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The Discreet Charms of Mrs. G.

Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories

by Jenny Uglow
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 690 pp., $35.00

Allan Massie, himself a notable British novelist, very much of this century, recently asked, “How many nineteenth-century British novelists are still read? You would be stretching things to put the figure as high as twenty.” By my own count, Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (1810–1865) could probably scrape into the magic score by a nose, but she would be lucky to do better than the high teens. In some ways a pity, for she occupies an honorable place in literary history. Any account of her accomplishments would have to mention that she was one of the first English “social novelists,” taking her early subject matter in part from that remarkable peoples’ movement, the Chartists, and from the industrial unrest in the middle of the century.

Her later novels and stories of seduction, social comedy, or thwarted love were more conventional in subject and included the amusing and continuously popular Cranford. But from first to last her works were informed with a deep sense of what the Victorians called the social question and an awareness of the cost in simple, perhaps simplistic, human terms of a society, spawned by the Industrial Revolution, that keeps class antagonism alive. She must be included among those who made the English novel a voice to be taken seriously on public problems. Far from the least of her claims to fame is that she wrote one of the best biographies in the language, her life of Charlotte Brontë.

Mrs. Gaskell was one of the literary progeny of that choleric genius Thomas Carlyle, who figuratively fathered so many of the great Victorian writers, like Dickens, Ruskin, Kingsley, and Browning. Carlyle took it as his mission to show that there was nothing in the world, animate or inanimate, that was not connected with the rest of it by invisible strands of common inheritance that he called organic filaments, although he might well have called them God. Few of his works were technically fiction, but all were conceived in pictorial terms with characters, action, and the flamboyant emotional heightening so easily at his command.

Mrs. Gaskell, whose novels domesticated his apocalyptic vision in mid-century England, was the most important woman writer of those who came under his influence. In her hands his sardonic shouts of angry laughter at mankind’s gross stupidities became a gentler, more tolerant, occasionally amused acceptance of its foibles. Class warfare need not be seen by the glare of bursting shells when it can be depicted as well in the unintentional cruelties and small abrasions of mistress and maid. Melodrama need not be taken more seriously than comedy. But it took her a while to learn this.

Like Carlyle, she distrusted theory and abstraction, for ideas made sense to her only as they could be tapped out on the pulses. This distrust was probably responsible for the physical immediacy of her writing in both fiction and letters, but it also caused some of the stilted writing of her most “socially conscious” work. At her best, she had a deep simplicity that recognized the misery of individuals without theorizing about what had gone wrong politically, and the ability to translate her compassion into character and action.

Her first novel was Mary Barton, a Tale of Manchester Life, published in 1848, an awkward but effective story of a workman crushed between the desperation of his fellow workers and the distrust of the employers. It was thought shocking because it seemed to side with the working men, used their own crude language, and was set in the rough city of Manchester, which she knew well from her charity work as a minister’s wife. It is full of the grime, the overflowing drains, and the deathbeds with which the social novelists loaded their symbolic backgrounds, but it also has quiet humor among the desolation.

North and South, which appeared some seven years later, is Mrs. Gaskell’s other major use of a manufacturing background; both books have probably been overvalued for that novelty. Rather too schematically it sets the raw scene of the Industrial Revolution against the more cultured part of England, with Anglicanism contrasted to non-conformity, employers confronting workers, and woman against man; but it is a thematic advance in showing that right and wrong are mixed in both parties. Nonetheless, many readers (this one among them) feel uneasily that believability has been sacrificed to formula, and that the melodrama of the story is not wholly congenial to its author.

Between these two novels appeared the small masterpiece for which Mrs. Gaskell has been best remembered, Cranford. It is probably significant that, in order to complete it, she interrupted the writing of Ruth, a far different story of seduction, unmarried motherhood, and redemption. The village for which the book is named is a direct fictional version of Knutsford, the northern village in which she was reared and where she remembered many of the originals of her characters, often through a nostalgic haze. Although the opening sentence calls them Amazons, it is soon clear that the widows and spinsters who are the major part of the population are far from warriors, indeed are looking hard for ways to help others, as well as maintaining themselves. It is a world of hoarded candle ends, wine dregs added to the new bottle to stretch its contents, worn dresses, patched boots, and small packets of tea.

The moral problems of the town are real enough but appropriately muted and treated with comic concern, most of them concerned with propriety: whether to recognize Lady Glenmire when she exchanges widowhood and a title, for marriage with the slightly illbred and unfortunately named local doctor, Mr. Hoggins; what attitude to take with Miss Betsy Barker, who walks her Alderney cow in flannel underwear; whether Captain Brown must be reproved for carrying a package containing a crippled old woman’s dinner and for admitting publicly that he can’t afford an expensive house.

Mrs. Gaskell makes clear that such infinitesimal concerns are all-important to her characters, even if they amount to little elsewhere. Carried to an extreme, they ruin lives, as when Miss Matty is condemned to an unmarried, childless life and has to turn down the suitor she loves because of his social station. It may seem quiet stuff if one prefers the chiaroscuro of strikes and industrial action, but it is satisfying to anyone who knows that chamber music is as important as a full orchestra.

In the village the women provide most of the overt support, the men make that support possible. For the past decade or more Cranford has provided the ground for a battle between those critics who think the book a covert demonstration of a feminine utopia organized on principles of decency and affection and those who see the village as a literally sterile place because men have as little place there as in a nunnery. Jenny Uglow sensibly disposes of both views: women’s “real tenderness, casually but carefully mentioned as their final virtue, is much needed in the wider world. But their female independence is illusory.”

Jenny Uglow’s new study of Mrs. Gaskell’s life and work is described on the jacket as a biography, but it obviously has as part of its purpose an examination of her subject’s claims for literary canonization, advancing them by earnestly playing down the old-fashioned, personal attraction of Mrs. Gaskell’s lively personality and style, and by briskly asserting that she had more profound social views. Jenny Uglow is to the point in what she likes about Mrs. Gaskell, who “does not take one’s breath away at her breadth and penetration as George Eliot does, nor can she match the visionary intensity of Charlotte Brontë, but her unforced storytelling power and impassioned sympathy create an unrivalled range of fully imagined worlds.” She specifically denies the suitability of the term “charm” for Mrs. Gaskell, fearing that it might minimize her talent. After reading and rereading this biography and reacquainting myself with several of the novels, I have to admit that there is still something to be said for the traditional view of her works, and that Jenny Uglow’s extensive (nearly seven hundred pages) partisanship doesn’t succeed in making her seem quite a world-class novelist. Her continuing appeal, like that of Dickens, comes from the local pleasures of her writing, not in any startling novelty in her informing ideas: in short in the possession of what I am afraid is best defined as charm.

It is difficult to avoid the cliché, for Elizabeth Gaskell was most attractive: witty, handsome (Crabb Robinson was pleased to find “nothing literary about her appearance”), affectionate, teasing, capable of gentle blasphemy or a dash of something improper in her letters, of something colloquial, slangy, with perhaps a touch of mild malice. She could even be funny when writing to dictatorial editors like Charles Dickens and Edward Chapman, who insisted on changing her writing: surely an acid test for good humor. When she was fifty, she danced until four in the morning at an Oxford ball. She would have made a good latter-day Jane Austen character herself, and many of her breezy letters would do credit to her great predecessor. Her cousin referred to them as “a heterogeneous mass of nonsense” and Mrs. Gaskell wanted them all destroyed at her death, but something luckily went wrong with the chain of command, so that a good many remain, but not those to her husband. The letters were published in 1966, with only meager annotation to help the reader, but they are full of treasures for anyone interested in Mrs. Gaskell—or in the delights of the personal letter. Jenny Uglow has dug out a good many nuggets to remind us of their riches, but they are probably best explored by the solitary reader, perhaps with the discreet guidance of a reference book or two.

Since the last century has produced a list of books about Elizabeth Gaskell as long as your arm, it is faintly surprising to find so little agreement about her place in English literature. The piles of studies themselves seem to demand explanatory subtitles, their names betraying both the uncertainty of critics and their determination to get her firmly pinned down somewhere, anywhere, but preferably within easy walking distance of their own territories of professional interest. We have been treated to views of her as both the Artist in Conflict and a Challenge to Christian England. Her name has been promiscuously linked by subtitle with so many suburbs or subdivisions of fiction, such as the English Provincial Novel, the Novel of Social Crisis, or the Novel of Local Pride, that we are quite unfazed at coming across the Basis for Reassessment, even if we haven’t yet finished making the original assessment. Recently the emphasis has been on feminist views of her life and work. It all makes one wonder why so many decades passed after the composition of her own books before anyone discovered that they were not about their ostensible subjects; in the interim most readers felt their themes were clear, even without subtitles.

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