Random Thoughts: from Mrs Gaskell’s Manchester to digital fiction

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Today’s random thoughts are brought to you courtesy of the Manchester Literature Festival and the Manchester Science Festival.

Yesterday, I went on a guided walking tour with a friend. The tour was called Mrs Gaskell’s Manchester, and started on Albert Square in the city centre. Our guide was Anne Beswick, who was funny, engaging and knew her stuff.

We were quickly chased into the relative peace of Manchester Town Hall by the oompah-ing strains of Bavarian music. Anne filled us in on some background to the subject of our tour and her relationship with Manchester.

Elizabeth Gaskell was born in London, but her mother died when Elizabeth was still an infant. Her father couldn’t cope with such a young child, and sent her to Knutsford, to be brought up by her Aunt Lumb. Knutsford formed the basis for Cranford. Elizabeth grew up and entered the cultured society of Manchester’s merchant class. She met and married the Reverend William Gaskell, a Unitarian minister, and moved to Manchester.

On our way to Cross Street Chapel, where William was minister for fifty years, we paused to look at the Gothic Venetian building on one corner of Albert Square. This building now houses a chop house, but it was built as a school for Unitarian ministers, and it’s where William Gaskell trained and taught. I never knew that. It’s a sign of a good tour if you learn something new about a place you’ve known all your life within the first 10 minutes.


At Cross Street Chapel, we heard more about the Gaskells’ lives in Manchester, and the experiences Elizabeth drew on for her novels. We also saw the memorial stone erected in the original chapel following Elizabeth’s early death.


The tour passed the Portico Library, where William was a member, and on to the Art Gallery, where Elizabeth first met her friend and fellow writer, Charles Dickens. Anne told us an amusing story about Elizabeth accusing Charles of stealing a plot from her, and of Charles claiming that, had he been married to her, he would have felt forced to beat her. What the Dickens?

From the Art Gallery, we headed for 84 Plymouth Grove, the Gaskells’ Manchester home. I haven’t visited since the renovation works were completed, and it was a real treat to have a guided tour followed by tea and cake.


My friend and I had a chat with a fellow tourer over our tea. She had been to lots of festival events that I wish I’d had time to attend, not least the Protest event that featured Kit de Waal and the in conversation with Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ and Chibundu Onuzo.

Today, I was at an event that I attended free of charge because I work for the museum that hosts the Science Festival.

The event was called All the Delicate Duplicates. It was at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. It promised to mix literature with computer science.

The event was introduced by Angela Hughes from The Space, a Community Interest Company founded by Arts Council England and the BBC. It funds and supports projects that use technology to help more people to enjoy the arts.

The speaker was Andy Campbell of Dreaming Methods.


Andy is a digital writer and his studio produces collaborative electronic literature and experimental narrative games. He has worked with Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph on Inanimate Alice, and with Mez Breeze on her anti-surveillance game #PRISOM and now on All the Delicate Duplicates. In his illustrated talk, Andy introduced the project, discussed its background and answered questions from the audience, before allowing us to have a play in the world that he and Mez have created.


All the Delicate Duplicates is a work of fiction that’s also a game. Here’s a description from the development blog:

All the Delicate Duplicates is a work of digital fiction with a beautifully immersive gameworld at its core.

John, a computer engineer and his daughter Charlotte inherit a collection of weird objects from a mysterious relative, that oddly, neither of them can really remember anything much about. Eventually, John and Charlotte start to believe that the objects might be transforming their realities and memories…

A central part of the non-linear language in All The Delicate Duplicates is the poetic, hybrid language Mezangelle. It remixes the basic structure of English and computer code to create language where meanings are nested inside each other; packed. You have to read; then re-read; then re-re-read in order to piece together the disturbing truth behind ‘Aunt Mo’..

The digital story has a linear narrative that covers a period of 18 years.

There’s a backstory embedded in the game as fragments that the reader interacts with. There’s no prescribed way for these interactions, but there are three hidden fragments that are only revealed once all of the other fragments have been read.

Andy’s talk was really interesting. As I listened to how the idea came about and how the world, or multiverse, was built, I was reminded of David Mitchell’s novels and the way each can be read in any order but the full story isn’t revealed until you’ve read them all. The Q&A was revealing as well. I asked a question about how the gameworld provided players with exposure to literature and whether Andy saw potential in the digital story improving literacy among people who might not pick up a book. This was followed up by a question from an English teacher who wondered about how literary criticism techniques might encourage a deeper, more critical, engagement with the game, leaving the reader/player with a deeper awareness of her interactions and experiences within the game. Other questions focused on whether building the game’s world impacted on the plot direction and led to changes to the story, and on how Andy and Mez worked the freedom to imagine a fictional world and its inhabitants that is inherent to textual fiction into this digital, visual work.

There were other questions that interrogated the technical aspects of creating the story/game, but I’m more of a book nerd than I am a gamer, so they haven’t lodged in my memory bank. Which reminds me of an interesting thing Andy said about the non-linearity of the digital story – unlike a book, where if you turn back the pages to remind yourself of what you previously read, the book confirms or refreshes your memory, the digital story still allows you to virtually turn back the pages, but it rewrites or reconstructs your memory. Based on my experiences with mum, as her brain lost its ability to form new memories or recall old ones, this seems more like the way memory works. It’s a shifting thing, dependent on other things happening that we might not consciously register. It’s a story we tell ourselves.

I had a little play on the game, but not enough to get my head around it. I’m going to have to buy a copy. When I’ve read more of my traditional tree books and my less traditional ebooks!

4 thoughts on “Random Thoughts: from Mrs Gaskell’s Manchester to digital fiction

  1. You have used all elements of your brain this week – literary and scientific! Must confess, slightly more interested in the photo with the tea and cake than the others…..
    I love hearing how my favourite authors actually knew each other; didn’t know that Gaskell and Dickens were friends.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was good tea and cake. The picture of the drawing room showing the window – it’s probable that Charlotte Brontë hid behind the curtains at that window because she was too shy to speak to some other visitors. The picture of the table with the small writing desk in the dining room – that’s where Mrs G wrote every day and there’s a facsimile of the last page of Wives and Daughters on the desk. She was friends with Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Ruskin too. They also visited the house.

      Liked by 1 person

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