The Pursuit of Happiness
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Mrs Gaskell, Cranford (1848)
My great great grandfather Henry Gent was in 1847 in practice as a doctor in the small north Cheshire country town of Knutsford, just twenty miles to the south of Manchester. The book Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell describes life there at the time he was living in the town. I have always fancied that some of his character may have influenced her; at least, her experience of growing up in Knutsford gives us an idea of the lifestyle of many of its inhabitants. In fairness, he was not Knutsford's sole doctor, there was also Dr Howard, a family acquaintance, and later there was his friend Dr Wagstaffe. Even more difficultly, the novel was published in 1848, and the events described must all antedate Henry Gent's marriage.
Henry's unmarried sister Mary also lived for part of her life in Knutsford; this was her milieu:
In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford. What could they do if they were there? The surgeon has his round of thirty miles, and sleeps at Cranford; but every man cannot be a surgeon.
Mrs Gaskell describes the doctor's sister, in terms that could apply equal well to Henry and Mary's parents:
Now Mrs. Fitz-Adam was the widowed sister of the Cranford surgeon, whom I have named before. Their parents were respectable farmers, content with their station. The name of these good people was Hoggins. Mr Hoggins was the Cranford doctor now; we disliked the name and considered it coarse; but, as Miss Jenkyns said, if he changed it to Piggins it would not be much better. We had hoped to discover a relationship between him and that Marchioness of Exeter whose name was Molly Hoggins; but the man, careless of his own interests, utterly ignored and denied any such relationship, although, as dear Miss Jenkyns had said, he had a sister called Mary, and the same Christian names were very apt to run in families.
Henry's mother had had ambitions for her children, and they were both well-educated: Henry at a private school in Knutsford, and later at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, Mary at a private establishment in Congleton. Henry, though, seems to have possessed a rebellious spirit that made him dismissive of pretensions, much as Mrs Gaskell describes the doctor of her youth:
though Mr. Hoggins did say, "Jack's up," "A fig for his heels," and called preference "pref," she believed he was a very worthy man and a very clever surgeon. Indeed, we were rather proud of our doctor at Cranford, as a doctor As a surgeon we were proud of him; but as a man - or rather, I should say, as a gentleman - we could only shake our heads over his name and himself, and wished that he had read Lord Chesterfield's Letters in the days when his manners were susceptible of improvement.
There is also the suggestion that, even though a doctor, and a professional man, a doctor could be sullied, both figuratively and literally, by 'trade':
a man whom Mrs. Jameson had tabooed as vulgar, and inadmissible to Cranford society, not merely on account of his name, but because of his voice, his complexion, his boots, smelling of the stable, and himself, smelling of drugs.
In 1847 Henry Gent was fifty two, a bachelor, the youngest of five children, none of whom had married. His eldest brother John, a doctor in the Virgin Islands, died suddenly at the young age of twenty nine in 1817. His brothers Joseph and Brian lived in the nearby town of Congleton. They never married. Brian died in 1844 - he was only fifty one - and Joseph in 1860, when he was seventy one. They are both buried at Astbury, the parish church for Congleton, together with their parents, John Gent, farmer and officer in the Cheshire yeomanry, who died in 1840, and Sarah Gent, who died in 1843. Their only sister was Mary. There were expectations that she would marry well, but this hope was never realised.
In March 1847 Dr Henry Gent married a twenty-year old servant girl, Esther Warburton, who two months later bore him a daughter, Mary Sarah. It was not a happy family. He did not like his wife (though she bore him four more children over the next eleven years) and appears to have kept aloof from his wife and children. Mrs Gaskell describes a mismatch for Cranford's doctor - she describes it as a mésalliance - which can be taken as a reversal of the shock that met Henry Gent's own marriage out of his class:
" Lady Glenmire is to marry - is to be married. I mean - Lady Glenmire - Mr. Hoggins - Mr. Hoggins is going to marry Lady Glenmire!"
My great grandfather Frank Turner Gent grew up hardly knowing his father, and understandably close to his mother, especially after the early death of his sister. He began to work in the nearby city of Manchester, where he was joined by his mother in 1881. He appears to have had an unhappy relationship at that time that hurt him very much, and it was not till eight years later that he embarked on the courtship that led to marriage. My great great great aunt Mary Gent died a spinster in lodgings at Knutsford in 1878, aged eighty five. She live on an annuity of £50 a year, left to her by her father. It was paid out of the income from letting the family farm, Middlehulme, near Leek in the far northern corner of Staffordshire. This was an extremely modest income; Mary must have lived, like many of her kind, in respectable poverty, of the kind also described by Mrs Gaskell:
the poor old lady trembling all the time as if it were a great crime which she was exposing to daylight in telling me how very, very little she had to live upon that sum which she so eagerly relinquished was, in truth, more than a twentieth part of what she had to live upon, and keep house, and a little serving-maid, all as became one born a Tyrrell. And when the whole income does not nearly amount to a hundred pounds, to give up a twentieth of it will necessitate many careful economies, and many pieces of self-denial, small and insignificant in the world's account, but bearing a different value in another account-book I have heard of.
Her private papers went to her nephew, George Frederick Gent, who had inherited Middlehulme at his father's death in 1875. She had kept letters, accounts and no doubt other items going back nearly a hundred years. All that survives are a few of the personal letters, that came to my great grandfather after the death of his brother in 1917, and notes made from them by my great grandfather.
There are a few financial papers, that relate to the houses in King Street, Knutsford, that were purchased by Henry Gent. There are also a few letters that belonged to Henry's daughter, Mary Sarah Gent, who died aged sixteen in 1864. Mary Sarah received a respectable education, much like that of her aunt. Her exercise book from her days at Heath House School survives, as does her sampler, worked in 1864. This is Mrs Gaskell's description of such tuition:
as to the branches of a solid English education - fancy work and the use of globes - such as the mistress of the Ladies' Seminary, to which all the tradespeople in Cranford sent their daughters, professed to teach.
My great grandfather, Frank Turner Gent, kept copious notes: brief diaries, 'commonplace books' containing numerous quotes from many authors that struck a chord with his own sentiments, and there is especially his correspondence with his future wife, Florence Barrington, which forms three quarters of this booklet. His father's marriage was singularly unfortunate and unhappy. His own marriage was comparatively late in life; his lack of self-confidence plagued him. My grandmother told me that she had heard he was not kind to his wife. He was certainly typical of his time, his expectation was to be a strong, patriarchal figure, and he lacked a role-model as a father. We can observe the flaws in his relationship with Florrie from very early on in their courtship, but they found much happiness together too. Florrie possessed a simplicity and unsophistication that complemented her good looks. She was kind, gentle, sensitive and caring. He was a much happier husband than his father ever was.
Frank J. Gent