The Gaskell Memorial Service, Brook Street Chapel

On Sunday 27 September 2020, the one closest to what would have been Elizabeth Gaskell’s birthday, we laid flowers on her grave and on that of the Gaskell Society’s founder, the much-missed Joan Leach. We then had a special service in the chapel with our dear friend, the Rev Alex Bradley.

We know that current circumstances didn’t allow as many of us as usual to attend in person, so we’ve posted the readings from the service and we hope you’ll enjoy reading them. 

Reading I – Ruth Chapter 33

When Elizabeth Gaskell came to Manchester in 1832 as a young bride, a cholera epidemic was sweeping through the city. Twenty-one years later, Elizabeth recounts such an epidemic in her novel Ruth and the descriptions have a startlingly modern resonance.

Old people tell of certain years when typhus fever swept over the country like a pestilence; years that bring back the remembrance of deep sorrow—refusing to be comforted—to many a household; and which those whose beloved passed through the fiery time unscathed, shrink from recalling: for great and tremulous was the anxiety—miserable the constant watching for evil symptoms; and beyond the threshold of home a dense cloud of depression hung over society at large. It seemed as if the alarm was proportionate to the previous light-heartedness of fancied security—and indeed it was so; for, since the days of King Belshazzar, the solemn decrees of Doom have ever seemed most terrible when they awe into silence the merry revellers of life. So it was this year to which I come in the progress of my story….

      While the town was full of these subjects by turns—now thinking and speaking of the great revival of trade—now of the chances of the election, as yet some weeks distant—now of the balls at Cranworth Court, in which Mr Cranworth had danced with all the belles of the shopocracy of Eccleston—there came creeping, creeping, in hidden, slimy courses, the terrible fever—that fever which is never utterly banished from the sad haunts of vice and misery, but lives in such darkness, like a wild beast in the recesses of his den. It had begun in the low Irish lodging-houses; but there it was so common it excited little attention. The poor creatures died almost without the attendance of the unwarned medical men, who received their first notice of the spreading plague from the Roman Catholic priests.

Reading II – Once the fever has struck

Before the medical men of Eccleston had had time to meet together and consult, and compare the knowledge of the fever which they had severally gained, it had, like the blaze of a fire which had long smouldered, burst forth in many places at once—not merely among the loose-living and vicious, but among the decently poor—nay, even among the well-to-do and respectable. And to add to the horror, like all similar pestilences, its course was most rapid at first, and was fatal in the great majority of cases—hopeless from the beginning. There was a cry, and then a deep silence, and then rose the long wail of the survivors.

A portion of the Infirmary of the town was added to that already set apart for a fever-ward; the smitten were carried thither at once, whenever it was possible, in order to prevent the spread of infection; and on that lazar-house was concentrated all the medical skill and force of the place.

But when one of the physicians had died, in consequence of his attendance—when the customary staff of matrons and nurses had been swept off in two days—and the nurses belonging to the Infirmary had shrunk from being drafted into the pestilential fever-ward—when high wages had failed to tempt any to what, in their panic, they considered as certain death—when the doctors stood aghast at the swift mortality among the untended sufferers, who were dependent only on the care of the most ignorant hirelings, too brutal to recognise the solemnity of Death (all this had happened within a week from the first acknowledgment of the presence of the plague) – Ruth came one day, with a quieter step than usual, into Mr Benson’s study, and told him she wanted to speak to him for a few minutes. Then she said:  “I want to tell you, that I have been this morning and offered myself as matron to the fever-ward, while it is so full. They have accepted me and I am going this evening.”

Reading III  – Ruth starts work on the fever ward

Evening after evening, Mr Benson went forth to gain news of Ruth; and night after night he returned with good tidings. The fever, it is true, raged; but no plague came near her. He said her face was ever calm and bright, except when clouded by sorrow as she gave the accounts of the deaths which occurred in spite of every care. He said he had never seen her face so fair and gentle as it was now, when she was living in the midst of disease and woe. Few were aware how much Ruth had done; she never spoke of it, shrinking with sweet shyness from over-much allusion to her own work at all times.

After some weeks the virulence of the fever abated; and the general panic subsided- indeed, a kind of foolhardiness succeeded. To be sure, in some instances the panic still held possession of individuals to an exaggerated extent. But the number of patients in the hospital was rapidly diminishing, and, for money, those were to be found who would supply Ruth’s place. But to her it was owing that the overwrought fear of the town was subdued; it was she who had gone voluntarily, and, with no thought of greed or gain, right into the jaws of the fierce disease. She bade the inmates of the hospital farewell, and after carefully submitting herself to the purification recommended by Mr Davis, the principal surgeon of the place, she returned to Mr Benson’s just at gloaming time.

Reading IV  – Cousin Phillis Part 2

Of course, for those who survived  the fever, recovery was often slow and the patient needed rest and recouperation- good wholesome food and fresh air. In Cousin Phillis Mr Holdsworth , the chief engineer in charge of constructing the railway, contracts a ‘low fever’ …

He went off into —— Valley, a dark overshadowed dale, where the sun seemed to set behind the hills before four o’clock on midsummer afternoons. Perhaps it was this that brought on the attack of low fever which he had soon after the beginning of the new year; he was very ill for many weeks, almost many months; a married sister—his only relation, I think—came down from London to nurse him, and I went over to him when I could, to see him, and give him ‘masculine news,’ as he called it; reports of the progress of the line,…

 At length, in June I think it was, he was sufficiently recovered to come back to his lodgings at Eltham, and resume part at least of his work. His sister, Mrs Robinson, had been obliged to leave him some weeks before, owing to some epidemic amongst her own children. As long as I had seen Mr Holdsworth in the rooms at the little inn at Hensleydale, where I had been accustomed to look upon him as an invalid, I had not been aware of the visible shake his fever had given to his health. But, once back in the old lodgings, where I had always seen him so buoyant, eloquent, decided, and vigorous in former days, my spirits sank at the change in one whom I had always regarded with a strong feeling of admiring affection. He sank into silence and despondency after the least exertion; he seemed as if he could not make up his mind to any action, or else that, when it was made up, he lacked strength to carry out his purpose. Of course, it was but the natural state of slow convalescence, after so sharp an illness; but, at the time, I did not know this, and perhaps I represented his state as more serious than it was to my kind relations at Hope Farm; who, in their grave, simple, eager way, immediately thought of the only help they could give.

‘Bring him out here,’ said the minister. ‘Our air here is good to a proverb; the June days are fine; he may loiter away his time in the hay-field, and the sweet smells will be a balm in themselves—better than physic.’

‘And,’ said cousin Holman, scarcely waiting for her husband to finish his sentence, ‘tell him there is new milk and fresh eggs to be had for the asking; it’s lucky Daisy has just calved, for her milk is always a good as other cows’ cream; and there is the plaid room with the morning sun all streaming in.‘