Elizabeth Gaskell was born in London in 1810, and sadly lost her mother in 1811. The infant Elizabeth was taken to Knutsford, Cheshire, where she was brought up by her mother’s sister, Hannah Lumb. Despite her love of Manchester, Elizabeth’s connection with Knutsford clearly influenced her throughout her life, as the town became immortalised in more than one of her novels.
I started volunteering at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House in September, and am particularly interested in Elizabeth’s connection to Cheshire, as I grew up a few minutes from Knutsford. Therefore, on a rainy Saturday earlier this month, I decided to investigate this connection. I packed my waterproof and grabbed my little Elizabeth ornament and set off for Knutsford.
Hannah Lumb’s house still stands proud in Knutsford. It is located on Gaskell Avenue, renamed after its most famous occupant. This is undoubtedly a grand house by present standards, but it is important to remember that Elizabeth was very much middle class, not part of the Cheshire gentry. She was extremely humble, and once she and William moved to Plymouth Grove, she was embarrassed by the size of her home and resolved to always have the doors open to welcome visitors. Unfortunately, this house is still a private home, but a small plaque on the front marks it as Elizabeth’s childhood home. If you would like to see how the Gaskell’s lived, you can visit us at Plymouth Grove which has been painstakingly and lovingly restored for visitors.
St John’s Parish Church
The Gaskells were unitarians. This sect of Christianity disagreed with some fundamental tenets of Anglican doctrine, such as the trinity and original sin. Unitarians emphasised the role of reason in interpreting scripture, and championed freedom of conscience. As a result, Unitarians were very tolerant and open-minded. This attitude can certainly be seen reflected in both Elizabeth and William’s work.
However, regardless of their tolerant beliefs, Unitarians were classified as non-conformists and their churches were not licensed for weddings. As a result, Elizabeth and William married in Knutsford’s parish church.
This was not the only restriction they faced as a result of their faith. For example, William was forced to attend university in Glasgow as Unitarians were not allowed to study in English universities. However, despite being seen as dissenters there were many high-profile Unitarians at the time and Manchester’s Cross Street Chapel included many liberal businesspeople in its congregation. As the minister of the Cross Street Chapel, William, and by extension Elizabeth, was a central figure in Manchester society.
Gaskell Memorial Tower
Although Elizabeth spent her married life and wrote her novels in Manchester, Knutsford takes real pride in its connection with her. As well as having streets and cafes named after her, a whole building was built in Elizabeth’s memory. The Gaskell Memorial Tower was built in the centre of Knutsford in 1907 by Richard Harding Watt. A bust of Elizabeth gazes out over the town where she grew up. It is not surprising that the town so cherishes this connection to Gaskell. Knutsford was immortalised in her novel, Cranford (1853), which is based on the customs of a small rural town in Victorian England. This novel is a collection of satirical sketches based on memories from Elizabeth’s childhood, and suggests a real fondness for Cheshire.
Another essential stop on our Elizabeth Gaskell tour of Knutsford was Cranford Café. We were looking for somewhere to find a respite from the rain, and the name of this café was too perfect to ignore! We enjoyed a break and some delicious lunch. Elizabeth had a particularly great time, enjoying a tuna melt and a banana milkshake! If you ever find yourself in the area, I would very much recommend this as an essential stop!
Our final stop was Tatton Park. The mansion and parkland lie on the edge of Knutsford and have been features of the landscape for centuries. Like Cranford, Gaskell’s final novel, Wives and Daughters (1866), features Knutsford. Knutsford forms the model for Hollingford and Tatton Park appears as Cumnor Towers. This is the home of the aristocratic Cumnors and is featured throughout the novel.
The Towers forms a backdrop for some of the significant events of the novel, including the young Molly sleeping through the annual garden party (seen below, recreated by me!), and Dr Gibson’s proposal to ‘Miss Clare.’ However, Cumnor Towers is also used by Elizabeth to consider the relationship between aristocratic privilege and normal life in the surrounding town of Hollingford. Although this novel does not tackle issues of class and gender in the same way as some of her other novels, Gaskell does present a significant contrast between different classes as well as commenting upon the struggles of womanhood.
The mansion is also open to visitors, but due to coronavirus, we decided to limit our tour to the gardens. Although the rain affected the view, it was easy to see the beauty and grandeur immortalised in Gaskell’s novel. In Wives and Daughters, Molly talks of ‘the beautiful grounds, the like of which she had never even imagined.’ The gardens at Tatton are certainly imposing, and the manicured lawns contrast with the wildness of the surrounding parkland, as Molly observed: ‘the melting away of exquisite cultivation into the wilderness.’
We finished out Knutsford tour here, as we were all a bit soggy by this point! For any Gaskell fan, a trip to Knutsford and Tatton Park can help to bring her novels alive. I hope you enjoyed reading about our day out!