Gaskell made 'genteel' Knutsford famous
Elizabeth Gaskell is best remembered as the author of "Cranford,'
the novel in which she immortalised the town in which she grew up.
Yet it was in London that she was born, in 1810, as Elizabeth Cleghorn
Elizabeth was sent to live with her widowed aunt in Knutsford after
her mother's death when she was just thirteen months old. Knutsford
was, as it is now, a prosperous market town, surrounded by woodland,
its narrow streets crowded with inns, bow- fronted shops and houses.
Elizabeth's childhood was a happy one. Her aunt, Mrs Lumb, lived
at Heathwaite Number 17 Gaskell Avenue), a large house facing Knutsford
Heath, on the edge of the town. There she kept cows, poultry and
geese, Elizabeth had many relatives in Knutsford besides her aunt.
Her uncle, Dr Peter Holland, lived at Hollingford House, next to
the churchyard in Toft Road.
He used to take her with him to the houses of his patients - gentry
and farming people - and many descriptions in her novels may have
been based on her early observations during these visits. Her cousin,
Sir Henry Holland, twenty-two years her senior, became physician
to King William IV, Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort. A plaque
marks his birthplace, Number 95 King Street.
At twenty-one, Elizabeth met the Reverend William Gaskell while
visiting friends in Manchester. Within five months, they were engaged,
and the wedding took place at Knutsford Parish Church in 1832. To
mark the occasion, the people of the town decorated their pavements
with red and white sand, as they still do on May Day, for it was
then the local custom to celebrate weddings in this way.
After the wedding, Mrs Gaskell left the beautiful countryside to
live in Manchester, a big, industrial city where there could be
no avoiding the grim reality of poverty in Victorian England. As
she threw herself into social work, helping her husband with his
Sunday School work and evening classes for boys, she must have remembered
Knutsford, and been struck by the contrast between the two places
and the lifestyles they offered. She started to write to distract
herself from her grief at losing her only son, who died of scarlet
fever when he was just ten months old.
Her first novel caught the eye of no less a writer than Charles
Dickens, who was delighted to publish 'Cranford" in his periodical,
"Household Words". It appeared there in serial form, the
first episode on December 13th 1851.
"Cranford" is an affectionate and witty description of
Knutsford society as it was then, old-fashioned and dominated by
its women, many of them unmarried. The central character, for instance,
Miss Matty, has been forced to remain a spinster because the man
she would have married was not considered "enough of a gentleman"
for her family. Such social snobbery is perhaps one Victorian value
we have done well to lose.
There were strict rules governing behaviour in those days - never,
for instance, "to let more than three days elapse between receiving
a call and returning it", or "to stay longer than a quarter
of an hour."
"Elegant economy" was the order of the day, with everyone
going to bed by half past ten to save lighting, yet no one admitting
to any need to economise. It was even considered "vulgar"
(a tremendous word in Cranford) to offer guests expensive refreshments.
The ladies provided their own entertainment, paying calls on one
another and playing cards - "the most earnest and serious business
they ever engaged in." There might be the occasional formal
entertainment, like the conjurers performance which she describes
taking place at the Cranford Assembly Rooms, based on the rooms
at Knutsford's Royal George Hotel.
Mrs Gaskell's grandfather's farm at nearby Sandlebridge is the setting
for "Cousin Phillis", the story of an innocent country
girl's first love. Hope Farm, as she describes it, is a place where
'many speckled fowls' peck about in the yard, milk cans are 'hung
out to sweeten', and fragrant flowers cover the horse mount and
The girl's father is, like Mrs Gaskell's grandfather, a Dissenting
Minister, who tries to combine the ministry with agriculture. He
rises at three each morning to ring the bell which summons his workers,
and, at the end of every working day, he and his labourers join
in singing a psalm.
The story describes vividly the beauty and peace of the countryside,
the changing seasons - as corn harvest follows hay-making, and apple
gathering, corn harvest - and the dignity of working on the land.
The narrator is Phillis's cousin, a young man employed on the new
railways and his off ice work contrasts with the healthy outdoor
life on the farm, unchanged for many years.
"Wives and Daughters" is remarkable for covering the entire
social spectrum - cottages and tradesmen, lawyers and doctors, landed
gentry and aristocracy. Tatton Park makes an appearance as Cumnor
Towers, "the great family mansion standing in aristocratic
seclusion at the centre of a large park.
In return for the simple worship of the townspeople, Lord Cumnor
is a forbearing landlord and Lady Cumnor and her daughters have
set up a school where "girls were taught to sew beautifully,
to be capital housemaids and pretty fair cooks."
In "Ruth" Mrs Gaskell describes a chapel "built ...
when the Dissenters were afraid of attracting attention or observation,
and hid their place of worship.' It is based on the Unitarian Chapel
in Knutsford which she attended, and it was in the graveyard of
this chapel that she was buried when she died, suddenly of a heart
Later, she was joined there by her husband and two unmarried daughters.
But the most familiar memorial to her is the Gaskell Tower in King
Street, built of white stone in 1907 by Watt, a Manchester glove
manufacturer. Knutsford keeps alive the memory of this great writer,
just as she never forgot the town of her childhood.
Elizabeth Gaskell died in Hampshire and was buried in Knutsford
in November 1865, one of the most accomplished authors of her generation.
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