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Elizabeth Gaskell’s Continental Travels, Part 3 Italy

1st September 2023
in blog, blogsNnews, Gaskell House Blogs, other, People

Romantic Rome, 1857

I am passing a very delightful morning with you in Rome

In Part 1 of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Continental Travels we visited Heidelberg, Brussels and Switzerland and in Part 2 we explored France.

Elizabeth’s letters between December 1856 and January 1857 reveal that she was planning to escape to Rome as soon as her biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë was finished. She knew some of the contents were controversial and may get her into trouble, so she planned her departure before publication. The American sculptor William Wetmore Story and his wife Emmeline, whom Elizabeth had met in Paris, had been inviting her to stay with them in Rome so she obtained a £250 deposit on the biography from the ever-generous George Smith, her publisher, to help to fund her trip.

In early February 1857, the manuscript was sent off, and on the 13th Elizabeth, her two eldest daughters Marianne and Meta, and their friend Katie Winkworth immediately set off for Rome. They travelled via Paris, where they spent four days, before travelling to Marseilles to board the steamer The Oran to Civitavecchia. This trip is significant as it made a huge impact on Elizabeth and significant events took place that would influence Elizabeth’s and her daughters’ lives, particularly Meta.

The steamer’s boiler broke on the voyage from Marseilles to Civitavecchia and it had to return to Marseilles where the passengers had to change ship. 

On the new ship, they met Captain Charles Hill, a widower with two children. Romance blossomed between Captain Hill and Meta, and they later became engaged. Sadly, the engagement was broken off the following year and Meta never recovered, remaining unmarried for the rest of her life.

On reaching Rome on 23rd February, the Gaskell party initially stayed with the Storys for a few days at their villa, before moving to a hotel. During their stay in Rome, Elizabeth was sought out and admired for her works and was often the centre of attention at the many social gatherings they attended – according to Katie Winkworth who seemed to be a bit put out and envious. Harriet Beecher Stowe, abolitionist, and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was also in Rome and called on the Gaskells.

‘Most True and Intimate Friends’

Charles Eliot Norton sought out Elizabeth while she was watching the Shrove Tuesday carnival from the Storys’ balcony overlooking The Corso. They had met briefly in London seven years earlier. He was a 30-year-old American, an art critic, close friend of John Ruskin, and later became a Professor of Art at Harvard University. He formed a lifelong friendship with Elizabeth, Marianne, and Meta. Elizabeth and Charles Eliot Norton exchanged some very long letters over the years, a lot of which have survived. He also continued to correspond with Marianne and Meta after Elizabeth’s death. His last letter to Meta was in 1908 just before he died.

In 1910, Meta, writing to Sarah Norton, Charles’s daughter, recalls the meeting in Rome on the Story’s balcony overlooking The Corso, where they were watching the Shrove Tuesday carnival,

‘The narrow street was filled with a boisterous crowd of Romans, half mad with excitement at the confetti-throwing and horse-racing. Suddenly…there stood out the figure of a young man just below the balcony, smiling up at my Mother, whom he knew he was to see there, & whom he easily recognised from the others.

It is 53 years since that day, & yet even now I can recall the beautiful sweet welcoming expression on the radiant face. When brought onto the balcony, he and my mother greeted one another with little expectation that until her death they were to be most true and intimate friends.’

Charles Eliot Norton (1827 to 1908)

The 1857 trip was Charles Eliot Norton’s second to Rome, so he acted as guide and chaperone to the Gaskells, along with his friend the American painter Hamilton Wilde. Charles escorted them to all the sights, galleries and events in Rome and brought them flowers every day. They visited the Colosseum by moonlight, the Catacombs, the Sistine Chapel, and the Villa Borghese where they saw paintings by old masters including Raphael. Elizabeth wrote of gathering anemones in the gardens of the gallery at Palazzo Doria Pamphili. They took drives to Albano across the Campagna and spent evenings at grand dinners or gatherings at Charles’s lodgings overlooking the Spanish Steps or at the Story’s.

Charles wrote to a friend from Rome,

‘The pleasantest incident of the winter to me has been becoming acquainted with Mrs Gaskell who has been staying here for a month’.

The Gaskell party, accompanied by Charles Eliot Norton and Hamilton Wild, left Rome in a carriage in mid-April. From there they travelled to Florence where they called on the Brownings. Elizabeth wrote to her friend Eliza Fox ‘I liked her better than him; perhaps for the reason that he fell asleep while I was talking to him’

From Venice to ‘the Hornet’s Nest’

From Florence, they travelled to Venice. Charles had lived in Venice, so he again acted as their guide, showing them Tintorettos and taking them to Torcello to visit the Cathedral.

One of Meta’s watercolours we have in the Drawing Room at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House is a part of the Ca’ d’Oro, Venice (Palazzo Santa Sofia), a palace on the Grand Canal. It was a popular subject for artists to paint at the time – John Ruskin and Lord Leighton also painted it. We don’t know the date of Meta’s watercolour, as she visited Venice a few times. It may have been done on this trip or one of her later trips.

They parted from Charles Eliot Norton on 10th May and the Gaskell party made their way home through Verona, Milan, the Italian Lakes, Nice, Marseilles and Paris. They arrived home on 28th May and Elizabeth was suddenly plunged into the furore over The Life of Charlotte Brontë, saying ‘I am in the hornet’s nest with a vengeance.’ She immediately had to set about rewriting after threatened lawsuits and criticisms.

Charles Eliot Norton stayed with the Gaskells at Plymouth Grove briefly in the summer of 1857 when he visited the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition, but they never met after that, and the friendship was continued by letter.

Return to Rome, 1863

In early March, Elizabeth and Julia, her youngest daughter, stayed in Paris for two weeks where they were joined by Meta and Florence, Elizabeth’s third daughter. Marianne was initially not allowed to join them on this trip as she had expressed an interest in converting to Catholicism the previous year. From Paris, Elizabeth and her three daughters set off for Rome via Versailles and Avignon where they were delayed by the Mistral (a strong seasonal wind). They finally got to Marseilles where they took the steamer to Civitavecchia and arrived in Rome in late March. While in Rome, they visited their old friends the Storys and met many friends from England. They engaged a courier, Francois, whom Charles Eliot Norton had used in 1857 to take care of their travel arrangements and Meta wrote to Charles from Rome, 

‘It seems like a dream being here again, like dreaming our old Rome visit again…Six years ago it was our greatest pleasure to have your help and knowledge, to which your kindness made us feel always welcome…’

From Rome, they travelled via Perugia, Assisi, Orvieto and Siena to Florence where they stayed until the end of May so Meta could absorb the art and study the old masters. Francois had to leave them due to illness so Ann Hearn, their long-standing housekeeper, joined them in Florence. They enjoyed the hospitality of Thomas Trollope (brother of Anthony) who was living there, and Elizabeth wrote that he and his wife ‘completely won possession of our hearts in Florence’ After a week in Venice, they started for home on 6 June via Verona, Milan and Lucerne reaching Paris on 11 June where Marianne had been permitted to travel to meet them accompanied by Florence’s fiancé Charles Crompton. You can read more about Paris and Florence’s engagement in Part 2, France.

In the Drawing Room at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, we have a copy of Elizabeth’s passport from this trip to Italy in 1863. It is a single sheet of paper and reads ‘Mrs Elizabeth Gaskell (British subject) accompanied by four daughters travelling on the Continent with a maid servant’. Only Elizabeth was required to be named on the passport. We also have the small wallet she kept it in and some of her Murray’s travel guides.

British travellers weren’t obliged to have passports to leave the UK, but they were required in many areas of the Continent. Many British travellers treated passports with disdain – they often drew sketches or wrote notes on them. The Times wrote of the ‘pestilent frivolity of passports’ and criticised the degradation British travellers had to endure at Continental passport controls.

Reminiscences of Rome

Her first trip to Rome in 1857 made a lifelong impression on Elizabeth and although she had returned in 1863, it was the 1857 trip in the company of Charles Eliot Norton that Elizabeth reminisced about.

Writing to her friends the Storys in September 1857 she says,

‘It was in those charming Roman days that my life, at any rate culminated. I shall never be so happy again. I don’t think I was ever so happy before. My eyes fill with tears when I think of those days, and it is the same with all of us. They were the tip-top point of our lives. The girls may see happier ones – I never shall’

A bit over-dramatic perhaps and it certainly seems as though Elizabeth is suffering from something we keen travellers call “post-holiday blues.” She had gone from the sunshine, colour, art, gaiety, and parties of Italy and returned to “ugly, smoky Manchester.” She was also having to contend with the fallout from The Life of Charlotte Brontë.

Elizabeth’s short story A Dark Night’s Work, published in 1863, contains two passages taken directly from her 1857 trip to Rome.

The heroine, Ellinor, is on a ship travelling from Civitavecchia to Marseilles when the boiler breaks down,

‘They embarked late that evening in the tardy Santa Lucia…the vessel was just passing the rocky coast of Elba…Suddenly there was a shock and sound all over the vessel, her progress was stopped, and a rocking vibration was felt everywhere. The quarter-deck was filled with blasts of steam, which obscured everything…

He came back to where she sat trembling “A part of the engine is broken… they say we must make for the nearest port – return to Civita, in fact”

And in this passage, Elizabeth is clearly reminiscing about the meeting with Charles Eliot Norton on the Story’s balcony,

‘Mrs Forbes had her own hired balcony, as became a wealthy and respectable Englishwoman.

The Forbes girls had given place at the window to their mother and Ellinor, who were gazing half amused, half terrified at the mad part-coloured movement below; when a familiar face looked up smiling a recognition; and “How shall I get to you”? was asked in English, by the well-known voice of Canon Livingstone’.

In the novel, Elizabeth gives Ellinor a happy ending when she later marries Canon Livingstone!

On 12th November 1865, Elizabeth’s last clear word before she died suddenly from heart failure was “Rome.”

Jane Baxter, Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House

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