Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, Manchester

There are many people who can simply finish reading a book or watching a film, and move on. And then, there are those whose connection with an artistic creation does not end once the curtain has fallen, the post credits scene has passed, or the back cover closed. I fall solidly into the second camp. I may loathe it, love it or some emotion twixt the two, but there is always a follow-up to whatever media I consume. There are TV Tropes entries to peruse; literary and film criticism videos to watch and articles to read; sequels or other works by the creative team to seek out, and occasionally even some fan fiction to read if I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the piece.

However, sometimes I take things farther still, and try to visit places associated with the book, movie or play/musical in question. As I have been working my way through the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell, I was pleasantly reminded that many of her works were written during her years residing in Manchester.

 

I first visited her former home (now a museum) around the same time I was reading her novel North and South. Like the novel’s heroine, Margaret Hale, Mrs Gaskell was the daughter of a church minister who resigned his orders; and she too made the move from London (“The South”) to the industrial “North” as a young woman.

Elizabeth married William Gaskell, a Unitarian minister, and the two settled in Manchester, eventually living at 84 Plymouth Grove. From her sitting room, Mrs Gaskell began to write. Her debut novel, Mary Barton, was an unflinching portrayal of the poverty and desperation suffered by the Mancunian industrial working class during the so-called “Hungry forties”. (Those same conditions were to inspire Marx and Engels in their works as well; although they were contemporaries, I doubt they ever met with Elizabeth Gaskell).

Much of the old industrial Manchester is gone; the city is transforming from one of cotton mills and factories into edifices of glass and steel. Few of the old mills remain, and those that do have been transformed into office blocks and residences. Others across Lancashire and Cheshire have turned themselves into museums about the history of the cotton industry.

I often wonder how William Gaskell’s congregation must have responded to Mary Barton, given many of them would have been the wealthy mill owners criticised in this and her successive works. The trade unionist, John Barton, father to the titular character of Mary Barton, speaks thus of his employers:

The rich know nothing of the trials of the poor; I say, if they don’t know, they ought to know. We’re their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows, and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds; ay as Dives and Lazarus.

Of course, one could also argue that not much has changed in the last two centuries since those words were first scribbled.

Her later novel, Cranford, was partially inspired by the time she spent living with her aunt in Knutsford, Cheshire as a young woman. However, it is another of her novels,  North and South, which drew heavily from her experience of living in Manchester and the North, and her own past.

Margaret Hale, the heroine of North and South, develops an initially frosty relationship with mill-owner John Thornton. However, after a series of personal tragedies, and after she protects him from the wrath of his striking workers, the two have developed a regard, and eventually, love for another another. Ironically, as Thornton’s fortunes fail, Margaret obtains a large inheritance, and she ultimately bank-rolls his mill. This was revolutionary in Victorian times.

By the end of North and South, Thornton has also developed new regard for his mill-workers:

{Thornton} reviewed his position as a Milton manufacturer… And by-and-bye, he lost all sense of resentment in wonder how it was, or could be, that two men like himself and Higgins, living by the same trade, working in their different ways at the same object, could look upon each other’s position and duties in so strangely different a way. And thence arose that intercourse, which though it might not have the effect of preventing all future clash of opinion and action, when the occasion arose, would, at any rate, enable both master and man to look upon each other with far more charity and sympathy, and bear with each other more patiently and kindly. Besides this improvement of feeling, both Mr. Thornton and his workmen found out their ignorance as to positive matters of fact, known heretofore to one side, but not to the other.

More more than simply novel writing took place at 84 Plymouth Grove. The Gaskells played host to many eminent visitors: Charlotte Bronte, U.S. abolitionist and author Harriet Beecher Stowe, and pianist/conductor and adopted Mancunian Charles Hallé.

84 Plymouth Grove is staffed by an excellent team of volunteers, who are incredibly knowledgeable about Elizabeth Gaskell’s life. One of the museum volunteers shared a story of the time Charlotte Bronte once avoided an over-eager fellow guest by hiding behind the sitting room curtains!

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Does visiting the place where a creator lived give you greater insight and connection into their work? Those who subscribe to the literary theory known as Death of Author might disagree. For the record, I don’t necessarily have an opinion on this particular conjecture. (Except in the case of one writer who really needs to stop interfering in the canon of their long since completed book series…) Maybe a better question is: does it matter?

Would knowing about how Elizabeth’s past mirrored that of Margaret Hale change how one reads North and South? Or that her husband’s congregation consisted of the self-same wealthy industrialists whom she criticized in Mary Barton alter how the novel affects it’s reader?

Yet, irrespective of these profound questions, I enjoyed my visit to 84 Plymouth Grove. Since my ticket is valid for 12 months, I will certainly visit again – and perhaps time it to coincide with their famous monthly second hand book sale…

 

 

 

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7 thoughts on “Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, Manchester

  1. I wonder what writer you might mean who needs to stop rewriting their canon. Nice post. I’m the same as you. I like to look into the background of books I read. I did that the other night when I spent a while reading about Ardnamurchan after finishing a book about it.

    Liked by 1 person

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