Elizabeth Gaskell made 'genteel' Knutsford famous

Elizabeth Gaskell is best remembered as the author of "Cranford,' the novel in which she immortalised the town in which she grew up.

Yet it was in London that she was born, in 1810, as Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson.
Elizabeth was sent to live with her widowed aunt in Knutsford after her mother's death when she was just thirteen months old. Knutsford was, as it is now, a prosperous market town, surrounded by woodland, its narrow streets crowded with inns, bow- fronted shops and houses.

Elizabeth's childhood was a happy one. Her aunt, Mrs Lumb, lived at Heathwaite Number 17 Gaskell Avenue), a large house facing Knutsford Heath, on the edge of the town. There she kept cows, poultry and geese, Elizabeth had many relatives in Knutsford besides her aunt. Her uncle, Dr Peter Holland, lived at Hollingford House, next to the churchyard in Toft Road.

He used to take her with him to the houses of his patients - gentry and farming people - and many descriptions in her novels may have been based on her early observations during these visits. Her cousin, Sir Henry Holland, twenty-two years her senior, became physician to King William IV, Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort. A plaque marks his birthplace, Number 95 King Street.

At twenty-one, Elizabeth met the Reverend William Gaskell while visiting friends in Manchester. Within five months, they were engaged, and the wedding took place at Knutsford Parish Church in 1832. To mark the occasion, the people of the town decorated their pavements with red and white sand, as they still do on May Day, for it was then the local custom to celebrate weddings in this way.

After the wedding, Mrs Gaskell left the beautiful countryside to live in Manchester, a big, industrial city where there could be no avoiding the grim reality of poverty in Victorian England. As she threw herself into social work, helping her husband with his Sunday School work and evening classes for boys, she must have remembered Knutsford, and been struck by the contrast between the two places and the lifestyles they offered. She started to write to distract herself from her grief at losing her only son, who died of scarlet fever when he was just ten months old.

Her first novel caught the eye of no less a writer than Charles Dickens, who was delighted to publish 'Cranford" in his periodical, "Household Words". It appeared there in serial form, the first episode on December 13th 1851.

"Cranford" is an affectionate and witty description of Knutsford society as it was then, old-fashioned and dominated by its women, many of them unmarried. The central character, for instance, Miss Matty, has been forced to remain a spinster because the man she would have married was not considered "enough of a gentleman" for her family. Such social snobbery is perhaps one Victorian value we have done well to lose.

There were strict rules governing behaviour in those days - never, for instance, "to let more than three days elapse between receiving a call and returning it", or "to stay longer than a quarter of an hour."

"Elegant economy" was the order of the day, with everyone going to bed by half past ten to save lighting, yet no one admitting to any need to economise. It was even considered "vulgar" (a tremendous word in Cranford) to offer guests expensive refreshments.

The ladies provided their own entertainment, paying calls on one another and playing cards - "the most earnest and serious business they ever engaged in." There might be the occasional formal entertainment, like the conjurers performance which she describes taking place at the Cranford Assembly Rooms, based on the rooms at Knutsford's Royal George Hotel.

Mrs Gaskell's grandfather's farm at nearby Sandlebridge is the setting for "Cousin Phillis", the story of an innocent country girl's first love. Hope Farm, as she describes it, is a place where 'many speckled fowls' peck about in the yard, milk cans are 'hung out to sweeten', and fragrant flowers cover the horse mount and garden walls.

The girl's father is, like Mrs Gaskell's grandfather, a Dissenting Minister, who tries to combine the ministry with agriculture. He rises at three each morning to ring the bell which summons his workers, and, at the end of every working day, he and his labourers join in singing a psalm.

The story describes vividly the beauty and peace of the countryside, the changing seasons - as corn harvest follows hay-making, and apple gathering, corn harvest - and the dignity of working on the land. The narrator is Phillis's cousin, a young man employed on the new railways and his off ice work contrasts with the healthy outdoor life on the farm, unchanged for many years.

"Wives and Daughters" is remarkable for covering the entire social spectrum - cottages and tradesmen, lawyers and doctors, landed gentry and aristocracy. Tatton Park makes an appearance as Cumnor Towers, "the great family mansion standing in aristocratic seclusion at the centre of a large park.

In return for the simple worship of the townspeople, Lord Cumnor is a forbearing landlord and Lady Cumnor and her daughters have set up a school where "girls were taught to sew beautifully, to be capital housemaids and pretty fair cooks."

In "Ruth" Mrs Gaskell describes a chapel "built ... when the Dissenters were afraid of attracting attention or observation, and hid their place of worship.' It is based on the Unitarian Chapel in Knutsford which she attended, and it was in the graveyard of this chapel that she was buried when she died, suddenly of a heart attack.

Later, she was joined there by her husband and two unmarried daughters.
But the most familiar memorial to her is the Gaskell Tower in King Street, built of white stone in 1907 by Watt, a Manchester glove manufacturer. Knutsford keeps alive the memory of this great writer, just as she never forgot the town of her childhood.

Elizabeth Gaskell died in Hampshire and was buried in Knutsford in November 1865, one of the most accomplished authors of her generation.