Here I am at an attractive chapel which was probably originally in rolling Cheshire hills. However now it stands amidst busy traffic, shops and a high red-brick car park in the centre of Knutsford. The photograph of the chapel I in my pocket was misleading and taken craftily to not give away the hectic activity moating it. I parked across the road in the Aldi car park, pretended I was getting something out of the boot to disguise that I was having a crafty wee, then risked traffic to cross to the chapel.
The famous Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell is buried with her husband. A couple of daughters are in the same grave, too. 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. Its open for visitors and the décor, furniture and shades capture the period; see www.elizabethgaskillhouse.co.uk
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. 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. They 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 in the villa at Plymouth Grove in Manchester until it was sold and stood empty and dilapidating. In 2004 it was acquired by the Manchester Historic Buildings Trust who restored it.
She’s buried here with her husband William and two daughters…
Her childhood home in Knutsford then and now…
“The Lawn” where Elizabeth died suddenly of a heart attack…