Tuesday, 30 September 2014


There are reminders of the Victorian writer known as Mrs Gaskell (first name Elizabeth) all over Knutsford, a small town in Cheshire - not only of Mrs Gaskell's own life, but also of several works by the author set in the fictional town of Cranford, which was inspired by Knutsford.  Mrs Gaskell knew the town well, having spent much of her childhood living with her aunt in the town following the death of her mother.  In Cranford, Mrs Gaskell portrays a curious society dominated by women, in which men are considered at best superfluous.  In the first chapter Mrs Gaskell sings the praises of Cranford's women, "for keeping the trim gardens full of flowers without a weed to speck them".  It is also a society in which the characters are desperately trying to 'keep up appearances'.  Mrs Gaskell is known to have been very sympathetic to the poorer echelons of society.  She was also attuned to how people reacted to change, for example the momentous changes brought about by the coming of the railway.  

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Hannah Lumb's house. Photo by Ian Warburton, via Wikimedia Commons

The ever-growing encroachment of the railway was one of the most salient features of Victorian society.  Looked on from this day and age, the railway's arrival can only seem like a good thing, however the ordinary Victorians were deeply suspicious of the railway, partly because it brought with it a large number of immigrant workers, and partly because it was considered dangerous.  This fear is realised in chapter 2 of Cranford when one Captain Brown, who has been brought to the town courtesy of the railway, is killed by a train while rescuing a little girl who has strayed onto the line.  Captain Brown's house was inspired by a building at No. 15 King Street occupied by a real-life captain called Captain Hill.  The house now houses a chocolate shop. 

The Angel Inn in King Street features in Cranford as the place where Lord Maulever stays while visiting Captain Brown.  Another hostelry called The Royal George Hotel, now a branch of the Loch Fyne seafood chain, features in the chapter called 'Signor Brunoni' in which Brunoni, a magician, performs at the hotel watched by the Cranford ladies.  The Royal George also housed the Assembly Rooms where the great and the good of the town gathered for their balls and card games. Meanwhile, a half-timbered building in the same street is the setting for Cranford's Johnson's store, where Miss Matty discovers that she has fallen victim to a bank failure.  The building is now a furniture store and Chinese restaurant.  

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The present-day King Street. Photo by ReptOn1x, via Wikimedia Commons

As for Mrs Gaskell herself, the house where she lived with her aunt Hannah Lumb was called Heathwaite, and was on Heathside (now Gaskell Avenue).  Elizabeth's bedroom looked out over the local grandstand where the horse races were held.  Hollingford House in Toft Road, now a furniture shop, was the home of Mrs Gaskell's uncle and cousins - the latter are thought to be the inspiration for the Misses Jenkyns in Cranford.  Mrs Gaskell died in Hampshire in 1865, but she was buried at Brook Street Chapel along with here ancestors and immediate family.  The chapel, built in 1690, has been designated by English Heritage as a Grade I listed building.  Another ecclesiastical reminder of the writer is St John's ParishChurch, where Elizabeth married Rev William Gaskell on 30th August 1832.  There is a striking Mediterranean style tower in King Street known as the Gaskell Memorial Tower, complete with a stone bust and a bronze relief depicting Mrs Gaskell.  The tower was built in 1907 by Richard Harding Watt.

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The Gaskell Memorial Tower. Photo by Marion Dutcher, via Wikimedia Commons

In 2007 a TV adaptation of Cranford was shown on the BBC, with a large cast including Judi Dench, Francesca Annis, Barbara Flynn and Michael Gambon.  However, because Knutsford had changed so much since the time of Mrs Gaskell, a large part of the filming took place in Lacock, Wiltshire, a well-preserved National Trust village.

Knutsford is just to the east of the M6, about 14 miles southwest of Manchester (the inspiration for Dumble in Gaskell's novels).  The town's Heritage Centre runs walking tours including tourns devoted to Cranford.  To the north of the town is the famous historic estate Tatton Park, known for its Tudor Old Hall,  Neo-Classical Mansion and 50 acres of landscaped gardens.  The Royal Horticultural Society holds its annual Flower Show at Tatton Park.  Tatton Park's great house featured in Gaskell's novel Wives and Daughters as Cumnor Towers.

Map of the area.

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