Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell
* This is a Web version of Professor Edgar Wright's DLB article on Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell reproduced by his special permission.
London, 29 September 1810, to William and Elizabeth Holland Stevenson.
30 August 1832 to the Reverend William Gaskell; children: Marianne, Margaret Emily ("Meta"), Florence, William, Julia.
Holybourne, Hampshire, 12 November 1865.
A recent review of Mrs. Gaskell's critical reputation divided her critics into three camps. One group, now fading, still treats her mainly as the author of Cranford (1853). A second emphasizes her "social-problem" novels but insists that they be regarded as literature and not just as social history. The third and dominant one regards her as "a maturing artist, and considers each of her works in relation to the others and her general views, preferring the late fiction but giving all her writing respectful, and perhaps even admiring attention." To this summary should be added a recent special focus on her role and influence as a woman writer, and studies of her as a provincial novelist, relating her work to that of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy in its presentation of life in a regional community. It is also probably true to say that the reputation of her late fiction -- the "nouvelle" Cousin Phillis (1864) and the novel Wives and Daughters (1866) -- is still growing.
She won instant recognition with her first novel, Mary Barton (1848), which shocked readers with its revelations about the grim living conditions of Manchester factory workers and antagonized some influential critics because of its open sympathy for the workers in their relations with the masters; but the high quality of the writing and the characterization were undeniable. (Its accuracy as social observation has been compared to the work of Friedrich Engels and other contemporaries by critics such as John Lucas.) At the same time it presented a new world, the world of Lancashire factory people, making them the main characters and using their dialect (judiciously modified) for the dialogue. In so doing Mrs. Gaskell, with the Brontës, opened a path for George Eliot and later novelists. Yet her next success was with Cranford, stories that drew on memories of her childhood in the small Cheshire town of Knutsford to present an affectionate picture of a class and customs already becoming anachronisms. Cranford has charm, humor, and pathos without sentimentality, and no purpose other than to present and regret the passing of a community whose values are worth recalling. The two elements of Mrs. Gaskell's fiction responded to different elements in her nature: as her Cranford narrator says, "I had vibrated all my life between Drumble [Manchester] and Cranford [Knutsford]." After her biography of Charlotte Brontë (1857), it was the Knutsford side that predominated, providing the setting and the main themes for her later work.
Although she began by creating controversy with social-problem novels and by suggesting the adoption of genuine Christian conduct as a solution, it can be seen now that her real interests always lay with individuals and the underlying moral standards by which they act and are to be judged. Along with this went an appreciation of the changes in attitudes being created by the rapid social and industrial changes of the period. Knutsford and Manchester came to symbolize contrasting values and ways of life; she worked toward reconciling tradition and change, depicting traditional values while recognizing the necessity and desirability of new ideas and a new society. As a result, the direct role of religion drops away rapidly even in her social-problem novels; in the Cranford novels it appears rarely, and then only as a natural element of custom or behavior.
Her attention was also focused from her earliest work on the social and emotional problems of her women characters. She was capable of drawing fine and intelligent portraits of men, but it is the women who receive her closest and most sympathetic attention. Along with Charlotte Brontë, she gave a depth and credibility to her women characters that influenced succeeding novelists such as George Eliot.
Mrs. Gaskell achieved popular and critical esteem in her lifetime, with Cranford easily her most popular work. Although her reputation suffered along with those of all other Victorian writers during the period of critical reaction in the early twentieth century, some of her books were always in print; and A. W. Ward's Knutsford edition of her work (1906-1911), still essential reading for its introductions, was reprinted in 1920. (One can get an idea of the quality of critical estimates at that time by noting that the Cambridge History of English Literature gathered George Eliot along with Disraeli, Charles Kingsley, and Mrs. Gaskell into a chapter on the political and social novel.)
Besides novels, Mrs. Gaskell wrote short stories, essays, and articles for periodicals. Some of the essays deserve to be better known (for example, "French Life"), for she was a natural essayist. Her most famous work of nonfiction is The Life of Charlotte Brontë, still recognized as among the finest biographies in English. Her letters reveal her alert, intelligent curiosity about people and events matched by an eager eye and ear for describing everyday matters. As she says when concluding an early letter to her sister-in-law "Lizzy" Gaskell, "Now mind you write again, and none of your nimini-pimini notes but a sensible nonsensical crossed letter as I do. . . ." ("Crossed" means the double use of space by writing vertically across a section written horizontally.) She is not an "intellectual" writer, though a bright and very well-read one; any comparison would relate her to Jane Austen rather than to George Eliot in terms of erudition, though she stands somewhere between them in approach and outlook. There is no longer any question about whether or not she is a major novelist; she qualifies both as an artist and in relation to the development of the English novel. The publication of the letters (1966), of the information in J. G. Sharps's invaluable Mrs. Gaskell's Observation and Invention (1970), and of Winifred Gérin's biography Elizabeth Gaskell (1976) has provided scholars and critics with the material for further interpretation and reassessment.
Elizabeth Stevenson was born of Unitarian parents in London, where her father, William, was keeper of the treasury records. He was a man of parts who had trained as a minister, tried being a farmer, and developed into a respected writer for the major journals, a career he continued until his death. His marriage to Elizabeth Holland would bring the future novelist into the Holland family of Knutsford in Cheshire, a relationship that was to dominate her life. Mrs. Stevenson died when Elizabeth was only thirteen months old; the child was immediately "adopted" by her mother's sister, Aunt Lumb, and removed to Knutsford, where she grew up in the quiet and tranquil atmosphere of an old-fashioned country town, close to Sandlebridge Farm where her grandfather lived and her other Holland relatives visited. There seems to have been little further contact with her father until she returned to London about a year before he died.
Dissenters, and especially Unitarians, believed in education for girls as well as boys. After lessons at home that included French and dancing instruction from an émigré, she was sent at the age of twelve to the Byerley sisters' school at Barford; the school was moved in 1824 to Stratford-on-Avon. The education was of high quality, broad in range (Latin, French, and Italian were standard in the curriculum), and liberal in outlook. She spent five years in surroundings that admirably suited her tastes, intelligence, and love of the country, leaving the school in 1827 an accomplished and -- according to the evidence of friends and artists -- a vivacious and attractive young woman. She returned to Knutsford, but the disappearance of her only brother brought her back to London in 1828. John Stevenson sailed for the East India Company; nothing is known of how he disappeared, but the sense of loss can be felt in the account of young Peter in Cranford and the Frederick episodes in North and South (1855). Her father had married again, and when Elizabeth met her stepmother there was antipathy rather than sympathy. (The portrait of Molly's stepmother, the incomparable Mrs. Gibson, in Wives and Daughters, is said to reflect Mrs. Gaskell's impressions.) She stayed with her father until his death in 1829, when, after visits to a banker uncle, Swinton Holland, and a doctor uncle, Henry Holland (later Sir Henry and physician to Queen Victoria) -- visits recollected in the opening of North and South -- she returned to live in Knutsford until her marriage.
During a visit to Manchester she met the Reverend William Gaskell, newly appointed as assistant minister at the Cross Street Chapel; they were married on 30 August 1832. Manchester's Unitarian community was prominent in both commercial and cultural life; Cross Street Chapel was an important Unitarian center, and her husband became a leading figure in the community. Some early biographers have suggested that tensions developed in the marriage, but the evidence does not support this view. The Gaskells seem to have been two intelligent and sensitive people who respected each other's independence and temperament without denying the basic roles of husband and paterfamilias, wife and mother; the letters show that they cared about and supported each other's work and habits throughout the marriage. The obvious loss to Mrs. Gaskell was in exchanging Knutsford for Manchester. Knutsford is only sixteen miles from Manchester and is now a commuter suburb, but in the early nineteenth century it was an old-fashioned, sleepy little country town. Although the Gaskells lived on the country edge of Manchester, she was affected physically and mentally by its atmosphere; at the same time, she admired and respected its people and its leading place in the world. The love-hate attitude to "dear old dull ugly smoky grim grey Manchester" is reflected in the earlier social-problem fiction and in her later emphasis on the world of "Cranford."
Mrs. Gaskell spent the next fifteen years mainly in domestic and humanitarian activity. A particular grief was the death in 1837 of Aunt Lumb, who left her an annuity of £80. There were small signs of creativity: a sonnet to her stillborn child (1836), and a narrative poem (1837) in the style of George Crabbe written in collaboration with her husband and meant to be the first of a number of Sketches among the Poor. A friendship with the well-known writers and editors William and Mary Howitt led to a recollection of her schooldays, "Clopton Hall," appearing in their Visits to Remarkable Places (1840). These scattered creative impulses were brought into sharper focus after the death of her nine-month-old son in 1845. Ward states that her husband advised her to turn to writing as a relief from sorrow and encouraged her to begin her first novel, which was completed in 1847 and eventually taken by Chapman and Hall for £ 100. Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life was published anonymously on 25 October 1848. It created a sensation.
The tale is developed around a standard romantic plot. Mary Barton, the motherless daughter of a mill hand, is nearly seduced by young Carson, the mill owner's son. At the same time, a depression hits Manchester, and in the growing labor troubles John Barton, Mary's father, is selected by lot to kill young Carson as an act of union protest. He carries out the murder, but suspicion falls on Jem Wilson, who loves Mary. After complications and difficulties the truth is revealed with the aid of John Barton's outcast sister, Esther. Barton, dying, is reconciled with Carson; Mary and Jem move away. But a summary of the plot gives little hint of the real force of the novel: the presentation of Manchester life and the pressures that turn John Barton into a murderer. A few attempts had been made to portray factory life in fiction, notably Disraeli's Sybil (1845), mainly with a reform intent. But Mary Barton is the first realistic portrayal of the phenomenon of the new major industrial city and its people, just as it is a new development in the use of regional dialect and detail. Manchester and its social context were to most readers an eye-opening revelation, whether it was to "hear of folk lying down to die i' th' streets, or hiding their want i' some hole 0' a cellar till death come to set 'em free"; or to learn about self-taught operatives with scientific reputations such as Job Legh (based on a real person); or to realize how the drive for profit and jobs was creating a type of society based, not on human relationships, but on what Carlyle -- an influence on Mrs. Gaskell -- called the "Cash Nexus." (Carlyle wrote a letter of praise to the still-anonymous author.) At the heart of the novel is her bitter comment: "Are ye worshippers of Christ? or of Alecto? Oh, Orestes! you would have made a very tolerable Christian of the nineteenth century!"
Yet the novel is not ponderous, though at this stage Mrs. Gaskell's faith in the Christian ethic as a solution is too facilely displayed. Although critics such as W. R. Greg protested that the novel was unfair to the masters, they recognized the high quality of the writing, the humor that laced its observations and episodes, and the genuineness of the sentiment. Within a year -- for the anonymity was quickly broken -- Mrs. Gaskell was being lionized in literary London and pressed by Dickens to contribute to his new journal, Household Words. Her rather Wordsworthian tale of guilt, remorse, and repentance, 'Lizzie Leigh" (1850), led off the opening number and was the beginning of a long association, often with exasperation on both sides, between Dickens as editor and Mrs. Gaskell as contributor. Some minor stories had already appeared in other periodicals before Mary Barton came out; by the end of 1851 ten more items were published. They included a Christmas book, The Moorland Cottage (1850), the first in her long short story or "nouvelle" form. Then came a story that was to become one of her finest novels as well as her most popular: Cranford.
"Our Society at Cranford," now the first two chapters of Cranford, appeared in Household Words on 13 December 1851 and was itself a fictional version of an earlier essay, "The Last Generation in England," first published in America in 1849. Further episodes were written at irregular intervals until 1853, when the book was published. In the process of writing it, Mrs. Gaskell's natural talent developed a rudimentary plot around Miss Matty's problems and the search for her missing brother, but the attractiveness of Cranford lies in the way in which she recreates with humor and affection a way of life that was already old-fashioned when she was a young girl growing up among the little group of ladies of good birth but small income who constituted Cranford society and maintained traditions of social behavior and dress by practicing "elegant economy." While their eccentricities are noted, the essential humanity of the characters is never forgotten.
The original episode was created around the formidable Miss Deborah Jenkyns and her softhearted younger sister, Miss Matty. With the Cranford setting established, the story chronicles the arrival of an elderly widower, Captain Brown, and his two daughters as newcomers to Cranford and their reception by the "Amazons," who are won over by his honest frankness even though he is a man. The sickly elder daughter finally dies; as she is dying the captain is killed by a train while rescuing a young child. A faithful admirer returns to marry the younger daughter. Dickens, as editor of Household Words, pressed Mrs. Gaskell for more; at irregular intervals between January 1852 and May 1853 eight more episodes appeared (there was a hiatus in the middle while she concentrated on Ruth). In the process there was a shift of interest and a structural change. As Mrs. Gaskell told Ruskin, "The beginning of 'Cranford' was one paper in 'Household Words'; and I never meant to write more, so killed Capt. Brown very much against my will." In expanding the episode into a series she quickly "killed off" Deborah, making. the gentler Miss Matty the central figure and developing a rudimentary plot around a long-lost brother who finally returns from India. (This recollection of her own lost brother, John, has already been noted.) The novelist in Mrs. Gaskell was taking over. The interest remains fixed, however, on feelings, relationships, and social conduct. As Winifred Gérin says, It is a tale told without apparent effort in a style of intimate confidence, like gossip exchanged with a friend" -- like Mrs. Gaskell's letters, in fact, only with the vital difference that the gossip is being shaped by the imagination and control of a developing novelist. A few months before she died, Mrs. Gaskell confided to Ruskin that "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 -- I was going to say, enjoy it! (but that would not be pretty!) laugh over it. And it is true too, for I have seen the cow that wore the grey flannel jacket. . . ." The freshness of the telling mirrors the fresh delight in recollection. She would return to the Knutsford world to produce greater work, but not again anything so delightful. (In 1863 she did write one further episode, "The Cage at Cranford," now usually published as an "appendix" to the volume.)
During 1851 and 1852 Mrs. Gaskell was also at work on Ruth, published in January 1853, for which Chapman paid £500. Charlotte Brontë, to whom Mrs. Gaskell had sent an early sketch of the plot, admired it sufficiently to make her own publishers delay the publication of Villette for a few days so that critics could concentrate on Ruth. Its subject was again controversial, this time prompted by anger at the moral conventions that condemned a "fallen woman" to ostracism and almost inevitable prostitution. Dickens's work on behalf of such women may have influenced her choice of subject, but she had already touched on it in the character of Esther in Mary Barton. As before, she drew on background and people she knew: the Reverend Mr. Turner, an old family friend, and his home town of Newcastle provided some of the personality and the setting for the unworldly Dissenting minister Thurston Benson, who befriends the abandoned Ruth, helps her to bring up her child, then stands by her when the deception that she is a widow is revealed. The melodramatic ending, with Ruth redeeming herself as a nurse in a cholera epidemic and dying as she cares for her old lover, while grounded in medical realities of the time, still shows a somewhat desperate reliance on the dramatic conclusion for a plot. The strength of the novel lies in its presentation of social conduct within a small Dissenting community when tolerance and rigid morality clash -- Mr. Bradshaw is a finely conceived study of self-righteousness that clearly influenced Dickens's caricature of Mr. Bounderby in Hard Times a year later. Although some element of the "novel with a purpose is present, Mrs. Gaskell's sensitivity in portrayal of character and, even more, her feel for relationships within families and small communities, show a developing sense of direction as a novelist. At the same time, the range of character and the naturalness of the dialogue show increasing command of her material. Sally, the blunt and loyal housekeeper to the Thurstons, is the first of a line of domestic portraits that are a notable feature of Mrs. Gaskell's fiction. Mrs. Gaskell knew the Nightingale family; A. W. Ward, in the introduction to his collection of Mrs. Gaskell's works, quotes a report that Florence Nightingale not only thought Ruth to be "a beautiful work" but approved of the fact that Mrs. Gaskell "had not made Ruth start at once as a hospital nurse, but arrive at it after much other nursing experience." Mrs. Gaskell knew the situations she wrote about; her experience as a minister's wife in Manchester during cholera outbreaks comes through in the novel.
Ruth touched off an immediate reaction from shocked moralists, though many critics and readers praised it for its courage and its quality. But Mrs. Gaskell, though such attacks made her physically ill, stood by her work." 'An unfit subject for fiction' is the thing to say about it; I knew all this before; but I determined notwithstanding to speak my mind out about it...," she said, though she admitted it was a prohibited book to her own daughters.
She now, somewhat unwillingly, gave in to Dickens's request for a full-length novel for Household Words. This would be her final "problem-novel," North and South; but before getting down to it she traveled and visited friends. A notable visit was to Haworth: she had met Charlotte Brontë in 1850, and a friendship had developed. Another new friend was Mme Mohl, whose Paris home would be a regular base for future visits abroad. But finally, early in 1854, she began work on the as-yet-untitled novel and was soon anxiously inquiring from Dickens, who was publishing Hard Times, if he was going to "strike," a reference to the central episode of her own book. This is a scene in which a crowd of angry strikers attempts to storm the cotton mill run by John Thornton, who is employing Irish immigrants as knobsticks" (strikebreakers). Dickens assured Mrs. Gaskell, who was concerned about apparent plagiarism, that such a detailed strike scene would not appear in Hard Times. The basic plot of the novel is straightforward. The setting is once again Manchester (here called Milton). Margaret Hale is a well-bred girl from Helstone in the rural south of England who is suddenly pitchforked with little money or status into the harsh world of the industrialized north. A leading manufacturer, John Thornton, falls in love with her. They finally learn to understand each other's worth, and in the process to appreciate the qualities of social background each had initially despised in the other.
The novel is far from naive in its development, however, or in the complex structure of plot and subplots used to identify various themes and sets of social or personal relationships. North and South develops by stages. It begins in the south, where Margaret's father is a country clergyman who resigns his living and moves north after his conscience rejects traditional articles of faith. It is a misleading beginning since it appears to anticipate, in the popular fashion of the period, a novel of religious doubt. Once the shift north is achieved, on the advice of a wealthy friend from Milton, the novel moves with force and purpose. Layers of social tension are revealed as men are opposed to masters, unionists to nonunionists, wealth to poverty, preconceptions to preconceptions. Mr. Hale becomes a private tutor of classics; Mrs. Hale, clinging desperately to gentility, slowly fades and dies. Nicholas Higgins, the workers' leader, is led from atheism to at least a respect for religion through Margaret's friendship with his daughter Bessie, who is dying from consumption brought on by mill conditions. Mrs. Gaskell even uses a subplot that recalls once again her own vanished brother: Margaret's brother is a naval officer forced to live abroad after standing up to a sadistic captain and being accused of mutiny; Frederick returns incognito to see his dying mother and is suspected by Thornton of being Margaret's secret lover. The various levels of the complicated plot move to resolution through reconciliation and understanding, always Mrs. Gaskell's method and point of view. Thornton gives work to the unemployed Higgins after the strike. Margaret inherits a fortune and saves Thornton from ruin which threatens not only his mill but his experiments with Higgins in improved working conditions. Finally Margaret and Thornton marry.
The contrasts and themes are presented with far more power and subtlety than a plot summary can suggest. For example, the beauty of Helstone contrasts with the ugliness of Milton, but the beauty is a surface for ignorance and cruelty, while the ugliness conceals intelligence and vigor. Furthermore, the values of both Helstone and Milton are laid alongside the idleness and luxury of fashionable London. North and South upset preconceived ideas to create an understanding of the new industrial power that had emerged, whose reality was little known and less appreciated. At the same time, with some deliberateness, it balanced the one-sided workingman's view of factory life that Mrs. Gaskell had been criticized for after Mary Barton.
North and South, for which she received £ 600 in all, marks a major stage in Mrs. Gaskell's development in several ways. She consciously instituted a comparison between the old rural and new industrial societies; when the problems of the rural laborer and those of the industrial hand were compared, the advantage lay with the new society, as Margaret admits: "If the world stood still it would retrograde -- I must not think so much of how circumstances affect me myself, but how they affect others, if I wish to have a right judgment." Even more important is the extent to which her most complex and well-motivated plot to date is firmly structured around the detailed and sensitive study of emotional and intellectual growth in the heroine. In North and South Mrs. Gaskell achieves maturity as a novelist. A mark of her confidence in herself was her quiet refusal to modify her way of writing to suit Dickens. In truth, North and South is not well suited to weekly serialization; one can feel sympathy with Dickens's increasing frustration -- though she did compress the ending, which was rewritten for book publication. Not until the easier bondage of the Cornhill would she allow another major novel to be serialized.
North and South was completed by January 1855, and as usual Mrs. Gaskell recuperated by going visiting, this time to Paris and London. She was still away when she heard that Charlotte Brontë had died on 31 March. She had already begun to think of a memoir of her friend when, to her surprise, Brontë's father and husband both asked her to write an official biography. On l8 June she wrote to George Smith, Brontë's publisher, agreeing to undertake it. It was to occupy her fully for the next two years; the result was The Life of Charlotte Brontë; published on 25 March 1857, for which Smith paid her £ 800.
The Life of Charlotte Brontë was an immediate success and has established itself as one of the great biographies. Within the conventions of the period (she did not, for example, feel free to deal with Brontë's feelings for Constantin Heger) it is remarkably frank and full in its search for truth. Later biographies have modified but not replaced it; The Life of Charlotte Brontë still stands as a portrait of a remarkable family and its background, as well as being a detailed study of the development and motivation of its exceptional heroine.
For Mrs. Gaskell personally, however, the immediate result of the biography was disastrous. An initial wave of praise was quickly followed by angry protests from some of the people dealt with. In a couple of cases legal action was threatened; she had in fact allowed her sympathies in these cases to color her judgment and had accepted a one-sided view. With the help of her husband and George Smith the problems were resolved without recourse to law, although in the case of Lady Scott, where Mrs. Gaskell had accepted Branwell's version of his dismissal from his tutoring job and laid the blame on his refusal to be seduced by his employer's wife, a public retraction in the Times was needed. As she wrote ruefully to Ellen Nussey, Charlotte's old friend: "I am in a hornet's nest with a vengeance. A second edition had to be withdrawn and a revised third edition published on 22 August 1857; this became the standard text.
The Life of Charlotte Brontë is successful because Mrs. Gaskell could treat it as she did her novels. There is perceptive self-criticism in a comment she made that same year to George Smith when rejecting a request to do another biography, one with a political background: "I like to write about character, and the manners of a particular period -- for the life of a great Yorkshire Squire of the last century I think I could have done pretty well; but I cannot manage politics." Character, manners, a given period, and a specific community constituted her natural territory. The reference to Yorkshire and the last century has, however, a particular interest, for this would be the background of her next novel, Sylvia's Lovers (1863), which owes something of its tone and its heightened psychological insight to the work on the biography.
Mrs. Gaskell had left England on 13 February 1857, before The Life of Charlotte Brontë was published, to be the guest of the American sculptor William Whetmore Story in Rome, where she arrived while the carnival was in progress. The holiday was ever afterward recalled as a high point in her life, not only for the impression made by Rome itself but also as the start of a lifelong friendship with the young Charles Eliot Norton (later professor of fine arts at Harvard), a friendship well described by Germ as "half maternal, half platonic." The letters between them are a major source of information about Mrs. Gaskell's later years. She returned refreshed to find the "hornet's nest" and to pick up once again her life in Manchester and her work as a novelist.
During 1858-1859 she wrote rapidly, mainly items for Dickens, of which two are of more than passing interest. My Lady Ludlow (1858) is a short novel cut in two by a long digressive tale. But the basic narrative has something of the Cranford touch in its setting of a remembered past with its society and characters; it is the first evidence of a shift back to a Cranford approach as the vehicle for the novelist's imagination. On this occasion, however, the basis is not Knutsford, though similar; the setting of the great house and its wide-ranging domain introduces a social breadth that anticipates Wives and Daughters, though the period is the late eighteenth century rather than the early nineteenth. The second item, Lois the Witch (1861), is a powerfully somber nouvelle about the Salem witch trials whose manner prefigures, by its interest in morbid psychology, her treatment of Philip's relationship with Sylvia in her next novel. This work for Dickens provided money for travel for Mrs. Gaskell and her daughters. Meta, in particular, because of a broken engagement as well as her health in general, was of continuing concern to the anxious mother. Gérin argues that this broken engagement was one of the sources for the central episode of Sylvia's love for Kincaid in Sylvia's Lovers; the plot of the return of a "dead" husband had already been anticipated in a story for Dickens, "The Manchester Marriage" (1858).
Mrs. Gaskell's relationship with George Smith, begun with the biography, had by now developed on friendly as well as business terms. She was already in contact with him over "The Specksioneer" (an early title suggestion for Sylvia's Lovers) by the end of 1859. The appearance of his new periodical, the Cornhill magazine, in 1860 would provide an outlet for her later work more congenial than All the Year Round (Dickens's successor to Household Words); the longer sections and monthly publication were better suited to her type of fiction, and she hoped to reserve her better work for it. In a revealing letter to Smith she says of a one-volume-length story (probably "A Dark Night's Work") that it "is not good enough for the CM -- I am the best judge of that please -- but might be good enough for HW." Sylvia's Lovers was not, however, for serial publication.
The period between the publication of My Lady Ludlow and the completion of Sylvia's Lovers was particularly strenuous. At home, on top of the demands on the wife of a busy minister and mother of four daughters whose futures were a source of concern, there were the calls on her time as a hostess and a celebrity. (A good example is the occasion when Manchester was host to the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1861, and her house was full of visitors.) Yet the effects of Manchester on her health and spirits made holidays a necessity -- even if they were usually working holidays -- whether at her favorite seaside at Silverdale, or in Heidelberg or Paris. Her travels frequently supplied her with material for minor stories or articles that she could write quickly and send off, mainly to Dickens, to pay for the trips. A special visit was one to Whitby in November 1859 to research the background for Sylvia's Lovers.
The writing moved quickly at first, but by the end of 1860 the novel was only a quarter finished. It progressed fitfully, now provisionally named "Phillip's Idol," through 1861 and 1862, much of it written when Mrs. Gaskell was away from home. Before it was finished, she was caught up in the relief efforts to deal with the depression caused by the cotton shortage in the last month of 1862, when the American Civil War cut off supplies. Her feelings come out in a letter to Smith written during a September visit to the south coast: "I believe we ought to be going back to Manchester (and very hard work, I fear, which exhausts one both bodily and mentally with depressing atmosphere of both kinds)." The depression and exhaustion can be sensed in the final volume of Sylvia's Lovers, where both imagination and vitality flag. The novel was finished by the end of the year, and on 31 December she received payment of £1000 from Smith. Sylvia's Lovers was published in three volumes in February 1863, dedicated to "My Dear Husband, By Her Who Best Knows His Value."
Many of the themes and influences in Sylvia's Lovers can be traced in earlier works. The wild countryside and crude habits of its people owe something to the Brontës. Several of Mrs. Gaskell's shorter pieces had used historical episodes as their bases; the background for Whitby ("Monkshaven"), its whaling industry, and the riot against the press-gang were in the sources she had used for these pieces. The story of the return of the "dead" husband, which is the climax of the plot, was taken from Crabbe's poem "Ruth" in Tales of the Hall (1819). What is new is the general tone and power of what Easson calls a "tragical history."
Sylvia Robson is the center of a powerful, if somewhat melodramatic, story. Mrs. Gaskell created in Sylvia a portrait of passionate intensity without parallel in her work, which for three quarters of the novel it is difficult to fault. The author had watched her own daughters mature, rejoice, and suffer; she had pondered over the details of Charlotte Brontë's life. All her experience is imaginatively applied to the history of Sylvia. Sylvia's early scorn for her cousin Philip, her love for the harpooner (specksioneer) Kincaid, Kincaid's removal by the press-gang and Philip's false report that presumes his death, her weary acceptance of Philip as husband after her father's execution following the riot -- these episodes are welded into a tightly structured narrative that holds the interest. As always, Mrs. Gaskell excels in presenting the setting and community life of the locality. But it is Sylvia's emotional vitality and intensity that give the book its force.
Sylvia's Lovers is a fine work that has been given a tragic ending by a novelist whose temperament and approach are not really tragic. Mrs. Gaskell's view of life accepted the tragic, but was basically melioristic. The first two volumes are full of energy; they sparkle and have humor, as does Sylvia's own character. The ending shows forced invention rather than true tragedy. Philip vanishes, returns unrecognized, and rescues his daughter from drowning before he dies, reconciled with his wife.
The novel's strength lies in the characters and in the insight into relationships between those characters in their setting. Critics vary in their views of it as tragedy but there is wide agreement on the power of the presentation. The tone was not, however, one that was finally congenial to Mrs. Gaskell. In her last works, without losing this new maturity of insight into character, she revisited and reinterpreted the Knutsford world and the changes in attitude that had overtaken society since she was a child there.
By 1863 Mrs. Gaskell seemed to be moving into a calmer, less strenuous way of life, so that when she returned from a Paris holiday to find an appeal from George Smith for a Cornhill story, she was able to offer him Cousin Phillis, a long short story that she had already started writing. Along with some other pieces, she sold the copyright of the story for £ 250. Cousin Phillis ran from November 1863 to February 1864.
The world of the communities created by Mrs. Gaskell in Cousin Phillis, and later in Wives and Daughters, while based on the Cranford world, is experiencing change. The card from the man she secretly loves that shatters Phillis's hope and health is brought by the penny post (created in 1840). The railway, though not physically destructive as it is in Dickens's Dombey and Son (1846-1848), brings industrial progress and its new breed of men to the pastoral setting of Hope Farm, an evocation of her grandfather's Sandlebridge Farm (as Minister Holman is based on Samuel Holland himself). This is still a stable world, based on work and sound moral values. The story is an uncomplicated one; its virtues are in the manner of its development and telling. When Paul Manning, an engineer trainee on a railway development nearby, first visits his cousin, his narrative reflects the sense of having stumbled into some idyllic retreat: "I fancied that my Sunday coat was scented for days afterwards by the bushes of sweetbriar and the fraxinella that perfumed the air." Change comes from contact between the two worlds; Phillis's love for Paul's employer, Holdsworth, changes her from quiet girl to suffering woman. Holdsworth himself never quite succumbs to the idyll.. His work moves him on beyond Phillis and Hope Farm: his implied failure is a lack of sensitivity, of moral discrimination. Phillis will eventually recover; but the ending has, perhaps, overtones of irony, as she agrees to a change of scene and convalescence. 'Only for a short time, Paul! Then -- we will go back to the peace of the old days. I know we shall; I can, and I will!"
Most critics would agree with Arthur Pollard's assessment of Cousin Phillis as the author's crowning achievement in the short novel; the praise is virtually unanimous. It is also recognized as a fitting prelude to her final novel, Wives and Daughters, the idea for which had developed in such detail that she was able to offer it to George Smith with a full synopsis on 3 May 1864. Mrs. Gaskell's wish to carry out a personal plan was also an incentive to writing it. For some time she had been considering the purchase of a house in the country which would be ready for her husband's retirement (be never did retire; he died in Manchester in 1884), and would at the same time be a retreat from Manchester. She bad finally found one about fifty miles from London; the £ 2,000 that Smith paid her for the novel enabled her to make the purchase. Wives and Daughters: An Every-Day Story ran in the Cornhill from August 1864 to January 1866; the final installment was never written, yet the ending was known, and the novel as it exists is virtually complete.
Henry James, "testifying . . . to the fact of her genius" in the year the novel appeared, noted "the gentle skill with which the reader is slowly involved in the tissue of the story" and the way in which its new world presents "this seeming accession of social and moral knowledge." A comparison to Jane Austen for its combination of humor and moral judgment in the observation of character and conduct is often made, not unjustly, though Mrs. Gaskell's canvas is larger than Austen's bit of ivory.
The plot of Wives and Daughters is complex, since it relies far more on a series of relationships between family groups in Hollingford than it does on the dramatic structure, which nevertheless is well controlled and integrated with the themes. The novel is set in the same general period as Cranford and Cousin Phillis, but the Knutsford of Mrs. Gaskell's youth is now reinterpreted as a much wider community. The novelist's matured art and judgments combine with her natural interests, particularly in the portraits of her heroine and what may be called her "anti-heroine." For in Cynthia Kirkpatrick, Mrs. Gaskell created a personality less tragic, yet more intriguing and sophisticated than Sylvia Robson, possessing in W. A. Craik's words "qualities that any novelist before her would find reprehensible." While this perhaps overstates the pioneering element, it does aptly recognize a character of the complexity of Thackeray's Beatrix Esmond within the "every-day story" of Hollingford. Cynthia's less complex but equally well-observed stepsister, Molly Gibson, will marry Roger Hamley, whose career and character draw in part on Mrs. Gaskell's distant relative, Charles Darwin to present a conjunction of traditional values and new conceptions. But without doubt the finest creation is the doctor's second wife and Molly's stepmother, Mrs. Gibson. Through speech and conduct she presents, as Margaret Ganz points out, "the humorous and ironical appraisal of a vain and hopelessly petty nature" that is yet "not wholly ill-natured." It may be noted that the world Mrs. Gaskell sees is one without villains in the accepted sense; trouble and suffering are caused by life itself, by selfishness, by a failure of sensitivity to human feelings, by a lack of deeply felt moral standards. The reader is left with the feeling that even Mr. Preston, whose machinations cause the main trouble for Molly, is as much sinned against as sinning.
Hollingford is a community where society, from the great house to the tradespeople, has to grapple with a changing world, whether in technology or conduct or ideas. The length and the leisurely pace of serialization allowed the novelist to move, as James appreciated, with details of daily life and psychology; Gérin points out that Molly Gibson is distinguished from the author's previous heroines not only by her class -- "she is a lady -- but [by] the gradualness and naturalness of her growth." Throughout Wives and Daughters the humorous, ironical, and sometimes satirical view of the Knutsford generation, along with serious undertones, is developed with a heightened sense of artistic self-confidence and maturity.
As already mentioned, the novel was not completed. Mrs. Gaskell's health was poor, and she felt fatigue at the pressure of regular stints of work. She was on a visit to her new house when, on Sunday, 12 November 1865, she suddenly collapsed and died.
Mrs. Gaskell once wrote to a friend about the contradictory elements in her own nature -- her "Mes," as she called them. "One of my Mes is, I do believe, a true Christian -- (only people call her socialist and communist), another of my mes is a wife and mother. . . . Now that's my 'social self' I suppose. Then again I've another self with a full taste for beauty and convenience which is pleased on its own account. How am I to reconcile all these warring members?" This self-analysis helps to explain the variety as well as the common themes to be found in her work, just as it helps to explain how she earned the respect and friendship of people from all ranks and religions. She was intensely interested in all types of human behavior and activity; it was an interest that provided her with material for essays and short stories as well as for her major fiction. Critical awareness of her as a social historian is now more than balanced by awareness of her innovativeness and artistic development as a novelist. James Donald Barry summed up recent criticism in 1978 with the comment that "she is surely among the best of the second rank of Victorian novelists and perhaps has joined the first." Since that time a number of editions of individual works and collections of shorter pieces, properly edited, have become available; they are helping to consolidate her reputation as undoubtedly major.
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