Cranford Online Talks with Elizabeth Gaskell’s House

Sarah-Clare Conlon, Literature Editor
Cranford illustrations by Hugh Thomson 1898
Cranford illustration by Hugh Thomson.

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Cranford is one of Elizabeth Gaskell’s most popular works, and the spring series of online talks from Elizabeth Gaskell’s House is the perfect way to discover or rediscover the Victorian classic.

The story offers plenty of intrigue and gossip – enough to fuel an award-winning BBC television series starring the likes of Dame Judi Dench and Imelda Staunton.

Published in 1853 – three years after Elizabeth Gaskell and her husband moved to their villa in Plymouth Grove – the novel is set in Cheshire in the early 1840s. Following the lives of the single and widowed middle-class female inhabitants of the fictional village of Cranford, the story offers plenty of intrigue and gossip – enough to fuel an award-winning BBC television series starring the likes of Dame Judi Dench and Imelda Staunton.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford was originally released in eight instalments, between December 1851 and May 1853, in the magazine Household Words. This was edited by Gaskell’s friend Charles Dickens, who is known to have visited her Manchester home – in fact, a Charles Dickens dahlia has recently been planted at the front of the house in line with the volunteer gardeners’ practice of linking the planting in the garden to Mrs Gaskell’s life or times.

Renowned for its portrayal of picture-perfect English village life, when Cranford was reissued in 1891, publisher Macmillan commissioned illustrator Hugh Thomson to provide drawings for 11 of the 24 volumes. Thomson’s iconic illustrations both bolstered the picture Elizabeth Gaskell was painting through her words and also helped to popularise the book. Their pastoral settings and sharp characterisation based on the close reading of a text also led to the loose term for similar artists. The Cranford School celebrated a sentimental, pre-industrial notion of ‘old England’ with a style that was a nostalgic, affectionate and slightly whimsical approach to historical themes.

Following the sellout first talk – an introduction to the novel Cranford by Libby Tempest, Chair of The Gaskell Society, at the end of January – you can now find out more about the story behind the illustrations in the online talk “Cranford’s Illustrators” with former Portico Library librarian Emma Marigliano on 3 February (see the Elizabeth Gaskell House website for more) and in the winter’s evening talk “Chocolate-box Cranford: An idyll?” on 24 February with The Gaskell Society’s Anthony Burton.Come armed with questions; the online talk will last around 45 minutes, followed by a short Q&A session afterwards. United in their admiration of Elizabeth Gaskell’s forward-thinking spirit and work, members of The Gaskell Society are devoted to the study and appreciation of the life and oeuvre of Elizabeth Gaskell, and have been involved in the campaign to restore the House and Elizabeth’s much-loved gardens.

These talks are also a great opportunity to help put into context the new exhibition that is due to open at the Grade II* listed Regency-style villa when it is able to reopen later in 2021, and when you’ll be able to explore everything about Cranford, its inspiration and its legacy.

24 February 2021

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