Gaskell House Blogs

Elizabeth Gaskell as muse

26th March 2019
in blog, Events

The background: the House has been successful in securing funding from the Arts Council for a collaborative programme of arts activities which includes a series of creative writing workshops. Here, Ben Cassidy, who is attending the programme, describes his experience of the first session and shares his piece of flash fiction.

Where to begin? The problem that faces all who set out to produce a piece of Creative Writing. Fortunately the tutor, poet Rachel Sills, had already prepared for that, to make sure that the blank page didn’t stay that way too long. This conveniently makes for a beginning point in this account, too. Rachel gave an opening line, and then asked everyone to write for five minutes, without worrying about plot or structure, description or exposition. The exercise allowed brains to click into gear and forget the world outside. It did its job, providing plenty to mine through later, which was especially useful,as the prompt was about an object – a bar of soap, in a thick orange wrapper. We were advised o write too much, as we would be attempting to write a Flash Fiction, and brevity is a key attribute. I wrote words that I associated with it, and attempted to record the scent that was coming through.

A short discussion of the genre of Flash Fiction followed, identifying specific attributes and outlining how many of them coalesce, to make a series of effects into a final piece that exploits the sum of its parts, making the result something more than them, individually. This included the title, which turned out to be a key signifier, that directs and guides the reader. Learning how to negotiate suggestion, and how to write from a distance were both very important lessons that came from the seminar. Hearing different views and a broad range of interesting perspectives made the activity even more fruitful.

Next, a series of objects were passed round and everyone was asked to consider them. Rachel asked us to focus in on the fine-details of things, and to see if it was possible to begin gleaning a story. Almost all the items were from the house, and so their function was known. This helped to begin thinking of a possible narrative. As this exercise continued, the class were asked to visit the next room, that had many house-hold utensils – many of which were unusual and not used today. The accompanying plaques on the wall told of what they were and how they were  used – as well, in some cases, by whom. The stories of real people became the basis for our characters.

After a short break, that meant the hard at work aspiring authors could get a well-earned cup of tea of coffee from the cafe downstairs, we got to work on constructing a Flash Fiction, putting into practice what we’d learnt and using the inspiration of items and information of how the staff and servants once lived. With plenty to go off, the sound of pens scribbling onto paper filled the room; there was a notable buzz of energy, too, as stories started unfolding and getting recorded.

Once we all finished, those who wanted to have a chance to share their work with the class, and receive feedback,did; in turn those who had been heard ten gave comments about what they had liked, and suggestions for improvements. Everyone was very respectful, and it soon became clear how much could be gained in so short a time, when careful preparation went into the class. This was what really made the difference, as everybody got to think of their work from the perspective of a reader, and, think about how they could hone and improve their stories.

Overall, the class was an absolute snip at just £5, and a great way to understand a specific genre. Rachel had clearly thought out how to best manage things to get the maximum out of a couple of hours, and, was approachable and encouraged everyone who took part. She helped put everyone at their ease and that in turn helped everyone to write to their best potential. Even if the night didn’t result in a finished piece of work for everyone – it did for most – nobody left without feeling they’d achieved something. Additionally, the session was a lot of fun too. It’s no surprise at all these these classes continue to sell out, and, get booked up so quickly.

The Plight of the Governess

Feeling the disturbance,again, Miss Ferguson rose from the night, itching the back of her hand, instinctively, irritably. Desperate to remember the dark image she had just been subjected to once more, she paced in her small room, careful to be quiet. The morning loomed, like illness. Biting her lip, she repressed speaking out to reprimand herself about the recent lacking in progress of the girls. She found herself silently cursing these visitations, that relentlessly stole her sleep. In her agitation her foot collided with the front right leg of the small, bedside unit, The gas lamp tottered over  and clattered on the hard floor. Wincing, she folded herself back into bed as quick as she could, whilst earnestly attempting to maintain any sounds from telling.

A few seconds later Miss Ferguson thought she may have seen a think wisp of a finger-sized, dark silhouette leave the base of the lamp, rushing from the glass tube.

Scrabbling. Back, forth. The wooden floor eking. The stiff door was pushed outwards.                                                          The hand felt baking. Angry, the heat within smarted. Her skin simmered.                                                                                Mrs Gaskell’s arrival timed itself to witness the incident…                                                                                            Entering, the horrible music – a ghostly gasp, stretched out, becoming all the environment. Silence was borne from the noise, as eye- white seemed to inflate, as they fought taking the sight in…

Moments later, one woman’s eye fixated on a measle-red, circular, coin sized lump, now alive: the infestation began spreading itself, climbing over Barbara Ferguson’s white flesh, turning and claiming it.

Benjamin Francis Cassidy – writer


This project has been funded using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England, The Granada Foundation and The Duchy of Lancaster.



A Large Cheerful, airy house, quite out of Manchester smoke.

Charlotte Brontë on visiting the House, 1851