Last week I visited Elizabeth Gaskell’s house in Manchester with a group of students who are studying North and South. I’ve always enjoyed Mrs Gaskell’s novels (yes, I find it hard to drop the ‘Mrs’, even though it has connotations of domesticity and cosiness which don’t really fit my view of her novels) and I think she was a fascinating woman, too. Like George Eliot, Charlotte Yonge, M E Braddon and others, Gaskell seems to come behind the Brontes in popular perceptions of Victorian women writers, and, much though I love the Brontes, this isn’t fair. Gaskell managed to be both a reasonably traditional Victorian woman (wife, mother, home-maker) and prolific writer with a high profile, writing for Dickens’s periodicals (although she was stubborn, and he was reputed to have said: “Oh! Mrs Gaskell-fearful-fearful! If I were Mr G. Oh heavens how I would beat her!”) I hope he was joking.
Gaskell has had a troubled relationship with critics: Patsy Stoneman’s book on Gaskell has a great chapter on this, pointing out how through the 20th century criticism has moved Gaskell from Lord David Cecil’s description of a vapid and ineffectual woman (which makes me wonder if he had read anything by her) to that of radical Marxist feminist. Cecil wrote:
The outstanding fact about Mrs Gaskell is her femininity…she was all a woman was expected to be: gentle, domestic, tactful, unintellectual, prone to tears, easily shocked. So far form chafing at the limits imposed on her activities, she accepted them with serene satisfaction…Mrs Gaskell was the typical Victorian woman.
Gaskell was deeply involved in life in Manchester, along with her husband who supported her writing career, understanding and trying to alleviate the suffering caused by poverty in an unequal, patriarchal, industrial society. These aspects are reflected in all her novels, though perhaps most distinctly in North and South, a ‘Condition of England’ novel which exposed the lives of those working in industrial cities, along with a nuanced and fascinating study of the economic problems of the factory owners. From strikes to costs, from domestic matters to the public arena of politics, the novel explores the problems of the world around her, and at Gaskell’s house, which is arranged as though the Gaskells were still in residence, the guides and information there clearly link Gaskell to wider Victorian Manchester, and point to how this underpins her writing.
I’m always thrilled to see where writers wrote, where they conducted their lives, and to stand on the same doorstep as visitors to the Gaskells such as Florence Nightingale and Charlotte Bronte is indeed exciting. There is a wonderful sense of real, living history here. The house is really a house, though, not a museum: the furniture and decor has been carefully researched to look as genuine as possible, but in fact one can sit on the sofas and touch the books, which aligns nicely with the Gaskells’ own hospitality; one can feel at home here (and even dress up in costume, as my colleague did). They run a series of great events, including reading groups, writers’ groups, sewing bees, musical events and book sales; I wish I lived closer. I find it very encouraging, though, to see the spirit of so many ’eminent Victorians’ carried on into the 21st century in a house which offers such a range of intellectually stimulating events.