Imagine 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 South, Cranford, 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.
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 @. Gaskell, I’m sure, would have loved social media.