Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

Taste and Morality at Plymouth Grove: Elizabeth Gaskell's Home and Its Decoration

Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

Taste and Morality at Plymouth Grove: Elizabeth Gaskell's Home and Its Decoration

Article excerpt

Abstract: In 2010 Manchester Historic Buildings Trust appointed Crick Smith Conservation to analyse the paint and decorative finishes of the Gaskells' House at 84 Plymouth Grove, Ardwick, Manchester. The purpose of this commission was to inform the Trust of the way that decorative surfaces were treated during the period of the Gaskell family occupancy, and to make recommendations for the reinstatement of the decorative scheme. This article will examine Elizabeth Gaskell's attitude towards taste and interior decoration, and then explain how the techniques of architectural paint research can be used to establish an authoritative account of the decorative scheme implemented at Plymouth Grove during her lifetime. We will argue that this enhanced understanding of how Gaskell handled the decoration and furnishing of her home can contribute towards our understanding of the author's life and work.

One of my mes is, I do believe, a true Christian - (only people call her socialist and communist), another of my mes is a wife and mother, and highly delighted at the delight of everyone else in the house [...]. Now that's my 'social' self I suppose. Then again I've another self with a full taste for beauty and convenience whh is pleased on its own account. How am I to reconcile all these warring members? (Letters, p. 108)

Elizabeth Gaskell's well-known letter of April 1850 describes her conflicting loyalties and feelings as a series of different 'mes'. While it is tempting to see this passage as an expression of Gaskell's concerns about being an author, the subject of the letter was not literature but the family's impending move to 42 Plymouth Grove, a substantial suburban villa that reflected the family's prosperity.1 Gaskell was concerned about the expense that this entailed and whether this could be justified in the context of what she knew about the poverty co-existing with her in Manchester. The question of how she might express her 'taste for beauty and convenience' while retaining her personal integrity presented her with a dilemma, and just how Gaskell resolved this problem is a subject of considerable interest when we consider the prominent role that interior decoration played within her fiction.

In 2010 Manchester Historic Buildings Trust appointed Crick Smith Conservation to analyse the paint and decorative finishes of the Gaskells' house. The purpose of this commission was to inform the Trust of the way that decorative surfaces were treated during the period of the Gaskell family's occupancy, and to make recommendations for the reinstatement of the decorative scheme. This article will examine Elizabeth Gaskell's attitude towards taste and interior decoration, and then explain how the techniques of architectural paint research can be used to establish an authoritative account of the decorative scheme implemented at Plymouth Grove during her lifetime. We will argue that this enhanced understanding of how Gaskell handled the decoration and furnishing of her home can make a significant contribution towards our understanding of the author's life and work.2

I: The Mid-Victorian Interior in Fiction and Theory

Interiors charged with significance are a pervasive presence in Elizabeth Gaskell's fiction; irrespective of wealth, certain types of interior signal integrity, while others signal ignorance or weakness. In the first few chapters of Mary Barton, the reader hears the narrator commend the poverty-stricken Alice Wilson's cellar, which 'was the perfection of cleanliness' and contained glimpses of decoration, a 'check curtain' and a 'whitewashed wall.' At the other end of the spectrum the gin palace telegraphs its immorality, as 'the splendidly fitted up room, with its painted walls, its pillared recesses, its gilded and gorgeous fittings-up, its miserable, squalid inmates.'3 Mr Thornton's drawing room in North and South is one of the seminal nouveau riche interiors of Victorian fiction. Margaret Hale is horrified by the garish 'pink and gold walls', the brilliantly flowered carpet and the 'smartly-bound' books arranged for display. …

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