Elizabeth Gaskell is probably the writer most associated with industrial Manchester of the 19th century. Her works, from Mary Barton to the unfinished Wives and Daughters, covers a great variety of Victorian life, but it is her books based in and around Manchester that are the most famous and most instantly associated with the smoky world of the north of England during its manufacturing heyday.
On Sunday, 17th October, fans and admirers of Gaskell’s work gathered for a tour organised by New Manchester Walks and led by Ed Glinert, author of the The Manchester Compendium. Assembling outside the Cross Street Unitarian Chapel, the tour was very popular and blessed with brilliant autumnal sunshine. Ed Glinert was a friendly and relaxed speaker, introducing us to the place where Elizabeth Gaskell’s husband William was a minister, and relating the history of the site and the building, which was rebuilt after the Manchester bombing of 1996.
The tour kept up a good pace, taking in a variety of related political and literary sites in Manchester, such as the birthplace of Thomas de Quincey, most famous for his early 19th century work, The Confessions of an Opium-Eater. Ed treated us to some comparative quotes on opium from both de Quincey and Gaskell, whose views were understandably quite different. While de Quincey was entertained by the effects on the minds of adults, Gaskell was more concerned that it was bought by poor mothers to subdue children rather than food.
The final leg of the Manchester section of the tour took in the Portico Library, tucked into the impressive building now known as The Bank pub on Mosley Street, where William Gaskell was chairman for a number of years. The Library Society once occupied the entire building, but is now installed into a few rooms, reached by a narrow series of stairs, giving the whole place an added sense of mystery. Its main room is lined with dark oak shelves and venerable volumes.
Modern librarians would probably raise their eyebrows in wonder at the system of organisation here. Each wall boasted its contents in gold lettering above the shelves, with the more predictable “Biography” taking up the back wall, a section devoted to “Fine Arts” and “Travel and Voyages”, but two walls devoted entirely to “Polite Literature”. These were books suitable for reading in polite society, apparently, and included two volumes on “The Wives of England” by Elliott, “Gisborne on the Female Sex”, Stewart’s “Elements of the Philosophy of the Mind” and bizarrely, “Principles of the Warming and Ventilation of Public Buildings” by a man named Thredgold.
After a brief talk from Ed on the provenance of the library society in the early nineteenth century, one of the librarians treated us to a glimpse of the borrowing records of William Gaskell, which is used to estimate the reading of his wife. The society did not admit women members, but according to her letters, Elizabeth was able to take advantage of her husband’s chairmanship to borrow books and journals through him. The library itself has excellently preserved many impressive volumes and is still open for membership now. The atmosphere recalls the intellectual and scientific fervour of the period, with displays on the RSA and examples from their collection including diagrams of engines from P Henry and a letter from John Harrison the horologist.
Once we’d had a chance to absorb the atmosphere of the library, we were taken by coach down to 84 Plymouth Grove, the house William and Elizabeth Gaskell shared until her death in 1865. They bought the impressive Regency-style house in 1850, and it is now surrounded by large plane trees, shielding it from the modern redevelopment that dominates the landscape. The outside had already been restored to a soft beige, and the tour was lucky to have a chance to see the unrestored inside.
Despite the bare walls and holes in the plaster, it was possible to get an impression of what life was like there back in the mid-nineteenth century as we sat in the large and airy drawing room with the sunlight streaming in on us. The Friends of Plymouth Grove went to a great effort to make us welcome even with only basic facilities to supply tea and coffee. Original shutters around huge windows admit sharp light into the drawing room where we were given a short talk by the chairman of the society, who read some of Elizabeth Gaskell’s letters and gave a brief insight into her private life with her husband and family.
The tour kept to a strict timetable, and before long, we were in Knutsford, where Elizabeth Gaskell spent much of her adolescence. Although she was born in Chelsea, London, Elizabeth moved to Knutsford to live with her aunt, Hannah Lumb, after her mother’s death. After lunch, Ed treated us to a tour of Knutsford, taking in Heathwaite House, Hannah Lumb’s home, Edward Higgins’ house, the Ruskin Rooms commissioned by Richard Harding Watt, Elizabeth Gaskell’s frankly baffling memorial tower, and her grave at the Brook Street Unitarian Chapel. In amongst offering us tidbits of her personal history, we were given an insight into the possible inspiration for her work in the more gossipy details of her life.
Our tour of Knutsford began at the Ruskin Rooms, close to Tatton Park and constructed in the early 20th century for the benefit of local people by Richard Harding Watt. Its unusual Spanish architectural style stands out in the small market town, but without being an eyesore. Just a few steps further on, we passed the house of Alison Uttley, the children’s writer. We spent a few minutes learning about the history of Tatton Park in the Second World War, then moved on to the imposing Heathwaite House where Elizabeth Gaskell grew up with her aunt. Set behind a high hedge, the house is still occupied, so it was impossible to see inside and we processed past, peering over the garden gate. Just a few steps further on, we found the white-fronted house of Edward Higgins, a highwayman described by Thomas de Quincey in his work. Here, we had a chance to tie together strands from the first moments in the tour when we passed the author’s birthplace in Manchester.
The tidy, well-to-do home in Knutsford had its own secrets, which Ed suggests may have inspired some of Elizabeth’s work. We heard that Elizabeth Gaskell’s early life in Knutsford was far cry from her adulthood as a respectable, middle-class minister’s wife. After her mother’s death, she moved to live with her aunt, Hannah Lumb, and was lucky in this respect. However, she had no independent wealth and her future was uncertain. This cannot have been helped by the discovery that Hannah Lumb’s husband was a bigamist who kept a secret second family. Ed also read us letters from Elzabeth Gaskell describing outings, sights of horse races taking place on the common outside her home. Even at an early age, her writing is captivating in its descriptions of events and surroundings.
We also had a chance to see the Gaskell Memorial Tower, another building commissioned by Richard Harding Watt. The folly is now an upmarket restaurant, its walls engraved with all the kings and queens of England in their respective houses, not to mention all the books completed by Elizabeth Gaskell. It is an odd memorial in design and like the Ruskin Rooms, stands out amongst the more traditional architecture of the town. However, Ed Glinert was clear in his explanations of these oddities, with a brief detour into the architectural world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. From here, we moved on to the chapel where the Gaskells married, climbing its steep, tree-lined walk up to learn that despite being Unitarians, their marriage was only legally recognised at the time if it took place in a Church of England chapel.
We ended the day at the Brook Street Unitarian Chapel, where Elizabeth Gaskell and her husband are both buried. Gaskell was only 65 when she died, and with an overcast sky, and fresh lilies on the grave, it was a solemn end to the day.
As one of the attendees commented, the tour was “snappy and interesting”, and kept to time very well, with a balance between direct talks and the opportunity to absorb the atmosphere of the places we visited. Ed Glinert was a good speaker, very relaxed and clearly well-informed about his subject. He threw in plenty of detail about the time, especially architectural details. It was a shame we couldn’t see places that had directly inspired her work, but the Victorian slums which are so well remembered in Mary Barton have long since been demolished. To make up for it, there was plenty of time in Knutsford, the setting for Cranford. It was an excellent way to spend a Sunday and for fans to learn more about the life of a local prominent author whose work still provides a fascinating view of early to mid-nineteenth century Manchester.
The Gaskell Society: http://www.gaskellsociety.co.uk
The Friends of 84 Plymouth Grove: http://www.elizabethgaskellhouse.org/
by Joely Black