I recently came across what I think is my favourite ever literary rendition (and reaction) of a school report:
'Mary is a dear little girl,' it began, in the chatty, unscholastic style favoured by Miss Carson, 'but we find a tendency in her to resent authority to the point of resistance. Although she is a bad mixer, being at the same time intolerant and unconfident of others and disinclined to enter into the life of the community. But her heart is right, and we feel sure that when she has overcome the difficulties of a rather reserved nature, she will mature into a fine woman.'
'God forbid!' said Uncle Geoffrey when he read it. 'Sounds like Clara Butt as Britannia. These school-marms give me the pip. Why can't they just say: at the moment she's a blister, but there's hope?'
Elizabeth Gaskell's House, 84 Plymouth Grove in Manchester, has finally re-opened after an extensive and highly successful refurbishment. I've always enjoyed Gaskell's books and think she is unfairly in the shadow of her fellow Victorian novelists. Growing up in Lancashire and teaching in the cotton towns I recognise much in her novels, both people and places. I was delighted to get the chance on Tuesday evening to go with a friend to 84 Plymouth Grove for an evening event - the house's first since opening on 5th October.
It had been in very poor decorative condition ...
... but the history of the house is essentially a lucky one. Gaskell's unmarried daughters lived on there until 1913 when Meta Gaskell died and then, despite a campaign to save it intact, the contents were dispersed and new occupiers moved in. Fortunately it remained a family home until it was acquired by Manchester University in the 1960s. Neither the university nor the family that preceded them knocked the house about too much: it was spared the indignity of conversion to flats for example, though it fell into increasing disrepair. In 2004 it was acquired by the Manchester Historic Buildings Trust and the long process of repair and restoration began.
Visiting on Tuesday was a real treat. We went to hear Carolyn Lambert discuss her new book The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Fiction (published by Victorian Secrets) with Professor Helen Rees Leahy.
Parking by the house with the streets in darkness and warm light falling from the long windows, it felt, as my friend noted, that we were invited guests rather than that we were paying to attend a function. The house is fortunately still on tree lined streets (it is a corner property) and not dwarfed by modern office blocks. Inside it is fresh and new whilst being delightfully of the era. In a way it was like seeing a new modern house as the Victorians would have seen it.
The parlour where Charlotte Bronte once hid behind the curtains has been restored using information left behind in the house (paint and paper fragments) and details from Gaskell's writings. A bright fresh chintz on the chairs and dressing the windows in this room, for example, has been made locally in Lancashire (as so many textiles would have been in Gaskell's time) to a pattern described in a letter.
The dining room is also beautifully restored with a table where Gaskell had hers, with a view of her garden, and where she did much of her writing.
The talk was fascinating, and if you have any interest in Victorian literature I would imagine that The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Fiction by Carolyn Lambert is for you. I would have bought a copy but the talk was so successful that they'd sold out. Gaskell is particularly interesting in that not only was she a successful novelist she also had a husband and children. Her home life seems happy but incredibly busy and it was interesting to hear how she might have carved time and space out for herself. Her books of course feature a wide variety of homes, rich and poor and again it was interesting to hear that the very poorest, the cellar dwellers, that she writes of, were drawn heavily from social reports on the conditions of the poor at the time, it being too dangerous, even for a minister's wife, to experience these homes first hand.
If you'd like to visit Elizabeth Gaskell's house you can find out more here. The house is also on twitter. Victorian Secrets is also on twitter.