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)

We’re delighted to announce that our next conference, exploring the world of female Victorian travellers, both real and fictional, will take place between 5 and 8 July 2024. 

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’ll organise literary excursions!  These are likely to 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). We’ll confirm when arrangements are made. 

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

Our conferences are famously friendly and fun (we even had wall-to-wall sunshine at our last conference in Caernarfon!) and everyone is most welcome.  We allocate places on a first come, first served basis and preference is given to Society members (with non-members on a waiting list).  All available places are usually booked, so if you don’t want to miss out, we’d advise that you book (or express an interest) as soon as possible (and join our society if you’re not already a member).  

Conference places are £450 for a single-occupancy room, or £350 per person sharing a twin room. Prices include accommodation, meals and afternoon trips on the Saturday and Sunday.  

We run a coach from the North West of England, calling at Manchester, Macclesfield and Knutsford, available to all delegates. We’ll advise on coach costs when we have an idea of numbers. 

To book your place, please complete a booking form and send a non-returnable deposit of £75, by cheque, payable to The Gaskell Society.  More information on the booking form (link below).


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. 
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Jane has been a regular volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House since November 2014 just after it opened. She joined the board of trustees in 2018 and was part of the project team responsible for restoring Elizabeth’s bedroom at the House which opened in 2021.
As a keen traveller, Jane is interested in the travels of Elizabeth and her daughters.

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. 


Dr Diane Duffy has a PhD in Early 19th Century Women’s Writing. She retired in 2013, volunteering at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, where she is now a Trustee, guide and researcher. She serves on the Gaskell Society Committee and runs our monthly discussion sessions. Her publications include Elizabeth Gaskell and the Industrial Poor and Christmas with the Gaskells, both co-written with Anthony Burton.

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’.  
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Dr Shirley Foster lectured in American Studies at the University of Hull. She lectured in English and American Literature at Sheffield, before retiring as Reader in 2012. She has written widely on Victorian fiction (especially Elizabeth Gaskell), 19th-century American literature, and travel writing, particularly by women.

She is President of the Gaskell Society.

‘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.

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Alice Jackman is a PhD student at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU). Her PhD considers the work of Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell. She uses new materialism and theories of narrative to consider how the interconnection of the female walker and their environment is presented in the narrative form. Alice has been published in The Gaskell Journal and was the joint organiser of the Elizabeth Gaskell Conference at ARU in Summer 2023.

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?  

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Despite cultural restrictions, many women did travel in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and published accounts of their travels. The proliferation of travel books at the beginning of the nineteenth century generated an anxiety in writers to demonstrate both originality in their descriptions of experiences and a spirit of independent travel.  They had to negotiate, in other words, the tourist versus traveller divide, setting themselves apart from the technologies of travel and the institutions that developed to support tourists, and demonstrating a superior cultural awareness that gave their accounts more authenticity and integrity. This tension led to what Percy Adams describes as the Truth-Lie dichotomy, that is, the extent to which a travel writer is a reliable narrator. Women’s travel writing is particularly vulnerable to accusations of exaggeration or falsehood because of discursive pressures which lead to more of the personal being included, and therefore making the writer more prone to accusations of lying. 

Gaskell has always been a controversial writer.  Her social problem fiction was criticised as being an inaccurate reflection of reality, despite her insistence on the fundamental truth of her accounts.  She was viewed as an unreliable narrator.  In her biography of Charlotte Brontë, she chose to suppress information and evidence to protect her friend, manipulating the account of her life in response to societal pressures. This paper will examine Gaskell’s travel writing in the context of women’s travel writing in the nineteenth century.  It will assess how far she is a reliable narrator and the links between her travel writing and her fictions.

Dr Carolyn Lambert obtained her PhD from Sussex University in 2013. Her publications include The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Fiction (2013), For Better, For Worse: Marriage in Victorian Novels by Women (2018) co-edited with Marion Shaw, Frances Trollope (2020), and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Smaller Stories (2021). 

‘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.

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Edwin Marr completed his PhD in English Literature at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge in July 2021. His thesis explored the production of railway space within nineteenth-century literature from 1860-1880, with a chapter focused on Elizabeth Gaskell and the origins of railway space. Edwin completed both his BA and MA at Anglia Ruskin, with an undergraduate project on Universal Salvation in the works of Anne Brontë and a post-graduate dissertation on grief and death in the works of Branwell Brontë. He now works at the University of London, where he offers career guidance to PhD students across the humanities.