Writing to an autograph collector, Elizabeth Gaskell’s widowed husband William regretted that no reliable likeness of her survived. ‘I’m sorry to say there is no good photograph of my dear wife’, Mr Gaskell wrote in August 1879, fourteen years after her death: ‘The only one, indeed, which exists … does not at all do her justice’. But if a photographic record of Elizabeth Gaskell’s physical appearance has only inadequately been preserved, she left behind a substantial corpus of letters, many held in the Brotherton Library, and other personal writings, that provide a different, more convincing picture.
The collection of Elizabeth Gaskell’s correspondence is the largest in the world. There are many letters to her daughters, Marianne (Polly), Margaret (Meta), Florence (Flossy) and Julia, and to her sisters-in-law, Eliza Holland and Nancy Robson. These tell us much about her concerns, her views of literature, and her life at home with the Rev William Gaskell.
Particularly rich in nineteenth-century material, Lord Brotherton’s extraordinary collection included a major set of poetic manuscripts by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) and associated correspondence. A substantial amount of material relating to Edmund Gosse (1849-1928) was given to the Library together with a considerable collection of manuscripts by the Brontë family, concentrating on those of the unhappy and ill-starred brother of the novelists, Branwell Brontë. The Brontë and Gaskell material – its purchase guided by W. J. Wise and Clement Shorter – formed already a significant collection when Lord Brotherton died and successive librarians at Leeds have added to it.
“a little lady in black silk gown, whom I could not see at first for the dazzle in the room; she came up & shook hands with me at once. I went up to unbonnet &c. came down to tea, the little lady worked away and hardly spoke; but I had time for a good look at her. She is (as she calls herself) undeveloped; thin and more than ½ a head shorter than I, soft brown hair not so dark as mine; eyes (very good and expressive looking straight & open at you) of the same colour, a reddish face; large mouth and many teeth gone; altogether plain; the forehead square, broad, and rather over-hanging. She has a very sweet voice, rather hesitates in choosing her expressions, but when chosen they seem without an effort, admirable and just befitting the occasion. There is nothing overstrained but perfectly simple.” Thus Elizabeth Gaskell’s first impression of Charlotte Brontë, whose controversial Life of Charlotte Brontë she would publish in 1857. Brontë appears under this scrutiny in poor condition – ‘tiny’, ‘reddish face’, missing teeth, undeveloped. Much of the rest of Gaskell’s account in the Winkworth correspondence dwells on the hardships of living at Haworth and with the ogre ..... Gaskell perceives as the half-mad Patrick Brontë. The seeds of her later sturdy criticism of the sisters’ home and father are obvious. Patrick, she told Catherine Winkworth, was subject to fits of rage which he visited in violence not on people but on household objects; he sawed up dining room chairs despite the pleas of his sobbing wife, he filled a room with choking smoke as he angrily burnt a hearthrug to exorcise some personal demon. He was, in Gaskell’s reckoning, a man utterly careless of his children. He ‘never taught the girls anything’, she claimed, he barely expressed a word at the publication of Jane Eyre, and was indifferent to their comfort. ‘“At 19”’, Gaskell says Charlotte told her, ‘“I should have been thankful for an allowance of 1d [one penny] a week. I asked my father, but he said What did women want with money[?]”’
“… Have you heard that Harriet Martineau has sworn an eternal friendship with the author of Shirley, if not I’ll tell you. She sent Shirley to Harriet Martineau. H.M. acknowledged it in a note directed to Currer Bell Esq. - but inside written to a lady.Then came an answer requesting a personal interview. This was towards or about last Saturday week, and the time appointedwas 6 o’clock on Sunday Even[in]g and the place appointed was at Richard Martineau’s (married a Miss Needham) in HydePark Square, so Mr & Mrs R. Martineau and Harriet M. sat with early tea before them, awaiting six o’clock, & their mysterious
visitor, when lo! and behold, as the clock struck in walked a little, very little, bright haired sprite, looking not above 15, very unsophisticated, neat & tidy. She sat down & had tea with them, her name being still unknown; she said to H.M. ‘What do you really think of Jane Eyre’? H.M. I thought it a first rate book. Whereupon the little sprite went red all over with pleasure. After tea, Mr & Mrs R. M. withdrew, and left sprite to a 2 hours tête a tête with H.M. to whom she revealed her name & the history of her life. Her father a Yorkshire clergyman who has never slept out of his house for 26 years; she has lived a most retired life; - her first visit to London, never been in society and many other particulars which H.M is not at liberty to divulge any more than her name, which she keeps a profound secret; but Thackeray does not. H.M. is charmed with her; she is full of life and power &c. &c. & H.M. hopes to be of great use to her. There! that’s all I know, but I think it’s a pretty good deal, it’s something to have seen somebody who has seen nominis umbra. …”
A letter from CB to Mrs Smith, mother of her publisher (Smith, Elder & Co) dated 1 July 1851
Extract: “She is a woman of many fine qualities and deserves the epithet which I find is generally applied to her - charming. Her family consists of four little girls - all more or less pretty and intelligent - these scattered throughout the rooms of a somewhat spacious house - seem to fill it with liveliness and gaiety.”
Elizabeth Gaskell. AMs describing her visit to Haworth, Sep 1853
Extracts: “We turned up a narrow bye lane near the church - past the curate’s, the schools & skirting the pestiferous churchyard we arrived at the door into the Parsonage yard. In I went, - half blown back by the wild vehemence of the wind which swept along the narrow gravel walk - round the corner of the house into a small plot of grass, enclosed within a low stone wall, over which the more ambitious grave-stones towered all round.” “Miss Brontë gave me the kindest welcome, & the room looked the perfection of warmth, snugness & comfort, crimson predominating in the furniture….” “Before tea we had a long delicious walk right against the wind on Penistone Moor which stretches directly behind the Parsonage going over the hill in brown and purple sweeps and falling softly down into a little upland valley through which a ‘beck’ ran, & beyond again was another great waving hill, - and in the dip of that might be seen another yet more distant, & beyond that the said Lancashire came; but the sinuous hills seemed to girdle the world like the great Norse serpent, & for my part I don’t know if they don’t stretch up to the North Pole. On the moors we met no one. Here and there in the gloom of the distant hollows – with Scotch firs growing near them often, - & told me such wild tales of the ungovernable families who lived or had lived therein that Wuthering Heights seemed tame comparatively. Such dare-devil people, - men especially, - & women so stony and cruel in some of their feelings & so passionately fond in others. They are queer people up there.” GASKELL_and_THE_BRONTES