The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

The Gaskell Society Conference 2024

A Passport to Freedom: Women Travellers in the 19th Century

A woman in Victorian costume reads a book in a train
The Travelling Companions (detail), Augustus Leopold Egg (1816-1863)

Our 2024 conference explores the world of female Victorian travellers, both real and fictional, taking place between 5 and 8 July. 

The conference venue is the Sketchley Grange Hotel & Spa, a 4-star country house hotel on the border of Leicestershire and Warwickshire, in the English Midlands. The hotel is easily accessible, has ample parking and leisure facilities including a swimming pool. 

The local area has a number of places of interest, so we’ve organised literary excursions!  These will include Lichfield (home to Dr Johnson and Erasmus Darwin); Nuneaton, the birthplace of George Eliot, and Newstead Abbey, the home of Lord Byron (on the coach home). 

Read our Chair, Dr Diane Duffy’s introduction to our Conference,

Please note, however,  that our conference has now sold out!

Our speakers

An Introduction to Elizabeth Gaskell’s Travels in Europe – Jane Baxter

In this talk, Jane will introduce us to Elizabeth Gaskell’s travels on “the Continent” as Europe was called, including the places she visited, her passport and other essentials for travel at the time, methods of travel and briefly some of the difficulties of travelling in the mid-1800s, particularly for women.

The talk will highlight the two most significant places Elizabeth travelled to – Paris, which she visited frequently, and Rome, which had a lifelong impact on her. It will also introduce some of the people Elizabeth and her daughters met while travelling and some of the friendships Elizabeth made, as well as briefly look at the influences of her travels on Elizabeth’s writing. 

Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot – Dr Diane Duffy

On the first evening of the Conference in ‘Eliot Country’, Diane, who is Chair of the Gaskell Society, will give a talk exploring the use of real-life locations in the works of George Eliot. She’ll be looking at their use in the context of how Elizabeth Gaskell was equally inspired by real places as settings for her fiction. 

Visits and Records: nineteenth-century women travellers and their writings – Shirley Foster

There has been much recent critical interest in nineteenth-century women travellers and the challenges they met – and overcame. Many of these women wrote about their experiences, in letters, diaries or longer accounts, and these were often subsequently published and widely read. The genre of travel literature, in fact, was one of the most popular of the period. Elizabeth Gaskell herself, though not usually thought of as a travel writer per se, contributed to this literature in her novels, short stories and non-fiction journal pieces.

This paper will consist of three sections: a general introduction to the phenomenon of women’s  travel in the nineteenth century; a brief consideration of the characteristics of female travel writing, including how far such writing may be considered gender specific (a frequent topic of debate in contemporary feminist criticism); and examination of examples of what may be considered Gaskell’s travel writing, with focus particularly on ‘Cumberland Sheep Shearers’ and ‘French Life’.  

‘How I longed to walk!’: The ‘Rambling Habits’ of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Female Walkers – Alice Jackman

Alice Jackman will discuss the importance of walking to Gaskell’s female characters. Gaskell’s novels are deeply concerned with the female experience which are often perceived as domestic but many of Gaskell’s heroines are keen outdoorswomen. Her analysis of the relationship between the female walker and their environment allows for a deeper understanding of the female character and how the spaces she experiences contribute to the heroine’s narrative development. 

Using Ruth (1853) and Wives and Daughters (1866), she will analyse how botany contributes to the heroine’s experience of walking and how this marks out a curative space in the environment. She will then consider the role of flaneuse as a method for understanding the urban female walker using Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1854) to investigate the material differences with the pastoral. Finally, she will explore the ‘Gothic’ Walker using three of Gaskell’s short stories: In ‘The Grey Woman’ (1861), Anna and Amante walk to escape; ‘The Poor Clare’s’ (1856), walk into danger, and in The Old Nurse’s Story’ (1852), following a spectral figure to the Fell’s would result in death. Alice considers the act of walking within these texts as radical and vital to understanding the Gaskell heroine.

The Truth-life Dichotomy: Gaskell as a Reliable Travel Writer – Carolyn Lambert

Travel and travel writing have emerged as an area of academic interest relatively recently. Scholars have theorised about the motivation for travel, the distinction between travel and tourism, and the impact of travel on the cultural awareness of both the individual and society. Consideration has been given to the physical aspects of travel, and the ways in which tourism became democratised with improved methods of communication and technological advances in transport. Travel writing has been examined not just for its informative qualities, but as a means of illuminating cultural and social norms and anxieties.  Is the author a reliable narrator, or have they produced a traveller’s tale that is embellished, or even remote from reality? Is travel writing gendered? If so, what are the differences between male and female travel writers?  

‘Coaches isn’t good enough now-a-days’: Railway Space, connection, and disconnection in A Dark Night’s Work and Cousin Phillis – Edwin Marr

The arrival of the railway signalled enormous changes to Victorian society, bringing connectivity and movement but at the same time, threatening the old ways of life and embodying a fixed, capitalist framework of linear movement, rigid timetables, and forced obedience to rules. This change is also reflected keenly within literature of the mid nineteenth-century. This paper will explore how Gaskell grapples with these competing tensions of the railway space in A Dark Night’s Work (1863) and Cousin Phillis (1863-4) with characters in both novellas simultaneously mobilised and abandoned by the onwards march of progress. Ultimately, this paper will argue that Gaskell treads a middle course in her fiction, aware of the pressures and changes of the railway space, but also aware that progress is inevitable. When faced with a culture of incessant movement, statis is rarely a viable position to hold onto.