The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell, the wife of a Unitarian minister of religion in Manchester, shared her husband’s interest in literature: they published some jointly written verses in 1837.  Elizabeth became a best-selling novelist almost by chance. Grieved by the death of her baby son Willy, she turned to writing as a therapy, suggested by her husband, the Rev. William.  The result was a novel of Manchester life, Mary Barton.  Through the mediation of a literary friend, it was published in 1848, anonymously, and became a sensation.  The author’s identity was soon known, and “Mrs Gaskell” (as she appeared on her title-pages) became a celebrity.  Unabashed, intelligent and humorous in any company, she soon became friendly with other leading lights of literature.  For the next fifteen years (until her premature death) she was a professional author, alongside her vocation as wife and mother.  She published six major novels, and over thirty shorter stories.  There was no waning in her powers: her last novel, Wives and Daughters, is acknowledged as her best, and she would no doubt have excelled that if she had lived.  There was no lack of variety in her production: each novel has a different theme, and the short stories range widely in characters and settings.  She ranked with nationally recognised authors like Dickens, Thackeray and George Eliot.  Living in Manchester for 32 years, and writing two novels about Manchester life, she is undoubtedly Manchester’s greatest writer.

On her sudden death in 1865, one obituary hailed her as “without question, the most powerful and finished female novelist of an epoch singularly rich in female novelists”.  Her publishers issued a new edition of her works with illustrations (most had been published unillustrated), and kept her works in print to the end of the century and beyond.  In 1906 a standard edition, the “Knutsford” edition, was edited by Professor Adolphus William Ward, Master of the Cambridge college, Peterhouse, and a family friend of the Gaskells since his time as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Manchester.  From this time also, the prestigious series of “World’s Classics”, published by Oxford University Press, included the complete works of Gaskell in its scope, with introductions by the eminent critic Clement Shorter, who also gathered material for an ultimately unpublished biography.  Shorter was on good terms with the Gaskell family; but they, as was common at the time, tried to discourage biographical investigation of their distinguished forbear.

Victorian literature fell out of favour in the early twentieth century.  An early attempt to restore prestige to Victorian novels came in a series of lectures by Lord David Cecil (professor of English at Oxford University), published as Early Victorian Novelists: Essays in Revaluation(1934).  He noticed Gaskell only in passing, and, using the idea of Victorian woman as “eagles” or “doves”, pronounced: “We have only to look at a portrait of Mrs Gaskell, soft-eyed beneath her charming veil, to see that she was a dove….”.

He went on: “She was all a woman was expected to be; gentle, domestic, tactful, unintellectual, prone to tears, easily shocked.  So far from chafing at the limits imposed on her activities, she accepted them with serene satisfaction.  She married young and had seven children: she performed with decorous enthusiasm the duties expected of a Unitarian minister’s wife; she looked up to man as her sex’s rightful and benevolent master.”

Although Cecil also made some complimentary remarks about Gaskell’s art, this assessment of her personality impaired, rather than enhanced, her reputation.  It is interesting that less than twenty years later, one of the first critical works on Gaskell was The Woman Question in Mrs Gaskell’s Works(1950) by Aina Rubenius, a Swedish scholar.

By the early twentieth century, Gaskell had become remembered chiefly for one book: Cranford.  She “stands or falls by Cranford,” wrote one critic in 1910, the centenary of her birth.  These sketches draw on Gaskell’s memories of her childhood in the village (or township) of Knutsford in rural Cheshire.  Partly through illustrations supplied by twentieth century artists, Cranford evokes what one writer has called “a Regency land of ornamental characters, quaint interiors, and … reassuring charm and prettiness”.  This “chocolate-box” brand is associated above all with Jane Austen: it does little justice to the tough-mindedness of either Austen or Gaskell.

From the centenary of Gaskell’s death in 1865, there has been a succession of significant books on Gaskell (both critical and biographical) by writers such as Edgar Wright (1965), W. A. Craik (1975), Winifred Gerin (1976), Angus Easson (1979), Coral Lansbury (1984), Patsy Stoneman (1987, 2006), Jane Spencer (1993), Jenny Uglow (1993), Kate Flint (1995), Shirley Foster (2002).  Gaskell was once regarded as an almost instinctual writer, who just scribbled away with extraordinary fluency.  Gaskell’s latest biographer (Uglow) has commented (in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) that “Gaskell’s reputation has probably undergone more revisionist critical swerves than that of any other major nineteenth-century author”. She is now esteemed as a “skilled and self-conscious artist, revelling in the possibilities of genres, playing with narrative stance and ambivalence and literary relevance”.  She is praised as “an acute observ[er] of domestic detail”, “a shrewd psychologist” and “a critic of industrial society”. Inevitably women are prominent among her admirers, and “feminist criticism of the 1990s explored her subtle extension of female, maternal values from the domestic to the public sphere, her dramatization of the tension between old and new systems of values, and the relation between her experience as a woman writing for male editors, and that of the industrial workers she described”.  Gaskell’s keen awareness of the culture of her times, in many aspects, has in recent years led to her being cited as a witness in a wide range of articles on Victorian ideas and practices (as reflected in the Gaskell Journal– see below).

A crucial resource for Gaskell studies is her letters, which were published in two collections: The Letters of Mrs Gaskell, ed. J. A. V. Chapple and Arthur Pollard (Manchester University Press, 1966, reissued 1997) and Further Letters of Mrs Gaskell, ed. John Chapple and Alan Shelston (Manchester University Press, 2000).  Gaskell was a quick and brilliant letter writer: her letters do not tell much about her own writings, but do illuminate the circumstances of her life, and her character.  They put paid to the notion that she was a meek, conformist housewife who happened to be able to write books, and reveal her as an energetic, independent-minded, progressive woman, who was unfailingly alert and amusing.

Gaskell’s academic rehabilitation was signalled by the edition of her complete works published in 10 volumes in 2005-6 by London publishers Pickering and Chatto. Under the general editorship of Professor Joanne Shattock, this secured the services of a group of major Gaskell scholars in providing texts edited to high critical standards.  Several of Gaskell’s novels have also received expert editions in such series as Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, and (in America) Norton Critical Editions.

An important influence in the revival of Gaskell’s fortunes is the Gaskell Society.  This was founded in 1985 by Joan Leach MBE, a Knutsford teacher, active in local history research and a charismatic personality.  It now has branches in the North-West (with meetings in both Manchester and Knutsford); London and the South-East; and the South-West; as well as international contacts.  Its members are connected by a twice-yearly Newsletter, and it also (since 1987) publishes a peer-reviewed scholarly annual, the Gaskell Journal, edited by a university academic and having an editorial advisory board of twenty-four distinguished scholars, mostly linked to universities. Some literary societies go back a long way, e.g. the Brontë Society was founded in 1893 and the Dickens Fellowship in 1902.  The Gaskell Society is a comparative newcomer to what is now a group of 125 or so societies, co-operating in the Alliance of Literary Societies, of which the Gaskell society is an enthusiastic member.

Gaskell’s rising reputation has been marked by television adaptations of her books, such as Wives and Daughters on BBC tv in 1999, North and Southon BBC tv in 2004, and Cranfordon BBC tv in 2007.

Gaskell was commemorated in Westminster Abbey in 2010.  Poets Corner is too full to permit more monuments, but a stained glass window in Poets Corner accommodates more recent memorials to great writers, and Gaskell is now included here.

In 2015 there was a campaign in Manchester to set up a statue of the city’s most distinguished woman. In a public competition, the suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst won, but Gaskell was runner-up.

Perhaps the greatest boost to Gaskell’s reputation has been the opening in October 2014 of her house as a heritage site open to the public.  After her death, the house at 84 Plymouth Grove was occupied by her husband and two unmarried daughters.  On the death in 1913 of the last family inhabitant, her daughter Margaret Emily, an attempt was made to preserve the house as a memorial, but Manchester Corporation did not support this, commenting that “the house belonged to one of the ugliest periods of architecture and was of no value beyond its association with the Gaskell family”.  House and contents were sold in 1914.  Another family, with interesting musical and theatrical connections, owned it until 1969.  It was then bought by the University of Manchester, which used it as a centre for pastoral work with foreign students.  Known officially as International House, it was familiar to locals as “the pink house”, owing to its exterior paintwork.  The university ceased to use the house in 2000 and sought a new owner.  The Gaskell Society now intervened, under its far-sighted Chair, Janet Allan mbe, an energetic influence in Manchester cultural life.  The Society set up a charitable trust, the Manchester Historic Buildings Trust, which bought the house, and embarked on restoration.  Donations from private sources were supported by a grant to repair the fabric from English Heritage, and a grant to recreate the historic interiors from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Some houses inhabited by celebrities such as writers or musicians have the luck to be preserved, with contents intact, from the moment their inhabitants die (e.g. George Bernard Shaw’s house at Ayot St Lawrence). But usually, the houses survive empty and their interiors have to be re-created (e.g. Charles Dickens’s House in London, and the Brontës’ parsonage at Haworth).  84 Plymouth Grove was in the latter category.  There are a few Gaskell relics, mostly belonging to her descendants, and some of these are prime exhibits in the house. But the main aim of the curatorial team which restored the house was to restore the period rooms to a state as near as possible to what the Gaskells would have known. Admittedly, therefore, the interiors are a speculative restoration, but it has generally been considered within the heritage community that they have been recreated with unusual sensitivity and scholarship. They honour Gaskell’s memory, especially through interpretation provided by volunteer room guides, whose knowledge and enthusiasm, tempered by discretion and charm, is frequently commended by visitors.  The rooms also offer an insight into middle-class domestic life in Manchester’s boom years.  While Manchester has world-class libraries, museums and galleries, it is hardly active in the stately (or even non-stately) home business, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s House leads the way in this field.

The House has also, following Elizabeth Gaskell’s example as a socially useful activist, maintained a lively programme of activities.  It not only arranges lectures, concerts and dramatic performances, but participates in community events and festivals, provides holiday activities for families and craft workshops, offers an educational programme for schools, and sustains reading and creative writing groups.  Open to the public three days a week, it conducts private tours on other days for groups.

A popular tourist attraction, the house is less than ten minutes’ walk from Manchester’s universities and medical quarter. Although when the Trust bought it, it was said to be “surrounded by sink estates and burnt-out cars”, it now sits peacefully in a redeveloped residential area, with fairly easy parking in surrounding streets.

Some literary house museums created by long-standing societies, such as the Charles Dickens Museum and the Brontë Parsonage Museum, have status not only as evocative domestic settings but also as research centres.  From the beginning of the twentieth century Gaskell enthusiasts did collect manuscripts, books and memorabilia, but, since Elizabeth Gaskell’s House did not then exist, such collections found a home predominantly in Manchester Central Library and in the John Rylands University Library in Manchester. It would be futile for Elizabeth Gaskell’s House to try to compete with these now, though the House has warm co-operative relations with them.  The House can, however, take a lead in promoting Gaskell’s reputation, encouraging Gaskell studies, and fostering literary awareness and creativity.

For more on the scholarly revival of Gaskell see the General Introduction by Joanne Shattock in the first volume of the Pickering and Chatto edition of Gaskell’s Works (see above); and the Introduction to Graham Handley, An Elizabeth Gaskell Chronology, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Anthony Burton






Anthony Burton 23/03/2018