The travails of a Rochdale family – ‘Lizzie Leigh’ by Elizabeth Gaskell

Dark secrets & long, dark cobbled roads.
Dark secrets & long, dark cobbled roads.

‘Lizzie Leigh’, published in 1855, is a short story – which could be deemed as a novella – by writer and social commentator Elizabeth Gaskell. The story opens with the abrupt death of the patriarch Mr Leigh on a cold and snowy Christmas day in Upclose Farm, their home in rural Rochdale.

“The Upclose Farm had belonged for generations to the Leighs; and yet its possession hardly raised them above the rank of labourers. There was the house and outbuildings, all of an old-fashioned kind, and about seven acres of barren, unproductive land, which they never possessed capital enough to improve; indeed they could hardly rely upon it for subsistence; and it has been customary to bring up the sons to some trade – such as a wheelwright’s, or blacksmith’s” (p3)

The Leigh family are not privileged; after James Leigh is buried in Milne-Row graveyard, his wife Anne Leigh is determined to let out the farm and take her two sons – judgemental Will and clever Tom – to find their disgraced daughter Lizzie who has gone missing in Manchester. Anne is warned by Samuel Orme, their oldest family friend, about the stark differences between life in Rochdale and Manchester:

“Thou’lt be sadly pottered wi’ Manchester ways…why thou’lt have to buy potatoes; a thing thou hast never done afore in all thy born life.” (p4)

The Leighs leave the Upclose Farm for Manchester “before the wild daffodils were in flower” to a place with
“no garden, or outbuilding, no fresh breezy outlet, no far-stretching view over moor and hollow…no old haunting memories, even though those rememberances told of sorrow and the dead and gone” (p6).

This nostalgia and sorrow permeates the story; it is a tale of regret, reconciliation, and forgiveness; a couple of tragic turns in the tale giving an otherwise sweet ending a poignant note.

The above quotes were from Elizabeth Gaskell (1855) Lizzie Leigh And Other Tales London: Chapman and Hall, however the short story ‘Lizzie Leigh’ on its own is available from Project Gutenberg, an online website set up to encourage the publication and distribution of e-books. Mrs Gaskell’s short story can be read using this link to Project Gutenberg.


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