The journey to Manchester was a little hot and dusty- but otherwise pleasant enough - Charlotte Bronte July 1851.
Isobel Stirk writes:
Isobel Stirk writes:
Our journey on the Brontë Society’s excursion to Manchester was certainly pleasant. It took us through some beautiful Lancashire countryside with the brooding Pendle Hill lurking in the background and soon our driver was skilfully negotiating the busy traffic of Manchester and we arrived at our destination- Plymouth Grove.
I had visited the home of Charlotte’s friend, Elizabeth Gaskell, a few years ago and as we disembarked, and made our way towards the front door, I did wonder if on that previous occasion I may have imbibed too much in the White Lion the night before as in my memory the house had been a bright pink. All was revealed as our very knowledgeable and charming guides gave us a tour of the house and explained how the house had had a complete refurbishment. I was relieved to hear that, when used as student accommodation for the university, it had indeed been painted pink!
I feel it is not surprising that Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell became good friends because listening to our guide I realised that there are quite a few similarities between them. Elizabeth Gaskell (Stevenson) was only a baby when her mother died and of course we know that Charlotte had very little recollection of her own mother. Both were taken care of by their mothers’ sisters and both were sent away to boarding schools run by maiden ladies. In Elizabeth’s case the Miss Byerleys in Warwickshire, for Charlotte the Woollers at Roe Head. Elizabeth would have empathised with Charlotte as she too had suffered the loss of loved ones in quick succession. Her brother disappeared on a sea voyage and then within a very short time her father died.
The Parsonage at Haworth was home to many animals wild and domestic - the famous Keeper and Flossy, the hawk Nero, a little black cat and two tame geese. At Plymouth Grove Mrs Gaskell was very keen to recreate a little of the gentle town of Knutsford, where she spent her formative years, and in Manchester she created gardens for fresh produce and keptchickens. Plymouth Grove is very much set out like the Parsonage at Haworth and in the rooms we saw quite a few original items and things contemporary to the Gaskell’s time there. Just as at the Parsonage scrapings had been taken from walls, scraps of wallpaper discovered and then these papers were specially recreated by experts and now line the walls.
It was interesting to hear one or two stories about Charlotte’s time at Plymouth Grove:
I mounted into the window-seat: gathering up my feet, I sat cross-legged, like a Turk; and, having drawn the red moreen curtain nearly close, I was shrined in double retirement - Jane Eyre. Chapter 1.
Maybe the bashful Charlotte took a lead from her heroine for, when on a visit to Plymouth Grove and unable to face a caller, she took refuge behind the curtains in the drawing room and did not reappear until they had left. In one of the rooms we were shown a facsimile of a manuscript of Wives and Daughters. We saw the last word Mrs Gaskell ever wrote - ‘shawl’ - for she died before the novel was finished. Here again is another Brontë connection for the work was completed by Frederick Greenwood. Greenwood was at one time joint editor of the Cornhill Magazine with G.H.Lewes, whom Charlotte met, and then he went on to be sole editor for four years. He was the first editor of the evening newspaper The Pall Mall Gazette which had been founded by George Murray Smith, Charlotte’s publisher and friend.
The house boasts a delightful tea room and we were offered tea or coffee and delicious cakes. We were told that when Charlotte was in residence there she asked, one evening, to be served only black tea as green tea made her very restless. Mrs Gaskell was in somewhat of a dilemma as the only tea they had was a mixture of both. She did not inform Charlotte of this but when asked next morning if she had slept well Charlotte answered very much in the affirmative. After partaking of this mouth- watering repast it was time to move on from this house which had been restored so well and sensitively- with not a touch of pink in sight!
I am not familiar with Manchester so as our coach took us back towards the city centre I did wonder if we would go anywhere near Boundary Street West which is about a mile from Plymouth Grove. In the District Ward of Hulme Boundary Street was formerly known as Mount Pleasant and this is where Charlotte and Patrick stayed when he was recovering from his cataract operation.
We had a very brief time in the city centre and then went on to Whitworth Art Gallery. This gallery was opened in 1889- a gallery within Whitworth Park, a delightful setting away from the hustle and bustle of the busy city. There were many paintings to gaze at and admire - from the Brontës' contemporary J.M. W Turner and works by John Ruskin and Holman Hunt to the more modern portraits by Francis Bacon and David Hockney. We passed through galleries resplendent with the photography of Johnnie Shand Kydd and a wallpaper installation by Sarah Lucas. It was interesting to read that Cornelia Parker had featured at the Whitworth : Brontë Society members may recall that this Turner prize nominated artist had an exhibition at the Parsonage in 2006. It took a fascinating, detailed, look at Brontë items - blood on Anne’s handkerchief, blots on blotting paper, locks of hair.
It was time to re-board the coach and we were soon going from Red to White Rose country. Passing through the little village of Cowling I glanced to the left and saw Stone Gappe House basking in the early evening sunlight. During her brief sojourn there perhaps the unhappy Charlotte had looked out of one of the windows longing to be over the moors in Haworth. We were happy to be heading back there but perhaps a little sad that this would herald the end of a wonderful day out, and we would soon be parting from good friends. The Brontë weekend was over for another year.