THE STACKS Travel Diary

Escape to Italy

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On Today’s Menu:
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** Share some shortbread cookies
for the birthday of a novelist & biographer.
** Linger to consider
her rich and wonderful final book.
** Savor a last ½ cup
on a trip to Italy, circa 2018.
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First Sip:

Shall we truly see Rome?
It is a dream! I shall never believe it,
and shall have to keep pinching myself.

– Elizabeth Gaskell
in a letter to Emelyn Story
Summer 1857

Dreamy Italy
October 2018
(photo by me)

Slice of Cake:

I want just, if I can,
to leave England on the
day of publication of my book.

– Elizabeth Gaskell
in a letter to Emelyn Story, Spring 1857

Why did it take me so long to discover Elizabeth Gaskell??

Her best friend was Charlotte Brontë.
Her publisher was Charles Dickens.
Her cousin was Charles Darwin.

Elizabeth Gaskell, age 21
by William John Thomson
1832 miniature
University of Manchester

Elizabeth Gaskell wrote 5 novels. My favorite is Wives and Daughters.
(More about that below.)

In her novels, Gaskell often explored themes of poverty, inequality, and the harmful working conditions
of her city of Manchester, England in the wake of industrialization.

In her earlier novels, Mary Barton, North and South, and Sylvia’s Lovers, these themes were explicit.
Her last novel, Wives and Daughters, also touched on some of these ideas, but a bit more subtly.

Money matters are at the root of it all. Horrid poverty
I wish I’d never borrowed that
unlucky money, it was the beginning of it all

I have saved and scrimped to repay it!

– from Wives and Daughters
Elizabeth Gaskell

Gaskell also wrote a biography of Charlotte Brontë ,
at the request of Brontë’s father in the months after Charlotte died.

Nell Stevens1 tells the story of how lovingly Gaskell started her book about
the life of her dear friend, Charlotte.

Yet the closer Gaskell got to finishing her biography,
the more anxiety, frustration, and pain she felt:

So many people had to be consulted!
So many with opinions about Charlotte.
So many disagreeing on essential details of Charlotte’s life.
So many blaming her for getting Charlotte’s biography all, all wrong!

You hurled your biography of Charlotte
into the world like a grenade
and ran away just as fast as you could.

– Nell Stevens1

In an 1857 exchange of letters with
her friend Emelyn Story (an American ex-pat living in Rome),
Gaskell hatched a two-step plan of escape.

First: Send the book to the publisher.
Then: Escape to Italy!

It turned out that Elizabeth Gaskell had reason to feel worried.

Two separate parties threatened libel suits
after her biography of Charlotte Brontë was published back in England.1

And yet,
by all accounts, Gaskell and her daughters
had a wonderful time in Rome.

And, 160 years later,
Elizabeth Gaskell’s book ‘The Life of Charlotte Brontë’
was named one the 100 Best Nonfiction Books.2


Happy 209th Birthday
** Elizabeth Gaskell **

– born September 29, 1810
in Chelsea
, London,


Linger Awhile:

I’ve been thinking this week about what makes a character memorable.

I believe it is the artist’s responsibility
to lead people into hell. But I also believe
it is important to lead the way out.

– filmaker Ken Burns

In Wives and Daughters, the three people that
Molly loves best all lead her into hell:

Her father, by distancing her without explanation.
Her step-sister, by requesting a series of favors that are risky and unnerving for Molly.
Then, when Molly falls in love, she feels conflicted loyalties in four or five different directions.

Molly Gibson is a strong, complex character when we meet her as a child on page one. She only grows stronger and more richly drawn as she grows into adulthood. It’s a joy to spend 650 pages with her. I only wish there were more.

To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood.
In a country there was a shire,
and in that shire
there was a house,
and in that house there was a room,
and in that room
there lay a little girl;
wide awake and longing to get up,
but not daring to do so.

– from Wives and Daughters
Elizabeth Gaskell
opening paragraph

The novel Wives and Daughters is set in 1866
a time that’s parked half-way between Downton Abbey and Pride and Prejudice.

(Imagine an era where Lizzy Bennett had grown to be an old woman
and Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess was still a young girl.)

Spoiler Warning

If you haven’t yet read
Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
or seen the excellent 1999 BBC tv series,4
be warned that there are spoilers ahead.
(You can skip down to “Half Cup More”)

Molly, the Clueless

Wives and Daughters is a coming of age story about Molly Gibson. Her father is the village doctor. Her mother died when Molly was very young. The opening crisis of the novel is when a young man (the doctor’s live-in apprentice) falls in love with Molly. Her father is shocked and alarmed. Molly is clueless. And her father wants her to stay that way. He hurriedly sends her off and then sets about finding a wife for himself—completely disregarding Molly’s feelings about the people she’s sent to live with (whom she’s never even met) and about the woman her father is suddenly engaged to marry (whom she has met, and doesn’t trust).

A Father & Daughter

Her father’s actions are especially painful to Molly because, up until now, all she’s known from her father is love and camaraderie.

In fact, one of the best things about Wives and Daughters is how fresh and unique the father-daughter relationship is. There are plenty of things about the doctor to both admire and be exasperated by. The woman he chooses is very flawed. As a stepmother to Molly, she’s slightly evil, and yet, not unrelentingly horrid. She gives Molly practical, valuable guidance in ways that her father never could have.

Most importantly for Molly, this new stepmother brings her own daughter with her, giving Molly an older sister who teaches her things about the world and women’s choices that no one else in Molly’s world ever hinted at.

The Marriage Market

An entertaining side-story involves a neighbor, a blustery old squire. Adamant that his family needs money, he decides the best way to get it is to marry off one of his children—as long as they marry someone both well-born and wealthy. “You’re the only marriageable one left,” he says, “and I want to hoist the old family up again.”

Not surprisingly, this does not go well.

What is a surprise, is that he’s not talking to a daughter; he’s talking to his eldest son. After reading so many books of this era about young women on the ‘marriage market,’ it is fascinating to me to see it turned around.

Which Friend Was That Again?

My one real criticism of the novel is that Molly’s two friendships are too similar. She only has two young, female friends: Lady Harriet and her stepsister Cynthia. Both are great characters, and their lives and backgrounds are not at all similar. Yet the way they interact with Molly—how they treat her, how they talk to her and about her—seem identical.

The Ending

This book’s ending truly shocked me. I had no idea. Perhaps you already know the ending?

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell is a surprisingly rich novel, with insights on class, privilege, snobbery, family inclusion, and women’s self-determination.

If you’ve never read it, you’re in for a treat.
If you have, and you can re-read it, that’s even better!

“Half Cup More”

Elizabeth Gaskell loved to travel and was
always keen to escape the smoky atmosphere of Manchester.
An independent spirit,
she ventured abroad most years…
usually accompanied by at least one of her daughters,
rather than her husband, as William preferred
to holiday alone.

– Gaskell Society3

Elle’s Roman Holiday
October 2018

Like Elizabeth Gaskell, I was lucky enough to go to Rome with my daughter.
Unlike Elizabeth Gaskell, my husband was happy to join us.

My birthday on the Spanish Steps
photo by Elle

Airport Hotel, Istanbul
Monday 1 Oct 2018

We were only supposed to be in Istanbul for two hours. But…
Our overnight flight from San Francisco made an emergency landing.

The announcement came on in the middle of the night.

My 1st thought: It’s surely not breakfast time yet.
2nd thought: Whatever it is, this can’t be good.
(I had plenty of time to wonder, because the first announcement took a while. And it was in Turkish.)
(Not a language I know.)

Then, in English, they asked any medical doctors on board to please identify themselves.

3rd thought: This really can’t be good.

Me to B: Hey, something’s happening.
B to me: Why are you waking me up?
Me: We’re landing. Somebody on board is having a medical emergency.

The sun was just coming up as we descended over beautiful wooded islands; green fingers of land stretching into a jigsaw-pattern of waterways.
B: Where are we?
Me: They said we’re landing in Bergen, Norway.

Even before we touched down, I saw the ambulance driving toward us. A team of EMTs quickly boarded and headed down the aisle past us, rolling what looked like a stretcher/wheelchair combination. It was probably 20 minutes later when they started back up the aisle. The woman on the stretcher looked maybe ten years younger than me. She was wearing a headscarf. Behind her came another EMT, then came a girl of about 10 or 11 years old.

Given that the flight was from California to Istanbul, I’m going to guess that their family and friends were all a long, long way from Bergen, Norway. (I wish I knew the end of this story.)

For us, it was an hour wait for re-fueling and ‘procedures,’ plus extra flight time to get to Turkey, then another frustrating hour circling, waiting for a runway. When we finally landed, there was applause.

B and I missed our connection to Italy, of course.
But I was so grateful to find an on-site hotel in the Istanbul airport.
Dinner and a bed sounded just about perfect.

Polignano a Mare
Wed 3 Oct

Polignano a Mare

Our second day in Italy. Feeling better after a couple of
nice meals out, good naps in, and gelato!

The week before meeting up with our daughter, B and I stay in a small town in Puglia, called Polignano a Mare.

Polignano a Mare is stunning. Our B&B dates from the 18th century, but it seems even older! It feels medieval.

There’s a small piazza just outside our door. A busker with a guitar was singing Hey Jude. B & I sit down to listen. There isn’t much audience; we’re the only ones who applaud. ‘Do you like Beatles?’ the busker asks me. ‘Will you come sing with me?’ Why not? He plays All My Loving and I sing harmony. Then B and I are off to find some dinner.

Sat 6 October

Harbour at Monopoli

One day, B and I take the train down to Monopoli.

This is a town that was first settled in 500 BC.

I’m charmed by the narrow streets and gorgeous vistas.

Prof B on a
street in Monopoli

Monday 8 October

The guidebook described Naples as “gritty but worth exploring for many hidden gems.”

Piazza near out hotel
in Naples

Prof B was looking forward to his first taste of Neapolitan pizza since he was a teenager, almost 40 years ago. He is not disappointed.

My favorite food is something else…

If I wake early enough, I hear the bread truck arriving under the open window. Soon the scent of warm, right-out-of-the-oven croissants floats up into our room. Heavenly smell.

We seem to be staying in the ‘Charing Cross Road’ section of Naples:  So many bookstores!  It’s also the neighborhood of the Naples Conservatory of Music, which we discover while walking through a crowded street and hearing student practice sessions from open windows over our heads: cello sometimes, or piano…even opera singing.

Rome & Venice
October 11 – 17

Then we meet up with our daughter in Rome!
My birthday on the Spanish steps. A wander through the Colosseum.
A full afternoon at the Vatican.

Me and Elle
on the Spanish Steps in Rome

photo by Prof B

Elle’s favorite part of Italy is our 3-day trip to Venice.

photo by Elle

My favorite is getting to have this adventure together.

In Borghese Park
photo by Prof B


Take-Away Box

Thinking has, many a time, made me sad, darling
doing never did in all my life…
My precept is, ‘Do something, my sister, do good if you can;
but, at any rate,
do something.

– from North and South (1854)
Elizabeth Gaskell

“We call it dolce far niente. It means
the sweetness of doing nothing.
Italians are masters at it.”

– from Eat, Pray, Love (2006)
by Elizabeth Gilbert

Thank you for reading!
Kelly J Hardesty

Thoughts? Questions?
Scroll down to the endand you can leave me note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.

You Can Read More…


Thank you to Project Gutenburg for their wonderful, complete, and seachable texts.
Project Gutenberg is powered totally by volunteers.

A fun story about Venice is this podcast
by Emma John on The Moth.

The Victorian and the Romantic
by Nell Stevens (2018)
Doubleday, New York
(UK title: Mrs Gaskell & Me)
I have to admit. I liked the chapters about Gaskell
a lot more than the ‘modern day’ sections.

100 Best Nonfiction Books
in The Guardian
article by Robert McCrum
April 17, 2017
Guardian News and Media Limited

The Gaskell Society

I very much enjoyed the BBC four-part adaption
of Wives and Daughters (1999).
The cast includes Isobel Crawley, Sir Richard Carlisle,
Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and Dumbledore!


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© Kelly J Hardesty 2024

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