At Home with the Gaskells

If you've any interest in the past, then you'll know what I mean when I talk about that feeling of excitement that comes from finding yourself in history's long shadow. For me, it was standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, on the exact spot where Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his 'I Have a Dream' speech. Or taking my old-school Marxist dad to Chetham's Library and sitting in the very alcove where Marx and Engels studied the books that would eventually give shape to the Communist Manifesto. 

I get that buzz from more mundane moments too. In Paris, I've eaten in the grossly over-priced and underwhelming tourist trap that is Fouquet's on the Champs-Elysées, just because it was James Joyce's favourite, eating and drinking into the long night....and paying for it with hangovers and other people's money. 

History's footsteps are a big selling point of a visit to the Elizabeth Gaskell House, in the Longsight suburb of south Manchester. Before I've even stepped inside, an enthusiastic guide urges me to ring the still-working original doorbell, and do what Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Ruskin all did before me.

My guide is a fellow history wonk, a traveller of ancient shadows. 

Although closely associated with the Cheshire town of Knutsford (immortalised as Cranford), Elizabeth moved into the house at 84 Plymouth Grove in 1850, two years after the publication of her debut novel, Mary Barton. She fretted about the exorbitant rent of £150 a year (roughly £18,000 in today's money, which would be a steal in this housing market). In a letter to a friend she expressed her concerns about the morality of spending so much money "while so many are wanting," but was determined to mollify her guilt by "[trying] to make the house give as much pleasure to others as I can."

It's a commitment the Elizabeth Gaskell Society are keen to maintain. Every visitor is greeted like an old friend and encouraged to make themselves at home. I'm told to sit at the desk Elizabeth's husband William used, and to rifle through the period books that line the shelves in the study (not Gaskell originals, but copies of books they would have had in their collection). 

The dining table, laid out in Victorian elegance

The dining table, laid out in Victorian elegance

In the parlour on the far side of the entrance hall there are copies of letters written by Elizabeth as well as her wedding dress, carefully displayed in a glass case. At the far end of the dining room, laid out as the Gaskells would have known, is her writing desk, flooded with light from the alcove windows. On it are facsimiles of letters, including one from her friend Charlotte Brontë (Elizabeth wrote her biography in 1857), who also hid behind the curtains in the large drawing room. 

There are no ropes or labels, and as much as the house and its contents offer an intimate portrait of how the Gaskells lived, they really come to life through the anecdotes related with great relish and affection by the friendly room-stewards. 

Elizabeth's writing desk, with copies of letters to Charlotte Bronte

Elizabeth's writing desk, with copies of letters to Charlotte Bronte

How, during the bread riots of 1863, when the well-to-do citizens of Manchester were instructed to board up their windows to deter looters, William - a Unitarian minister at nearby Cross Street - and Elizabeth ordered that the windows be opened so that they could distribute what food they had to workers clamouring for sustenance.

The stories paint a picture of two social justice warriors, committed to ideals of fairness and decency for all, especially the teeming poor that kept industrial Manchester in gear. Their own relationship was one of equals, a far cry from the patriarchal mores of the time.  

I also liked the stories about Elizabeth's relationship with Dickens. He called her Scheherazade, because her powers of narrative were good "for at least a thousand nights and one," but he had less tolerance for her habit of submitting work at the very last minute and way over-length (like most writers, including this one): as editor of her 1855 novel North and South, Dickens had gone to great lengths to suggest cuts, which Gaskell completely ignored, commenting with a dismissive "I've not a notion what he means."

Elizabeth was, by the standards of the time, ferociously independent - in 1865 she bought a house in Hampshire without telling William. It would be their retirement home, away from the soot and dirt of Manchester's dark, satanic mills. When the house was bought and decorated, she cajoled William into making the trip south to visit the house, but no sooner did she reveal the big surprise she suffered a heart attack and died, aged 55. William returned to 84 Plymouth Grove and lived there with his two daughters until his death in 1884; it was eventually sold in 1913, when the Gaskells' daughter Meta died. 

The house was acquired by the Manchester Buildings Historic Trust in 2004, who then set about a laborious restoration (aided by £2.5m of Heritage Lottery funds). It was meant to finish in 2011, but the roof was damaged by vandals delaying the reopening until 2014.  

And while they've done a wonderful job of restoring this gorgeous Regency style villa, the real accomplishment is in recreating - as best as they can under the circumstances - the joyful ambience of the house. Elizabeth was courageous, charming, generous and, by all accounts, very funny: time in her house would have been a lot of fun. The house is now a museum, but it's a fun place to visit - the very kind of historical footstep I most enjoy walking in. 84 Plymouth Grove, M13 9LW;