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Gaskell foretold own death

04 Dec 2008

A collection of letters written by two Victorian families – including one of the era’s best loved writers - have been acquired by The University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library.

Elizabeth Gaskell in the 1860s
Elizabeth Gaskell in the 1860s

The correspondence between Elizabeth Gaskell, her friend Mary Green and Mary’s daughter Isabella - as well as hundreds of letters between other members of the Green family - is an important addition to the world’s most important Gaskell collection – already housed at the library.

In one of the letters written a month after Gaskell’s death in November 1865, Isabella Green recounts how the writer had eerily predicted early in the year that she did not expect to live beyond December.

The Gaskell letters in the archive are full of news about her writing, reflections on other authors, her hectic domestic life and the constant stream of visitors to her household.

Some of the letters between the Green family provide a fascinating insight into life in the Cheshire town where Gaskell had grown up in the first half of the nineteenth century  - immortalised in her novel Cranford.

Others touch on subjects including travel, politics, art and literature, social events, and the minutiae of daily life, from current fashions to medical treatments.

Gaskell also discusses difficulties with her most controversial novelRuth’ published in 1853. The novel dealt with unmarried motherhood and Gaskell was worried about reactions to the book.

She expressed relief at the Greens’ positive response to it, but wrote: “I feared and still think it probable that many may refuse to read any book of that kind”.

The author of ‘Cranford’ - which famously depicts life in Knutsford, Cheshire where she grew up - had died suddenly of a heart attack on 12 November, leaving her last novel ‘Wives and Daughters’ a chapter short of completion.

The manuscript of the novel – also kept at the Rylands – poignantly breaks off at the top of a page. She authored five others, along with two novellas, numerous articles and short stories, and the famous biography of her friend Charlotte Brontë.

John Rylands Library archivist Fran Baker said: “This archive sheds interesting new light on Gaskell and her daughters.

“The reference to Gaskell foreseeing her own death is intriguing. By early November 1865, she claimed to be feeling more energetic and in better health than she had done for years.

“She was busy preparing a house at Alton, Hampshire, which she had secretly bought in the hope of persuading her husband William to retire there.

“She believed his life in Manchester was ‘bad for his health’, not least because of the strain he put on himself with overwork.

“On 12 November she was at the new house chatting over tea with three of her daughters, when she collapsed into the arms of her daughter Meta and died instantly. Her husband had no idea she was there.

“Referring to the prediction, Isabella wrote in a letter to her brother that Gaskell had said she ‘did not expect to live thro’ the year’.

“People often have presentiments like this, which are forgotten when they don’t come true”.

The former owner of the archive, Miss Jean Jamison, is a descendant of Isabella Green, the youngest of the Green daughters, who married Dr Arthur Jamison in 1875. Miss Jamison sold the archive to the Rylands on behalf of the Jamison family.

Ms Baker added: “The library would like to thank Joan Leach of the Gaskell Society who brought the archive to its attention, and Jean Jamison for choosing the Rylands as a home for her family papers.”

Notes for editors

The purchase was made possible by funding from the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, the Friends of the National Libraries, and the Friends of the John Rylands.

Fran Baker is available for comment

Miss Jamison and Joan Leach are available for comment

Images are available. Please caption as Copyright John Rylands University Library. 

  • The first and second pages of the letter from Isabella Green to her brother Philip which refers to Gaskell’s prediction of her own death – from the new archive.
  • Reproduction of a photograph of Gaskell taken during the 1860s -  towards the end of her life.
  • Gaskell’s inkstand, paperknife, quills, letters.
  • Miniature portrait of Gaskell by William John Thomson.

Documents from the archive will be on display at the John Rylands Library, Deansgate, Manchester until Sunday 1 February.

For media enquiries contact:

Mike Addelman
Media Relations Officer
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881 567