An Intimate Space

Elizabeth Gaskell by George Richmond, 1851
(from the 1906 Knutsford edition of Mary Barton)

Elizabeth Gaskell’s House has launched a £10,000 campaign to restore the writer’s bedroom. But without photographs or official records, how easy will it be to re-imagine this most private of spaces? Deborah Grace investigates …

“Such a blazing fire! Such a crimson carpet! Such an easy chair and such white, dimity curtains! Such a pretty vase of flowers before the looking glass!”

Thus writes Elizabeth Gaskell to her daughters, Marianne and Meta, during a stay in Clapton in 1847. She’s clearly delighted with the guest room, so carefully furnished for her comfort by her hosts, the writers Margaret and William Howitt.

This delightful, gossipy snippet from the famous author of North and South and Mary Barton is as pure gold to staff and volunteers aiming to restore her bedroom at 84 Plymouth Grove, Manchester.

Now known as Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, the Grade II* listed Regency-style villa was the Gaskells’ family home from 1850 until 1913. A major visitor attraction since 2014, the House has drawn Gaskell fans from far and wide to see where their literary idol lived and wrote her novels, as well as entertaining guests, including Charlotte Brontë and Charles Dickens. Today, the downstairs rooms, including library, drawing room and dining room, are furnished to look much as they did during the author’s lifetime, but her bedroom has so far been unrestored.

Manchester Historic Buildings Trust, which cares for the House, has now launched a £10,000 appeal to restore the empty space to its original purpose. The money will provide decoration and furnishings – from a curtained bed and wardrobe to lamps, chamber sticks and bedroom textiles befitting a room in a middle-class, Victorian house. The original fireplace, long removed, will be replaced and it is believed that there was once a chaise longue and hip bath in the room.

“There are no existing records detailing how this room would have looked, so we have a blank canvas,” says Sally Jastrzebski-Lloyd, manager at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House.

“What we hope to achieve is a re-imagination of the room and a fitting legacy to Elizabeth. Her writing has been a rich starting point for our research, in that she had the ability to illuminate Victorian society and domesticity in a way quite unlike any writer of her time.”

So what exactly does Elizabeth Gaskell’s writing reveal about her taste in bedrooms?

“Not a great deal about her own bedroom, but there’s an awful lot about what she did or didn’t like in other people’s bedrooms,” says the Gaskell Society’s Dr Diane Duffy, who volunteers at the  House. Now turned literary detective, Dr Duffy is happy to share the clues she has gleaned from poring over the abundant and detailed bedroom references to be found in Gaskell’s letters and novels.

Take this letter extract, written in 1854, whilst at Florence Nightingale’s Derbyshire home, Lea Hurst. Despite being installed in Florence Nightingale’s own bedroom, Gaskell clearly finds the accommodation sadly wanting and is dismayed by the stark simplicity of the room. “The carpet does not cover the floor; is far from new.” There is, she adds, sounding like a Victorian Alex Polizzi, “No easy chair, no sofa, a little curtain-less bed, a small glass not so large as mine at home.”

“This suggests that Elizabeth was used to more comfortable, elaborate furnishings,” says Dr Duffy. “Here, as so often is the case, it is her description of what is lacking in someone else’s bedroom that is significant.”

Elsewhere, Mrs Gaskell’s tastes and priorities in bedroom furnishings are particularised. Cleanliness, comfort, snowy white, ‘dimity’ bed covers and, above all, a warm fire, are features referenced in novels such as Wives and Daughters. In 1857, Elizabeth is delighted to have access to a ‘private WC’ as the Duke of Devonshire’s guest at Chatsworth. In 1852, she writes to her sister-in-law, Elizabeth Holland, detailing preparations to welcome home her eldest daughter, Marianne.

“The little ones had worked mats and gathered flowers for her dressing room. I have been making said room as nice as I could for her. Book shelves, table, ink stand, engraving of that beautiful Madonna Della Sedia.”

So, what is it about the details of Mrs Gaskell’s bedroom that is so fascinating to her readers – so much more, than the drawing room, say, or even her beloved garden?

“When you’re invited into a house you see the drawing room and the dining room – the public spaces,” says Dr Duffy. “But the bedroom is a private space. In this case, it is an intimate, female space. And we are naturally curious about people’s private lives.”

Admittedly, there is a certain prurience in our regard for the private lives of the respectable middle classes in that notoriously buttoned-up age. I want to know, for instance, whether Mrs Gaskell shared her bedroom with her husband, the sternly bewhiskered Reverend William Gaskell. There is no evidence in her letters, but the answer is ‘probably not,’ since it was common practice then for married (middle-class) couples to occupy separate bedchambers.

“People always ask where the toilets are and how people washed; they are always interested in those basic things,” says Sally Jastrzebski-Lloyd.

“It wasn’t so long ago that Elizabeth Gaskell was living here. She wasn’t an aristocrat, but a middle-class woman, so people find it a lot easier to relate to her. And there’s also something about this house that you could imagine living here, unlike Chatsworth. It’s a bit draughty, but it’s manageable because it’s not too big.”

As a home regularly used for entertaining by the Gaskell family, the House continues to be used for celebrations and weddings today. Once completed, Elizabeth’s bedroom will also be made available for wedding couples to get ready before taking their vows downstairs in the study or drawing room.

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