When Elizabeth met William – Wordsworth that was!
William Wordsworth’s name appears in Elizabeth Gaskell’s life several times, though it seems she only met him once. It is clear that he influenced Elizabeth’s work. A love of nature comes through strongly in much of Elizabeth’s writing. I especially love the brief glimpses of the garden in Helstone in North and South where ‘the small lawn was gorgeous with verbenas and geraniums of all bright colours’. In Ruth, there are many descriptions of gardens and walks in the natural world. Nature had a physical impact on the emotions of both writers and the characters they write. This is the subject of much academic study.
Wordsworth also featured in William Gaskell’s life. In 1839 William Gaskell published Temperance Rhymes and received, via the publisher, an approving letter from Wordsworth who said ‘I have read your Temperance Rhymes with much pleasure and cannot but think that they must do much good’.
Early in her marriage Elizabeth helps her husband to prepare lectures on the English poets and she records “doing Wordsworth “ in her brief diary ‘while sitting in a corner of a field gay with bright spring flowers my heart feels so full of him I don’t know how to express my fullness without being too diffuse.‘
In a letter written in1859, Elizabeth enthused about The Lake District to a young family friend, Charles Bosanquet, and recommends places and people to visit. These include Skelwith where ‘The Arnolds and Wordsworths long ago took lodgings for us … at the house of a ‘Stateswoman’ a Mrs Preston of Mill Brow‘. Later she mentions Hawkshead “where you would go for Wordsworth’s sake, as his earliest school”.
Elizabeth finally met William Wordsworth the year before his death and collected his autograph, which is dated 20th July 1849. The autograph says: ‘He that feels contempt /For any living thing, hath faculties/ which he hath never used’ which is a quotation from Lyrical Ballads.
The Gaskells met William at Lesketh How, the home of Dr John and Mrs Davy, which Edward Quillinan, the widower of Wordsworth’s daughter Dora, was renting for the summer. Interestingly Dr John Davy was brother of the more famous (Sir) Humphrey Davy.
In 1852 Elizabeth described Mrs Davy as a dear friend, though in a later letter (439) in 1859, she admits ‘I am terribly afraid of Dr Davy…a stiff, precise over-gentlemanly manner always quells me till I am ashamed of myself’. As ever, full of interesting asides, this later letter also tells us that it was at Mrs Davy’s house in Malta that Sir Walter Scott stayed in his last illness. Margaret (Mrs Davy) later wrote an unpublished memoir of Wordsworth.
The Gaskells’ meeting with Wordsworth finally took place when they had tea with Edward Quillinan, who told Crabb Robinson… he had ‘got Mr W to meet her and her husband…she is a very pleasing, interesting person’. She later collected the autograph from the Davys’ house.
Henry Crabb Robinson 1775-1867, mentioned above, was a well-connected lawyer, and Unitarian who knew Wordsworth, Coleridge, Charles Lamb and William Blake. He met Elizabeth Gaskell at a breakfast in London in 1849 and described her as ‘a woman of agreeable manners…with nothing literary about her appearance – she pleased me’. I wonder what he thought a ‘literary appearance was‘?
Although Edward Quillinan was an admirer of William Wordsworth, he had encountered fierce opposition to his marriage to Dora, more because Wordsworth didn’t want to lose her. They became reconciled and he proved an excellent son-in law. Dora died 1847. Edward Quillinan died 1851 and is buried in Grasmere churchyard.
After William Wordsworth’s death in 1850, Elizabeth maintained contact with his wife. In a letter to John Forster from Ambleside in Oct 1852 she says ‘we dined quietly and early with Mrs Wordsworth on Monday. She is charming. She told us some homely tender details of her early married days…’
Over the course of this brief research, I realised that while Elizabeth was very keen to obtain Wordsworth’s autograph for her collection, she actually already had it, from the letter to her husband William in 1840. Perhaps because that wasn’t written directly to her, it somehow didn’t count. Or perhaps she had just forgotten. If only we could time travel to ask all our questions!
With thanks to Elizabeth Gow, a Manuscript Curator and Archivist at John Rylands Library who showed Lesley Burn and myself the Wordsworth autographs on a recent visit. The photograph heading for this blog shows the first edition of Wordsworth’s The Prelude which we were recently gifted and which you can see in the study with a bookplate written by Melvyn Bragg – there’s more on our blog here.
Jane Mathieson, Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House