Elizabeth Gaskell and Manchester


Reprinted here with the courteous permission of Portico Library
57 Mosley Street
Manchester M2 3HY

'I would fain be in the country':
Elizabeth Gaskell and Manchester

Alan Shelston

The subject of this paper is 'Elizabeth Gaskell and Manchester', but I propose to begin, not in Manchester, but in Warrington. Warrington was the home town of Elizabeth Gaskell's husband, William, and in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it was a great centre of Unitarianism, the system of beliefs in which both Elizabeth and William were born and bred. William, of course, was for more than fifty years first assistant minister and then minister at Manchester's Cross Street Chapel. However, as I say, it is at Warrington that I want to begin, and at the Cairo Street Unitarian Chapel there, or rather in its graveyard. For there, within the railed off burial ground of this rather dingy urban chapel, can be seen a number of those heavy stone sarcophagi that were the favoured form of funeral memorial amongst substantial families at that time. The Gaskells were an extended family in the area, and these are their family tombs. Amongst them is one which is particularly poignant. As substantial as all the rest, on its heavy stone slab it has an interrupted inscription. Its first line reads: "Here lie the Remains. . . ." There is then a gap leaving space for the two names, before it continues, of "William Gaskell their son / who Died August 10th 1845 / aged 19 Months and 18 days". The remainder of the stone is blank. This is the resting-place of Elizabeth and William Gaskell's infant son, who had died of scarlet fever during a family holiday in North Wales, and for whom his mother was always to mourn. It was to relieve her grief over Willie's death that her husband encouraged her to write the novel which became known as Mary Barton. Some three years later she writes of him in a letter to Annie Shaen: "my darling, darling Willie," she says, "now sleeps sounder still in the dull, dreary chapel-yard at Warrington".(i)

Willie Gaskell's solitary name on that tombstone is peculiarly touching, but what the blank spaces above and below it tell us is that not only was Willie buried there but that it was clearly the intention at the time that his parents and siblings would be buried there too, when their time came. But when Mrs Gaskell did come to die, in 1865 at the age of fifty-six, of a heart attack in mid-sentence when taking afternoon tea, she was buried not in the "dull dreary chapel-yard" at Warrington, but in another, and rather less forbidding, Unitarian graveyard, the one that lies alongside the Brook Street Chapel at Knutsford; it is there too that her husband was buried some twenty years later, and later still the two of her daughters who remained unmarried. We can only speculate about why, and when, the decision was taken to abandon the intended family tomb, leaving the infant Willie as its lonely occupant: given Mrs Gaskell's attachment to the memory of her son it is a decision one would think that must have cost her, and her husband, some painful reflection. We can conclude, perhaps, that given her literary fame, and her associations with Knutsford, the decision was the right one. Knutsford, after all, she called "my dear adopted native town" (Letters no. 12, p.28). But to begin on this rather gloomy note helps to define Elizabeth Gaskell's relationship with Manchester. Between the burial of her son and her own death, she lived for some twenty years in the city with which her first great novel, Mary Barton, was to make her indelibly associated: her husband was not only a leading clergyman in the city, but one of its most notable civic figures. But those two graves, one telling us where she had intended to be buried and one marking the spot where she was actually laid to rest, in a way define her very ambivalent relationship to the city. For both lie at a similar distance from it, one on its western and one on its south-eastern side. Elizabeth Gaskell, who did so much to bring Manchester into the nineteenth century literary consciousness, was always I think, in her mind at least, on the borders of the city itself. She was very much the novelist of borders and of boundaries, borders and boundaries not only of place and region but of time, of past and present. Cranford, that most popular of her fictions, defines it well. The fictional Knutsford, it lies close enough to "the great neighbouring town of Drumble"(ii) (ie Manchester) to be conscious of it and far enough away to pretend at least to ignore it; the lives of its inhabitants stretch back through their memories and their associations to the inevitably receding past.

It is with Elizabeth Gaskell's fiction that this essay will be primarily concerned. But having started with biography I will complete the picture, if only to give a framework to what we can learn from the novels and stories. She came to Manchester, appropriately enough, in 1832, the year of the First Reform Bill, one of the consequences of which was the first representation of the city in Parliament. She came as a young woman of twenty-two, having married the junior minister of Cross Street Chapel, and she was to have her home in Manchester until she died. The Gaskells, as middle-class families do, moved house as their family increased and their resources became enlarged. They had three successive houses in the city, or rather on its southern outskirts, all in the area where the university now stands. The first, in which they were to live for ten years, was in Dover Street, and was one of a row of new, if modest, residential dwellings. Here they were to live for ten years; in 1842 they moved, with their expanding family, to a larger house in Upper Romford Street, just round the corner, and finally, in April 1850, they ended up in the rather grand house which still stands and which is the one we now associate with Mrs Gaskell, in Plymouth Grove. "And we've got a house. Yes! we really have," she wrote to her friend Eliza Fox when the negotiations for Plymouth Grove were finally completed, "And if I had neither conscience nor prudence I should be delighted, for it certainly is a beauty" (Letters no. 69, p.107). Plymouth Grove was then right on the edge of the city, in a sufficiently rural environment for Mrs Gaskell to be able to buy the land next to it, and to satisfy her country instincts by keeping not only chickens and ducks, but also a pig and a cow. Again, like many a member of the middle-class with a conscience, she wonders whether "it is right to spend so much ourselves on so purely selfish a thing as a house is, while so many are wanting" (Letters p.108), and again, like many a member of the middle-class she is able to reconcile her conscience to the situation.

That reference to 'so many' who were 'wanting' will bring us to Elizabeth Gaskell's fiction. The year was 1850, when Manchester was moving out of the worst consequences of the hungry 4Os: Mary Barton, with its sub-title A Tale of Manchester Life, was published in 1848, and it famously established her reputation as a novelist of social conscience. Her Manchester stories and novels so directly reflect real experience that we inevitably think of her Manchester life as one of unrelieved good works which were effectively an extension of her husband's social ministry. Certainly Manchester provided the opportunity for the exercise of her social conscience, both in the 1840s, when industrial conditions were at their worst, and later, during the slump created by the trade embargo during the American Civil War. But to see her exclusively in these terms is less than accurate: a memorial address given at the Lower Mosley Street Sunday Schools on the centenary of her birth records the fact that "she no sooner settled in Manchester than she 'steadily and consistently objected to her time being considered as belonging in any way to her husband's congregation for the purposes of congregational visiting, and to being looked to for that leadership in congregational work which is too often expected of the minister's wife'. What she did was of her own choice and desire."(iii) That statement has a remarkably modern ring, and indeed more than once she was to find herself in difficulties with the Cross Street congregation. "The one place she did unite in willing service was the Sunday School," this writer records. (Sunday schools of this kind, it should be remembered, were at that time a source of general education for the poor.) For her contemporaries she was always 'Mrs' Gaskell, and the habit of thinking of her in this way is hard to break. Lord David Cecil, writing in 1934, referred to her, "soft-eyed, beneath her charming veil", as a "dove" who "performed with decorous enthusiasm the duties expected of a Unitarian minister's wife".(iv) But her wonderful letters - and she was surely the best of the. Victorian letter-writers - make it clear that she was determined to organise her own life, and while she put every effort into the social conscience side of her life, we should not forget its various other dimensions: her love of music and of art, for example, which was reflected in the care she took over her daughters' cultural education, and her activities within the circle of polite Manchester society. She may have rejected the obligation of 'congregational visiting' but she certainly developed her own extensive social contacts. There is a splendid letter which describes her going to a ball at The Park, in Prestwich, home of Mark Phillips, one of the first two Manchester MPs. There were three hundred guests and it was too crowded to get at the food. "Captain Heywood, danced so badly every one was laughing at him; he did very slow waltz . . . and was out of time in what he did." Nevertheless she stayed until the end and returned, across the city, at three in the morning: "We came home at about 3, found Hearn up, had tea and went fresh to bed to get up with an awful headache yesterday". That's not the end of it - she has a commitment the same day "to the Fairbairns to dinner and by dint of wet cloths and tea I got myself up". However, "it was a very yea nay kind of affair, rather flat because there were too many of the Fairbairn family' (Letters no. 118a, p.848-49). Elizabeth Gaskell's Manchester life was clearly not all good works and social conscience.

This dimension of her life - the social round of the Manchester bourgeoisie - is hinted at, and implicitly criticised, in Mary Barton, where she describes the home life of the mill-owner, Mr Carson, whose wife and daughters have been up until two the night before, and who have not come down to breakfast because of the headaches from which they are suffering as a consequence. Mr Carson Junior is reading a 'review', perhaps from a periodical borrowed from tile Portico Library, from which William Gaskell borrowed much of the family reading matter, and of which he was Chairman from 1849 until his death in 1884. Elizabeth, as a woman, was excluded from membership in her own right, but had access to the books through her husband. "I can see all the quarterlies three months after they are published," she complained to the publisher George Smith, "till then they lie on the Portico table, for gentlemen to see. I think I will go in for Women's Rights." (Letters, no. 438, p.567) On another occasion she writes to George Eliot to tell her that she "went plodging through our Manchester Sts to get every number [of Scenes of Clerical Life] as soon as it was accessible from the Portico reading table" (Letters, no. 449, p.592).(v) Mary Barton is a novel of the Manchester streets, but it is no reflection on its author's commitment to the theme of working-class suffering to suggest that she herself would have been more naturally acquainted with the life-style of the mill-owners and their families than with that of the workers whose plight she so powerfully describes. After the success of Mary Barton, there was the further dimension of her developing literary life, with visits to Plymouth Grove by figures like Dickens and the Carlyles, and of course Charlotte Bronte, whose first visit to Manchester, unknown at the time to her biographer-to-be, was in 1846, when she brought her father to the city for an operation for cataract. As Mrs Gaskell herself says in the letter to Eliza Fox from which I quoted earlier, there were many sides to her personality - "I have a great number" of "mes", she says - and she freely admits that she is at a loss as to how to reconcile them (Letters, no. 69, p.108).

In any consideration of Elizabeth Gaskell's Manchester fiction we have to start, of course, with Mary Barton. It is the novel which made her name, and deservedly so, for no other Victorian novel reveals so directly. and in such human terms, the social consequences for working people of the new industrialism. So successful is it in this respect, that in a way it has distorted its author's reputation: in fact she was to write only one more novel with an urban setting, North and South, together with a few stories. The bulk of Mrs Gaskell's major fiction is provincial - in the best sense of the term - and pastoral, rather than urban and industrial. In fact she came late to authorship: she began to write Mary Barton in 1845, as we have seen, as a distraction from the death of her son, and by this time she had already lived for thirteen years in Manchester. She had indeed written a few minor pieces - verses, sketches, and Sunday school stories - but nothing that might have prepared us for her first novel. Mary Barton has two interrelated stories - the story of John Barton, the working man driven by despair to the political murder of the mill-owner's son, and that of his daughter Mary, who saves the man she loves from the gallows, but only at the cost of revealing that it is her own father who has committed the crime. The novel is thus in many ways a very romantic and indeed implausibly melodramatic one, but what gives it its conviction is the way in which we know from the outset that we are in the hands of an author with a direct personal knowledge of what she describes. "I have tried to write truthfully," she says in the Preface that she wrote after the novel was completed, and she certainly succeeded in that. The source of that truth lies in something else that she says in the Preface, when she describes the origins of the novel: "I bethought me how deep might be the romance in the 'lives of some of those who elbowed me daily in the busy streets of the town in which I resided".(vi) How well she knew those 'busy streets'. Reading Mary Barton one feels sometimes as if one had an A-Z of 1840s Manchester in one's hand. She describes exactly where it is that her characters live, where their workplaces stand, where the shops are in which, at night, "the gas is so brilliant, the display of goods so much more vividly shown than by day", and where John Barton feels so powerfully "the contrast between the well-filled, well-lighted shops and the dim gloomy cellar" where a man out of work lies dying (MB, p.70). It is not only the extremes that she understood. She understood too the weary monotony of .life in the courts and the back to back terraces, particularly for the mothers who spent long days there with their fretful children. Her short story, Libby Marsh's Three Eras, published in a popular magazine at about the same time as Mary Barton, opens with a description of a working girl coming to her new lodgings:

Last November but one, there was a flitting in our
neighbourhood; hardly a flitting, after all, for it was only a
single person changing her place of abode from one lodging to
another; and instead of a carload of drawers and baskets,
dressers and beds, with old king clock a the top of all, it was
only one large wooden chest to be carried after the girl, who
moved slowly and heavily along the streets, listless and
depressed, more from the state of her mind than her body. . . .
No. 2 Court, Albemarle Street, was reached at last, and the pace,
slow as it was, slackened as she drew near the spot where she
was to be left by the man who carried her box, for, trivial as
her acquaintance with him was, he was not quite a stranger, as
everyone else was, peering out of their open doors, and
satisfying themselves it was only 'Dixon's new lodger'
Dixon's house was the last on the left-hand side of the court. A
high dead brick wall connected it with its opposite neighbour.
All the dwellings were of the same monotonous pattern, and
one side of the court looked at its exact likeness opposite, as if
it were seeing itself in a looking glass.(vii)

Mrs Gaskell has so clearly seen with her own eyes the scene that she describes here. More than that, though, she understands so precisely the interaction between the living conditions and the lives of people themselves - the effect of that daily trudging along those dismal streets, and the difficulty of sustaining any kind of quality of life in those narrow courts and passages.

Mrs Gaskell has direct knowledge of the physical locations of the city that she writes about, but above all it is tile people who inhabit them who matter. That reference in her Preface to "those who elbowed me daily in the busy streets" strikes us with its reference to physical contiguity: by suggesting that those lives have a "romance" of their own she is insisting that they can have as much interest for the readers of fiction as its more traditional heroes and heroines. John Barton is the first truly working-class hero in fiction, and in inviting sympathy for a hero who was not only working class but a murderer, and an embodiment of the fears of working-class violence, she recognised the radical implications of her intentions. Those critics who argue that Mary Barton is compromised by its author's affiliation with the middle class lack not only a sense of historical perspective, but a willingness to read it closely in its own terms. The Christianity for which she pleads at the novel's climax is not the institutional Christianity with which she was familiar at Cross Street, but the true Christianity which calls on all men to apply the gospel of forgiveness - the Christianity which as she herself recognised, led "some people" to call her "socialist and communist" (Letters, no. 69, p.108).

But Mary Barton is not only concerned with the social problems of mid-nineteenth century Manchester. Its printed sub-title is A Tale of Manchester Life, but when the novel was in manuscript she tended to refer to it as "a Manchester Love-Story" (Letters, no. 23, p.55) and this suggests that Mary Barton's own story was at least as important to her as that of her father. It is not simply the social conditions of Manchester that she is concerned with in her Manchester fiction but the way in which communities and families survive them - indeed not only survive them but sustain the kind of love and hope that makes for a meaningful experience of life itself. Mary Barton opens with two family groups enjoying a rare day of holiday in the fields that outlie the city - it leads into an account of the way in which these people are able to provide mutual support for each other when they return to their homes in the city. In Libbie Marsh she takes her characters on a Bank Holiday expedition to Dunham Park, and from there they are able to look back over the city itself.

Far, far away in the distance on that flat plain, you might see
the motionless cloud of smoke hanging over a great town, and
that was Manchester, - ugly, smoky Manchester, dear, busy,
earnest, noble-working Manchester; where their children had
been born, and where, perhaps, some lay buried; where their
homes were, and where God had cast their lives, and told them
to work out their destiny. (LM, p.183)

Given her account of Manchester from close at hand, one might say that here distance would seem to have lent enchantment to the view. Mrs Gaskell, as the passage acknowledges, had something of an obsession with the deaths of children: for crippled Franky in the story the reality of 'dear, busy, earnest, noble-working Manchester' was the blank street where the story started, and where. it will end with his death. In Mary Barton child death is an inevitable fact of life: Mrs Gaskell made much of descriptions of domestic interiors, but the 'homes' that she refers to include the cellar-dwellings in which children die in conditions so horrific that it is perhaps better that they should not survive. What she offers her reader in that distanced view of Manchester is something akin to those contemporary engravings of the city seen from afar in which its factory chimneys and its church towers appear in a haze of smoke, while in the foreground a rural landscape softens the view. But that surprisingly romanticised overview of Manchester in Libbie Marsh can be seen in a more positive light: what it testifies to is Gaskell's larger faith in the people of the city, and in their capacity to support each other in a situation which she describes as God-given, and as one which they had no alternative but to endure. "God made them high or lowly/And ordered their estate", a contemporary of Elizabeth Gaskell's, Mrs C F Alexander, wrote in the hymn "All Things Bright and Beautiful", first published in the very same year as Mary Barton, 1848.(viii) The sentiment is one that comes awkwardly to us today, but read aright (ie God made the 'lowly' as well as the 'high') it underlies all of Mrs Gaskell's commitment to the needs of the social outcast that runs throughout her fiction.

What gives distinctive authenticity to Mrs Gaskell's Manchester fiction, is her sense of the deprivations of city life. As we have seen, both Mary Barton and Libbie Marsh show the working people taking the opportunity of a holiday to get out into the country, where the air is fresh and nature is abundant. Within the confines of the city the air is poisonous; the flowers wither and die. In Libbie Marsh, Gaskell relates how, on the holiday in Dunham Park, the workers collect flowers for the crippled child: "Fresh parties came dropping in; some laden with wild flowers - almost with branches of hawthorn, indeed: while one or two had made prizes of tile earliest dog-roses; and had cast away campion, stitchwort, ragged robin. . . .(LM, p.182); when the country people bring their flowers into the city to sell them, they wither one by one, until the last few remain to be dried and put between the pages of Franky's bible. Mrs Gaskell, like so many of the Victorians with experience of the countryside, was familiar with each flower by name, and her precise identification of them intensifies the sense of what has been lost in the process of urbanisation. The shelves of the Portico testify to the Victorian interest in the natural world and this is hardly coincidental. Works like John E Sowerby's beautifully illustrated British Wild Flowers of 1860 had a particular meaning for city dwellers with their own recent memories of the countryside. Mrs Gaskell writes with direct personal experience of the contrasts between country and city life. Her early letters in particular are full of references to the restorative powers of country life: in one of them, written when she herself was spending a few days away from Manchester at Sandlebridge, her cousins' farm in Cheshire, she writes: "We are up with the birds, and sitting out on the old flag steps in the middle of fragrance - 'far from the busy hum of men', but not far from the busy hum of bees". "Fancy me," she says in the same letter, "sitting in an old-fashioned parlour, 'doors & windows opened wide', with casement window opening into a sunny court all filled with flowers which scent the air with their fragrance - in the very depth of the country - 5 miles from the least approach to a town" (Letters, no. 4, p.6, p.5). In North and South, the heroine Margaret Hale, a girl from the South of England comes to live in the city of Milton-Northern, a pseudonym for Manchester. Mrs Gaskell evokes the beauties of nature to indicate how her heroine has suffered by the move:

One day Margaret and her father had been as far as the fields
that lay around the town; it was early spring and she had
gathered some of the hedge and ditch flowers, dog-violets,
lesser celandines and the like, with an unspoken. lament in her
heart for the sweet profusion of the South.(ix)

When Margaret returns to the city she gives the flowers she has gathered to a dying mill-girl she has befriended; the girl is dying because her lungs have been destroyed by the cotton-fluff she breathed in the carding-room when she was a mill-worker. Not only inside but outside too the atmosphere is poisonous: as Gaskell says, "the air was so different, so deprived of all revivifying principle" (NS, p.88). Not only Bessie Higgins, the mill-girl, but Margaret's own mother eventually succumb to its life-denying effect.

In broad terms Margaret Hale's situation in North and South replicates that of Elizabeth Gaskell: she too came to live in Manchester as a young woman, after an early life spent largely in the country. It is perhaps worth recalling Mrs Gaskell's pre-Manchester life in a little more detail, for in its variety it makes her rather unusual amongst her contemporaries. Born in London, she was effectively orphaned by the death of her mother, and she was brought up from a very early age by her aunt, Hannah Lumb, in Knutsford. Her extended family in fact took responsibility for her: at the age of eleven she was sent to school in Stratford-upon-Avon, and after she returned to Knutsford some five years later, she spent further periods with .relatives and friends in North Wales, in London, in the south of England, and then in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and briefly in Edinburgh. It was on her first stay in Manchester itself that she met the man who was to become her husband. What this peripatetic existence led to was, on the one hand, a deep need for stability, but on the other an experience of the variety of English regional life very unusual in a young woman of her age, and which was to lead her always to be interested in social contrast and change. It also, one suspects, led her to be something of a nomad throughout her life. I said earlier that she was interested in boundaries and borders: the larger dimension of that is that her accounts of city life, however direct, are always written in the context of her awareness of the larger changes and contrasts that were taking place in England in the first half of the nineteenth century. Her title, North and South, makes the point of course, but the contrasts were not only those of region, but of time as well, exemplified most effectively by the changes that have taken place within an individual life-span. The change experienced by Margaret Hale in North and South is sudden, and thus traumatic; in Mary Barton she gives us the figure of old Alice Wilson, who at the end of a working life in the city recalls the landscapes of her childhood in Cumberiand before she came as a young woman to the city in search of work. "Eh lasses!" she says:

"ye don't know what rocks are in Manchester! Grey pieces o'
stone as large as a house, all covered over wi' mosses of
different colours, some yellow, some brown; and the ground
beneath them knee-deep in purple heather, smelling sae sweet
and fragrant, and the low music of the humming-bee for ever
sounding among it. Mother used to send Sally and me out to
gather ling and heather for besoms, and it was such pleasant
work! We used to come home of an evening loaded so as you
could not see us, for all that it was so light to carry. And then
mother would make us sit under the old hawthorn tree . . . to
pick and tie up the heather. It seems all like yesterday, and
yet it's a long long time agone" (MB, pp.35-36).

"It seems like yesterday, and yet it's a long time agone." The retrospective view is instinctive to the novelist and if, in both Mary Barton and North and South, Mrs Gaskell is the novelist of the here and now, in so much of her fiction she moves back and away towards those boundaries of time and place. Most subtly in Cranford, I think, where the recollections of the old ladies contribute so much to the narrative - but where too we are never allowed to forget the reality of the present that lies at the end of the newly-built railway line. (Built, incidentally, before the railway actually came to Knutsford - an interesting example of art anticipating life.) She does the same thing in so many of her shorter stories which build on her sense of regionality. Lizzie Leigh, a story with its main action in Manchester, opens with an account of a family whose home is a farm on the moors just in hearing distance of 'the far away bells of Rochdale Church'.(x) Lizzie Leigh, the long-lost daughter of the family, has gone to Manchester to hide the disgrace of her illegitimate child; the story is one of the mother's devotion in seeking her out and again it spans generations, just as it crosses the physical boundaries of country and town. In The Old Nurse's Story, another of the short stories, the narrator is the old nurse of a young and prosperous Manchester family: she tells her young charges the story of an incident in their mother's childhood when she was confronted, by supernatural means, with the crimes of an earlier generation still. And just as we go back in time through this process of family history, so we are transported in place to the Cumberiand fells where the original action had taken place. Elizabeth Gaskell was very fond of ghost stories and her success in this instance is founded not only on the realism with which she defines her settings of both time and place, but on her awareness of what is involved in passing in this way from one set of contexts to another. Through the processes of family history she moves from modern-day Manchester into a rural past where supernatural events can seem natural. What her coming to Manchester gave her was not just an awareness of the realities of life in the city, but a much larger understanding of the processes of cultural and historical change, processes that stretched back into the preceding century, and that were to change English society and its structures for ever. I referred earlier to the fact that she first came to Manchester in 1832, the year of the first Reform Bill. By 1851, when much of her Manchester fiction had been published, Britain had become a predominantly urban society.

North and South was published in 1854: like Lizzie Leigh it first appeared in Dickens's popular magazine, Household Words. It is generally argued that after pleading the workers' cause in Mary Barton, Mrs Gaskell redressed the balance in the later novel, arguing as she does for reconciliation in the social sphere, this time from the masters' point of view. She never loses her sympathy for working people in the novel: their plight is shown through Margaret Hale's involvement in the lives of the trades-unionist, Nicholas Higgins, and his daughter Bessie. But these issues are not given the kind of priority in their own right that they receive in Mary Barton and in fact North and South is a different kind of novel altogether. As its title suggests, it is about a larger contrast between cultures. The leisurely but ultimately backward-looking provincial life of the south is set against the progressive forces of the new industrialism: the process is reflected in the intellectual and moral development of its heroine, who is transported from southern case to northern energy, and who has to revise her whole scale of values. The story is one of pride and prejudice, this time in an industrial setting. But the impression that we get of Manchester, for all of the novel's identification with the values of northern industry, is very much an incomer's view: what is emphasised, as I was saying, is the pollution of the atmosphere, and the monotonous sameness of the streets. Approaching the city by rail, the Hale family see 'a deep lead-coloured cloud hanging over the horizon in the direction in which it lay'. The passage continues:

Nearer to the town, the air had a faint taste and smell of smoke;
perhaps, after all, more a loss of the fragrance of grass and
herbage than any positive taste or smell. Quick [sic] they were
whirled over long, straight, hopeless streets of regularly-built
houses, all small and of brick. Here and there a great oblong
many-windowed factory stood up, like a hen among her
chickens, puffing out black 'unparliamentary' smoke, and
sufficiently accounting for the cloud which Margaret had taken
to foretell rain. (NS, p.59).

As I have suggested, there is a sense in which Margaret Hale, replicates Gaskell's own experience, and there is perhaps a further personal link in that Margaret is the same age that Mrs Gaskell's eldest daughter, Marianne, would have been at the time when the novel was written. Unlike the other great Victorian women authors, Gaskell had daughters of her own: she thus writes with a particular authority on subjects involving, as the title of her final novel has it, 'Wives and Daughters'. But there is one crucial difference between Mrs Gaskell's attitude and that of her heroine. At the end of North and South, Margaret Hale marries the industrialist John Thornton, and she embraces her new life - and we hope her husband as well - with decent but unqualified enthusiasm, giving only a last look back to the country home she had loved. In a roughly contemporary letter of 1850 Mrs Gaskell wrote 'the work appointed both for my husband and me lies in Manchester. I would fain be in the country . . . [where] I am a different creature to what I am in Manchester.' (Letters, no. 86, p.139) With the marginal exception of a much later short story called The Manchester Marriage - which is not in fact set in Manchester at all - North and South was the last of Elizabeth Gaskell's Manchester fiction.

She marked the conclusion of North and South with a self-mocking letter which gives us something of an insight into her attitude of mind at this time: "I've been as nearly dazed and crazed with this c[ursed], d[amned) be h[anged] to it story as can be. (The expletives are my guesses and are discreetly blanked out in the letter itself.) I've been sick of writing, and everything connected with literature or improvement of the mind; to say nothing of deep hatred to my species about whom I was obliged to write as if I loved 'em.' (Letters, no 222, p.325) If we didn't know that as a correspondent she often wrote with tongue in cheek we might be shocked by a revelation like that. But certainly, through the eighteen-fifties she spent more and more time away from Manchester. She had always enjoyed staying with friends - with tile Shaens at Crix in Essex, for example, with the Kay-Shuttleworths amongst others in the Lake District, and with Florence and Parthenope Nightingale at their family home in Matlock in Derbyshire. It was there, as it happens, that she wrote a substantial part of North and South. In addition to this the Gaskells took regular family holidays at Silverdale, near Arnside, and this she continued to do throughout her life, even while she was extending her experience by travelling abroad. In the eighteen-fifties she began her habit of taking regular and sometimes lengthy trips to the continent, either on her own or with her daughters. There were eight separate visits to Paris between 1853 and 1865, the year of her death; two to Italy, the first of which, in 1857, lasted for three months, taking in Rome, Florence and Venice before a return via Nice, Marseilles and Paris; and two to Heidelberg, in Germany, which she had first visited with William as early as 1841. This is a quite astonishing itinerary by any standards: as one reads through the letters of this last decade of her life one becomes almost as exhausted as she must have been by the complications of her travel arrangements. At times the Plymouth Grove house seems to be being run entirely from a distance: in one of her very last letters she writes in a state of some panic from Dieppe to advise Marianne on how to deal with the defective drains. William, all this time, remained at Plymouth Grove to follow his equally busy Manchester life: as Jenny Uglow in her outstanding biography says, "William Gaskell gave his life to Manchester and never wanted to leave. Elizabeth preferred to be somewhere else: anywhere else, one sometimes feels."(xi)

Elizabeth Gaskell was to make one final gesture against Manchester. In the last year of her life she decided, entirely on her own initiative, to buy a House in Hampshire to which she and her husband might retire. It was to be a surprise for him, and with remarkable resourcefulness, given the difficulties involved, she accomplished all the negotiations without his knowledge, raising a loan from her publisher to pay for it, and enlisting the help of her son-in-law where, as a woman, she could not act on her own. But given William's devoted commitment to Manchester the project seems strangely misconceived. Certainly it confirms her own attachment to the country: unlike Margaret Hale, she had no intention of spending the rest of her life in her adopted city. But knowing her husband as she did, how can she have believed that he would have been contented with rural retirement? Was it perhaps because she knew that he would never agree to such a plan in advance that she set out to present him with a fait accompli? 'Mr Gaskell is not to know' she wrote, until the house was finally paid for. (Letters, 583) It is a tragic irony that it was at the Hampshire house, when she had just taken possession of it, that she died so suddenly. The first time William saw it was when he was called there to take her back, not to Manchester, not to Warrington, but to Knutsford. But if the biographers are to be believed, the last word to pass her lips, albeit by chance, was 'Rome'.(xii) (Uglow, p.610)

William, for his part, never went back to the Alton house, but remained in Manchester for two more decades of work for the common good. 1878 saw celebrations for both the thirtieth year (in fact the twenty-ninth) of his service as Chairman of the Portico and the fiftieth anniversary of his Cross Street ministry - the latter very grand, involving a soiree at the Town Hall, attended by more than a thousand of his fellow citizens. After his death the two unmarried Gaskell daughters, Meta and Julia, lived on at Plymouth Grove, energetically sustaining the family tradition of public service. As Barbara Brill records, "Flags on Manchester Town Hall were flown at half mast on the day of Julia's funeral' in 1908.(xiii) Elizabeth Gaskell College, appropriately situated in the heart of the area where the Gaskells lived throughout their years in Manchester, commemorated the most famous Gaskell name. But if the Gaskell family are rightly identified with the city to which they contributed so much we should remember that the mother whom they loved was always inclined to keep her distance. To that extent at least, she was emphatically not the 'Mrs Gaskell' of literary convention; she was very much her own person.


  1. The Letters of Mrs Gaskell ed. J.A.V. Chapple and Arthur Pollard (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1966), no. 25a, p.57. Further references to this volume, identified as Letters, are included in the text. I am grateful to the editors for permission to quote from this volume.
  2. Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford (1853), ed. Elizabeth Porges Watson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, The World's Classics, 1980), p.1.
  3. A Cobden Smith, Mrs Gaskell and Lower Mosley Street: A Centenary Address (1911) cit. Jenny Uglow, Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories (London: Faber and Faber, 1993), p.82.
  4. Lord David Cecil, Early Victorian Novelists (London: Constable, 1934) p.198.
  5. For an account of the Gaskells' involvement with the Portico Library, see Barbara Brill and Alan Shelston, Manchester: 'A Behindhand Place for Books': The Gaskells and the Portico Library, The Gaskell Society Journal 5 (1991), pp.27-36.
  6. Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton (1848) edited by Edgar Wright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982, The World's Classics), p.72. Further references are to this edition, identified as MB.
  7. Elizabeth Gaskell, Libbie Marsh's Three Eras (1847), reprinted in Elizabeth Gaskell, A Dark Night's Work and other stories, edited by Suzanne Lewis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, The World's Classics, 1992), p.167. Further references to this story are to this text, identified as LM.
  8. Mrs C M Alexander, Hymns for Little Children, 1848.
  9. Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South (1855) ed. Angus Easson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982, The World's Classics), p.72. Further references are to this edition, identified as NS.
  10. Elizabeth Gaskell, Lizzie Leigh (1 850), reprinted in Elizabeth Gaskell, Cousin Phyllis and other tales, ed. Angus Easson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, The World's Classics, 1981), p.1.
  11. Uglow, p.559.
  12. Uglow, p.610.
  13. Barbara Brill, William Gaskell 1805-84 (Manchester: Manchester Literary and Philosophical Association, 1984, p.121.

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