously refers to Jane as a fairy or sprite, whose artwork he considers ‘elfin‘ – perhaps yet more of Tabby’s influence.
Gaskell wrote that Tabby ‘had known the valley, in those primitive days when the fairies frequented the margin of the “beck” on moonlight nights, and had known folk who had seen them.‘
Emily too, alludes to ghosts and spirits in Wuthering Heights. It has also been suggested that Tabby was the inspiration for Nelly Dean, the all-knowing housekeeper, observing the doomed love between Heathcliffe and Cathy and attempting to steer them away from trouble.
Dead and Buried
Beloved Tabby was in service to the Brontes for 25 years. When she died in 1855, she was laid to rest in the Parsonage graveyard. Charlotte, gravely ill herself, wrote to Ellen Nussey on 21st February 1855: ‘Our poor old Tabby is dead and buried.‘
Tabby Ayckroyd was more than a servant to the Brontes. She was a crucial, much-loved part of their circle, offering them the maternal love they lacked since the death of mother Maria in 1825. Tabby was both a fierce protector and an inspiration for some of their characters, connecting the Brontes with the traditions and folklore of Yorkshire. She lived to the grand old age of 85.