Elizabeth Gaskell’s house, Manchester

As I write this, it looks very much as if Greater Manchester, where I live, will be placed in the highest, Tier 3, level of restrictions in the coming days. There’s a lot of politics about, but let me tell you there is also a lot of frustration and anger about too. There is also a lot of division, differing perspectives, conflicting interpretations of data and statistics. But around me the human cost is evident – businesses are closing, I know people who have lost work, people under strain from not seeing their loved ones, and others paralysed by fear of the virus. One person’s asymptomatic response is another’s death sentence. We find ourselves at a difficult moment and we all have to find our way through this conundrum as best we can.

In the midst of all this confusion and anxiety, I took myself back in time last week to one of my favourite places in Manchester, but one which I have not visited for some time – the former home of Elizabeth Gaskell in Plymouth Grove, Rusholme, Manchester. It is close to the Manchester Royal Infirmary, The University of Manchester, and the Pankhurst Centre, a little house, in the middle of the hospital campus, that was the birthplace of the Suffragette movement (also now a museum).

Elizabeth Gaskell’s house is a fairly modest property that has had a chequered history. Elizabeth’s unmarried daughters Meta and Julia lived there until they died, and after Meta’s death in 1913, an attempt to preserve it as a memorial to the author was unsuccessful and it was sold and its contents dispersed. It continued to be occupied as a family home until it was bought by Manchester University in 1968 who used it as accommodation for overseas students. It fell into some disrepair (though thankfully not too much irreversible ‘renovation’ was done) but was finally purchased by the Manchester Historic Buildings Trust in 2004 and a project was set up to restore it as a museum to Elizabeth Gaskell.

It is still a work in progress and it is really only the ground floor rooms that have been set up as they would have been in Gaskell’s time. While I was there, I was shown work underway to restore what is believed to have been Elizabeth’s bedroom, but other rooms have been given over to research, educational spaces and meeting rooms. There is currently a very interesting exhibition about John Ruskin on display until the end of the year. The rooms have been painstakingly restored and furniture and artefacts either belonged to the family or are the Trusts’s best guess at what they would have had around them.

I was looking for some peace, tranquility and inspiration there and I found it. I was the only visitor that afternoon, and whilst it saddens me that so few people are going out to see the many interesting and beautiful places that remain open to visitors and safe, I had to admit that having the place to myself felt like a treat. Numbers are controlled and all the volunteer guides are well protected with PPE. You have to book your slot online and the £5.50 admission price gives you access for a full year. There is a tea room and a huge selection of secondhand books for sale.

Most of all there is a sense of dedication, to the memory of the author and her remarkable achievements (she died suddenly at the age of 55).

I recommend a visit to this wonderful house. The arts and culture are suffering terribly at this difficult time with opening restrictions, the cost of being Covid-safe, and reduced (or in many cases zero) numbers. Book a visit, you won’t regret it.

https://elizabethgaskellhouse.co.uk/

‘North and South’ by Elizabeth Gaskell

I last read this book when I was doing my English degree at University. At that time, the classics were my ‘thing’, indeed I’d spent my teenage years devouring the classics and, such was my love of them, it’s mostly why I went on to study English. By the time I graduated, I was so full of books that I shunned reading anything for quite a long time. When I got back into the habit, I turned my attention more to contemporary fiction as I realised there was a huge gap in my knowledge. One of the satisfying things about favouring the classics is that they are a largely finite resource; in a few years of effort you could basically read most of them! With contemporary fiction, on the other hand, you never get caught up. So, almost all my reading in recent years has been a desperate endeavour to keep up with all the amazing books published today, and as a result I have not turned back to my beloved classics very much. So, April’s reading challenge was to re-read a classic.

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I’ve been wanting to read this novel again ever since I moved to Manchester 5 years ago and even more so after visiting Elizabeth Gaskell’s house in Plymouth Grove last year. (If you haven’t been and you’re an admirer of the Victorian novel, you really must pay a visit). I have to confess I was a little intimidated to be picking up the book – my edition is innocuous-looking enough, but, oh my goodness, paper was thinner back then and the type face is miniscule! 530 pages of closely-written text. BUT, what a joy!!!  It took me a few chapters to get back into the style, and the Victorian atmosphere, but once I did, I got totally lost, and, truly, I re-entered the world I first discovered as a young girl. I can’t remember when I last got lost in a long book, became totally absorbed by the sense of place, or was able to step into the shoes of the characters and feel their pain, their happiness, their grief their longings. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which I read last year, has probably been the closest I have come in recent years.

In North and South, our central character, Margaret Hale, finds herself on an emotional and physical journey. When we first meet her she is living with her wealthy aunt and spoiled young cousin Edith in London; she was sent to them as a child to improve her chances in society. Margaret’s parents live humbly in rural Hampshire where her father is a country curate. Margaret has a brother, Frederick, who lives as a fugitive abroad; he is wanted in England, accused of leading a mutiny whilst serving in the navy.

When Margaret’s cousin marries, she returns to her parents only to find that her father intends to resign his post due to his religious doubt. He decides to move the family north to the city of Milton in Darkshire (for which read Manchester). There he plans to make a living from tutoring and they will rent a house from an old Oxford acquaintance of Mr Hale’s. The move comes as devastating news to Margaret and her mother, for whom the move is the last straw in her social degradation.

When the family first moves to Milton the contrast between their old and new lives is stark – their physical surroundings are completely different, the people they meet are different, and the activities that absorb their time are different. As the months pass, Margaret accepts her new life and as she is forced to confront her prejudices, so it exposes the vacuous existence she enjoyed in London. Gaskell sets about using her characters, their conversations and their confrontations to reveal certain ‘truths’ and challenge certain preconceptions held by many of the protagonists, whether it is Mrs Hale’s bias towards the south, the gentry and all the things with which she is familiar and about which she is nostalgic, or factory owner Mr Thornton’s intolerance of his workers’ strike. All the characters in this novel are in some way flawed by their prejudice (even the lowly workers at the factory despise the Irish labourers brought in to do their work when they strike). To that extent, the novel still has great relevance today, over 150 years later, as the north-south divide in England continues to have social, political and economic consequences.

Some of the characters in the book are two-dimensional, for example, the lowly Bessy Higgins, with whom Margaret develops a rather implausible friendship. It has to be remembered that these characters are merely devices through which the author is seeking simply to illustrate a point, although Gaskell’s readers at the time probably thought this was actually how poor people lived and talked. Margaret, on the other hand, is, for me, a well-rounded, credible and fully-developed character. She goes through a transformation in this novel which is both sincere and believable.

The ending of the book is entirely predictable, of course, but this is fine because the joy of this book is in the journey. Although some may find the language a barrier, for me it was sublime. Again, it took me a little while to get back into it and it made reading a little slow at first, but it was beautiful and oh so clever!

I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading North and South and I would definitely recommend picking up a classic from time to time.

Have you re-read any old favourites recently?

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My ‘to read’ pile is shrinking!

Last week I posted a review on this blog of Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which I’d read as part of my 2017 reading challenge. The challenge for March was to select something from my ever-growing ‘to-read’ pile. I know you have one too! It felt very satisfying to finally get around to something that I’ve been wanting to read for some time but which never seemed to rise to the top of the pile. My ‘to read’ pile bothers me a lot, so much so that I have many “‘to read” piles’ around the house. I’m a compulsive book-buyer so I feel guilty about the money I spend (although it has to be said a great many of the books I buy on impulse are from charity shops or waiting rooms) and about the space taken up, especially since I read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying! Clutter, to me, feels like a powerful signal of under-achievement. I bet my tidy, high-achieving friends don’t have large ‘to read’ piles! The psychology of the ‘to read’ pile is clearly very deep.

2017-03-30-12-10-56.jpgSo, it gives me great pleasure to announce that I completed the March challenge and the pile is one volume smaller. I really enjoyed Just Kids and I’m pleased I finally got around to it. I’ve also given up book-buying for Lent so hopefully I will be better able to resist temptation in the future and tackle the unread books before buying new ones. Sometimes.

April’s challenge is to re-read a book I have enjoyed in the past. I’m not a big re-reader and yet I know this can be hugely rewarding, especially if you’re in a quiz or something and the name of the central character from that really famous book you read years ago is on the tip of your tongue! My husband is a good re-reader and he finds that he is able to get something new out of a book each time he goes back to it. I’ve decided to re-read Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. I read this many years ago, whilst studying English Literature at university and I’m afraid I remember very little about it, but I do know that I enjoyed it.

2017-03-30 11.25.47I am fortunate to live in Manchester, northern England, the setting of this book. It’s also where Gaskell spent much of her early life. You can visit Gaskell’s house in Plymouth Grove, Ardwick (and then stroll over to the Pankhurst Centre nestled in amongst the buildings of the Manchester Royal Infirmary) which I did last year. It’s still a work in progress, so well worth supporting, but has a fascinating collection of her possessions and is set out as it would have been when she and her family lived there. I moved to Manchester relatively recently and have become fascinated by the city’s history and culture. It will be interesting to read the book now, with that new knowledge and awareness.

My copy of North and South is a slim little thing, perfectly innocuous-looking, but the text is tiny and it has over 500 pages! I’m looking forward to immersing myself in 19th century northern industrial poverty. I also note that the Introduction to my edition is written by one of my former Professors, so it will be a trip down Memory Lane altogether.

Did you start a reading challenge this year? If so, how are you getting on?

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