About six years ago, during a purposeless and ill-informed visit to Mrs Gaskell’s House, I was spotted by an astute manager and asked to become a volunteer. Since she treated me to tea – with a china cup and my own milk jug – I could hardly refuse.
Always conscientious, I read all Mrs Gaskell’s novels and some of the short stories and was introduced to the basic facts of her life by more knowledgeable volunteers. I discovered that being a volunteer with facts to impart and explain suited me well. Every week I learned something new, at times from visitors who often knew more than I did.
And there is much to learn: the Victorians, the Unitarians, the Manchester literary scene, middle class life in the mid nineteenth century, getting to know the many friends and correspondents that the Gaskells had. This is a process not yet completed.
Mrs Gaskell famously said ‘I must try and make the house give as much pleasure to others as I can‘, and it certainly continues to do that. There is a warmth about the House and the welcome is genuine. It’s like a family. The volunteers are friends and the younger volunteers bring new life and hope. The House is truly a refuge. It’s as she would have wanted.
There were – and still are – many activities connected with the House: a Victorian book club, trails for young visitors, sometimes music, and my first attempt at something new – a writing group. Some of the group were sensitive writers but the leader said I wrote journalese! That didn’t matter as I have been encouraged to go on writing and continue to do so. This is just one of the of the many examples of staff and volunteers helping each other and making the House a wonderful organisation to belong to and be a part of. And Mrs Gaskell , with her concern for education and personal improvement, would approve.
Ursula Cooley – House Volunteer.