Building Secrets: Elizabeth Gaskell’s House

The Regency-style villa prepare to re-open their doors this August...

There are a lot of people out there, probably you included, who have never been to Elizabeth Gaskell’s House and indeed – never even knew that it existed.

Well, the following passage will hopefully change this and will encourage you to grab your coat and head on down. They’re opening up again on Wednesday 12th August so you’ve got a bit of time to get yourself sorted on the bus or ask your mam for a lift.

So who the hell is Elizabeth Gaskell and why are people going to visit her house? More importantly, why should we care? Well, I’m going to start throwing some knowledge at you now so be prepared and take notes – there’s a test at the end.

Let’s start with Elizabeth herself, a woman who The New Yorker recently called an “unjustly overlooked Victorian novellist”  whose novels, short stories and biographies have offered a uniquely detailed portrait of the lives of the many layers of Victorian society, including the very poor and destitute.

Her most famous novels include Cranford (1851–53), North and South (1854–55), and Wives and Daughters (1865), many of which you’ll recognise from reading the Radio Times over the years after the BBC made adaptations for telly.

In particular Cranford was first published in 8 instalments in a magazine and was edited by Charles Dickens no less. The 2007 TV adaptation by the BBC featured an all-star cast including Dame Judy Dench, Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon and is something you should definitely give a watch when you have a spare few hours. It’s great.

Anyway, back to Elizabeth Gaskell herself, who was born in Chelsea in 1810 to a father who’d moved down to the capital from Failsworth with the intention of attending a job in India (that never materialised) and a mother who came from a rather well-connected family up in Cheshire.

After her mother died 13 months after giving birth to Elizabeth’s sister, her dad lost his head a bit and decided to send her up to live with her aunts massive house in Knutsford. It is in fact Knutsford where Cranford is set – forever immortalising her adopted town in her most well-known work.

In 1832 Elizabeth married William Gaskell, and they soon moved into Manchester where he became the minister at Cross Street Unitarian Chapel, and she would jump feet-first into the city’s intense industrialised development and happenings, which greatly influenced her writing.

After having a few kids, and tragically losing a son, William, who died in infancy, the Gaskell’s moved to 84 Plymouth Grove – now just called ‘Elizabeth Gaskell’s House’ which remained in the family until 1913 when it stood empty and fell into disrepair.

It was later acquired by the University of Manchester and then bought by the Manchester Historic Buildings Trust who raised money to renovate it and open it to the public.

The house itself is a rare surviving example of a Victorian suburban villa, and it’s remarkably striking design is highly unusual for a building in Manchester. Architect Richard Lane designed the thing to have 20 rooms over 2 floors,complete with a concealed basement below. The outside of the house was originally painted pink, earning it the nickname “The Pink House” – man, those Victorians were imaginative weren’t they!?

The gardens of the home are a particular highlight, and work to keep them looking pristine is a continued effort for a dedicated team of five volunteers. Any visit to the house wouldn’t be complete without a walk around them once you’d explored the interior of the building and had a cup of tea in the original kitchen.

Just before lockdown, Manchester Historic Buildings Trust launched a fundraising campaign to support the re-creation of Elizabeth’s bedroom as it would have been when the property was her much-loved home. The room has been left unrestored since the House was opened in 2014 and as a completely empty space every element is required from the decoration and furniture, to the soft furnishings and decorative accessories.

Researchers have been examining key items such as textiles, fireplaces and furnishings in order to ensure that the work is as accurate as possible, and once completed, the bedroom should be open later this year as a part of the visitor experience.

There’s so much more that I can say about Elizabeth’s wealth of work, her legacy and even the house, but it’d just be quicker and easier for you to visit her house when it reopens on Wednesday 12th August.

I know I told you that there’d be a test at the end but I was chatting bubbles. Now that we’ve all finished school and college and university – tests are done and dusted. Now go – enjoy your life and visit Lizzy’s gaff when it’s open again.

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