Page last updated at 10:03 GMT, Thursday, 4 December 2008

Cranford writer 'predicted death'

Elizabeth Gaskell. Copyright John Rylands University Library
Elizabeth Gaskell wrote Cranford in 1853

Writer Elizabeth Gaskell foretold her own death months before suffering a fatal heart attack, it has emerged.

The Cranford author's eerie prediction was revealed in a collection of letters recently acquired by the University of Manchester's John Rylands Library.

The correspondence is between Gaskell, her friend Mary Green and Mary's daughter Isabella, among others.

The university library said the letters were an important addition to its existing Gaskell collection.

Unfinished manuscript

The author of Cranford - which famously depicts life in Knutsford, Cheshire, where she grew up - died suddenly of a heart attack in November 1865, leaving her last novel Wives and Daughters a chapter short of completion.

The novel's manuscript, also kept at the Rylands, poignantly breaks off at the top of a page.

John Rylands Library archivist Fran Baker said the archive shed "interesting new light" on Gaskell and her daughters.

"The reference to Gaskell foreseeing her own death is intriguing," said Ms Baker.

Read an excerpt of the letter detailing Gaskell's prediction

"By early November 1865, she claimed to be feeling more energetic and in better health than she had done for years.

"She was busy preparing a house at Alton, Hampshire, which she had secretly bought in the hope of persuading her husband William to retire there.

"She believed his life in Manchester was bad for his health, not least because of the strain he put on himself with overwork.

"On 12 November, she was at the new house chatting over tea with three of her daughters when she collapsed into the arms of her daughter, Meta, and died instantly. Her husband had no idea she was there."

In one of the acquired letters, written a month after Gaskell's death, Isabella recounted how the writer had predicted early in the year that she did not expect to live beyond December.

Isabella wrote to her brother saying that Gaskell had said she "did not expect to live thro' the year".

"People often have presentiments like this, which are forgotten when they don't come true," Isabella added.

While Gaskell is best known for Cranford - recently adapted for the BBC and starring Dame Judi Dench - she wrote five other books along with two novellas, numerous articles and short stories and a biography of her friend, Charlotte Bronte.

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