Selected products from Elizabeth Gaskell
Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) is today remembered as one of the greatest female writers of the English tongue. She was born in Chelsea on September 29th, 1810, to William Stevenson, a Scottish Unitarian minister before becoming the keeper of the Treasury Records, and to Elizabeth Holland. Both parents inculcated their strong Unitarian beliefs into their children, including Elizabeth who was often reluctant to display her religious convictions, though. A number of her novels were highly controversial for dealing with delicate political and social issues of the Victorian Age such as the exploitation of the working class and the situation of women in society. These included Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life, Ruth and Cranford. Due to their concentration on the observation of the Victorian society and the mechanisms that governed social classes, Gaskell’s works are today of much interest not only to literary scholars and critics, but also to social historians.
The early death of Elizabeth Gaskell’s mother represented a crucial turning point in the daughter’s life. Indeed, her father decided to send her to be brought up by her maternal aunt in Knutsford, Cheshire. Such a crucial development left Gaskell deprived of the care of both her parents. Her father soon remarried and had other children from his new wife. Although Gaskell spent most of her childhood in Cheshire away from her father and his new family, she used to have a positive attitude towards her half-siblings.
Gaskell’s aunt encouraged her to learn the rules of language and writing and to read books. In the beginning, Gaskell attended a school at Bradford House before she went to another school in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1824 where she was able to learn about the arts, literature and Victorian traditions and manners. In addition, and despite being separated from her family, her brother John and her father used to encourage her to read and write, often providing her with necessary books and writing material. After finishing school, Gaskell paid some visits to maternal relatives in London, Newcastle upon Tyne and Edinburgh. In 1828, her brother John, who worked in the merchant navy, disappeared definitively on a journey to India. This disastrous loss depressed her father and she had to go to his household to nurse him for the next year before he died.
In 1832, Elizabeth Gaskell, née Stevenson, fell in love with William Gaskell and married him. Like Elizabeth’s father, William was a Unitarian minister and was equally fond of literature and the arts. Unitarianism, which was largely present in Elizabeth Gaskell’s childhood and married life, is a Christian doctrine that believes in divine unity as opposed to Trinitarianism. Unitarianism is also a highly rationalistic belief that highlights the fundamental role of the human in the world. This set of beliefs greatly marked Elizabeth Gaskell’s life and work whose professional career as a published writer actually started when she settled with her husband in Manchester. The industrial aspect of the city had a great impact on Gaskell who felt the need to speak about poor workers and their exploitation by large industrial companies. A collection of poems and short stories entitled “Sketches among the Poor” first appeared in 1837 in The Blackwood Magazine. The work, which was co-authored by her husband, was followed by the anonymously-published “Clopton Hall” and then by “Notes on Cheshire Customs” in 1840. Both short works were included in compilations. Gaskell later published “Libbie Marsh’s Three Eras” and “Sexton’s Hero.” However, Gaskell’s first major work, which did not bear her real name either, was Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life published in 1848.
According to biographers, the decision to write Mary Barton came after Gaskell lost her nine-month son named William when her husband advised her to resort to writing in order to escape depression. The novel was an immediate success and many critics still believe it to be Gaskell’s masterpiece. Set in the industrial city of Manchester, the novel displays the hardships of the working class. It centers on the eponymous character whose father is concerned with the state of the poor and who gets involved in trade-unionism. Mary, who has to choose between her two suitors, chooses the wealthier, Carson, in an attempt to help her father. However, she soon that she discovers that she committed a mistake by refusing Wilson, the man that she really loves. Apart from the events centering on Mary’s life, the description of the poverty of workers was shocking to many. Manchester business owners felt offended by the novel which, they believed, was unfairly harsh on them.
On the other hand, literary critics and novelists of the time rather hailed Gaskell’s refined writing style. These included renowned figures like William Makepeace Thackeray, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and mainly the great Victorian novelist Charles Dickens who soon invited Gaskell to publish her stories in his periodical Household Words. During this period, Gaskell was also busy being a mother and a minister’s wife. She was also engaged along with her husband in numerous charitable activities. With Dickens, Gaskell first published Lizzie Leigh in 1850 which dealt with the taboo subject of prostitution, to be followed by The Well of Pen Morfa and The Heart of John Middleton.
Generally, Gaskell was not only an excellent writer whose stories and style impressed the greatest among her fellow Victorian literary figures, but also a social critic whose works often created a lot of polemics. After the polemic caused by Mary Barton among capitalist classes, she published another novel entitled Ruth in 1853 to cause much more uproar. Ruth’s plot follows the life of a young female who engages in a sensual relation and gives birth to an illegitimate child. The novel unveils Victorian social hypocrisy and focuses on the miserable state of women in society. The ensuing scandal might have caused embarrassment even to her husband as a copy of the book was burnt in his same church. Most critics of the book who declared the anathema missed the story’s moral lesson and caused the book to be banned from libraries.
Four years later, another polemic rose after the publication of Gaskell’s biography of her close friend Charlotte Bronte. It was right after the death of Bronte in 1855 that her father Patrick Bronte asked Gaskell to do the work and she accepted. The Life of Charlotte Bronte caused a great controversy and this was because many of the people portrayed in the work complained about being misrepresented. Some even threatened to sue Gaskell and the latter was forced to publish an apology in The Times and to make some revision and modifications for the final version. In the meantime, Gaskell continued publishing her stories in Dickens’s Household Words and later in his All the Year Round as other important novels of hers were gaining popularity such as Cranford (1853) and North and South (1854).
Many of Gaskell’s short stories are today believed to have a great influence on the Gothic genre which witnessed a revival after her death with writers like Sheridan Le Fanu, Robert Louis Stevenson and Bram Stoker. Towards her twilight years, Elizabeth Gaskell started sending her stories to The Cornhill Magazine which was edited by another outstanding Victorian literary figure, William Makepeace Thackeray. Soon Gaskell started the serialization of the “saddest story [she] ever wrote,” Sylvia’s Lovers (1863). The story is set back in the late eighteenth-century at the time of the Napoleonic wars. It follows the character of young Sylvia Robson, her simple family life and her secret romantic relation with Charlie Kinraid. In 1864, Gaskell published her four-part novella Cousin Phillis which is considered by many critics as a crucial achievement. They also agree that the novella unintentionally fits as a prelude for Gaskell’s final remarkable achievement Wives and Daughters.
Wives and Daughters (1864-1866) is Elizabeth Gaskell’s last novel first serialized in The Cornhill Magazine and of which the last installment was completed posthumously by Frederick Greenwood. Nonetheless, the book is considered by many as Gaskell’s finest achievement and masterpiece. It tells the story of Molly Gibson who is raised by her widowed father. As a middle-class woman, she knows that she is not suitable for the son of a gentry family, the Hamleys, with whom she falls in love. Her father marries again and Molly is far from appreciating her too ambitious stepmother who also wishes to match her own daughter to one of the Hamleys. By and large, the novel is a social investigation and a condemnation of social hypocrisy. It shows Gaskell’s characterization skills at their best.
Elizabeth Gaskell’s interest in social criticism is one of the most important features of her fiction. It made some critics compare her to Friedrich Engels and even to Carl Marx. Her novels are today used not only as literary references, but also as historical and sociological sources for researchers interested in the Victorian society. On November 12th, 1865, Elizabeth Gaskell died in Holybourne, Hampshire, after suffering from a heart attack a month earlier. A memorial dedicated to the Victorian novelist is located in The Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey next to Britain’s greatest writers and poets.