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. Having raised problems which will only admit of a political solution, she is forced to fall back on the characteristic dodges of the Victorian novelist: legacies, wedding-bells, emigration, melodramatic flukes. The effect is usually to turn a representative situation into a special case. John Barton, the embittered radical who should have been the hero of the novel which bears his daughter’s name, commands an impressive degree of sympathy until he is assigned the role of an assassin. Generous though she is, beyond a certain point Mrs. Gaskell can see organized social protest only as a crime. Or take Thornton, the iron-willed manufacturer in North and South. He is equally atypical. Humbled by circumstances, and redeemed (financially as well as morally) by the heroine, he preaches against the cash-nexus and becomes a model philanthropic employer. We are left hoping, not very optimistically, that his example will prove contagious.
IN THE END all Mrs. Gaskell can prescribe for the ills of society is that grand old nostrum, a change of heart. A modern reader, deploring such meek submission to the status quo, may well be inclined to put the blame on her religion. But in that case religion ought to get the credit for the admirable spirit of charity in which the industrial novels were conceived. Unlike most Victorian novelists, Mrs. Gaskell is secure in her Christianity, and when she draws on traditional Christian responses she is in much less danger of turning mawkish than—to take the obvious examples—Dickens or Thackeray. There is no straining for plangent effect, for instance, when Job Legh, the old workman in Mary Barton, describes how he tramped back from London with a neighbor’s orphan “babby.” He speaks, quite naturally, in tones which Shakespeare or Bunyan would have recognized. And there is more than antiquarian zeal in the obvious pleasure which Mrs. Gaskell takes throughout the same book in explaining unfamiliar bits of Lancashire dialect by citing parallels from Piers Plowman, Chaucer, the Book of Common Prayer. The implication is that Manchester isn’t on another planet, that there is a continuity—and a dignity—in human affairs.
I find it hard to see how Mr. Pollard manages to brush the Job Legh episode aside so lightly. On the other hand when he gets to Cranford he makes a number of shrewd points, especially when he highlights the part played by the narrator. She is called plain Mary Smith, and she can easily get overlooked; yet in a sense the real subject of the book is her shifting vision of Cranford. An exile, she lives in the roaring industrial city of Drumble, headquarters of the cotton trade. When she revisits Cranford she is revisiting her childhood, and everything in the little town is trim, gaily colored, spic and span, as innocent and enticing as a Beatrix Potter miniature. Without anyone realizing it, the clock has stopped. If the inhabitants once suspected that they were quaint, they would cease to be so. The whole point is that they have no inkling they are living in a backwater, and one without a future. (“The town is in possession of the Amazons: all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women.”) But Mary Smith knows better. Looking at Cranford through the eyes of amused, rueful irony, she has her fun (and decidedly funny some of it is) at the expense of the teacup dramas, the finicky social distinctions, the genteel cheeseparing which masquerades as “Elegant Economy.” At first the spirit of the town seems to be embodied most decisively in Deborah Jenkyns, daughter of the former rector—a solemn blue-stocking, upholder of Johnsonian literary canons in the era of Pickwick, acknowledged local arbiter of what constitutes vulgarity (tremendous word in Cranford). Then, after her death, interest switches to her timid, mousy younger sister Miss Matty—and the more we learn about Matty, the more her natural goodness shines through. It can be seen most clearly in the truly heroic scene where, out shopping at the draper’s, she overhears the assistant refusing to accept a farmer’s five-pound note: the Drumble bank where all her savings are invested has failed. Her first instinct is to reimburse the farmer on the spot, without thought of her own plight: unable to grasp the principles of limited liability, she lives in a world of personal loyalties and direct obligations, where every debt is a debt of honor. Subsequently, when Cranford rallies round, and sets her up in a little tea-shop, it is run on highly unbusinesslike lines, as Mary Smith’s father, a Drumble worthy, doesn’t fail to point out. No need for a sermon on the cash nexus to rub in the moral: elegant economy, with all its faults, has a sounder heart than political economy. At the same time, to take Miss Matty seriously is to grasp how much happiness she sacrificed when her sister prevented her, long ago, from marrying an alleged social inferior. In retrospect the side of Cranford which Deborah represents comes to seem positively sinister. Cruelty and egoism can be found in a nest of gentlefolk as readily as anywhere else: demure Cranford, it too is built upon the infinite abysses. The happy ending is in order, though. Mrs. Gaskell’s mood is elegiac: she knows that the future belongs irrevocably to Drumble.
Two years later, in North and South, she tried to produce a kind of Cranford in reverse. Transplanted from the depths of Hampshire to Milton Northern (like Drumble, an alias for Manchester), Margaret Hale is a Mary Smith shown adapting herself to urban ways, learning that you can’t go home again. While her mother, unable to break with the past, simply fades away, Margaret slowly and painfully readjusts; and finally, when a trip back to Hampshire shows village life as a good deal less idyllic than she has supposed, she is ready to settle in Milton for good. By concentrating on the masters rather than the men, North and South manages to be even more evasive about the “condition-of-England” question than Mary Barton, but it is superior in one important respect. No longer the sympathetic outside observer, Mrs. Gaskell is intimately involved with her heroine’s dilemma. The best parts of the novel (and as far as English fiction went they were uncharted territory) are those where Margaret feels buffeted, overwhelmed, unnerved by the raw power of an industrial city. At a cruder level the picture of the mill-owner, Thornton, is oddly convincing. A Carlylean captain of industry, who wishes that Cromwell was still around to put down strikes, he is in many ways a preposterous figure, a compendium of rugged, inner-directed clichés. Yet he does exert an undeniable magnetism, and for all her refined distaste Margaret eventually succumbs. Not for the first time, sexual attraction and social antagonism are intertwined.
An equable, generally sunny disposition didn’t stop Mrs. Gaskell from understanding and respecting passion in others: her splendid life of Charlotte Brontë is sufficient proof of that. And although in comparison with Charlotte Brontë she inevitably looks rather sedate, I’m not sure she shouldn’t be reckoned the subtler artist, on the strength of Cranford and two later works, the nouvelle Cousin Phillis and Wives and Daughters. All three stories deal, at least by implication, with a settled past on which the industrial present is just beginning to impinge. Phillis Holman, daughter of a farmer who doubles as a dissenting minister, has her heart broken, inadvertently, by a man of the world, an engineer working on the new railway line—which means that he is also helping to break up the sheltered life which has made her particular kind of innocence possible. And in Wives and Daughters rumors of the railways trickle through in the closing pages. Reviewing the book when it first appeared, Henry James (aetat. 22) praised it for giving the reader the sense of “a new arbitrary world being reared over his heedless head, a world marvellously inclusive of him.” Mrs. Gaskell sustains this mellow authority by staying firmly inside the period of her own youth.
THE DOMINANT FEELING behind Cousin Phillis is reverential: the vignettes of the Holman household in particular often recall the set-pieces in Adam Bede, the harvest feasts and “Dutch interiors.” Wives and Daughters is an altogether more worldly affair. Admittedly it suffers, so to speak, from not being Fathers and Sons—most of the men in the book are there simply to prop up the plot, and for a mid-Victorian novelist to be confined to “the feminine sphere” (appalling phrase) is to be heavily circumscribed. Within its limits, however, the book is a masterpiece of tender observation and beautifully managed social comedy. The story revolves round the contrast between two step-sisters, long-suffering Molly and sparkling Cynthia. Mr. Pollard calls Molly, with some justice, a more convincing Fanny Price; which would make Cynthia, to extend his comparison, a better-natured Mary Crawford. She is one of the most disarming characters (and one of the few witty heroines) in Victorian fiction. Her mother, on the other hand, is drawn with an unsparing—and unerring—satirical vehemence of which one would scarcely have guessed the author capable. Mrs. Gaskell plainly has a deep personal stake in the story (like Molly, she lost her mother in infancy), and she also brings to bear on her material the experience of a lifetime. One certainly couldn’t “prove” that the industrial novels made Wives and Daughters possible, by tracing influences or fiddling around with symbols, yet I can’t believe it would have been the same book without them. The moral poise and resilience which make it so much more than just another novel were surely achieved because Mrs. Gaskell had had the courage to grapple, however ineffectively, with the most crushing problems of her time.