This year the Gaskell Society Conference goes to Caernarfon. Dr Diane Duffy explores Elizabeth’s associations with North Wales and finds they’re very mixed.
Letters from the early years of her marriage show a strong connection with the scenic landscape and cultural difference of the Welsh nation, connections which shine through her writing in tales like ‘The Well of Penmorfa’, ‘The Curse of the Griffiths’ and Ruth. It was here that she spent some blissful years in her youth, visiting her cousin Samuel Holland at his house Plas Penrhyn at Minffordd near Tremadog.
In 1832, after her marriage to William Gaskell, the couple spent September on honeymoon in North Wales. Recollections of this time show their joy in each other’s company which is reflected in their appreciation of the Welsh landscape, despite the weather! They returned to Manchester on September 29th, Elizabeth’s twenty second birthday. After her marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls in 1854, Charlotte Brontë and her husband also spent five days in North Wales on their way to a honeymoon in Ireland. They arrived in Conwy by train on June 29th and visited Llanberis and Beddgelert.
While Elizabeth delighted in the scenery, this area also held great sorrow for her and her family. In 1845, after escaping with her children from an epidemic of scarlet fever in Manchester, her son Willie caught the disease from his sister Marianne and died aged only 9 months and 18 days. This sad event happened at the home of Mrs Hughes in Porthmadog, Mrs Hughes appears as the kind landlady at the Welsh inn in Ruth . Willie’s death is well documented by Dewi Williams in the Gaskell Journal vol 13, 1999, pp. 108-109.
In Elizabeth’s letters and the memoirs of Samuel Holland there is evidence for a number of visits to Wales, both before her honeymoon in 1832 and after. As well as staying with her cousin at Plas Penrhyn, she also visited Glyn Garth, a large and impressive house situated on the coast of Anglesey and overlooking the Menai Straits, which belonged to her friends Julie and Salis Schwabe. Glyn Garth remained in the Schwabe family until it was sold after Julie’s death in 1896. So, even the sad memory of Willie’s death did not appear not diminish the pleasure she got from Wales, a pleasure which is echoed throughout her letters and stories.
[Cwm Morfyn Lake]…was as wet and boggy as one could desire and I sopped my feet completely, and went into one of these little cottages to take off my shoes and stockings…the old woman cd speak no English and we no Welsh, but we had merry laughs…and a good piece of oatcake…
July 1838, in a letter to Lizzie Gaskell
In fact, in some stories she even fictionalises her own experiences of Wales.These stories also provide a platform for her to indulge in some history of the area in which her cousins family lived and worked – Samuel Holland remained in Wales until his death in 1892. Although he lived to the south of Tremadog, it is the building of this settlement that she writes about in ‘The Well of Penmorfa’. Tremadog lies about a mile north of Porthmadog, situated below the high ground of Snowdonia and on the edge of the National Park. The settlement was founded by William Madocks, who bought the land in 1798 with the intention of constructing a Cob to reclaim land from the sea and thus construct a port for ships to sail to Dublin. The work was completed in 1811, but months later a storm breached the wall and it was not until 1824 that the port was fully operational. By this time, Holyhead had been chosen as the ideal crossing place and the Menai Bridge was under construction.
Over the next few months I will be posting a number of excerpts from Elizabeth’s writing on Wales so that you can get a flavour of her responses to the country in advance of our conference this July. We hope to see you there.
Dr Diane Duffy