Getting to Grips with Gaskell

Bronte eraser

Beatrice’s parsonage souvenir

Beatrice Lord, University of York 

Like many people, my first real encounter with Literary Tourism was a secondary school trip to Haworth to see the Brontë Parsonage. Aged twelve, I hadn’t even managed to finish my bulky copy of Jane Eyre beforehand, and I hadn’t yet read any other Brontë novels. My ‘knowledge’ of the sisters came from watching the odd BBC adaptation and Kate Bush’s mystical lyrics to ‘Wuthering Heights’. But wandering around the building sparked a long-standing interest in the Brontës, and in sites of literary significance generally. The teachers and museum had organised a re-enactment of a scene from the novel downstairs, though we were largely left to discover the Brontë workplace and home with our friends.  This experience set up a deeply-engrained image of the sisters’ writing environment, which I return to every time I pick up one of their works. Desperately seeking a physical reminder of my trip to accompany this, in the end I even bought a Jane Eyre eraser from the gift shop with my pocket money. It is a souvenir I’ve kept on my desk to this day, proof of my time amongst the Brontës’ own possessions, much like Amber’s tea-towel.

After this school-engineered foray into Literary Tourism, I independently started to pay more attention to the spaces connected to writers. This often meant simply taking notice of the incidental literary pasts of places I visited. Family holidays to Whitby suddenly became Gothic adventures, and it was a thrill to imagine how Beatrix Potter’s experience of the unspoilt Lake District might compare to mine.

Particularly when studying Mary Barton and Ruth, I found my experience of the novels was truly enhanced by exploring the author’s old haunts.  First-hand comparisons of industrial Manchester with Gaskell’s idyllic Lancashire holiday retreat have undoubtedly shaped my perception of her settings. The city is still full of imposing Victorian churches and the skyline would have shared many of the same features as today. The stunning natural beauty of Silverdale on the other hand, undoubtedly offers a sense of escape. I found myself thinking back to the moment in Ruth when Gaskell’s protagonist spends a contemplative period away from home. Gazing upon vast expanses of water, Ruth awaits the footsteps of the man whom could make this isolation permanent by taking their son away:

And she turned round and looked seaward. The tide had turned; the waves were slowly receding, as if loth to lose the hold they had, so lately, and with such swift bounds, gained on the yellow sands… There was no sign of human life to be seen; no boat, or distant sail, or near shrimper. The black posts there were all that spoke of men’s work or labour. Beyond a stretch of the waters, a few pale grey hills showed like films; their summits clear, though faint, their bases lost in a vapoury mist. [1]

Although Gaskell sets these chapters in the fictional Abermouth, it is easy to imagine her views from Silverdale’s Lindeth Tower (where she penned the novel) went some way to inspiring the descriptions.

Lindeth Tower by Alison Rawson

Lindeth Tower by Alison Rawson [2]

It was this passion for the landscapes associated with Gaskell that really drew me to Placing the Author. The opportunity to work in such a special location as her newly-restored house in Manchester was irresistible. The venue serves as the perfect background for conversing with those with similar intrigue for literary sites and I am particularly excited to witness the kind of atmosphere the rooms present.

[1] Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth. (London: Penguin Books, 1997) (p.243)

[2] Alison Rawson, Lindeth Tower, 26 May 2008, via Wikimedia commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license

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2 thoughts on “Getting to Grips with Gaskell

  1. I completely agree with you about the power of Gaskell’s landscape writing, and I was very interested to learn about the possible influence of Silverdale on that episode of Ruth. As someone brought up in Wales I was also pleased to learn (when I was studying Gaskell as part of my undergrad) about her experiences in that country. I think Gaskell honeymooned in North Wales and made a number of other trips there, and I’ve always imagined various episodes of Ruth being set in places like Betws Y Coed and Aber along the North Wales coast. There’s an interesting article about Gaskell and the Welsh in Vol. 13 (1999) of the Gaskell Society Journal by Jo Pryke, called “Wales and the Welsh in Gaskell’s Fiction: sex, sorrow and sense”.

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    • Thank you so much for this recommendation. It’s enlightening to read about nineteenth-century perceptions of Wales and how Gaskell herself characterises it in personal letters. I hope to follow this up in the Placing the Author annotated bibliography.

      Liked by 1 person

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