Elizabeth Gaskell was the devoted wife of a Unitarian minister who lived and worked for over thirty years in Manchester—Cottonopolis, the grimy Manchester of wage-slavery, cholera, Chartism, Free Trade. Very little in her early background can have prepared her for such a role. Her father was Keeper of the Treasury Records, while on her mother’s side she was related (as who, it increasingly seems, was not?) to the Darwins and Wedgwoods. Born in Chelsea, then a prosperous suburb of Regency London, in 1810, she grew up in a sleepy country town, and boarded for a few terms at an Establishment for Young Ladies near Stratford-on-Avon. A conventional ladylike future beckoned. So when she married Charles Gaskell it was rather like stepping out of the world of Jane Austen straight into the world of Friedrich Engels. The contrast, exceptionally stark even for that age of disruption, was the making of Mrs. Gaskell as a novelist.
An attractive figure, she usually gets a good press. Mary Barton and North and South are valuable documents for the social historian, while it would be boorish to dispute the charm of her genre studies. Yet somehow her reputation persistently falls short of her achievement. Described in the abstract the industrial novels give off a faintly depressing odor of well-scrubbed piety. As for Cranford, it is easy to think of it, especially if one relies on memories of childhood reading, as a mere potpourri of bonnets, muslins, Georgian silver, bow-windows, sedan chairs, and general olde-worlde flummery. Put it alongside Mary Barton, however, and both books immediately gain in depth. Only connect—to appreciate Mrs. Gaskell to the full, one must try to show how the different aspects of her work hang together. This Mr. Pollard fails to do. He has written a sensible, straightforward book, and as far as they go his conclusions are unexceptionable. They are also, alas, unexciting.
Not that excitement is the first quality one would necessarily look for in Mrs. Gaskell. On the contrary, what sets her apart from most of her contemporaries is her composure. In the industrial novels her message is essentially that of Past and Present—“sooty Manchester, it too is built upon the infinite abysses!”—but instead of Carlyle’s sulphurous rhetoric she works by patiently accumulating domestic detail, taking the same kind of gossipy interest in the housewives of Manchester that she does in the ladies of Cranford. She deals in the small change of family life, minor failings, and hard-wearing unspectacular virtues. And as a result, when the time comes for a “strong” scene she can bring home the sufferings of the poor to a well-fed middle-class audience as all Carlyle’s dithyrambs never could. Her great merit is that she cares about the People as people, and refuses to take refuge in panicky generalizations about the Populace or Demos or the Proletariat.
There is naturally a price to be paid, a heavy price, for her inability to think about society in collective terms …