Gaskell House Blogs

Frances Hodgson Burnett – women writers of Manchester

10th November 2020
in blog, blogsNnews, Literature, People

Elizabeth Gaskell is, of course, one of the most famous of Manchester’s women writers but the city can boast of many others! In this blog series for Lockdown 2.0, lets celebrate four of them, focusing first on Frances Hodgson Burnett.

And why’s that? Firstly, because ‘The Secret Garden’ has got to be one of my favourite books – and there’s a new film version, and secondly because she had an extraordinary early life!

Frances Eliza Hodgson was born on 24 November 1849 at 141 York Street in Manchester – now the lower part of Cheetham Hill Road where it rises up from Victoria Station. As she was born, Elizabeth Gaskell was living in Upper Rumford Street and perhaps reading the copy of ‘Shirley’ which Charlotte Bronte had just sent to her.

Frances’s father was an ironmonger from Doncaster who ran a successful General Furnishing Ironmonger and Silversmith retail business from 21 King Street, off Deansgate in the centre of Manchester. When her father died in 1853, her mother Eliza took over the running of the business, and Frances spent a lot of time with her grandmother who encouraged her love of reading, giving her her first book – ‘The Little Flower Book’. Frances Hodgson Burnett always said this book had a powerful influence on her and on her writing.

The effects of the Lancashire Cotton Famine impacted on many businesses in Manchester – people had less disposable income – and the Hodgson business was no exception. The family slid downwards into Islington Square – a gated square of faded gentility next to an area of extreme poverty and overcrowding that ‘defied description‘ according to Engels. ‘Right and left. a multitude of covered passages led from the main streets into numerous courts, and he who turns in thither gets into a filthy and disgusting grime the equal of which is not to be found.’ Frances used to spend time watching the young women going to and from the Ancoats’ cotton mills from behind the safety of the Square’s gates.

This is one of her teachers at the time describing her: ‘Her powers as a storyteller were early developed and at school the children would stand spellbound around her while she improvised for their amusement some story of wonder and adventure.’

in 1863, Eliza sold the business and in 1865 moved the family to join her brother William in Knoxville, Tennessee where he owned a thriving dry goods store. As they set sail on Thursday 11 May 1865, Elizabeth Gaskell was in Plymouth Grove writing ‘Wives and Daughters’.

Unfortunately, Uncle William lost much of his business when the end of the Civil War reduced trade around Knoxville, and Frances began sending her stories for publication to earn money for the family. Her first story was published in 1868 in Godey’s Lady’s Book (honeyed delights for a lady’s vacant hours) , and from then her ‘pen driving machine‘ rarely faltered. With the first story she sent to Ballon’s Magazine, she sent a covering letter

Sir: I enclose stamps for the return of the accompanying MS ‘Miss Carruther’s Engagement’ if you do not find it suitable for publication in your magazine. My object is remuneration. Yours respectfully F Hodgson

In 1874, she began working on her first full length novel ‘That Lass o’Lowrie’s’ which is set in Lancashire. While the plot is romantic, it is full of realistic details of the working class life she’d observed through the gates of Islington Square. The book was published in 1877 to good reviews.

And here we’ll leave her with her first success, and with ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’, ‘The Little Princess’ and ‘The Secret Garden‘ still in the future. She was a prolific and hugely commercially successful writer of novels, short stories and plays for both adults and children. Her play ‘Esmerelda‘ became the the longest running play on Broadway in the nineteenth century. Her novels were best sellers in their day : in 1896, ‘The Lady of Quality‘ was the second bestselling novel in America while in 1922, ‘The Head of the House of Coombe‘ was the fourth. ‘The Secret Garden‘ has never been out of print and Persephone Books has re-released ‘The Making of a Marchioness’ and ‘The Shuttle‘. Another wonderful Manchester storyteller!

Frances Hodgson Burnett with her sons

To find out more, Duckworth has just re-published Ann Thwaite’s biography of Frances Hodgson Burnett ‘Beyond the Secret Garden‘.

And if want to know more about women writing in Manchester, did you know Charlotte Bronte started writing ‘Jane Eyre’ in Manchester? Read our blog!

Lesley House Volunteer

To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood…

Wives and Daughters