Elizabeth Gaskell and the Meanings of Home

by catherine on January 13, 2015

Elizabeth Gaskell's house, 84 Plymouth GroveImagine if your house was given a £2.5m makeover and you weren’t around to enjoy it? Well, that’s what’s happened to Elizabeth Gaskell. Her home at 84 Plymouth Grove, Manchester has just reopened to the public after extensive renovations. The Grade II* listed villa had been languishing in a state of disrepair since the death of Gaskell’s daughter Meta in 1913, and narrowly dodged demolition.

Elizabeth Gaskell lived here from 1850 until her death in 1865, and it was where she wrote some of her most famous works - North and SouthCranford, and Wives and Daughters. The imposing nature of the house gives an idea of Gaskell’s literary success. Although the rent at £150pa might seem modest to us, a large residence demanded a large retinue of servants to run it. Gaskell sometimes felt uncomfortable with this conspicuous display of wealth – she was, after all, a chronicler of Manchester’s poor. The trouble with having all the space was also that people wanted to come and stay. Charles Dickens visited once, and Charlotte Brontë turned up three times (on one occasion hiding behind the curtains to avoid having to make small talk with other guests). Nowadays, everybody is welcome. The upstairs has been adapted to host educational. literary and community events, and visitors can also have a poke around the Gaskells’ living rooms. Most importantly, there’s a tea room, too.

The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell's Fiction by Carolyn Lambert One of the first events was a talk by Dr Carolyn Lambert, author of The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Fiction. In this insightful book, Lambert explores the ways in which Gaskell challenges the nineteenth-century idea of home as a domestic sanctuary offering protection from the external world. By drawing on Gaskell’s novels, letters, and also plans of Plymouth Grove, Lambert shows how this work evinces complex ideas surrounding identity, gender, and sexuality. As the publisher of the book and a friend of Carolyn, I’m very pleased to say that it has been nominated for the Sonia Rudikoff Prize (fingers crossed for the award ceremony in April).

I haven’t yet been able to visit the house, but Catherine Hawley has written a tantalising description over on Juxtabook. You can also find out more on the official Elizabeth Gaskell House website and even follow them on Twitter @GaskellsHouse. Gaskell, I’m sure, would have loved social media.


Out now: The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell's Fiction, a beautifully written study of this Victorian author's novels.

End of Year Book Meme 2014

by catherine on December 31, 2014

Twenty-fourteen is almost behind us, so it’s time for me to account for my reading activities over the past year. Also, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish all of my visitors a very happy and bookish 2015.

How many books read in 2013?

Only 92 this year, which is probably the fewest since records began. In my defence, I was rather busy with finishing my thesis and preparing for my viva.

Fiction/Non-Fiction ratio?

There were 51 novels and 41 works of non-fiction.

Male/female authors?

I read 38 books by men, so that means 54 by women.

Favourite book read?

I always weasel my way out of choosing just one favourite, so here are the top five (in no particular order):

  • Stoner by John Williams (This is a rare instance of my enjoying a much-hyped book – I thought it extraordinary.)
  • Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine (An incredibly important book, and also one that is delightfully well written. Fine combines insight with common sense and humour. Brilliant.)
  • Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe (I’m giggling at the mere thought of this book. Stibbe is an exceptional comic writer.)
  • Deep Sea and Foreign Going by Rose George (As I don’t have an intrepid bone in my body, I enjoy reading about impulsive people who go off and have adventures. George makes the shipping industry sound exciting to someone who likes to have her pins firmly on the ground.)
  • Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins (It seems odd to flag this novel as a favourite, given it’s based on the true story of a Victorian woman neglected and starved to death by her family. However, the writing is magnificent and Harriet herself is accorded much dignity by Jenkins. Valancourt Books are publishing a new edition in 2015, and I’m writing the introduction.)

Least favourite?

I thought Dave Eggers’ The Circle was absolute pants. It was such an interesting premise, but the novel just seemed to get worse and worse.

Oldest book read?

Wuthering Heights from 1847. It’s 166 years old, but still prompts new readings. I must confess to having been a bit ambivalent towards it, but an exceptional lecture by one of my colleagues at the University of Brighton really jolted me back into recognising its significance.


I don’t pay much attention to when books are published – you could never accuse me of being in the vanguard. From a cursory glance down the list, I reckon it’s either Hannah Vincent’s wonderful debut novel Alarm Girl, or Rory Maclean’s magical Berlin: Imagine a City.

Longest book title?

That was A Female Genius: How Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s Daughter, Started the Computer Age by James Essinger. Unfortunately, I found it bitterly disappointing.

Shortest title?

That’s a draw between John Williams’ Stoner and Laurie Graham’s highly entertaining At Sea.

How many re-reads?

19, which is rather a lot. I had to re-read a large pile of Victorian classics for teaching this term, which was no great hardship. I also cheered myself up by re-reading Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader and George & Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody. I somehow neglected to re-read Three Men on a Boat, but did chuckle my way through Three Men on the Bummel again, and even published an ebook edition.

Most books read by one author this year?

That’s Elly Griffiths, who has written a series of novels about a forensic archaeologist called Ruth Galloway. They’re not the sort of books I’d normally read, but Griffiths gave a very enjoyable talk at the Hove Literature Festival this year and made me want to find out more about her creation.

Any in translation?

Nope, but I did read some in German. Admittedly, they were straightforward detective stories, but I’m building up to something more challenging.

And how many of this year’s books were from the library?

14 came from either the London Library or the Jubilee Library in Brighton. (Fortunately, The Circle was borrowed, otherwise I’d have asked for my money back.)


Out now: The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell's Fiction, a beautifully written study of this Victorian author's novels.

Life According to Literature 2014

December 24, 2014

The festive season is upon us once more, so it is time for the annual Life According to Literature blog meme. I’ve been rather slack with my reading this year – only 86 rather than the usual 100+ books – but there’s still a week to go. Wishing you a merry and book-filled Yuletide. THE […]

Read the full article →

Seventy Years a Showman by ‘Lord’ George Sanger

November 15, 2014

One of the many joys of delving into the nineteenth century is meeting the numerous vibrant characters who inhabited it. I first encountered ‘Lord’ George Sanger when researching the Hyde Park celebrations that marked Queen Victoria’s accession. Over nine days in June 1838, Sanger and his circus family thrilled the crowds with learned pigs and […]

Read the full article →

The Year of the Trollope

October 25, 2014

If you thought 2012 was exciting, hold on to your hat, as 2015 is the year of the Trollope. Yes, next spring marks Trollope’s bicentenary and the anticipation is palpable. Radio 4 has already started celebrating with dramatisations of some of his more popular novels, including The Eustace Diamonds. OUP republished handsome editions of the Palliser […]

Read the full article →

Introducing The Digital Researcher

July 1, 2014

In an interruption to the usual broadcast, I bring you news from the 21st century. When I’m not running Victorian Secrets, I spend quite a bit of time delivering digital skills workshops for researchers. I show them software that will make their lives easier, teach them how to create blogs, and explain the mysteries of Twitter. […]

Read the full article →

George Eliot: The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes

June 5, 2014

Although George Eliot declared biography to be “a disease of English literature,” it hasn’t yet been eradicated, and there have been almost 20 attempts to tell the story of her life and career. The number of Victorian women writers who enjoyed both critical and commercial success can be counted on the fingers of one hand, […]

Read the full article →

The Victorian Guide to Sex by Fern Riddell

May 25, 2014

Although Queen Victoria was supposedly prudish, she popped out nine tiny Saxe-Coburgs and the population more than doubled during her reign. We might think of the Victorians as sexually repressed, but they were clearly at it like stoats. In The Victorian Guide to Sex, Fern Riddell synthesises a wealth of material from marriage guides, newspapers, and […]

Read the full article →

Sights and Frights – a one-day conference

May 23, 2014

If you fancy a magic lantern show, a presentation on the ectoplasm-producing medium, and a host of papers on Victorian spookiness, then book your place at Sights and Frights. It’s a one-day conference at the University of Sussex on 19th June 2014, organised by a group of nineteenth-century researchers (including me). We’re trying to create […]

Read the full article →

Did She Kill Him? A Victorian Tale of Deception, Adultery and Arsenic by Kate Colquhoun

March 23, 2014

Anyone who saw the recent BBC documentary Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home knows that arsenic was everywhere in the late nineteenth century. It was used as a beauty product, as a medicine, and also to achieve a vibrant green colour in wallpaper. This ubiquity made it devilishly difficult to prove cases of deliberate poisoning and […]

Read the full article →