One of my favourite things to do is to visit places that are associated with authors whose work I have read and enjoyed; that’s why I’ve been to the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth so much. Due to lockdown in the UK, I’ve not ventured far from home at all, and only started visiting the supermarkets in person again a few weeks ago (mask and hand sanitiser at the ready). However, I was recently lucky enough to return to the beautiful village of Wycoller, a place associated with the Brontës who are thought to have visited the area, with Charlotte apparently basing the Ferndean Manor in her novel Jane Eyre (1847) on Wycoller Hall. I posted some photos and videos in my post Walking in Wycoller for anyone who wants to take a look.
Last week I had a wonderful visit to Elizabeth Gaskell’s House in Plymouth Grove, Manchester. I’ve been wanting to visit for so long and I wasn’t disappointed. So who was Elizabeth Gaskell? And what is the Brontë connection?
Elizabeth Gaskell was an English novelist, short story writer, and biographer. She was born as Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson in Chelsea on 29th September 1810 but grew up in Knutsford, Cheshire after her mother died and her father sent her to live with her aunt, Hannah Lumb. After later marrying William Gaskell (1805-1884), a Unitarian Minister, in 1832, the couple settled in Manchester. In 1850 they moved to 84 Plymouth Grove, now known as Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, and now a Grade II* listed building.
Gaskell’s most famous fictional works include Cranford (1851-53), North and South (1854-55), and Wives and Daughters (1865). I finished Cranford for the first time a few weeks back and I loved it. Although it’s a little slow to start, it’s a fascinating, funny, and poignant look at the lives of a group of women living in the little town of Cranford in the 19th century. I also read her novella, Lois the Witch (1861) many years ago at university and thought it was a fantastic and deeply unsettling account of life during the Salem Witch Trials.
Her most famous biography is probably The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), which was the first biography of Charlotte to be published. Elizabeth Gaskell, or Mrs. Gaskell, as she is often called, was a friend of Charlotte’s and was approached by her father, Patrick Brontë, after her death to write the biography. The feeling of Patrick, and possibly Charlotte’s widower Arthur Bell Nicholls, was that if Gaskell didn’t write Charlotte’s story, someone else would produce possibly a very unflattering and untrue account. The reception to Mrs Gaskell’s effort has always been somewhat controversial both at the time of publication and since. Patrick and Branwell Brontë in particular do not come off well and their reputations are arguably only just starting to be reassessed. She also toned down/skimmed over some of the more sensitive issues such as the experience of Charlotte and her sisters at the Clergy Daughters’ School, possibly to avoid legal action from its founder, the Rev. William Carus Wilson, whose family published a rebuttal titled “A refutation of the statements in ‘The life of Charlotte Bronte,’ regarding the Casterton Clergy Daughters’ School, when at Cowan Bridge”.
Charlotte’s feelings for Constantin Héger, who ran the Pensionnat Héger in the Rue d’Isabelle in Brussels, a school where she studied and taught in the early 1840s, are also not fully presented or explored. This may have been done to spare the feelings of those family and friends of both Charlotte and Héger (the latter of whom lived until 1896). It must also be said that although later evidence came to light such as letters which clearly shows Charlotte was infatuated with Héger, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest their relationship was anything other than teacher-pupil or employer-employee. However, despite its flaws and some readers taking issue with embellishments and omissions, the book has remained popular ever since 1857, and was declared as one of the 100 best non fiction books of all time by The Guardian newspaper in 2017.
Charlotte Brontë was one of many writers of her day who visited Gaskell at Plymouth Grove; others include Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. It was here that Charlotte is said to have hidden behind the curtains in one of the rooms to avoid having to make conversation with anyone. We’ve all wanted to do it at some point. Much respect for Charlotte for actually doing it! As you can see from above, her portrait hangs in the house alongside Gaskell’s.
Plymouth Grove is a beautiful villa in the outskirts of Manchester City Centre. There is no doubt the area has seen some massive changes in a relatively short space of time and I doubt Gaskell would recognise much of it now. From the windows of the drawing room, you can see Swinton Grove Park across the street, a park which was once part of the grounds of the villa, and a piece of greenery which Gaskell’s daughters appear to have had a role in saving.
Gaskell lived in the villa with her husband, William, and their children. William was a Unitarian minister and charity worker who fought for the education rights of the working class. William’s humanitarian beliefs were supported and shared by Elizabeth, whose novels explore many social issues and examine class, tolerance, even belief systems (in North and South, she writes “Margaret the Churchwoman, her father the Dissenter, Higgins the Infidel, knelt down together. It did them no harm”.
William’s study in the villa can be visited today. Books by the likes of Gaskell, Dickens, and Beecher Stowe line the walls, the desk is set up as if William has just left the room, and family portraits look down upon visitors.
This room must have seen a lot of activity during his lifetime. It still does as you can now get married in here! It would almost be like getting married in a library as there are so many beautiful and old books on display. A bookworm’s idea of heaven.
Another spectacular room in the house is the Dining Room where the Gaskells entertained the great and good of their day. It looks rather splendid and a little like something from Downton Abbey. The room is large and spacious and has beautiful views. A little table set up by the windows shows where Elizabeth would have read and received some of her novels and correspondence. On display are facsimiles of letters from Charlotte Brontë and Charles Dickens.
Upstairs is an exhibition room which is currently home to a fascinating insight into the relationships between John Ruskin and the Gaskells. There are some beautiful editions of his works on display. The Brontë Room is also located upstairs but was closed as it’s a room for hire for meetings and events. I would have liked a peek inside though. Anything Brontë related and I’m sold.
Upstairs is also home to Elizabeth’s bedroom which is currently being renovated. Although you can’t enter the room, you can take a look inside which consists of pretty much just a fireplace for now. I’d love to return once the renovation is complete. Any tickets purchased for the house last for 12 months so I’ll definitely be returning for another look around soon. Maybe some more work will have been completed on the room by then.
Downstairs in the old servants’ quarters is now home to a lovely tea room and second hand book sale. It’s a nice space for enjoying a spot of tea after a look around the house. There are also new books and gifts for sale here too.
We had such a lovely few hours in Mrs Gaskell’s house. I always enjoy walking in the footsteps of my favourite writers, and there have been quite a few at 84 Plymouth Grove. As you can see above, Bob enjoyed his spot of tea too. He went to the Brontë Parsonage so many times when he was alive, I just had to take him to Mrs Gaskell’s house too somehow. The house has so much history attached to it; social, religious, and literary and it was a fascinating visit. Thanks to all of the lovely staff who helped to make our visit so enjoyable. They’re such a lovely, knowledgeable, and engaging team and I bet they don’t get enough credit for the amazing work they do.
Reader, if you’ve ever thought about visiting Elizabeth Gaskell’s house, just do it. I can guarantee you will have a great time!
In Loving Memory of Bob the Bichon (2007-2019)
A lover of life, the Brontës, and Haworth who knows that I’m just going to write because I can’t help it.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
Thanks for reading. I’d love it if you stopped by The Journal of Juvenilia Studies where you can read my essay, “Autobiography, Wish-Fulfilment, and Juvenilia. The ‘Fractured Self’ in Charlotte Brontë’s Paracosmic Counterworld”.
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