Here I am at the Regency-style villa where the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell lived with her husband and daughters.
Her most famous novel was Cranford which was made into a glossy television series along with North and South and Wives and Daughters. Elizabeth so adroitly revealed the many layers of Victorian society that historians gleefully absorb her details of her observations. She also wrote The Life of Charlotte Bronte, the first biography of that author.
Though her parents were affluent enough to live on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea they couldn’t buy the fortune of lasting children: they had eight children but only Elizabeth and her older brother lived. Though an upstanding and well-connected family (the Wedgewoods, Turners and Darwins were regular friends) her mum died young. Her dad was so distraught he sent his only surviving daughter to live with her mother's sister in Knutsford. This is how she wound up buried up north.
Childhood lacked the certainty it needs. Though she lived in a large house with the aunt (now on Gaskell Avenue, see photo) she was without money or a definite home or dad - he married again and she didn’t seem him for years. Her only brother visited often but he went missing in 1827 during a naval expedition to India.
Her aunt in Knutsford was financially comfortable and Elizabeth was sent to Avonbank in Stratford-on-Avon where she received an education in arts, the classics, decorum and propriety given to young ladies at the time.
Aged 22 she married a Unitarian minister William Gaskell (her dad had been a Unitarian minister) and they settled in Manchester near her husband’s chapel. Their first child was stillborn and their second, a son, died in infancy. At 24 her womb produced Marianne, the first of four daughters.
At 38 she had her first novel published. Perhaps money flooded in as two years later they moved to a slightly-grand Regency-style villa, 84, Plymouth Grove, Manchester where she wrote nearly all of her other novels, novellas and short stories. She lived here for fifteen years until her death.
The Gaskells' social circle included writers, religious folks and social reformers. Charles Dickens, John Ruskin and Charlotte Brontë visited, the latter being so shy she hid behind the drawing room curtains to avoid other visitors. The conductor Charles Hallé lived close by and taught piano to one of their daughters.
She looks austere, unsmiling, without vanity and if you met her I think you’d call her Mrs Gaskell, not Elizabeth and definitely not Liz. Books say she was an energetic, curious, inquisitorial and exhausting company.
The Gaskells kept a busy bustling house where they grew vegetables and kept a cow, pigs and poultry. With four daughters and many friends and visitors calling they were a well-known family. Elizabeth’s status as a novelist brought many eminent callers and there were her daughter’s friends, girls from Sunday School and her husband’s many students and fellow clergy.
The Gaskells knew the Bronte family in Haworth and when Charlotte died at 38 Patrick Brontë asked Elizabeth to write a biography of his daughter. Though hundreds of books have been written about Charlotte and her sisters this was the first.
Aged 55 the Gaskells bought their fantasy house, “The Lawn” in Holybourne, Hampshire. On one of the first visits Elizabeth suddenly died of a heart attack. Her husband and two daughters continued to live here in the villa at Plymouth Grove until it was sold and stood empty and dilapidating. In 2004 it was acquired by the Manchester Historic Buildings Trust who restored it and here I am outside it. Here’s the website for it….
The house stands near the Manchester’s university campus and as I took a few photos I had to wait for dozens of students to walk by. Next to the house is Cranford Court obviously named after Elizabeth’s famous novel. Down the street behind was Gaskell Engineering.
To one side of the house is Swinton Grove Park and I had a stroll around it. I wondered if the novelist had walked around here churning ideas around in her head. Surely the girls had played here with their friends. Did they put the cow on here to chew the grass?
I hadn’t been down central Manchester for a while and had a walk down into the city to the Whitworth Art Gallery. They’d spent millions refurbishing it but the art inside it was so uninspiring I found the building more interesting.
Please see my entry regarding Elizabeth Gaskell’s grave in the Death/Burial Locations section.
The apartment block next door is called Cranford Court after the famous novel Elizabeth wrote…
Where the vegetables, cow, pig and poultry were kept behind the house….
The house is near the many buildings that make up Manchester University. The view looking down to Manchester…
The opposite view…
Before I left
I also found a house in Whitby where Elizabeth had stayed…