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.
Following the publication of her letters, the major biographical source has been an accurate, modest life by Winifred Gérin (1976). This new book has the dedication and amplitude of a definitive study, even if one can’t agree with it all. With so many views from which to pick, Jenny Uglow has had a difficult time settling to a single aspect of her subject and has decided to keep most of them around for reconsideration. Her understandable reluctance to leave out anything is reflected in her preface, where she tells us that her subtitle, A Habit of Stories, refers, as one might expect, to Mrs. Gaskell’s pleasure in tales, and is then extended to include her own sense of “a habit as a garment, a feminine cloak, a dress for action like a riding-habit, a badge of vocation like a nun’s.” This leads her on to “see story-telling less as a habit than a habitat, subject to its own evolutionary laws.” Wisely, I think, she realizes that she has only been looking for an opening gimmick and silently drops the two latter metaphors when she gets into her stride, so that we hear little more of them.
The immediate problem with so many subjects is of course sheer length, so that one begins to wonder whether Mrs. Gaskell wasn’t right in keeping her own biography of Charlotte Brontë to roughly half the length of this. Glimpses of Mrs. Gaskell’s inner life are fascinating as windows into another century when they are opened in her letters, but most of her life was externally uneventful. The thinness of dramatic happening is fleshed out with critical digressions about Mrs. Gaskell’s works, which were no doubt the real center of her life. In dealing with her fiction Jenny Uglow typically includes one chapter about what happened in her life before she wrote a novel; a second chapter considers its plot, feminist applicability, structure, and language; a third chapter often considers at some length the reception of the novel and any related material that has been missed in the other chapters. Readers may find themselves looking to the back of the book and counting the remaining pages.
So many different kinds of feminism have developed in the past decade that it is probably not Jenny Uglow’s fault that the argument of her own approach is slightly fuzzed up by making too little distinction between the forms current in her subject’s day and those of our own. When she points out women’s grievances against men, she often trivializes the whole argument by the unimportance of her examples. For instance, in an early story, “Christmas Storms and Sunshine,” Mrs. Jenkins and Mrs. Hodgson take up a quarrel raging between their husbands. On Christmas Eve Mary Hodgson beats the Jenkins cat for gnawing her husband’s dinner, then has to beg Mrs. Jenkins for help with her baby’s croup. At first Mrs. Jenkins refuses to help, then saves the baby’s life.
Because of the incident, the two women become friends, but, as Jenny Uglow observes, “nothing can puncture the comic self-importance of the men.” To hammer her point home, she switches the argument to the animal kingdom for a “contrast of male and female values,” then tells us that as the families share Christmas dinner “the unfeeling (male) cat has eaten the Jenkins’s own sausages.” Surely, if the feline thief, let alone its gender, is so relevant, there should be some mention here of the cats in Cranford, one of which (female) steals, eats, then vomits up Mrs. Forrester’s lace collar, and another (neutered?) runs off with a neck of mutton.
Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson was born in 1810, the daughter of a former Unitarian minister, who had given up his original calling because he thought it wrong to receive a salary for propagating his faith. Her mother died when Elizabeth was not yet two, and she was taken to the north of England to live with an aunt, while her father stayed in London after a second marriage, apparently without so much as visiting his daughter until she was twelve. Her feelings of being deserted were not dissipated by the considerable kindness she received from a network of relatives and connections in what Jenny Uglow rightly calls the “bewilderingly entwined Unitarian community.” One of the protecting relatives was, as she explains somewhat less lucidly, “trebly related to Elizabeth. His mother was the eldest sister of her grandfather, Samuel; his first wife Mary was her mother’s cousin (the daughter of Thomas Holland of Manchester); his second wife, Jane Willetts, was the sister of her uncle Peter’s first wife, Mary, and of Swinton’s wife, Anne. Jane had died in 1826 and he now lived with his unmarried daughter, Ann, who was in her early thirties.” Evidently true, so far as I can follow it, but the whole matter could have been set straight far more easily by a badly needed chart of her family tree.
When she was twenty-one Elizabeth Stevenson was married to William Gaskell of Manchester, who was five years older than she and, like her father, a Unitarian minister. Jenny Uglow reproduces a splendid photograph of Gaskell “relaxing” in Scotland, leaning so tensely against a building that it seems as if his tweed suit and the wide-awake hat held stiffly in his hand, the only clues to his being on a walking holiday, had been sent in advance and his handsome head added by the photographer. But it is easy to see why the lively Elizabeth Stevenson should have been as attracted to this reserved and intellectual man as he was to her, for his buttoned-up exterior was the sign not of self-conscious rectitude but of real moral probity mingled with affection and pawky fun. It doesn’t sound a passionate marriage, but it worked, and Jenny Uglow shows how deeply they needed each other’s support. Gaskell first suggested to his wife that she begin a novel to take her mind off the death of an infant son, and he helped her with her interminable difficulties over all her subsequent publications, particularly with her inability to spell or punctuate, her abnormal worry over reviews, and the problems of getting along with her editors, of whom Dickens was the most awkward. Naturally, she worked beside William in his chapel, and in her own home she held classes to educate mill girls, a group for whom she had particular sympathy. The pair shared religious faith and their love of their four surviving daughters should have guaranteed a happy marriage.
Yet the truth was that they found it difficult to be together constantly after their marriage, although that apparently did not lessen their affection. Some thirty years after they were married Mrs. Gaskell wangled an invitation for her husband to stay in Rome with the wealthy American sculptor William Wetmore Story (whose name is misspelled here some two dozen times), and she sent a description that unintentionally reveals a good bit about their marriage. William, she told Story, badly needed a vacation; “he can find no one to go with him, but the women of his family, and he says he feels so much the entire want of change, and the desirableness of having no responsibility that he would rather not feel that he had any one dependant [sic] on him.”
She was positive Story would like him: “He is very shy, but very merry when he is well, delights in puns & punning, & is very fond of children, playing with them all the day long, not caring for them so much when they are grown up, used to speak Italian pretty well, but says he can’t now, 6 foot high, grey hair & whiskers…. You’ll think him stiff till his shyness wears off, as I am sure it will directly with you.”
After that Gaskell habitually took long holiday tramps by himself or with his brother (avoiding foreign food when possible), while his wife took excursions with one or more of their children. Not something that would have lifted an eyebrow among the aristocracy, but so unusual for a Unitarian minister and wife with limited income that we want to know more, since missing or inadequate fathers are often important in Mrs. Gaskell’s novels. As she became famous, she moved in grander literary and social circles in London, often leaving William behind in Manchester.
There is precious little direct evidence about the nature of their marriage, since of their large correspondence only one letter has survived, but deliberate separation may be as eloquent about a marriage as wife-beating or infidelity or abuse of the children. Jenny Uglow is not one for speculation and she seems singularly incurious about the reasons for the oddness of this union, when we are hoping she will make at least an informed guess or two. Biographers presumably know their sources well, and we count on them for explanations that we can’t see for ourselves.
One slight clue to this marriage may lie in Mrs. Gaskell’s continued romantic, or sexual, interest in younger men, the best-known of whom was probably that ubiquitous Harvard man Charles Eliot Norton, who managed to get to know practically every well-known writer in England. He and Mrs. Gaskell met in Rome in 1857 at Carnival time when he saw her standing on a balcony and smiled at her. “Oh look what a charming face!” she exclaimed and was told it was Norton. He was some sixteen years younger than she, obviously flattered by the interest of the still handsome and moderately famous writer, and happily took on the sentimental role of cavaliere servente, writing frequent letters and sending great bunches of flowers. As Jenny Uglow says with a nice discrimination: “It would be too strong to say that Elizabeth fell in love with Charles. He was part of her Italian romance and she fell in love with the whole experience.” It is highly improbable that much happened of which William could disapprove, but the ardent friendship invites notice when her marriage was otherwise under apparent stress. It is somehow fitting that seven years after meeting Norton she died while preparing the holiday house she intended as a surprise present for William.
Not helping the reader form an opinion isn’t characteristic of the author of this book, and we often feel ungratefully that she is much too anxious to tell us what to think, nudging us by putting quotations into simpler words, explaining them when their meaning is obvious, occasionally getting the whole thing wrong by not seeing the point of the jokes. Shortly before her marriage, when she was much occupied with the whole subject, Elizabeth Stevenson asked playfully, “What do you think of my knowing forty-three couples engaged—couples, not single people,” to which the author adds reprovingly: “A touch of exaggeration perhaps.” Another time Mrs. Gaskell told John Forster that “An old lady a Mrs. Frances Wright said to one of my cousins ‘I have never been able to spell since I lost my teeth.”‘ In case we are nodding, Jenny Uglow explains that she was writing “completely inconsequentially.” After Mrs. Gaskell’s light-hearted account of being soaked in a Welsh bog and going into a cottage to change her stockings, where “the woman cd not speak English or we Welsh, but we had merry laughs and some conversation, and a good piece of oat cake notwithstanding,” the habit of anticlimax can’t be resisted: “Her thirst to communicate was rarely balked.”
If it were not so repetitive, the author’s too attentive presence might be merely amusing as an example of her enthusiasm for her subject. In the midst of discussing the alterations that occur in both Cranford and the greater world, she remarks that “Gaskell shows that change, although painful, is not necessarily bad.” True enough, but not sufficiently startling to warrant repetition fifteen lines later: “Good can come out of change, however threatening.”
Her quotations from Mrs. Gaskell’s letters, often squeezing out their gaiety until the sponge is dry, suggest that Jenny Uglow is not much at ease with comic writing. Her treatment of Cranford, for example, insists that it is a funny book but her analysis of it wouldn’t suggest that it ever made her laugh much. Mrs. Gaskell herself wrote to Ruskin just before her death, “It is the only one of my own books that I can read again;—but whenever I am ailing or ill, I take ‘Cranford’ and…laugh over it afresh!”
Elizabeth Stevenson’s marriage provided the name by which she has been universally known ever since. In her first sentence Jenny Uglow writes that “most of us still talk of ‘Mrs. Gaskell.’ ” But she suspects that its use is covertly avoiding controversy by a “blazon of matronly respectability” and that it is too “comfortable,” so she refers to her as either “Elizabeth,” which seems a reasonable alternative to frequent repetition, or “Gaskell,” which does not. Occasionally, when she forgets, she lapses into “Mrs. Gaskell.” Any Victorian would have known that “Mrs.” had little to do with comfort or respectability but was a completely neutral reference to her civil status; only if she were arrested or convicted of crime would a respectable woman be stripped of the title, and she would have felt naked in public at its omission. (Who remembers the first names of Mrs. Oliphant Mrs. Jameson, Mrs. Hemans, Mrs Norton, or that pair of popular novelists with names so similar that it is tempting to believe they are the same woman, Mrs. Henry Wood and Mrs. Humphry Ward?) Since biography is as concerned with the spirit of the past as with the letter, it seems pointless to write off the thoroughly suitable designation by which she has been famous for a century and a half, in order to cram her into anachronistic conformity. Such small lapses of historical tact and felicity chip away at the reader’s confidence despite all the affection and learning that have obviously gone into this enormous biography.
March 24, 1994