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My father has written of the memories connected with the writing of books, and of the scenes and feelings which are printed on the pages, quite other from those which they recount. And there are also the associations of the readers as well as of the writers. One scene in Cranford always comes back to me, not only for its own most pathetic value, but because I saw my father reading it. I can still remember him coming through the doorway just as I had finished the chapter, when not without some agitation and excitement I put the close printed number of Household Words into his hand. It was in the little dining-room of his house in Young Street, by gas light, just before dinner-time. The story was that of Captain Brown and he sat down and read it then and there, and afterwards told me the writer's name. But indeed I did not think of it as a story at all, it seemed to me rather that I had witnessed some most touching and heroic deed, some sad disaster, and though I was a grown girl at the time I had a foolish childish wish for my fathers sympathy, and a feeling that even yet he might avert the catastrophe. Dear Captain Brown ! in his shabby wig and faded coat, loved and remembered far beyond the narrow boundaries of Cranford—the city of the Amazons, the home of Miss Pole, and Miss Matty, and Miss Jenkyns, the place where economy was always 'elegant,' where 'though some might be poor we were all aristocratic.' Ever since the winters evening when I made my first acquaintance with that delightful place it has seemed to me something of a visionary country home, which I have visited at intervals all my life long (in spirit) for refreshment and change of scene. I have been there in good company. 'Thank you for your letter', Charlotte Bronte writes to Mrs. Gaskell in 1853. 'It was as pleasant as a quiet chat, as welcome as spring showers, as reviving as a friend's visit; in short, it was very like a page of Cranford.' . . . The quotation breaks off with little dots, but I am sure that each one of them represents a happy moment for Currer Bell, who had not many such in her sad life.
There is a most interesting notice of Mrs. Gaskell in the Biographical Dictionary, in which Lord Houghton is quoted as writing of Cranford, as 'the finest piece of humoristic description that has been added to British literature since Charles Lamb.' I had been thinking of Elia after re-reading the book, and I was pleased to find myself on the steps of such a critic as Lord Houghton. One could imagine Mrs. Sarah Battle and the poor relation dwelling in Cranford, and if Charles Lamb could have liked anything that was not London, he too might have fancied the place. Perhaps Miss Austen's ladies may also have visited there, but I feel less certainty about them, they belong to a different condition of things, to a more lively love-making set of people, both younger in age and older in generation than the Cranford ladies. Cranford is farther removed from the world, and yet more attuned to its larger interests than Meryton or Kellynch or Hartfield. Drumble, the great noisy manufacturing town, is its metropolis, not Bath with its succession of card parties and Assembly Rooms. At Cranford love is a memory rather than a present emotion; the sentimental locks of hair have turned to gray, the billet doux to yellow, like autumn leaves falling from the Tree of Life, but there is more of real feeling in these few signs of what was once, than in all the Misses Bennett's youthful romances put together. Only Miss Austen's very sweetest heroines (including her own irresistible dark-eyed self, in her big cap and folded kerchief) are worthy of the old place. I should give the Freedom of Cranford, were it mine to bestow, in the usual 'handsome casket,' to Anne Elliott, to Fanny Price perhaps . . . but as I write some spirit of compunction disturbs the 'obiter dicta' of a hasty moment. Where is one to draw the line! Lady Bertram and the Honourable Mrs. Jamieson would surely have been kindred souls, delightful creatures both with their divergences. Who will ever forget Lady Bertram's plea for morality, or Mrs. Jamieson's languid replies to Miss Matty's inquiries as to the preparations expected in a gentleman's dressing-room, those answers given in the wearied manner of the Scandinavian prophetess, 'Leave me, leave me to repose.'
But it is all very well to decide who shall and who shall not in turn be a dweller in this favoured spot! Cranford chooses its own inhabitants, and is everywhere, where people have individuality and kindliness, and where oddities are tolerated, nay, greatly loved for the sake of the individuals.
I am sure Cranford existed in the quarter in Paris where my own early youth was passed. I can remember it in Kensington also, though we did not quite go the length of putting our cows into gray flannel dressing gowns, as Miss Betsy Barker did. Perhaps Cranford did not even stop at Kensington, but may have reached farther afield, taking Chiswick on its way. Miss Deborah, as she preferred to be called, is certainly first cousin to Miss Pinkerton; can either of these ladies have been connected with the unrivalled Miss Seward herself? I do not quite know upon what terms Miss Seward and Dr. Johnson happened to be, but I could imagine the great lexicographer driving them all before him and Miss Pinkerton's turban, or Miss Jenkyns in her little helmet-like bonnet.
Miss Deborah and Miss Pinkerton belong to an altogether bygone type, but all the rest of the ladies in Cranford are as modern and as much alive as if they had been born in the 60's.
I believe the art of telling a story is born with some people', writes the author of Cranford; it was certainly born with Mrs. Gaskell. My sister and I were once under the same roof with her in the house of our friends Mr. and Mrs. George Smith, and the remembrance of her voice comes back to me, harmoniously flowing on and on, with spirit and intention, and delightful emphasis, as we all sat indoors one gusty morning listening to her ghost stories. They were Scotch ghosts, historical ghosts, spirited ghosts, with faded uniforms and nice old powdered queues. As I think it over I am suddenly struck by the immense superiority of the ghosts of my youth to the present legion of unclean spirits which surround us, as we are told — wielding teacups, smashing accordions and banjos, breaking furniture in bits. That morning at Hampstead, which I recall, was of a different order of things, spiritual and unseen; mystery was there, romantic feeling, some holy terror and emotion, all combined to keep us gratefully silent and delighted.
It is something for us Cockneys to know that Mrs. Gaskell belongs to London after all, if only as a baby. Although so much of her life was spent in the North, and Knutsford was the home of her childhood, and Manchester that of her married life, yet she was born in Chelsea. She was born in 1810, in pretty old Lindsay Place, of which the windows — ancient lights even then — still look out upon the river at its turn, as it flows from Cheyne Row, towards the sunset, past Fulham Palace, where the Bishops dwell, and Hampton Court and its histories, out into the country plains beyond.
Mrs. Gaskell was born in that propitious hour of the great men and women who came into the world in the beginning of this century: may the next hundred years bring to our descendants many more such birthdays ! She belonged to a good stock on either side; her father came from Benwick upon Tweed, that city built upon the rock; he was Mr. William Stevenson, a Unitarian minister. There is a tradition that the Stevenson's came originally from Norway, and there are old family papers in which the name is spelled Stevensen. Mrs. Gaskell liked to think of her Scandinavian forefathers, and when she went away now and again for little jaunts and expeditions, such as she always enjoyed, she used to laugh and say that the blood of the Vikings her ancestors was rising in her veins. She was always tenderly attached to her father's memory, and proud and fond of him, and he must have been indeed a most interesting and delightful character. A letter lately written to the Athenaeum, evidently by some old friend of the family, gives a quotation from Longman's Annual Obituary for 1830 and of the notice of Mr. Stevenson's death, beginning thus: 'The literary and scientific world has sustained a great loss in the death of Mr. Stevenson, a man remarkable for the stores of knowledge which he possessed, and for the simplicity and modesty by which his rare attainments were concealed.' Among other facts we read that in early life while preaching at Manchester Mr. Stevenson was also Classical Tutor in the Manchester Academy, so well known through the Aikens and Barbaulds. He was afterwards appointed secretary to Lord Lauderdale, and finally Keeper of the Records to the Treasury, both of which appointments brought him up to London! He laboured with unremitting diligence, contributing to the Edinburgh Review, the Westminster, and Dr. Brewster's Encyclopedia. He had the true spirit of a faithful historian, and, contrary to the practice too prevalent in those days, dived into original sources of information.1 Was not this the father, one might imagine, for such a daughter? Mr. Stevenson married, as his first wife, Miss Eliza Holland of Sandlebridge. It would not be difficult to name some dozen families now existing which have set their mark upon the times, trump cards in the game of life, so to speak, and to one of these families Mrs. Gaskell's mother belonged. The poor young lady died very soon after her little girl was born, and the child was taken away to the care of an aunt, her mother's sister, who was living at Knutsford in Cheshire with an only child, a cripple. The whole story was very melancholy, and one can imagine that it may have been a somewhat sad and silent home for a little girl full of life and imagination. There was an uncle also dwelling in the same little country town, Dr. Peter Holland, who was the father of the great physician Sir Henry Holland, and the grandfather of the present Lord Knutsford. Besides their houses in Knutsford the Holland family had a pretty old country house some two or three miles beyond the town, from whence Mrs. Gaskell's own mother had come. The house where Mrs. Gaskell lived as a little girl with her aunt is on the Heath, a tall red house, with a wide spreading view, and with a pretty carved staircase and many light windows both back and front.
I have heard that Mrs. Gaskell was not always quite happy in those days, — imaginative children go through many phases and trials of their own, — in her hours of childish sorrow and trouble she used to run away from her aunt's house across the Heath and hide herself in one of its many green hollows, finding comfort in the silence, and in the company of birds and insects and natural things. But at other times she had delightful games of play with her cousins in the sweet old family house at Sandlebridge, where so many Hollands in turn had lived.
The old house stands lonely in a beautiful and tranquil position, with a waving prospect of fields and shady trees and hedges, reaching to the hills which rise in the far distance. As we stood there we could see Alderley Edge clean painted against the stormy sky. Just before reaching the house the road dips into a green hollow, where stands a forge which has been there for over two hundred years, handed down from father to son. Just beyond the forge is an old mill, shaded by beautiful trees; we could hear the peaceful sounds of labour, the clanking blows of the anvil, the soft monotonous thud of the mill.
Sandlebridge is now given up to a farmer; a pretty flagged stone path leads up to the front door. There used to be two brick pediments with balls at the garden gate. Years ago, so long ago that the great Lord Clive was only a schoolboy in Knutsford at the time (his mother was a Gaskell and had connections in the place), he used to come over to spend his half holidays at Sandlebridge, and his pleasure was to jump across from one stone ball to the other, to the great danger of his legs and arms. Here too in later times, as we have said, Mrs. Gaskell used to come as a little girl, and play with her cousins and gather flowers from the garden. There was a great bed of saxifrage, which may still be there, it was always her favourite flower. The old house is now dismantled, but one or two things still remain out of its past; among others are the fine old wooden chimney-pieces in the front parlour, one within the other, — so it seemed to me, — and the old shuffleboard. A shuffleboard is an immensely long table, standing upon legs of shining oak with many drawers and cupboards underneath. There are hardly any left anywhere now. They were once used for a game which consisted in jerking heavy counters from one end to the other of the shining board, and trying to keep your own and to throw your enemy's over the side of the table. As we were looking with interest at all these relics of bygone times, we heard a sort of chucking noise from the big inner room or kitchen; it came from a little person some two or three months old lying in a huge carved oak cradle by the fire, which cradle must have rocked any number of generations to sleep.
Knutsford itself is a little town of many oak beams and solid brick walls; there are so many slanting gables left, and lattices and corners, that the High Street has something the look of a mediaeval street. ''Tis an old ancient place,' said the shopwoman, standing by her slanting counter, where Shakespeare himself might have purchased hardware. From the main street several narrow courts and passages lead to the other side of the little town, the aristocratic quarter, where are the old houses with their walled gardens. One of these passages runs right through the Royal George Hotel, itself leading from shadow into the sunshine, where a goat disports itself, and one or two ladies seem always passing with quiet yet rapid steps, — the inhabitants of Knutsford do not saunter. My friend the shopwoman told us she had a beautiful garden at the back of her 'old ancient place'; all the houses in Knutsford have gardens, with parterres beautifully kept, and flowers in abundance. It was autumn, but everything was swept and tidy. Straggling branches, plants overgrown and run to seed do not seem to be known in Knutsford amidst its heathy open spaces. There is something so spirited and fresh and methodical in the place that I can understand how even the flowerbeds have a certain self-respect, and grow trim and straight, instead of straggling about in lazy abandon, as mine do at home.
As we entered the Royal George Hotel out of the dark street, we came upon a delightful broadside of shining oak staircase and panelled wainscot; old oak settles and cupboards stood upon the landings. On the walls hung pictures, one was of Lord Beaconsfield, one was a fine print of George IV., and others again of that denuded classic school of art which seems to have taken a last refuge in old English Inns. There were Chippendale cabinets, old bits of china, and above all there were the beautiful oak bannisters to admire. But these handsome staircases, the china, the wood carvings are all about the place, to which the great traffic of the coaches from Liverpool and Manchester brought real prosperity for many years, so that the modest Utile houses are full of worthy things, of pretty doorways, arched corners, carved landings and mahogany doors, to make the fortune of a dealer in bric-a-brac, only that these are not bric-a-brac, and this is their charm. The staircases and chimney-pieces are their own original selves, the cupboards were made to dwell in their own particular niches, and it is the passing generations who turn and unturn the keys as they go by. Our kind Interpreter at Knutsford patiently led us from one place to another; sometimes we seemed to be in Cranford, greeting our visionary friends; sometimes we were back in Knutsford again, looking at the homes of the people we had known in the fact rather than in the fancy. And just as one sometimes sees traces of another place and time still showing in the streets of some new and busy town, so every here and there seemed isolated signs and tokens of the visionary familiar city as it has been raised by the genius of its founder.
Mrs. Gaskell was a very beautiful young woman. I heard her described only the other day by a friend who remembered her in her youth. She had a well-shaped head, regular, finely-cut features; her mien was bright and dignified, almost joyous, so my informant said, and among her many other gifts was that of delightful companionship. She was very young when she was married to the Reverend William Gaskell, minister of the Cross Street Unitarian Chapel in Manchester. She was married from her aunt's house at Cranford at the Parish Church, and not in the beautiful old Unitarian Chapel, with its ivy-clad walls and its latticed windows, dating from Oliver Cromwell's time. In those days marriages were only solemnised in the Parish Church.
The young couple settled in their new home, Mrs. Gaskell 'co-operated with her husband in his work', we are told, 'and was always ready for any useful work of charity or helpfulness.'
Mr. Gaskell was one of those ministers whose congregations are outside as well as inside chapel walls, for I have heard his name mentioned again and again by different people, and always with affection and respect.
For some years after her marriage Mrs. Gaskell lived a domestic life, busy with her children, and ordering her household and training her maids, for which indeed she had a special gift; then a terrible sorrow fell upon her, and we know how she began to write to divert her mind from brooding upon the loss of her only son.
In 1847 she had finished that noble book, Mary Barton, that book with 'a sob in it,' as the French critic says. 'Ah! quelle musique douloureuse dans un sanglot.'
But there is something far beyond a sob in Mary Barton. The writer is writing of what she has lived, not only of what she has read or even looked at as she passed her way. It is true she read Adam Smith and studied Social Politics, but with that admirable blending of the imaginative and the practical qualities which was her gift, she knows how to stir the dry skeleton to life and reach her readers hearts. Many books and novels dealing with the poor are touchingly expressed and finely conceived, but somehow this particular gift of the spirit is wanting; we admire the books without being ourselves absorbed by them. It is the difference in short between the light of genius and the rays of the prism analysed, calculated, divided. This power of living in the lives of others and calling others to share the emotion, does not mean, as people sometimes imagine, that a writer copies textually from the world before her, I have heard my father say that no author worth anything, deliberately, and as a rule, copies the subject before him. And so with Mrs. Gaskell. Her early impressions were vivid and dear to her, but her world, though coloured by remembrance and sympathy, was peopled by the fresh creations of her vivid imagination. not by stale copies of the people she had known.
Mary Barton made a great and remarkable sensation. Carlyle, Landor, Miss Edgeworth praised and applauded, and nameless thousands also praised and read the noble outspoken book. 'Individuals may have complained' so says the biographer, from whom I have so often quoted, 'but the work has unquestionably helped to make the manufacturing world very different from what it was forty years ago!
The same intuition which guided her along the pleasant country lanes made her at home in the teeming streets and crowded alleys of Manchester.
A very interesting article by Monsieur Emile Montégut, written some thirty years ago, pays a fine tribute to Mrs. Gaskell's striking exposition of the life amidst which so much of her own was passed, to her depth of feeling, to her moderation of statement.
The article also, to my surprise, gives an answer to the little riddle I was trying to solve in my own mind as to the difference between the world of Cranford and that of Miss Austen. Each century possesses a force of its own, says the critic, one particular means of action, to the exclusion of others; it may be intelligence, it may be passion, it may be determination, each rules in turn.
In the sixteenth century will prevailed, and the character of the men and the martyrs of that time were in value far beyond their convictions. In the eighteenth century, on the contrary, the ideas were worth more than the lives. Books and pamphlets were better than the men who wrote them. What is the force, says Mr. Mont/gut, of the age in which we ourselves are living? it is certainly not will, nor is it brilliant intelligence, as in the days of Voltaire. It is a quality which, for want of a better word, we will call' the force of sentiment! . . . 'People,' he continues, 'have little confidence in systems, a man with a hobby is immediately a butt, but a man who is not obliged to be right in order to guard his vanity, has but to describe in a few simple and true sentences some fact, some moral wrong which needs redressing, and see the effect, and the silent help which immediately follows, and for this reason it is that in literature we have seen of late the almost exclusive reign of fiction! . . .
It is this quality of statement which we find in Mrs. Gaskell's books which distinguishes them from so many which preceded them, and which gives them their influence. It was because she had written Mary Barton that some deeper echoes reach us in Cranford than are to be found in any of Jane Austen's books, delightful as they are. Young people read books to learn about their lives which are to come, old people read them to forget the present; there is yet another class of readers, old and young, who read to find expression to the indefinite unshaped feelings by which they are haunted,—of all these will not each find response in the books of Elizabeth Gaskell, in Ruth, in Cousin Phyllis, in Sylvia's Lovers, in that last fine work which she never finished?
It must be remembered that Mrs. Gaskell wrote in the great time of literature, in the earlier part of the century. It remains for readers of this later time to see how nobly she held her own among the masters of her craft. 'She has done what we none of us could do', said George Sand to Lord Houghton; 'she has written novels which excite the deepest interest in men of the world, and yet which every girl will be the better for reading.'
We all know what a friend Mrs. Gaskell proved herself to Charlotte Bronte, and what happiness this friendship brought to the author of Jane Eyre. Mrs. Gaskell had the gift of giving out in a very remarkable degree. Miss Bronte, as we all know, was tortured and imprisoned by shyness. 'She does not, and cannot care for me, for she does not know me, how should she', Miss Bronte says, writing of a child of Mrs. Gaskell, but that child's mother did Charlotte Bronte justice, and guessed by happy intuition at the treasure concealed in the unpretending casket.
Mrs. Gaskell quotes a letter from Miss Bronte in her Life which is very characteristic of them both. 'Do you, who have so many friends, so large a circle of acquaintance, find it easy when you sit down to write to isolate yourself from all those ties and their sweet associations, so as to be your own woman, uninfluenced or swayed by the consciousness of how your work may affect other minds, what blame or what sympathy it may call forth; does no luminous cloud ever come between you and the severe truth in your own secret or clear-seeing soul?' This question is best answered by Mrs. Gaskell's own pages. Whether or not she found it easy I cannot say, but that she did not ' isolate herself, but did on the contrary entirely associate her own woman with the work of her life, her readers can best realise. Her great natural gift and genius instinctively led her to the secret of things, to the very soul of her race. She must have felt its life and spirit too keenly indeed for her own happiness at times, but how much has she not added to the sunshine of the world!
Not long ago I found myself in Mrs. Gaskell's old home in Manchester, and the thought of the beautiful books created in those very rooms seemed to give life to the stones and to light up the grim Manchester streets outside. Cranford was written in the house in Plymouth Grove, as were almost all Mrs. Gaskell's books. But when tired or overdone she used often to return to Knutsford for rest and for refreshment. Sometimes in later life she stayed with her cousins, the Miss Hollands, whose traditions she wove into shape, together with the quaint conceits and stories which are still told in Knutsford. It has its customs and oddities now, just as when Mrs. Gaskell was a girl. I am told that the streets are sanded on certain days in pretty patterns all along the pavement; there are temperance processions in which the immortal sedan chair still figures, and I myself observed that some of the humbler bonnets formed quite an important feature in the scene, while recollections of Miss Matty's successive caps seemed to float across ones mind. It was delightful to hear the people of Knutsford still speak of Mrs. Gaskell, and of the pleasure her visits always brought, and the pleasure she always took in them; of her long country drives with an old friend, a doctor, going his rounds, twenty and thirty miles at a time; of her talk and interest in all the details along the way. She loved country things and farming things; she always kept her cow, even in Manchester; she understood the practical facts of life as well as its feelings. I have heard of her, tired and ill, starting on a three mile walk on behalf of a poor dependent, so as to make sure that some necessary help was properly administered. There is one thrilling tradition of Knutsford far too melodramatic for our Cranford, where the mere rumour of the housebreaker so alarmed Mr. Mulliner; this story is that of the highwayman Higgins, who lived in Heath House, and who kept his horses underground concealed in the cellar. The highwayman must have enjoyed his lovely garden and his fine old staircase, when he was not escaping by his secret passage.
I heard of one Knutsford lady the other day, greatly excited by some piece of news, — no highway robbery, but a wedding, I believe. To soothe herself she was obliged to have a dish of toasted cheese prepared, and to send for a friend to play bezique, and share the news and the dainty; it might have been Miss Barker herself. Another little story amused us greatly, so well was it told, and so characteristic of all times, old and new. One of the young Hollands born in the South was greatly interested in the family traditions, and he came for a holiday to Knutsford to see the old home of his fathers. He looked all about Knutsford, and then went on to Sandlebridge to call on the old fanner there, and asked him many questions, and begged him to show him all over the place. And the old farmer kindly welcomed the young man for his parents' and grandparents' sake, and said, 'O yes, Master Frank, I'll show you about. I'll show you wonderful things; I'll show you things will mak' your hair stan' on end. Coom along o' me.' So they drove and they drove along the lanes and under the hedgerows, and all the way the young man wondered what was coming, until finally the old farmer, who would not say a word beforehand, stopped his horse and triumphantly pointed to the bran new red and yellow villas which had been built on Alderley Edge, where he found such good custom for his butter and eggs. And these were the wonderful things.
Knutsford likes to associate itself with Cranford in a desultory visionary sort of way. One house claims Miss Matty's tea-shop. The owner was standing in the doorway, and he kindly brought us into the little wainscoted parlour, with the window on the street through which Aga Jenkyns may have dispensed Miss Matty's stock of sugar plums; here too was a pretty carved staircase and arches belonging to the early Georges; another most charming old house, Church House, with the lovely garden where the children were gathering the apples and the gay flower beds were skirting the turf walk, might almost have been the home of Molly Gibson, and its present mistress said she liked to imagine her peeping out from the side window at the old coaches as they clattered through the town. As I sate there drinking my tea I thought I could almost hear Mrs. Gibson herself conversing. 'Spring! Primavera, as the Italians call it,' the lady was saying.
1 Mr. Stevenson's father — Mrs. Gaskell's grandfather — was a captain in the Royal Navy. One can well imagine that some of the sailor's blood still coursed in the veins of the woman whose spirit was so free and so adventurous.