Six Famous Visitors to 84 Plymouth Grove
The Gaskells were acquainted with numerous well-known people of the nineteenth century including writers, artists, musicians and many influential figures. We know they met many of these people both at home and abroad and we know that some of them visited the Gaskells at Plymouth Grove. Here are six of their most famous visitors.
Charlotte Brontë – visited in 1851, 1853 and 1854.
Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Brontë met in August 1850 when they both stayed with mutual friends, the Kay Shuttleworths, in the Lake District. Writing to a friend on her return from the visit Elizabeth said: “…we like each other heartily /I think\and I hope we shall ripen into friends.”
On Charlotte’s first visit, 27th to 30th June 1851, the weather was very hot and the windows were open and she wrote to George Smith, her publisher that: “…a whispering of leaves and a perfume of flowers always pervaded the rooms.” We thought this was such a beautiful quote that we have used part of it in our garden, in the flowerbed opposite the Drawing Room window. June is one of the months when our garden is at its best and one of the nicest features in June is the Pergola covered in beautifully scented roses.
One of our favourite stories we tell visitors when they enter the Drawing Room is about Charlotte Brontë hiding behind the curtains during a visit to Plymouth Grove in April 1853. The Gaskell’s youngest daughter, Julia, recalled the incident years later. Elizabeth loved a bit of name-dropping, and she must have told her friend, Mrs Sydney Potter, that Charlotte was visiting her, as Mrs Potter called in the hope of being introduced to Charlotte. However, when Mrs Potter entered the Drawing Room Charlotte had vanished and only emerged from behind the curtain when a very disappointed Mrs Potter had left saying: “I felt I could not meet a stranger.”
Charlotte’s last visit to Plymouth Grove was in May 1854, the month before her wedding to Arthur Bell Nicholls. She died on 31st March 1855.
Beatrix Potter – visited in 1874
William Gaskell attended Glasgow University with Edmund Potter, Beatrix’s Grandfather.
Both the Gaskells and the Potter families were Unitarians based in the North West and the friendship between William and Edmund continued after they left university. William also maintained a close friendship with Rupert Potter, Edmund’s son and Beatrix who was Rupert’s daughter. The Potters’ social life revolved around the Unitarian community in Manchester and they attended Cross Street Chapel where William was assistant minister from 1828. Rupert also attended Manchester New College and was taught by William Gaskell.
While Elizabeth and their daughters preferred to travel to Europe, William often took his annual holiday in August in Scotland with the Potter family where they rented an estate, Dalguise, on the River Tay in Perthshire.
Beatrix knitted a scarf for William for Christmas in 1874 and he wrote to thank her, saying: “Every time I put it round my neck – which during this winter will be every day – I shall be sure to think of you.”
By 1884, William’s health was failing, and Beatrix visited him at Plymouth Grove in April.
On hearing of William’s death in June 1884 she wrote: “Dear old man, he has had a very peaceful end. If ever anyone led a blameless peaceful life, it was he. Another old friend gone to rest. How few are left.”
Charles Dickens – visited in 1852
After the success of Mary Barton, her first novel, Elizabeth Gaskell travelled to London in April 1849 to be introduced into literary circles and she first met Charles Dickens there. She began writing for his publication Household Words in 1850. They admired each other’s works but often disagreed over editorial matters, particularly while Elizabeth was writing North and South for Household Words in 1855 when Dickens wrote to his sub-editor: “If I were Mr G Oh heavens how I would beat her!”
Charles Dickens visited Plymouth Grove in September 1852 when he was in Manchester to give a speech at the opening of the Manchester Free Library on 2 September. Elizabeth was irritated that he had called too early: “On Wednesday Morng Mr & Mrs Dickens and Miss Hogarth came to call before 10. … The Dickens asked me to go with them to the seats reserved for them by the Mayor at the Free Library…”
Charles Hallé – visited 1853 onwards
When he arrived in Manchester in 1848 Charles Hallé moved to Addison Terrace in Victoria Park. The Gaskell family regularly enjoyed attending Hallé’s concerts.
The Hallé orchestra grew out of Hallé’s involvement with the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition which was held at Old Trafford in 1857 when he was asked to put together a small orchestra to play for Prince Albert at the opening ceremony.
In addition to playing and conducting, he earned extra money by giving piano lessons.
The two eldest Gaskell daughters, Marianne and Meta, both had music lessons from Charles Hallé at Plymouth Grove starting with Marianne in 1853. Meta wrote to her friend Effie Wedgewood in 1862 about her music lessons with Hallé: ‘I think Mr. Hallé’s chief excellence in teaching is his insisting on so much perfect clearness’
Harriet Beecher Stowe – visited in 1857
After the success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1853 Harriet Beecher Stowe made a tour of England and Europe, during which she first met Elizabeth Gaskell. Elizabeth wrote of her after the meeting: “I liked her very much indeed. She is short and American in her manner, but very true & simple & thoroughly unspoiled & unspoilable”
In 1857, when Elizabeth was in Rome with Marianne and Meta, Harriet Beecher Stowe was also in Rome and called on the Gaskells.
She visited Manchester to see the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition later that year and stayed with the Gaskells at Plymouth Grove for one night, visiting the exhibition with Elizabeth who wrote to her friend, Charles Eliot Norton
“Mrs Stowe comes to us today for one night”
John Ruskin – visited in 1859
Elizabeth Gaskell first encountered John Ruskin through reading his books and she greatly admired his book Modern Painters.
They had many mutual acquaintances, among them were Charles Eliot Norton, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Alfred Waterhouse.
By 1855, Elizabeth had got to know Ruskin well enough to lunch at his home. He visited Plymouth Grove in February 1859. After the visit Elizabeth wrote to her friend Charles Eliot Norton: “Mr Ruskin called here about a fortnight ago. He was so ‘nice’: simple and noble”
Meta, the Gaskells’ second daughter was a talented painter and considered becoming a professional artist. Ruskin advised her on her painting, and they remained friends until his death. You can see some of Meta’s watercolours in the Drawing Room of Elizabeth Gaskell’s House.
Ruskin said of Cranford: “I do not know when I have read a more finished…study of human nature…Nor was I ever more sorry to come to a book’s end”
You can see more about the relationship between the Gaskells and Ruskin in our exhibition “My Dear Mr Ruskin…”