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Knutsford Meeting (online) – The Squire’s Story

Wednesday 28 October, 2020, 10:30 am - 11:30 am


We’re delighted to welcome Dr Diane Duffy, who’ll be returning with her popular study sessions, this time discussing ‘The Squire’s Story’. These sessions are FREE and open to members and non-members alike. Invitations will be emailed to members, but if you’re not a member, contact us for yours.

‘The Squire’s Story’ was published in the 1853 Christmas number of Household Words. The previous year Gaskell had contributed ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ to the Christmas edition,  a skilful and chilling tale of family pride, jealousy and tyranny which haunts the present. ‘The Squire’s Story’ has some interest, but lacks the skill we usually associate with Gaskell’s work.

Location is important to the text and the tale is set in Barford, a place on the border of town and country which has some features in common with Knutsford:  the county seats surrounding the town (Tabley, Tatton and Peover Hall), the Highwayman’s house and the George Inn are all recognisable. In fact, I did wonder while reading this tale, if Gaskell had actually been inside Higgin’s house which she describes in some detail. In a recent estate agent’s literature, the house is described as having six bedrooms, two studies and four living rooms. Some pictures even show wainscoting, just as Gaskell describes.

The real story of Higgins does have some points of similarity with Gaskell’s work. He did marry a local girl named Catherine, but she was not the  squire’s daughter. Her father was called William Bertles, and sadly, for those loving romance and adventure, the couple were married in the local parish church in April 1756. Catherine Bertles was just twenty and had no inherited fortune..

Higgins was eventually hanged in Camarthen in 1775 after murdering a woman in Bristol. His body had been sold to a London surgeon to raise money for his wife and sister, and thus it was cut down before the prerequisite time of an hours  after an execution.  Once in London, when the medical apprentice was about to begin dissecting the cadaver, Higgins allegedly came back to life and had to be executed for a second time.

Diane has also written a blog post about the story, which you can read here.

Points to Ponder

  1. What differences do these changes make to our understanding of the story and in particular the main characters?
  2. Many different locations are mentioned in this story, see the extracts listed below.  How is Barford’s location and the White House itself important to the Story?
    a. ‘This house was neither in the town nor in the country. It stood on the outskirts of Barford, on the roadside leading to Derby’.
    b. ‘…the house,… was in a hunting county.’
    c. ‘…as a house in which ‘townspeople’ and ‘county people’ had often met..’
    d. ‘…you should have lived some years in a little country town, surrounded by gentlemen’s seats. You would then understand how a bow or a courtesy from a member of a county family elevates the individuals who receive it…’
  3. Why does Gaskell choose a squire as her narrator?
  4. What is the role of Miss Pratt, the Barford ‘bird of ill-omen’, in the story and why does Gaskell emphasise her religion?
  5. ‘Mr. Jones would not like to have said, even to himself, that a man with a purse full of money, who kept many horses, and spoke familiarly of noblemen — above all, who thought of taking the White House — could be anything but a gentleman’.  How does Barford generally judge its new residents? How does Gaskell make us feel about this?
  6. Geoffrey Sharp has noted that Higgins is too theatrical a character to be convincing. What are your views?
  7. How does Gaskell add humour into this tale?
  8. Are there any characters that we actually feel sorry for in this story: Catherine, the exiled bride, her father, Mr Dudgeon?
  9. The ending of this story has been much criticised. Angus Easson calls it ‘feeble’, John Geoffrey Sharp comments on its lack of subtlety, picking on the tell-tale piece of wadding as an example. Sharp makes clear comparisons with the more subtle and ambiguous use of  the Valentine as wadding for the gun in Mary Barton. What are your views of Higgin’s final act of robbery and his confession?
  10. Are there any the moral lessons that we might take from this texts? Could it be read as a fable?
  11. Finally what about Gaskell’s mention of the highwayman’s secreted treasure – what does this add to the story or is it a final attempt to add intrigue to a mediocre work?


Wednesday 28 October, 2020
10:30 am - 11:30 am
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online only United Kingdom