In the 28 September Arts and Books supplement to The Independent on Sunday I was pleased to read about the imminent opening in Manchester of the former home of Elizabeth Gaskell – more commonly known as the novelist Mrs Gaskell. Her Cranford books have been serialised on TV recently. But there is much much more to Mrs Gaskell and her writing than this rather cosy drama portrays. I recently read “Ruth” and for a novel written by the respectable wife of a Unitarian Minister it is really quite an eye-opener but an excellent read. Read a resumé here. In addition two excellent miniseries of her books ‘North and South‘ and ‘Wives and Daughters‘ were first broadcast on BBC TV in 2004 and 1999 respectively.
I straightaway headed to the house website and read this :
Tuesday, October 14, 2014 – 14:30 to 16:00
Book Launch: Carolyn Lambert ‘The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Fiction”
Join us for the launch of Carolyn Lambert’s new book ‘The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Fiction’. Lambert explores how Gaskell challenges the convention of the Victorian home as a place of safety in her novels. In particular she illustrates her theme through the importance of homelessness in Gaskell’s work. Lambert’s book draws not only on the novels but also Gaskell’s letters and non-fiction writings and has recently been shortlisted for the Sonia Rudikoff Prize for the best Victorian book by a first time author.
A tour of the house and refreshments are included in the ticket price. Copies of the book will be on sale at a special price.
84 Plymouth Grove, Manchester
So I booked a ticket for the talk and for the train and yesterday set off for Manchester. I’m afraid I don’t find Manchester any easy city to get around. Perhaps I don’t know it well enough. I eventually found a bus that would take me to Plymouth Grove and which dropped me off outside number 84.
Carolyn’s talk took place in the Gaskell’s sitting room – yes, the very room in which Charlotte Bronte hid behind the curtains in order to avoid being seen by guests! Photography is allowed and we could sit on the comfy chairs, sofas and chaise longues. I was told that items covered in perspex were original to the house and had been gifted or lent by various donors or galleries and the rest of the furnishings and fittings were either of the period and style of the house during the time when the Gaskells had lived there or were reproductions.
The comfortable, relaxed sitting room
Carolyn began her talk with a resumé of Mrs Gaskell’s life. I have lifted this from the House website :
“Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell was born in 1810 and lived at 84 Plymouth Grove with her family from 1850 until her death in 1865.
“To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood…” Wives and Daughters
She was born as Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson in London in 1810. A year later, on the death of her mother, she was taken to live in Knutsford, Cheshire, with her aunt, Hannah Lumb. The arrangement was a happy one – she was to refer to her aunt as “my more than mother” and was to use Knutsford as the inspiration for her fictitious town of Cranford. Knutsford also became ‘Hollingford’ in Wives and Daughters.
In 1832 Elizabeth married William Gaskell, the assistant minister at Cross Street Unitarian Chapel in Manchester. Their third home was a large house near open fields – 42 (now 84) Plymouth Grove. Here they grew flowers and vegetables, and kept a cow, pigs and poultry. The House was always bustling and the family entertained a stream of visitors, including many eminent people. Gaskell connections included such people as the Wedgwoods, the Darwins and the Nightingales, but girls from the Sunday School also came to the house regularly, as did William’s students and fellow clergy.”
She then went on to discuss some of the aspects of home touched upon in the Gaskell novels as well as in Mrs Gaskell’s own life. (Interestingly, she was a keen traveller and some years spent only half the year at home). The home in the novels symbolises security, it’s where relationships develop, it’s a place for creativity and self-expression. But she also wrote about homelessness and the role of servants. Elizabeth Gaskell was ambivalent about Manchester and was torn between family and a longing for the rural environment. Her large house looks rather incongruous these days amidst modern buildings and areas of wasteland on Plymouth Grove but when she was living and writing here it was rural area and the house had a long garden stretching back down Swinton Grove but now built upon by flats.
There wasn’t time in the end to do the full tour – so I will have to return on another occasion and make a more full report of the house but I did peep into ground floor rooms :
The Dining Room
Mrs Gaskell’s Desk at one end of the Dining Room
William Gaskell’s Study
and refreshments were served downstairs in the basement tea room and bookshop (new and secondhand).
The Tea Room
Pertinent quotations from Mrs Gaskell add a touch of humour
And in the Ladies Loos :
As the instructions for finding a bus that would take me back to Piccadilly Station didn’t work out I was thankful for one thing about Manchester – taxis with lights were easy to hail and thus I made my way back to the train and thence to my own home in comfort.
Rear of Gaskell House