Why does revisiting our old haunts never feel quite right? What insights can Elizabeth Gaskell give us about the impact of change?

July 20, 2018
Why does revisiting our old haunts never feel quite right? What insights can Elizabeth Gaskell give us about the impact of change?
Irish Breakfast tea with a splash of milkGolden Age by Chris Staples

Dear Erica,

I recently went back to my old home in Gloucestershire. My parents sold the house when I was in Uni, and I’ve not been back in nearly fifteen years but we were driving through and I decided to stop by. It was a bad decision. It hadn’t changed that much but at the same time nothing felt the same. I’ve been feeling quite depressed since I left. Any words of advice?

Glum in Gloucestershire

Dear Glum in Gloucestershire,

Your situation reminds me of Margaret Hale in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Margaret is brought up in a charming country village before her family abruptly move to the industrial factory town of Milton. While in Milton, her affection for her childhood home never fades and years after leaving, her godfather invites her on what should be a nostalgic visit back. But to her surprise, she feels anything but joy at this visit to her old home. As Gaskell writes, “A sense of change, of individual nothingness, of perplexity and disappointment, over-powered Margaret…." And Margaret ultimately feels a great sadness that she has been “whirled on through all these phases of my life, in which nothing abides by me, no creature, no place.”

Like you, Margaret found the trip to her childhood home depressing. But then in the morning, she came to the realization that this change was good, it was necessary in fact for life to move forward. 'If the world stood still, it would retrograde and become corrupt...Looking out of myself, and my own painful sense of change, the progress all around me is right and necessary." Furthermore, she realizes that, “I too change perpetually--now this, now that--now disappointed and peevish because all is not exactly as I had pictured it, and now suddenly discovering that the reality is far more beautiful than I had imagined it.”

And with this bittersweet understanding, she decides that if given the choice to go back and visit her childhood home again, she would not. She decides it is better to keep her childhood home in her memories, rather than recreate the past in the present, an impossible task. So my only advice if you are feeling depressed, is to remember that your feelings are natural and you are not alone. Change is frightening. Who doesn’t find it hard to realize that we are “whirled on through all these phases of our lives” with almost no control over our fate? But as Margaret realizes, things must change, just as we do, and it is only by acknowledging this that we can move forward and embrace the present.