The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

On Sunday morning, we awoke not only to more blue skies and glorious sunshine, but to more first-rate speakers….

Dr Emma Liggins talked us through the rudiments of the Female Gothic tradition and where Elizabeth Gaskell fits in. Novels like The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe were sensationally popular in the 1790s and started a craze for this genre of the fantastic and the supernatural. Emma made us laugh by telling us there was even a checklist that was devised to help novice Gothic writers.


1 castle (ruined)
1 gallery (with secret doors)
2 murdered bodies
3 skeletons
Assassins & desperadoes (various)
Noises, whispers, groans (a selection of)

Mix together in three volumes and add one persecuted but courageous heroine….

Gaskell was fascinated by Gothic tales and thoroughly relished writing her own, as we see in ‘The Grey Woman’ and ‘The Poor Clare’.

Our final speaker was Dr Mike Sanders, who has been researching the adult novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett. Best known now for classic children’s stories like The Secret Garden, Burnett first achieved fame in the 1870s for two adult novels set in industrial Lancashire. That Lass O’Lowrie’s (1877) describes the community of pit brow women who worked at the coalmines of Wigan (cunningly disguised as ‘Rigan’ in the novel…) These women did heavy, physically demanding work, very much at odds with traditional Victorian ideas about femininity – they were loud and confident, our heroine Joan being particularly feisty. Some critics felt that the novel was unduly influenced by Mary Barton and it certainly does feature both a cross-class romance and realistic portrayals of working-class life. Burnett’s second novel Haworth’s (1879) was even more heavily influenced by North & South, and Mike was able to demonstrate most effectively how Burnett’s admiration of Gaskell’s industrial fiction surfaced in her own work.

N.B. Mike had some lovely news to share with us – he has been made Professor at Manchester University!! The huge round of applause that followed this announcement showed not only the affection Mike is held in by the Society, but also how richly deserved we all felt this appointment to be.

Huge Congratulations Mike!!

Our Sunday afternoon outing was a very special one – Jean had gone to a lot of trouble to arrange for us to visit Plas Penrhyn, once the home of the Samuel Hollands, respectively uncle and cousin to Elizabeth Gaskell. This listed building, in private ownership, dating from the late 17th and early 18th centuries, occupies a superb position, with wonderful views across the estuary towards Porthmadog.

It felt quite magical to be in the place where Elizabeth spent so many happy hours. The house is full of staircases leading up and down into random bedrooms and unexpected bathrooms – absolutely perfect for hide & seek! It was easy to imagine children playing in the garden and the adjoining grounds – kids could run around in freedom and safety – just perfect. Elizabeth spent holidays here as a child and a young woman, always with numerous aunts, uncles and cousins, and she and William stayed here on their honeymoon tour. Sitting on the covered verandah, looking out at the lovely view, I think the only place I’ve ever felt closer to her is on occasional  quiet evenings at the Gaskell House.

Our heartfelt thanks to Jean Alston for making this memorable trip possible, and to Jan Parker, who lives in the adjoining cottage, who kindly hosted our visit (she has no idea how close she came to having me as a new lodger…)

We were brought right back down to earth at the excellent Jenny’s Tea Rooms in Porthmadog, where we stopped for our traditional Sunday afternoon tea – we were sitting out at the front when a giant seagull swooped down and stole Lea’s scone! We became ‘Outraged of Porthmadog’ (but it was very funny!) After tea, Lea and I climbed the hill to Garth Terrace to see the house where the Gaskell’s baby son Willie had died from scarlet fever on the 10th August 1845 – deeply poignant.

Back at our hotel, after our final delicious dinner, Helen Smith briskly guided us through a delightful literary quiz of her own devising. There was much complaining, much hilarity, much wishing that we hadn’t drunk that extra glass of wine – and much wondering at how our Helen had suddenly turned into Anne Robinson of Weakest Link fame – by gum, Helen’s stern Scots streak surfaced!!

And my team won yay!!!

Though I think my fellow team members would have to agree that our victory was almost entirely due to a new member of the Society who just happened to be sitting at our table, my dear friend Ruth Taylor. Ruth is that fount of all knowledge, a secondary school English teacher….

Did I mention that my team won?….

And – apart from a most enjoyable detour to Anglesey on the way home, to visit Beaumaris, another Welsh place loved by Elizabeth – that was it for our 2022 North Wales Gaskell Society Conference.

I have to own up to feeling quite bereft as I waved you all off on the coach….

But here’s to 2024!!!  

(continues below…)

(click images to enlarge)

The Thank Yous

If you’re nodding off, you can skip these!! – but actually please don’t, as I really need to acknowledge the amazing team I have been part of, and without whom Conference would not have happened.

Pam Griffiths – much-loved Secretary of the Gaskell Society, who not only found our lovely hotel but did all the liaison and organisation with the hotel and the coach firms. Pam is the rock of the Society (and is also my personal rock!!)

Jackie Tucker – Membership Secretary and Queen of the Spreadsheets, who organised the room and transport bookings with precision and great good humour.

Clive Heath – our Treasurer who dealt with all things financial that nobody else understood, and also remained calm and patient when all around him were flapping.

Jean Alston – acknowledged as Queen of the Outings, who put so much time and effort into sorting our truly outstanding trips this year.

Diane Duffy – who managed the IT perfectly, using her own computer and projector – not to mention being a great speaker and study session organiser – and of course a brilliant actress!

Elizabeth Williams – for a wonderful study session and for keeping it together during Anthony’s hilarious performance – we salute you!

To all our six speakers and study session co-ordinators – not a weak link amongst you! You six were the backbone of the Conference.

Anthony Burton – for all his help in the planning of the programme, for finding the cover illustration – and of course for writing and acting skills of the highest calibre.

Linsey Parkinson – for all the publicity and promotion, and for seeing the much-admired programme through publication – and always for our fabulous website.

Helen Smith – Quiz Mistress Extraordinaire and excellent actress.

Christine Willgoose – who, with help from Diane and Jackie, organised the Bookstall – a great success this year.

Celia Crew – our ever-diligent taker of the minutes at what must have seemed interminable Conference meetings.

Jane Wilkshire – ever cheerful Committee member, always happy to help.

The Celtic Royal Hotel – very pleasant rooms, fantastic food, loved the swimming pool, caring obliging staff – especially the lovely young people who waited patiently on us at table while we searched for our glasses and couldn’t decide what to eat.

And finally, and most of all, to you lot for coming to Conference at a time when covid is still so rife. For being so willing to enjoy yourselves, for your interest and enthusiasm, for tolerating the endless roll calls on the coach, for so many lovely conversations and SO many laughs…

I think Mrs G would have had a great time with us – I feel we truly captured her spirit. Can’t say better than that really…..

Much love from

Libby xxxx