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 …