Creative Commons License
Victorians Institute Journal Annex content in NINES is protected by a Creative Commons License.
Peer Reviewed

“What a certainty of instinctive faith I have in heaven, and in the Mama’s living on”: Unpublished letters of Mrs. Gaskell and unpublished Gaskell family letters.

William Baker, Northern Illinois University

Four letters of Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell, four letters from her daughter Margaret Emily (“Meta”) Gaskell (1837-1913), two letters from Henry Crompton (1836-1904), whose brother Charles (1836-1890) married Florence Gaskell (1836-1884), and a letter from Charles Gaskell Higginson to Mrs Henry Crompton (Lucy Henrietta Romilly), have recently come to light. The eleven unpublished holograph letters are found amongst the papers of the Crompton family now in the Department of Manuscripts at the British Library (Add Mss. 71, 701, ff. 44-65). @  The letters illuminate our knowledge of Mrs. Gaskell’s family relationships, friendships, fascination with detail, gossip, attitude to North Wales, and epistolary qualities. Those letters written after her death demonstrate the emotional impact her memory and death had upon her daughter Margaret Emily (“Meta”). They also exhibit a late Victorian affirmation of faith and belief when faced with the fact of mortality.

The letters written by Mrs. Gaskell are addressed to Henry Crompton, political activist, barrister and Clerk of Assize, Chester and North Wales Circuit. He became a leading Positivist and Attorney General to the Trade Union Congress. He was the son of a distinguished judge Sir Charles John Crompton (1797-1865) @, a distant relative of Elizabeth Gaskell, who died a fortnight before her (see Letter 8). The relationship between Henry Crompton’s elder brother Charles and her daughter Florence was something of a surprise to Mrs. Gaskell. Charles, a barrister, was ten years older that Florence. On hearing of their engagement, Mrs. Gaskell, in a letter to Charles Eliot Norton, written on 13 July 1863, commented “Mr. Crompton is not exactly a Unitarian, nor exactly broad Church.” Further “he has almost perfect health, and perfect temper; I should have said not clever. . . I suppose he has those solid intellectual qualities which tell in action, though not in conversation.”@ No lack of affection or reservation is revealed in the letters published now for the first time from Mrs. Gaskell to Charles’ younger brother Henry. In a letter written by “Meta” to Henry a few days following her mother’s death, she refers to him as being “one who loved my own Mother so dearly” and of whom her Mother spoke “as ‘my very dear Harry’” (Letter 7).
These eleven letters supplement letters available in published form. There are only three references to Henry Crompton in the “General Biographical Index” in J.A.V. Chapple and Arthur Pollard’s The Letters of Mrs Gaskell, and no letters addressed to him. In a letter to [?] Marianne Gaskell [ ? December 1863] Mrs. Gaskell tells her daughter that “Henry C. comes tomorrow” (Letters: 719). In a letter probably written to her publisher George Smith, dated [Late 1863], Mrs. Gaskell writes “I did not write at once because I wanted to hear Harry Crompton’s opinion – he, being aware of all the precious transactions & letters” (719). In another letter to her daughter Marianne written from Dieppe, Friday, 6 October [1865], Mrs. Gaskell comments “our letter to Harry from Crewe, on first hearing the Judge’s illness [Harry’s father] have never reached!” (777). There is a mention of “the lost Crewe letter” in the letter “Meta” writes to Henry Crompton shortly after her Mother’s death (see Letter 7).

No letters to Harry Crompton are found either in John Chapple and Alan Shelston’s Further Letters of Mrs Gaskell (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000; subsequently cited as Further Letters). In the letters published here for the first time the lengthiest Mrs. Gaskell letter to emerge (Letter 3), is addressed to Henry Crompton. Dated 30 September [1863] Mrs. Gaskell relates a sudden trip to North Wales. The visit, the places seen, the emphasis upon the light, recalls in descriptive emphasis the account of her honeymoon spent in North Wales in the late summer of 1832. She and William Gaskell spent three weeks at Aber, five miles from Bangor. They subsequently went to Conway, Caernavon, Llanberis, Beddgelert, and then Portmadoc to stay at Plas Penrhyn. Leaving Aber, William Gaskell relates, “they took the coach to Conway, ‘as beautiful a ride as heart could desire.’” In his letter to his sister Eliza Gaskell [(1812-1892), Mrs. Charles Holland] dated 16 September 1832, William writes “On the left we had Beaumaris and the sea shining and sparkling in the morning light, and on our right the hills covered with the richest and warmest tints, and the air so fresh and pure . . . . We went through the fine old castle at Conway.” At Llanryst “William remembered they had brought some cake.” There is even in the honeymoon account a “boa”@ echoing the snake found towards the close of Mrs. Gaskell’s 30 September [1863] letter to Henry Crompton.
The last letter in this series to be written (Letter 11) is from Charles Gaskell Higginson to the widow of Henry Crompton, and is dated 13 November 1904. “Charles Gaskell Higginson was [a] teacher who abandoned the profession in order to devote himself to Positivist study and propaganda before succumbing to the Positivist disease, neurasthenia or depression” (Wright: 123). Details of “the Bennetts” and “Dr. Walters”—both presumedly known to his recipient Mrs Henry Crompton, to whom he refers in his letter—I have been unable to identify.
The texts of the letters are arranged in chronological order. [ ] represents matter supplied by the editor. A “Biographical Appendix” listing persons mentioned in the letters is included to facilitate an understanding of the correspondence. It identifies individuals at the point of their first appearance in the letters. Excluded are persons mentioned in the introduction to these letters or in notation to them.