The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

Our Chair, Libby Tempest looks back the first part of our 2022 Conference, during which strong women, spectacular scenery and equally spectacularly ice cream are all splendidly celebrated.  

Would we be able to hold a Conference?
Would enough people sign up?
Would the hotel measure up?
Would the coach arrive OK?
Would we have sorted everyone’s dietary requirements?
Would the IT work?
Would Libby remember to bring the programmes???

Well, finally, it was time to stop worrying – because we’d set off! First stop Conwy, a picturesque little town dwarfed by one of Edward I’s huge brooding castles; then on to beautiful Caernarfon and the Celtic Royal Hotel.

There were two main themes for this year’s Conference – Elizabeth Gaskell’s lifelong love of North Wales and her many visits there – AND a detailed look at some of the women writers who influenced Gaskell and some whom she, in turn, influenced. This second theme had been simmering in my head for some time, following a chance remark by long-standing Society member Malcolm Pittock after an AGM a few years ago (thank You, Malcolm!!). Thank you too Anthony Burton, who did a lot of work and came up with many helpful ideas during the initial planning stage.

The first theme was most ably introduced to us by local Blue Badge guide, Rhys Mwyn who spoke to us of princes named Llewellyn, early Roman and Celtic settlements, stunningly beautiful scenery and…the slate industry, which provided the roofs for so many Manchester buildings. The slate industry was also the reason why Elizabeth Gaskell’s relatives, the Samuel Hollands, settled at Porthmadog, from where they ran a successful quarry. After dinner, we had some delightful readings, including an uncharacteristically playful and romantic letter from William Gaskell, telling us that on their honeymoon journey through Snowdonia, he didn’t know whether to gasp in awe at the scenery or gaze with love at his own dear Lily.

Our own dear President, Dr Shirley Foster, got us off to the best possible start on Saturday morning with her informative (and often very funny) talk on the growth of female fiction during the Victorian period. “We are overrun,” lamented George Henry Lewes, “women carry all before them…” and Shirley introduced us to many of these interesting women authors. One of their main preoccupations seemed to be to write about selfish, feckless (often drunken) men, the burden of whose reprehensible behaviour had to be borne by the intrepid female characters. We sighed at how often fiction still mirrors life….

This led perfectly into Dr Carolyn Lambert’s talk on Fanny Trollope, who had married a man who became impossible to live with. Years of dealing with his controlling paranoid behaviour meant a miserable life for his whole family and, in addition, when he died, he left huge debts. The resourceful Fanny took up writing to support herself and her children, and to pay off her husband’s debts, but it was clearly a lifeline for her too. Her books were about social justice, the rights of women, education, the right to choose who to love and marry – and always aiming for creative independence.

Next, Dr Diane Duffy talked to us about another strong woman who wrote to fund her son’s education after her family was declared bankrupt – we were definitely seeing a theme emerging! However Diane did point out that Anne Marsh Caldwell’s son went to Eton and Oxford (there’s hardship and then… there’s hardship….) Diane drew our attention to some interesting parallels between Ruth and Caldwell’s work The Admiral’s Daughter. Feminism and socialism meet the Gothic tradition in Caldwell’s writing, highlighting ‘the everyday Gothic’ where a young woman is incarcerated not in a castle or a dungeon, but in a deeply unhappy marriage, not of her choosing.

After a sandwich and chips lunch, we piled into the coach to go on our first outing to the picturesque village of Beddgelert in the depths of Snowdonia (read more below)

(click images to enlarge)

The weather was magnificent, warm sunshine and a perfect blue sky – about as unusual in North Wales as it is in West Yorkshire, where I live! The village and the legend of Prince Llewellyn’s dog Gelert feature in Ruth, as do Gaskell’s descriptions of the “beauty and grandeur” of the scenery of this area. Beddgelert also has the best ice-cream parlour ever, and after we’d walked out to pat Gelert’s statue, we felt we deserved a treat. We drove back through the jaw-dropping splendour of the Llanberis Pass and felt we absolutely understood William’s previously referred-to dilemma – should he attend to the gorgeous scenery or his lovely wife? 

After a delicious dinner, we rounded off the day with an Anthony Burton triumph. The Geraldine Jewsbury Show took a light-hearted look at another contemporary of Elizabeth Gaskell, also an author, also living in Manchester. The flamboyant Miss Jewsbury published her sensational first novel Zoe in 1845, and Anthony brought the house down with his portrayal of the passionate hero. Diane Duffy was brilliant as the eccentric Geraldine (complete with her trademark green-tinged spectacles): Elizabeth Williams as the resigned narrator and Helen Smith as Geraldine’s sympathetic friend Jane Carlyle completed an outstanding cast. 

What can I say? Pretty much a perfect day…..       

Read Part 2 of Libby’s conference blog