IT is the eccentric dower of some to grow quite as hot-headed and tremulous over a prospective needle in a haymow as ever Midas could have been on receiving his gift. To such, Knutsford, in Cheshire, offers a perfect hunting-ground for that sort of plunder so humorously resembling Gratiano’s reasons: "You shall seek all day ere you find them; and when you have them, they are not worth the search.” No more satisfying occupation can be invented in this ancient world than the pursuit of what does not absolutely exist, if only the hunter he just credulous enough; bold in belief, yet “not too bold.” He must cling to his guesswork with a dauntless zeal; at the same time, he shall, for his own ease, recognize the probable futility of such doggedness. For to reconstruct a habitation on the base of some foregone romance is to strike a balance between special disappointment and a vague general joy.
The present Knutsford, in toto, is emphatically not the Cranford of Mrs. Gaskell’s homely chronicle, but it glitters with links of similitude ; moreover, a certain quaintness all its own is continually stimulating the mind to comparison between the fancied and the real, as living perfumes summon forth old memories. Here, at least, Mrs. Gaskell was a child, the little Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson, storing up fragmentary impressions easily retraced by one who has lived even a full day in the town; here she was married, and in the green and pleasant yard of the old Unitarian Chapel she lies, with her husband, under liliesof-the-valley and the constant evergreen. The prospect of figuring in biography was never quite to her taste, and the simple facts of her life offer little temptation to literary gossip-mongers. Her mother was a Holland, of the family represented now by Lord Knutsford. Little Elizabeth was born at Chelsea in 1810, and it was after her mother’s death that she was sent to live with Mrs. Lumb, a widowed aunt, at Knutsford, where she remained until marriage took her to permanent residence in Manchester. Both her husband and her father were Unitarian clergymen, and one can guess at her own gracious influence among that slowly growing sect, a power as moving as in literature and the practical walks of trade. It is an old story that her fiction taught the rich some of those trenchant lessons known at first-hand only by the poor ; but another deed, more golden yet, shall be remembered of her, —’the creation of Cranford, a book to be loved so long as there are smiles and tears in this April world. Who could aspire to uncover its living presentment ? One might as well hope, some fortunate London hour, to stumble on Queen Bess setting forth in state to bull-baiting or the play.
The region skirting Knutsford on every hand is rich in memories, but, better still, it offers a loving welcome to the eye. It is a placid, smiling country, diversified by great estates and happy in fat farmlands. Great herds of cows idle about, given over to that industry which is no more than a drowsy day-dream ; cropping and chewing, and transmuting the riches of the common sod into such milk and cheese as need only naming for praise. Within the circle of this abounding prosperity lies the little town (ford of the great Canute, some say, with reason), a lovable spot, irregular and pleasing, with individual corners and passages covered by the dust of years, and delighting in their burial. It is presided over by two precise and respectable inns, both mentioned "by name ” in Cranford. So many of the strings of trade here are held by women that it is still approximately, as in Cranford days, “in possession of the Amazons.” No state of things could be more pleasing to us who would have time “ stand still withal,” and on the strength of it we may undoubtedly assume that, even in our present year of grace, “ to be a man ” is, in this delectable place, “to be ‘vulgar.’”
Our course thither lay through Manchester (Drumble), where we made brief halt to glance at the Unitarian Chapel, the old preaching-ground of the Reverend William Gaskell, and we reached Knutsford on the eve of a festival calculated to rend dear Miss Matty with deeper doubts than such as imbittered her first half-hour at Signor Brunoni’s exhibition. For the next afternoon had been set apart for May-day celebration, and Knutsford was already the scene of a wild saturnalia. It had lost its head in anticipatory delirium. It was baking and brewing for a probable influx of visitors by excursion train. The very air was tinged with the aroma of hot cakes, and landladies who on any other day would have curtsied profoundly in Shenstonian welcome, actually held their door-stone against us as though we were marauding Scots, or the rogues and vagabonds of a later interdict, explaining : “ It’s so very, very awkward, miss, but to-morrow I shall be so busy, and I could hardly give you the attention I should wish. I ’m very sorry, miss, but you see how it is, miss, I ’m sure; ” with that ingratiating lift at the end of the sentence so commendable on an English tongue.
And so perforce we went to a hotel, choosing, in deference to Cranford prejudice, one under the firm and affable sway of two ladies. At that modest choice, said we, the Honorable Mrs. Jamieson would have been the better pleased. All that evening the delirium of hope and expectation continued. Swings had been erected on the large open space still known as “ the Heath. “ Red-and-gold gondolas, cannily set upon springs, were gayly sliding about in a magic circle, — a lurid Venice. A strange aerial railway consisted of one strong wire high in air; little wheels with handles on either side were arranged to fit it, and Darby or Joan, bolding to the handles with desperate grip, went trundling through space like gibbeted criminals taking to the sky. The company of psychologists shall henceforth be augmented by the man who classifies the soul according to the bodily contortions induced by an aerial railway. I know not what he should be called, but his course of action will be plain. Especially in the case of womankind might he pronounce an unerring judgment; for some among the lassies curled their dangling feet decently beneath their skirts, some let them fly amain, others swayed like willow wands, but the many swept on their playful way like very statues. In all there was one strange likeness: they took their pleasure “sadly,” as became true Britons. No face relaxed; not a feature gave way to emotion lighter than a rigid determination to reach the goal. With the onlookers the same seriousness prevailed, so that when the transatlantic observer gave way to hysterics of mirth, she was regarded, not frowningly, but with a solemn compassion which was in itself hopelessly upsetting. And over all the din of decorous joy amid which the Knutsford youth thus disported itself arose the voice of china-venders and toymerchants, the cry of those who would fain cloy their countrymen with gruesome lollipop and other sweets, made only to be shunned. Miss Debōrah could never have approved ! We tried to cloak our delight under a decent thoughtfulness, and went home to bed. I think we should even have read a counter-irritating chapter of Rasselas had that very eminent work been at hand.
Next day Knutsford dissolved in rain, and the bakeries may well have wept also. No crowd of excursionists to race into the town like an invading flood, some ripple of which must surely inundate the humblest eating-houses ! They sank beneath their sweets, like Tarpeia under her bribe, and the cardboard legend of “ Tea ” at every door fell into pulp and sadness. We too had hoped for a sunny May-day, but, being mortal, we could not refrain from an acrid reflection that many a landlady must now be repenting her short-sighted refusal of us. Last night we were minnows, for there were other fish in the sea. To-day we loomed as the leviathan, and we bore ourselves proudly.
Only a few optimistic, citizens had summoned the spirit to sand the sidewalk in front of their houses, an ancient custom once accompanying Knutsford weddings, and still employed on days of high festival. Still, no one exerted his genius to the utmost ; for though the sand had been applied in patterns, they were quite simple, suggesting none of that elaboration and originality of design in which Knutsford can indulge when she chooses. But though the rain could bully her into curbing her handiwork, it could not dampen her poetic ardor. Across the street, from one sandless sidewalk to the other, swept a banner, and this was the proud legend thereof : —
For this is our universal holiday !”
A melancholy dryness, flecked by uncertain gleams of sun, succeeded the forenoon, and we betook ourselves, with an unadulterated joy, to the Heath, where we sat, chilled and happy, on the grand stand, watching the festival, and reconstructing the play-day of Old England from the too sophisticated pleasures of the New. This was May-day decked out in modern fripperies for the public entertainment, but it was not impossible to spy, beneath its lendings, the simpler sports of a long-past time. The procession was an historical pageant of high degree. Here walked Sir Walter Raleigh, Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, Dick Whittington, and Robin Hood, none of them over four feet high. Jack-inthe-Green danced, bear-wise, under an inverted cone of hemlock ; the morrisdancers (lithe, bonny youths, dressed in blue velvet kneebreeches, white shirts, plaid sashes, and stockings of a vivid pink seldom seen outside a lozenge jar) wove a simple rhythm of movement entrancing to the eye, and the May queen rode in state, a pygmy lady of fashion, clad in white satin, elaborate, frosty, like a wedding-cake. But one would fain have seen her in simple white muslin enriched only with posies of her own plucking, gathered with the dew on them while even Corinna slept. “Wake and call me early,” that I may hook myself into a ball dress and send for my wired bouquet! Some bathos comes with time.
But of all that winding throng one object alone had power to thrill the mind, — an old sedan chair, borne midway in the procession. Do you remember it in the annals of Cranford ? Within that very chair did Miss Matty sit, tremulous but resolved, after the social evening at Mrs. Forrester’s, when the dear ladies scared one another into panic with confession of the bogies most to their mind. From its unsafe seclusion did she cry aloud when the men “ stopped just where Headingley Causeway branches off from Darkness Lane : ‘ Oh ! pray go on ! What is the matter ? What is the matter ? I will give you sixpence more to go on very fast; pray don’t stop here.’ Dear relic of a time more real than our to-day ! Knutsford holds nothing more precious.
The May-pole dance was given over to a set of decorous little girls in flower-like dresses, green and pink. They tripped it prettily, they braided and wove their ribbons round the pole, but the spontaneous joy of Old and Merrie England was not in them. A dancing-master had trained them for the public eye. Step and look were no longer the springing welcome to a day when lads and lassies should no more be able to hold their fervor than trees their budding strength. To watch these puppets tripping it was to give way for a moment to sadness, reflecting that nowadays we are ashamed to be merry after we have come to man’s estate. We give over our great festivals to children, and then sit looking on with a maddening tickle in the bones that ache to join them.
With another day Knutsford had assumed her wonted air of quiescent decorum. It proved easier to see her now for what she is, a Georgian town imbued with the spirit of elegance and precision; easy, too, to find Cranford in her every look and word. On that morning began our trial of local intelligence and belief. But a step from the Angel Hotel (where Lord Mauleverer very wisely took up his quarters, though doubtless when it still remained on the other side of the way) stands the Royal George, once living content under its swinging sign of the saint militant, but now thrown into self-contradiction by the swelling adjective assumed after the Princess Victoria and the Duchess of Kent had spent a night under its roof. ( An affectionate trait in this loyal people, to weaken a saint’s patronymic by courtly prefix.) Now, it was this same George which was sought out by Miss Pole on an idle morning, when nothing more importunate prevented her from strolling up the staircase, on benevolence intent. For, said Miss Pole, “my Betty has a second-cousin who is chambermaid there, and I thought Betty would like to hear how she was.” And, quite by chance, she found herself in the passage leading from the inn to the Assembly Room, and then in the room itself, where Signor Brunoni was making his preparations to juggle the wits out of Cranford the very next night. This was the room where, on that bewildering evening, the ladies of Cranford were so astounded by the resources of magic that they began to debate whether they had been in the right ‘“to have come to see such things,” and settled down to an unalloyed enjoyment of the evening only on learning that the “ tall, thin, dry, rusty rector,” insured against feminine wiles by a cohort of National School boys, sat “ smiling approval.” Memory more endearing still, it was the Assembly Room where Miss Matty sighed a little over her departed youth, and walked “ mincingly, ... as if there were a number of genteel observers, instead of two little boys with a stick of toffy between them with which to beguile the time.” To seek it out was like dreaming over a bit of dear Miss Matty’s shawl or a print of her turban.
The George is rich in modern antiquities, — carven balustrades, beautiful old clocks, and precious work in brass. It is a living example of the actual magnificence which may be wrapped about an inn when it has maintained itself in dignity, and conceded nothing to the flight of time or change of ownership. Something stately lies in its hospitable repose. Like the ladies themselves, it clings resolutely to old possessions though all the world without may clamor for the changes falsely named improvement. Owing to that deplorable lack of understanding which is incident to the present of any age, we were conducted, with flourish of pride, through the George to the new Assembly Room, aggressively fresh against the background of Cranford legends, and that night tricked out with masonic regalia. “ Is this all ? ” cried we, in unhappy duet. “ Has the old hall been quite swept away ? ” By no means ! Did we wish to see that ? “ A very plain room, miss ! ” And thither were we led, to find it shabby, ancient, lovable ; its tinted walls, dull as a fading memory, reflecting to the seeing eye a hundred scenes of innocent yet decorous revelry. Here Miss Matty took her dainty steps in the menuets de la cour, her young head, crowned with its soft thick locks (“ I had very pretty hair, my dear,” said Miss Matilda), sinking in shyness superadded to decorum when young Holbrook came to lead her to the dance. Here she should have worn the muslin from India that came to her too late, poor Matty ! Here, too, Miss Pole gleaned the fruitful grain of gossip, to sow it carefully again ; for in youth as in age Miss Pole must ever have been the mouthpiece of the world which tattles and denies. Somehow I can never connect Miss Debōrah with the Assembly Room. I fancy she was but an abstracted figure at the balls ; wishing herself away in a more serious atmosphere, dreaming over the ponderous delight of sitting at home and writing the charges of the archdeacon she was so eminently fitted to marry.
In the old days the George had gates of its own, but now a free passage leads under the building (somewhat in the fashion of Clovelly’s wayward street), past the stables, and up a slope, where, directly facing the pedestrian who ascends that way, stands a shop, pointed out by universal acclaim as the one where, after the downfall of her fortunes, Miss Matty sold tea and scattered comfits. It is presided over by an excellent chemist, a man of solemn aspect and an unconscious humor. A tradition lurks in Cranford that he was once sought out by the Unitarian clergyman of the town, on the supposition that he was an adherent of that faith. The crucial question was asked.
“Oh, ay,” responded master chemist, “ I am a Unitarian. Indeed, sir, I ’m almost an agnostic ! ” Rude, belligerent word to have penetrated the sacred pale of Cranford!
We entered the tiny establishment on some ostensible errand.
“ Is this Miss Matty’s shop ? ” we inquired incidentally, the while our purchase was sought.
“ Yes, miss,” was the unhesitating answer. “ We are repairing the back room a bit, or you could see the little window she used to peep through when she heard a customer.”
Was reality so wedded to fiction ? Actual windows and imaginary Miss Mattys were here in strange conjunction. Further questioning elicited a reason akin to the immortal argument that “ the bricks are alive to this day to testify.” For it seems that there was in town an aged gentlewoman, the only existing link between old times and new, who chanced to enter the shop after the paper had been torn away, disclosing this tiny window ; and she, from her stores of memory, drew the assertion that this was Miss Matty’s window, because she had seen it many a time and recognized it at once. Amorphous logic and fortunate conclusion !
“ Now,” said we encouragingly to master chemist, “ of course you know all the places mentioned in Cranford ? ”
“Oh yes, miss,” was the cheerful reply.
“ Where did the Honorable Mrs. Jamieson live ? ”
He hesitated. He looked at us wildly. “ Amen stuck in ” his “ throat.”
“ Give me time to think,” he rejoined appealingly; and, being merciful, we gave it.
Yet, returning that afternoon, and the next day also, with the query, “ Have you had time to think ? ” we were always courteously but sadly answered, “ No.”
But authorities are not far to seek. The Reverend George A. Payne knows his literary Knutsford as the Reverend Henry Green knew its historical and archæological aspect, and his guesses are both satisfying and clever. He suggests that the Honorable Mrs. Jamieson occupied a prosperous-looking house near the lower end of the town, where the old Unitarian Chapel still holds its place. I am glad to think so. It is a residence eminently fitting for that social paragon, and it requires no impossible stretch of fancy to see Carlo lumbering about the yard, winking at the ladies whom he mulcted of cream, or to catch at least a glimpse of majestic Mr. Mulliner reading the St. James’s Chronicle, while the Cranford dames regard him from without in controlled and impotent wrath. Not far away, moreover, inclosed by high, invulnerable walls, is Darkness Lane, subject of that ever memorable controversy on the night of the panic, when Miss Matty would fain have had the sedan chair ” go on very fast,” and Miss Pole outbid her by sixpence and induced the men to strike into the less ominous Headingley Causeway.
At the other end of the town, not far from the gates of Tatton Park, still sleeps the old vicarage, a modest dwelling in a circling yard, — that yard where poor Peter played his little comedy destined to end in grief. Who does not remember it, — how Peter dressed himself in Debōrah’s gown and bonnet, and juggled a pillow into the semblance of a baby in long clothes, and how the rector came upon him as he paraded himself and his charge before the gaping townsfolk ? The rest of the story is too sad for any but sunny days ; for Peter was flogged and ran away to sea, as every one knows, while the rector repented his angry vengeance in the ashes of old age, and the gentle house mother died awaiting her boy’s return.
The actual spots connected with Mrs. Gaskell’s life in Cranford need no broidery of fancy. Looking over the Heath stands the comfortable, dignified house where she lived with Mrs. Lumb. Hers was not an altogether untroubled childhood, suggests Mrs. Ritchie, and she pictures the little girl running “ away from her aunt’s house across the Heath,” hiding “ herself in one of its many green hollows, finding comfort in the silence, and in the company of birds and insects and natural things.” At that time the Heath was less of a trodden village common than to-day, more populous with birds, richer in furze and leaf. But though the identical house has been enlarged and repaired, its character of homelike comfort is unchanged. There are happy windows, with great windowseats, looking out over the Heath and into the garden at the back. Sun and light are everywhere, and in the garden beds lie the richness and beauty of oldfashioned flowers.
But of all spots made to please the memory and stir it with suggestions not to be denied is Sandlebridge Farm, where lived the Hollands who were Mrs. Gaskell’s maternal ancestors. An agreeable though unexciting walk leads to it, between fields green with the wonderful grass that goes to the making of Cheshire cheese, and parcel-gilt with buttercups. Such far reaches of field and valley are here as to make a not unpleasing loneliness in the land, even under full sunlight ; and when, approaching the farm, you come to a smithy and mill dedicated to the uses of life, still the illusion is not dispelled. For in the smithy two or three leisurely men lean and look in the intervals of smiling talk, and the mill, sweet and dusty from the breath of grain, goes on working quite by itself. Great wooden beams, heavy wheels, and dusty hoppers seemed, that day, to be living a life of uncompanioned yet happy activity, and from without came the plash, plash of willing water and the trickle of the feeding stream. In the hazy distance loomed Alderley Edge, a mammoth ridge rising above the hidden caverns where nine hundred and ninety-nine horses stand “ ever caparisoned and ready for war.”
Mrs. Gaskell, when a little girl, must often have visited the farm to play with the Holland children; but the spot has another distinction, more potent still, for Sandlebridge is Cranford’s Woodley, where Mr. Thomas Holbrook lived, and read “ my Lord Byrron,” and ate his peas happily without the aid of a fork, and where Miss Matty came to him too late. The great stone balls are gone from the pillars beside the gate (the great Lord Clive used to jump from one to the other, when he was a schoolboy at Knutsford), and the ancient decorum of the manor has subsided into the wellbeing of a prosperous farm ; but the spot is full of a slumberous peace. We were entertained in the stone-flagged kitchen, with its dresser of blue dishes on the wall and its flitches of bacon hanging from the hooks above, and we drank our milk and ate the sweet farm bread with a drowsy sense that somehow dear Miss Matty was with us, and perhaps the sonsy Mary who tells the tale. Do you remember how Mary walked about the garden with that antique lover who loved no more, listening to his comments on flower and leaf ; and how she afterwards went with him to the fields, where he forgot her and strode on to the measure of his dearest rhymes ? No beauty of the growing world had lain afar from his full and lonely life. With us, too, did he walk that day. The sweet-smelling plants were such as his eye must have cherished ; the cropping cattle over the happy slopes were of one family with those he had fostered ; and the trees, black-branched and glossy in their greenness, had made the tutelary deities of his land. It is not easy to tell how peacefully these fields and meadows slept under the warm sky, nor how lavishly they promised response to loving tillage.
Slight hints, garrulous suggestions, are constantly appealing to one in Knutsford, not as literal duplicates of Cranford customs, but as links in an affectionate chain of inference. Fiction is not portraiture, but it may easily become a record of those fleeting impressions which make an intrinsic part of the mental tissue. Names familiar to a writer’s youth have a way of creeping into her work ; nooks and corners, remarkable for no story of their own, crop up again when her dreams demand actual habitat. In reading the history of Cheshire, it is curious to note the number of Peters of eminent memory, and more curious still to stumble on the name in the yard of the little parish church. It was not only of good repute, but very commonly used. Cranford, too, has adopted it; for did not the local grandee of Turveydropsical memory figure as Sir Peter Arley, and was not the rector’s erring Peter named for him ? And let it be said incidentally that no one who visits that churchyard should omit reading the epitaph of the Reverend John Swinton,of Nether Knutsford; for it must assuredly have been written by Miss Debōrah herself, under direct inspiration from the ever admirable Dr. Johnson. Thus it runs : —
“ He was happy in an excellent natural Genius, improv’d with every Branch of polite and useful Learning. His Compositions were correct, elegant, nervous, edifying, and deliver’d with peculiar Force and Dignity. His Conversation was courteous, entertaining, instructive, and animated with a striking Vivacity of Spirit. As a Husband a Friend and a Neighbor He was affectionate, faithful, benevolent, A zealous Assertor and an able Defender of religious and civil liberty. With Talents which would have adorn’d the highest Station in the Church For Reasons to himself unanswerable He declin’d repeated Offers of Preferment from his Friends many Years before his Death. He bore his last Affliction with a Firmness and Fortitude truly Christian and died lamented by the Wise, the Learned and the Good Dec. 10th 1764, in the 70th Year of his Age.”
Surely six-footed eulogy can no further go !
Another suggestion of Cranford lies in the fact that an actual Arley Hall exists to this day, the seat of the Warburtons, within easy driving distance of Knutsford. Mrs. Gaskell aimed at no needless portraiture or exact topography ; but names doubtless got into her mind, and lived there, like an old song, till memory shook them forth. The Cranford scare, moreover, when an hysteria of panic prevailed, and blew prudence out of the ladies’ heads while it coaxed some goblin in, — what was that but a refluent wave of Mrs. Gaskell’s possible shrinking when, a child, she heard the common reminiscences of the highwayman Higgins ? This was the Duval of Knutsford. who lived at the Cairn House on the Heathside (neighbor to Mrs. Lumb), and who made nothing of flying over the roads to commit a murder at Bristol and returning again, within forty-eight hours, to prove his alibi. It was Higgins who, living the jolly life of a prosperous gentleman, one night left the ball (held, no doubt, in the old Assembly Room) to lie in wait for Lady Warburton and reap her jewels. But the lady ’s keen sight and innocence of mind proved her salvation ; for, putting her head out of the carriage as the robber approached, she called serenely, “Good-night, Mr. Higgins ! Why did you leave the ball so early ? “ And Higgins, thus thrust back into his rôle of country gentleman, rode on discomfited. He was executed at Caermarthen in 1767, only forty-three years before Mrs. Gaskell was born. This was not too long a period for tradition to linger, painting him ever more gloomily, until he loomed large, like Guy of Warwick or Thor the Thunderer. What affrighting falsities might have garlanded his name in Knutsford similar legends all the world over may attest. Did the sensitive little child, playing in corners, overhear the Cranford ladies relating his bold, bad deeds, and tricking them out with bewildering details of their own device ? Did the child herself tremble at the spectre of Darkness Lane huddling under the mantle of a pitchy night ? Such emotions are the willow twigs of memory ; swept down a living stream, they are bound to reach roothold, and there bud greenly in the vesture of the vernal year.
One curiously suggestive incident belongs to Mrs. Gaskell’s own life, though to dwell on it too definitely might serve merely to establish a false bond between the concrete and the ideal. Her only brother, a lieutenant in the merchant service, disappeared on his third or fourth voyage, about the year 1827, and “ never was heard of more.”Might such lingering tragedy have been the secret of her pathos over the heartbreak and sickness born of Peter’s absence ? Did she know by too near experience what it is to listen for the footstep that never falls ? But one last proof clinches the argument that Knutsford is Cranford, “ though some folks miscall it.” Turn to the annals of Cranford, and you shall read of a certain old lady who had “ an Alderney cow, which she looked upon as a daughter.”
Now, this cherished animal, falling into a lime pit, was denuded of all her hair, and her adoptive mother, being ironically recommended to “ get her a flannel waistcoat and flannel drawers,” did indeed send her thenceforth to pasture clad soberly in gray.
Return now to the chronicles of concrete Knutsford, and listen to the Reverend Henry Green, who, in spite of this one concession, never believed in any intentional literary apotheosis of his cherished town: —
” A woman of advanced age, who was confined to her house through illness, . . . asked me to lend her an amusing or cheerful book. I lent her Cranford, without telling her to what it was supposed to relate. She read the tale of Life in a Country Town, and when I called again, she was full of eagerness to say : ‘ Why, sir. that Cranford is all about Knutsford ! My old mistress, Miss Harker, is mentioned in it; and our poor cow, she did go to the field in a large flannel waistcoat because she had burned herself in a lime pit! ’ ”