Additions and Ornaments to the Bare Grant of a Living: Elizabeth Gaskell, the ‘Manchester Guardian’ and Cultural Value in 1914

When doing some research for a small project I am involved in, I came across this wonderful passage on the value of the arts in the Manchester Guardian, written in the context of a campaign to purchase Mrs Gaskell’s house for the city after her daughter, Meta, had died in 1913. It is quite long, but speaks for itself:

Projects of this kind cannot be forced. If a city does not care about such things they must be left to cities that do. But it is a pity. It means a real loss, the “scrapping” of a rare and irreplaceable commodity. Almost everyone who knows how to read has delighted in some book of Mrs. GASKELL’S, and most of those who have done so would find a keen, curious pleasure in seeing the rooms where she lived and handling the things that used to be everyday in her hands. One always feels this way towards a great artist whose work has really found its way into our minds. For our relation to any great artist whom we can understand is one of the most intimate of human relations; in some ways we know more about the inmost mind of CHARLOTTE BRONTE or of SHELLEY than we know of our closest living friends. And so our minds have good reason to be delighted and touched by little material relics and surroundings of these intense intimates of our own …

Some people say this is not “practical”. They feel it is “practical” to spend money out of the rates in order to give our trade the help of the Ship Canal. They feel it is practical, too, for the city to help its men of business get to town in the morning. But what do they go into town for, and what is the aim of our trade? Is it not mainly to  get the means to live some parts of our lives, other than the business parts, in the way which seems to us happiest? And, by civilised people, a good part of happiness is sought in some such stir of the heart and the mind as they can obtain from music, from books, from pictures, from the play and sparkle of the human spirit when it is animated above itself, as it is in all great art, as it was in MRS. GASKELL … contact with work like hers, or even the place where she did it, sets light to our faculties too. We are kindled; we get the best hours, perhaps, of our days; we are, while the charm holds, the beings that we would wish always to be. To open the way to these moments of release and vision, to gain these additions and ornaments to the bare grant of a living, we catch early trains and dig ship canals; we spend half of our lives in taking means to that end; and then, when there comes a chance to grasp at the end directly, someone is sure to say that this is not “practical,” and that the only thing to do is to stick to the means and pooh-pooh the end. Probably such counsels will prevail in the City Council to-morrow, and in a few years, when MRS. GASKELL’S house has been pulled down, some inferior substitute for it will be expensively acquired and made a memorial of.

(Manchester Guardian, 3.2.1914, p. 8)

It may be a little Arnoldian for some tastes, but isn’t it beautiful? While the author was correct that practicality would prevail and that the Council would not buy the house, they were thankfully wrong about it being pulled down. By the hard work of many volunteers and a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, Elizabeth Gaskell’s house at Plymouth Grove is currently being restored and will open to the public next year. Then Mancunians will get the chance to ‘gain these additions and ornaments to the bare grant of a living’ at last.

For more information on the Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, visit this website: http://www.elizabethgaskellhouse.co.uk/

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