My life with Lily – Mrs Gaskell, Cheshire, Manchester and me
I was born in Sale, which was then in Cheshire and is now in Greater Manchester. My socially aspirant family would get annoyed with me when, for convenience’s sake, I would introduce myself to strangers as being from Manchester: ‘ no dear, we’re from Cheshire’. From the suburb where we lived there were essentially two choices of stimulation and entertainment, which involved getting to Washway Road, better known as the A56, and turning either left to go into ‘town’, as we said, or right to escape to the countryside. Both alternatives were easy of access and equally alluring although very different in nature. As we know, the rural-urban dichotomy, sometimes evoked as the North-South divide, is an axis pivotal to Elizabeth Gaskell’s sensibilities and oeuvre. This dichotomy was central to my formative years and before I came to know Elizabeth and her work predisposed me to find in her a kindred spirit.
Like many people I suspect my introduction to most classic works of fiction came through Sunday teatime television dramatisations. I remember Cranford, North and South and Wives and Daughters although in little detail. In the opening credits to the latter, a horse-drawn open carriage sped past the gates of an aristocratic pile to a beguiling piece of music which years later I identified as the Overture to Faure’s Masques et Bergamasques suite. I was attracted to its wistful harking back to earlier times.
The dichotomy of pastime choices represented by the location of suburban Sale was also that between the past and the present: Cheshire with its aristocratic estates and thatched cottages and Manchester with its high rises and fly-overs. My father was an electrical engineer and my mother a lover of literature, which also fuelled the duality. The presence of Mrs Gaskell was discreetly in the background: we drove past both Plymouth Grove and Heathside in Knutsford and were told she had lived there. My father had studied at the Institute of Engineering, later UMIST and now fully incorporated into the University, which was the descendent of the Mechanics’ Institute founded by William Gaskell, and my mother was to be a secretary in a UMIST hall of residence and then at The International Society in 84 Plymouth Grove itself, her office being William’s study. So Lily sat patiently in the wings, waiting to play a fuller part in my life.
That partly came with a move to a Cheshire village close to Knutsford, where Mrs Gaskell featured in street names and where the admirable Gaskell Society kept her flame alight. I was also rather surprised to find in the early 1980s that her radical non-conformity was still able to ruffle feathers in those rural by-waters, with the vicar muttering that there was more to Knutsford than Mrs Gaskell and others averring that she wasn’t a true Christian. Then as now, Cheshire had a way to go down the diversity road. This added a pleasant frisson of subversion to attending a carol service in the delightful Brook Street Chapel, with its anthropomorphised carols.
At the time she probably still represented in my mind the kindly matriarch suggested in the late photograph, as cosy and reassuring as her voluminous shawl, as safe as her married title, the penner of harmless social satire and retrospective charm and pleasing addition to Knutsford’s heritage.
She was largely ignored at my time at university in the mid 70s; the fact that one postgraduate was writing and talking about her raising mild surprise. It wasn’t until the next decade that I seriously got to grips with her when North and South appeared on the A level syllabus. My privileged southern students engaged with the narrative and issues to the extent that I considered a study trip up North, to take in the Gaskell sites and Styal Mill, until I got cold feet when I realised it was Manchester’s famous night life rather than the C19th socio-economic context that was exercising the stronger pull.
During that time I was ill for a week with flu’ and read Wives and Daughters cover to cover, totally absorbed. I was delighted to find Knutsford refracted into Hollingford and love her range, the novel seeming to me to combine the social observation and satire of Jane Austen with the intellectual inquiry of George Eliot. It was at this time that I read the Jenny Uglow biography which opened my eyes to Elizabeth Gaskell the woman and finally put to rest the reductive and inaccurate stereotypes I had unconsciously harboured over the years.
I spent several happy childhood holidays in Whitby and whilst I enjoyed Gaskell’s evocation of the North Yorks Moors and the whaling port of Monkshaven, I did not find Sylvia’s Lovers particularly engaging. I did find fascinating her sense not only of topography but also socio-economic detail, the fact she was interested in how people lived and not just where. The journey of enquiry is an important feature and one of the pleasures of her magnificent if flawed The Life of Charlotte Bronte. In my third and final teaching job in a Cheshire school, there was an annual outing to Haworth as a stimulus to writing and creativity, which obviously necessitated a journey over the Pennines. I used to read Gaskell’s vivid and detailed account of that journey with the students before we set off and ask them to comment on the extent to which it still rang true.
Living in rural Cheshire, I feel close to Elizabeth and relish the fact that I am walking where she walked and enjoying the same scenes. A particular favourite of both of us is Tabley House, far less well known than it deserves to be, and about which she writes with affection. A walk with a friend in Dunham led to an agreement that she must have visited and my subsequent discovery of Libby Marsh’s Three Eras, with its vivid account of an excursion there by canal boat from Knott Mill. One realises yet again that the human behaviour she describes so accurately has not altered much in the century and three quarters since she chronicled it, in particular the yen of city dwellers to escape to green spaces.
As a writer and guide at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, it is this extraordinary fertility and relevance of her work to new generations that most enthrals me. Reading the letters brings the woman to life just as she does for her friend Charlotte Bronte in The Life. You hear her laugh and feel her presence in the rooms. As an interpreter of rural and urban life and the voice of humanity she still has so much to offer. She and I are far from over.