Mrs Gaskell gets her place in the sun

The once neglected creator of Cranford is to be commemorated in a window above Poets' Corner
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The gossiping ladies of Cranford were embraced by the nation when they first graced our TV screens. Now the novelist who created Miss Matty and friends is to receive the ultimate recognition, 145 years after her death.

Elizabeth Gaskell is to be commemorated in Westminster Abbey next year after the Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend Dr John Hall, agreed to add her name to a stained-glass window overlooking Poets' Corner.

Her details will appear in the window alongside memorials to such literary worthies as Christopher Marlowe, Oscar Wilde, Alexander Pope, Fanny Burney and A E Housman. A dedication will be held on 25 September next year, four days before the bicentenary of Gaskell's birth.

Sue Birtwistle, producer of the BBC's adaptations of Gaskell's Wives and Daughters and Cranford, said the author, who was buried in Knutsford, Cheshire, in 1865, is "still underrated" and her writing is still relevant.

She added: "It feels terribly modern... she's completely non-judgemental... a very attractive quality. There are very few people – I think Shakespeare does this – where you can actually laugh and cry at the same time. Her characters can make you do this... and I think that's a real skill."

Actress Deborah Findlay, who read Cranford as a child and reprises her role as Miss Tomkinson for a two-part special this Christmas, said: "Barbara Flynn and I were playing the Miss Brownings and I think everybody on the set took us to their hearts really... I was talking to Sue [Birtwistle] about that and I said, 'well there's a whole town of these women in Cranford'."

The Gaskell Society, which promotes her work, first approached the abbey about her inclusion in Poets' Corner and Joan Leach, its founding honorary secretary, said it was "quite an accolade" to get the go-ahead considering the pressure on space.

Cranford screenwriter Heidi Thomas said Mrs Gaskell would be "thrilled to find herself in such a jostling spot. She was as great a social historian as Charles Dickens and as emotionally bold as Charlotte Brontë... she knew and loved them both and it is absolutely fitting that she should take her place beside them."

Mrs Gaskell's books include the industrial novel Mary Barton and Ruth, a story about an unmarried mother deemed so controversial on publication in 1853 that the author banned it from her home and several contemporary readers reportedly burnt copies.

Alan Shelston, who edited Further Letters of Mrs Gaskell and a number of her novels, and is working on a biography of Gaskell, said: "She was always called Mrs Gaskell... an indication that she had a family life – four children and a husband – and, in some ways, that rather prejudiced against her reputation as a practising novelist." He said she had come into her own only in the past 50 years, after feminist interest in her grew. Then came those TV adaptations starring Dame Judi Dench as Cranford's Miss Matty, pictured far left.

Dame Judi is now patron of the Manchester Historic Buildings Trust, which began work this month to restore the author's former home.