Gaskell House Blogs

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Continental Travels, Part 1

28th July 2023
in blog, People

Heidelberg, Brussels and Switzerland

Almost every year while Elizabeth Gaskell lived at Plymouth Grove, she escaped from Manchester, which she claimed gave her a headache, to travel to Europe – referred to at the time as “The Continent”. These trips abroad invariably coincided with the completion of one of her books. She would be making her travel plans when the manuscript was almost ready to send to her publisher so she could be ready to set off as soon as it was done.

Elizabeth often travelled with some of her four daughters, Marianne, Meta, Florence and Julia, and although William, her husband, joined her on her first two foreign trips, he preferred the comforts of home and the ‘entire freedom of responsibility’ over having ‘…the charge of any of us, and of our luggage.’

As a keen traveller myself, when I first started volunteering at Elizabeth Gaskells’ House, I was intrigued by a set of watercolours in the Drawing Room painted by Meta, Elizabeth’s second daughter, who was a talented artist. This led me to start researching Elizabeth’s foreign travels and to try to work out where the watercolours were painted. The right picture below may be Ghent but I can’t be sure.

So, where did Elizabeth Gaskell travel to, how did she get there, and what did she do and see? In part 1 we’re going to visit Germany, Brussels and Switzerland and look at some of the difficulties travellers of the time faced. In part 2 we’ll visit France and part 3 Italy – particularly Elizabeth’s 1857 trip to Rome which made a huge impression on her.

Germany, Heidelberg – 1841, 1858 and 1860.

You must fancy “a union of all beauties” for Heidelberg, – splendid scenery, dark pine woods, rocks & the picturesque town, and noble castle to complete it.’

Elizabeth Gaskell writing to her sister-in-law, Eliza Holland, after her first foreign trip, which was to Heidelberg in 1841 with William. En route they visited the old cathedrals of Flanders, Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp.

Unfortunately, the Rhine at Cologne was a disappointment to her – she wrote that it smelled of old bones!

After Elizabeth’s first trip to Heidelberg in 1841, she didn’t travel abroad again until 1853, when she visited Paris. As a wife and a mother of four daughters, she was always concerned for the health and well-being of her family, and the conditions and hardships of foreign travel in the 1840s to 1860s were such that she would have been reluctant to subject any of her daughters to them until they were old enough to endure the travelling conditions.

The Trials of Travel

I’m going to divert a little here and take a brief look at some of the well-documented trials of travelling to and around the Continent at the time.

The Journey

‘The journey between London and Paris was sufficiently arduous to sear itself in the imagination as an essential element of the Parisian experience…’

Elizabeth Jay writing in British Writers and Paris 1830-1875.

Charles Dickens wrote in the 1850s that the journey from London to Paris took 11 hours. This involved the railway from London Bridge to Folkestone, the steamer from Folkestone to Boulogne, then the railway to Paris.

For Heidelberg, it would involve the steamer to Antwerp, the railway to Cologne, overnight in Cologne then the railway to Heidelberg – taking up to three days in total.

To get to Rome from Paris you would take the railway to Marseilles where you would get the steamer to Civitavecchia.

The steamer was noisy and uncomfortable. Passengers were fed boiled beef, pickles and cheddar and the crew came round with much-needed seasickness bowls after the meals.

Mechanical problems and the weather caused breakdowns and delays.

Thackeray noted that all classes of people were mixed together on the steamer, and he liked to draw caricatures of his fellow passengers on the journey.

An illustration from Thackeray’s The Paris Sketch Book of Mr. M. A. Titmarsh

The Civitavecchia to Rome Railway opened in 1863 but prior to that, as in Elizabeth’s journey in 1857, you would have to take the Diligence to Rome – making the total journey a minimum of four days and often subject to delays.

The Diligence was a stagecoach – nicknamed “The Dili” by British Travellers and much maligned for being overcrowded, noisy, and uncomfortable. ‘A crazy, rickety, dusty, dirty, ragged, filthy convenience’, it held 18 passengers plus their baggage, and the arduous ride from Civitavecchia to Rome took eight hours minimum. One passenger wrote ‘A cavalry charge could scarcely make more noise’.

Arriving in France

‘The road to this dungeon is fenced off with ropes breast high and outside those ropes all the English in the place who have lately been seasick and are now well, assemble to enjoy the degradation of their fellow creatures’.

Charles Dickens on arriving at Boulogne passport control in the 1850s,

French Customs officers were notorious for rifling through luggage. Duty had to be paid on tea, books, shoes, carpets, horses, cheese, jewels, lace, fabrics and walking sticks.

Once in Paris, the streets were unpaved and muddy with horse-drawn trams creating tons of manure. In 1862 Elizabeth Gaskell described Paris as ‘altogether abominable: noisy, hot, close and smelling of drains’.

Hotels and Food

‘The table-d’hote is a style of dinner opposed to all (English) home-born notions of comfort or enjoyment’

Murray’s Guide to The Continent warns travellers about the food. Elizabeth often wrote about the food on the Continent and complained she didn’t get enough to eat.

Many travellers wrote about the poor standard of Continental hotels – fleas in the bed, sheets generally re-used without washing, rooms unclean and smelly.

The writer The Truthful Traveller wrote in 1863 that French hotel rooms had no pegs for gowns, no footbath, no chamber-pail for slops, no wardrobe, no hot water and  

Murray’s Travel Guide described soap as ‘A thing never to be found in foreign bathrooms’.

Bathroom and toilet facilities were particularly difficult for ladies, and they often travelled with a “Bourdalue” – a small chamber pot; or for 25 shillings ladies could buy a portable “Fyfe’s Inodorous Standard Pail” which was a “Portaloo” disguised as a hat box.

Return to Heidelberg

Despite the trials of travelling on the Continent and the long journey time, Elizabeth returned to Heidelberg twice.

In 1858, travelling with her daughters Meta and Florence they stayed from early October to early December but found Heidelberg expensive. They had to economise and took modest lodgings and Elizabeth quickly wrote and sent off two short stories to Charles Dickens for his publication Household Words, for which he paid her £40.

During this trip, Elizabeth visited Mannheim, Karlsruhe and Strasbourg, leaving Heidelberg on 6 December to return home via Paris where she visited her friend Mary Clark Mohl.

In June 1860 Elizabeth writes to George Smith, her publisher ‘I shall be at Heidelberg when the famous once-in-ten-years Miracle Play is performed at the Ammergau, – make it worth my while and I’ll go as your special correspondent’. This was the Passion Play performed by the villagers in Oberammergau, Bavaria from 1634 and still performed today depicting the life and death of Jesus.

Oberammergau after an 1860 engraving by C E Doepler

Marianne, Florence, Julia and Ann Hearn, Elizabeth’s housekeeper, accompanied Elizabeth on this trip to Heidelberg. Marianne was recovering from chicken pox so was sent to a spa at Kreuznach near Bingen with Ann Hearn to look after her while Elizabeth, Florence and Julia stayed in Heidelberg. Meta had set off on 6 May for a sketching tour of France, Italy and Switzerland with Catherine Darwin, a sister of Charles Darwin, whom Elizabeth was very distantly related to through the Wedgwoods. It’s possible that some of Meta’s watercolours we have in Elizabeth Gaskell’s House were painted on this trip.

Heidelberg influenced two of Elizabeth’s works – The Grey Woman (1861) and Six Weeks at Heppenheim (1862).

Brussels 1856

‘Mme Heger, understanding that I was a friend of Miss Brontë’s, refused to see me; but I made M. Heger’s acquaintance and very much indeed I both like and respect him’.

In March 1855, Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Brontë died. Between June 1855 and January 1857 Elizabeth was busy writing The Life of Charlotte Brontë and she took a trip to Brussels in May 1856 to visit Professor Heger who had employed Charlotte and Emily as teachers in the early 1840s. Charlotte had developed a fondness for Heger, who was married. She wrote some inappropriate letters to him after her return to Haworth and Elizabeth wanted to find out more. Madame Heger refused to see Elizabeth, but Professor Heger did receive her and showed her Charlotte’s letters. However, Elizabeth neglected to mention the letters in her biography of Charlotte!

Switzerland 1864

‘Bracing air & a high situation is ordered for her; and we talk of Switzerland, – going to a high Alpine pension, & living there for a month or six weeks quietly…’

Elizabeth writes to George Smith in July 1864. Meta had been suffering from severe headaches and Elizabeth wanted to take her to Switzerland. George Smith gave Elizabeth a £100 advance on Wives and Daughters, her last novel, and they travelled in August. They were joined by Florence and her husband Charles Crompton, and Marianne and her fiancé Thurston Holland for a trip to Pontresina and Glion above Lake Geneva. Elizabeth writes that the trip is notable for what they didn’t see as they spent the time walking locally, reading and writing ‘…never did a party go to Switzerland and travel about less’

In part 2 we’re going to visit France, particularly Paris, where Elizabeth travelled to many times and where her close friend Mary Clake Mohl lived, and in Part 3 we’ll explore Italy, particularly Rome, which made a lifelong impact on Elizabeth and some of her daughters.

Jane Baxter, Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House

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