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‘Knutsford’ Meeting (online) – November 2020

Tuesday 24 November, 2020, 10:30 am - 11:30 am

Our next session (which will again take place online over Zoom) will be a discussion of ‘The Well of Pen Morfa‘ with Dr Diane Duffy.

After the success of Gaskell’s story ‘Lizzie Leigh’, the first piece of fiction to appear in Dickens’ new periodical Household Words (which was launched on March 30th 1850) Dickens requested others. The first, ‘The Well of Pen Morfa’, was published in two parts during November 1850.

The story was set in North-west Wales, an area which Elizabeth Gaskell knew well. In 1832 she had spent her honeymoon touring North Wales and, in her youth, had made frequent visits to her Uncle Samuel Holland’s rural farm house, Plas Penhryn near Porthmadog. On the 1841 census, Samuel Holland is listed as a slate merchant whose business was located in the industrialised mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog, nine miles away from his home. In fact, it was during one of her visits to Porthmadog that Willie, Elizabeth’s nine-month-old son, died from scarlet fever in 1845.

‘The Well of Pen Morfa’ is yet another early story in the Gaskell canon and another one that Geoffrey Sharp criticises for a lack ‘of attention to construction’.

Read Dr Duffy’s blog post about the story.

The session is free and open to all – if you’re not a member of the Society, please email us and we’ll send you the invitation. You’ll be most welcome to join us.

And in the meantime, here are Diane’s Points to Ponder…..

Points to Ponder

1. Think about the setting for the story – the village of Pen Morfa in North West Wales. One reason for her choice of location is her clear knowledge of the area. The start of this story reads like an information leaflet for tourism:

They call the promontory of Llyn (the point at the end of Caernarvonshire), Welsh Wales. I think they might call Pen-Morfa a Welsh Welsh village; it is so national in its ways, and buildings, and inhabitants, and so different from the towns and hamlets into which the English throng in summer.

What do you think ECG means by Welsh Wales and a Welsh Welsh village? How is this important to the story?

2. Now look at the extract below and see if you can spot any more clues as to why she has chosen Pen Morfa as her setting:

The new town, built by Mr Maddocks, Shelley’s friend, has taken away all the importance of the ancient village — formerly, as its name imports, ‘the head of the marsh;’… Pen-Morfa, against the walls of whose cottages the winter tides lashed in former days, has come to stand, high and dry, three miles from the sea, on a disused road to Caernarvon. I do not think there has been a new cottage built in Pen-Morfa this hundred years, and many an old one has dates in some obscure corner which tell of the fifteenth century.

Could the story have been set anywhere or does it need a particular kind of location? What might that location be?

3. What is it about Nest Gwynn’s story that makes Gaskell choose to relate at length?

4. How does Gaskell present Nest’s character in this passage?

Nest knew she was beautiful, and delighted in it. Her mother sometimes checked her in her happy pride, and sometimes reminded her that beauty was a great gift of God (for the Welsh are a very pious people); but when she began her little homily, Nest came dancing to her, and knelt down before her, and put her face up to be kissed, and so, with a sweet interruption, she stopped her mother’s lips. Her high spirits made some few shake their heads, and some called her a flirt and a coquette; for she could not help trying to please all, both old and young, both men and women. A very little from Nest sufficed for this; a sweet, glittering smile, a word of kindness, a merry glance, or a little sympathy; all these pleased and attracted: she was like the fairy-gifted child, and dropped inestimable gifts. But some, who had interpreted her smiles and kind words rather as their wishes led them, than as they were really warranted, found that the beautiful, beaming Nest could be decided and saucy enough; and so they revenged themselves by calling her a flirt. Her mother heard it, and sighed; but Nest only laughed.

5. What are your views on the accident?  Is Gaskell using the story as a moral fable and if so, what morals can we take from the accident and its outcome?

6. How does Gaskell present Edward Williams?

7.   Autumn is described as ‘enchanted’ and the young woman as ‘unusually lovely…like the fairy-gifted child, and dropped inestimable gifts’ and when Nest is found on the rocks, her beauty changed to ‘deadly pallor, [with…] filmy eyes, over which dark shades seemed to chase each other’.

What is there in this story that is reminiscent of fairy tale and haw does Gaskell use ‘ The Well of Pen Morfa’ to overturn the fairy tale  formula?

8. How does Gaskell present mothers, mothering and mother/daughter relationships in this story?

9. Elizabeth’s brother-in-law, Samuel Gaskell, was a superintendent at Lancaster Moor Hospital for the Insane. He trailed new methods of dealing with ‘lunacy’, one of which was to create a domestic environment for the inmates; there had even been much debate about dealing with some lunatics at home in a domestic environment, an idea she explores in ‘Half a Lifetime Ago’.

With that in mind, what might Gaskell’s reasons be for introducing Mary into the story?

10. Geoffrey Sharp writes:

What briefly told, could have been a memorable local tragedy seems, in effect, a rather tedious, long-winded, diffuse piece of writing’.

Has Geoffrey Sharp missed the point here? What is Gaskell trying to convey in this story and is she actually doing more than writing a memorable tragedy?