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Elizabeth Gaskell - finding love, facing tragedy

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Cranford was adapted for Masterpiece Theatre, and is once again being aired by PBS in America. Judy Dench plays Miss Matty.
Image: Masterpiece Theatre

I attended two memorial services on Friday, and I thought I understood a little better the experiences and ideas which infused 19th century writer Elizabeth Gaskell's novels and stories.

Since I think their lives illuminate Elizabeth's life and work, let me tell you something about the friends whose memorials I attended.

Like Elizabeth, Julia Parker Freeman was a pastor's wife, radiant, kind and enthusiastic. Her four children remembered that she wakened them with the cry, "Another lovely day!" At the breakfast table she used to ask, "What wonderful adventure will we have this morning?" Julia was a visual artist and fascinated by ideas. Like Elizabeth Gaskell, she loved the beauties of the country, she listened attentively and hospitably to many different people and she quietly and unwaveringly followed a moral compass.

Car mechanic Harold Dick loved MGs and thought Abingdon the finest town in the world. At his memorial he was remembered by his sons and by a thousand customers and friends from all walks of life who had known him for decades and thought him one of the most interesting and honest men they knew. Harold chose his customers. He never advertised or published his phone number. He wore a pin that read, "I fight poverty, I work". At 72 he died at his shop of a heart attack. Elizabeth Gaskell also worked hard and would have been familiar with Harold's 'ministry' - every week he brought meals to men and women who were home-bound.

Losses

Born in 1810, Elizabeth Gaskell [née Stevenson] lost her mother when she was 13 months old. She saw her father and stepmother rarely. "She was ‘very, very unhappy’ on such visits, she later wrote, adding that were it not for the comfort of the river, and some local friends, 'I think my child's heart would have broken'". Stepmothers played a role in Elizabeth's novels not because parents were divorced, but because mothers frequently died in childbirth. Elizabeth was 19 when her father died. When she was ten, in 1820, her brother John joined the merchant navy. When she was 18, he disappeared on a voyage to India, "a haunting loss" which she would evoke in two novels.

To be successful, a country needs successful women

Elizabeth Gaskell's brother directly urged her to write. Many British men encouraged women to write, including Lady Julian of Norwich's priest, Jane Austen's brothers and poet Anne Finch's husband.

A country's success depends on its women. Britain was successful because her women were. It took until the 20th century for women to be able to vote in national elections, but by then they had done everything else. I do not suggest that women were unimpeded by male prejudice, but the social history of Britain shows that many women received the support of men or triumphed despite it -

From the 1st century AD, women in the islands led men in battle, managed farms, breweries, and forges, served as midwives and teachers, acted as bailiffs and merchants, built businesses and endowed schools, hospitals and colleges. They earned a living as artisans, performed on stage, composed music, healed the sick and helped to reform health care. They became scientists, Sovereign Queens, MPs and a Prime Minister. They were the mother-half of the human race and they raised and defended children.

They also wrote novels which have become classics - dozens of them.

Elizabeth was taught by her aunts, occasional tutors and Sunday school teachers. Later she attended a school partly funded by Josiah Wedgwood. She met Katherine Thomson, "a published novelist and talented journalist, who provided Elizabeth with a model of the way in which literary production could be combined with domestic life".

Marriage & children, cholera and riots

Elizabeth married William Gaskell when she was 21. They lived in Manchester, and almost immediately faced a cholera epidemic, strikes, lock-outs and riots, an economic depression and exhausting relief work.

Their first child, a daughter, was stillborn. A year later, a little girl was born, and named Marianne after a young girl who had died. A second daughter, Meta, was born, and a little son who died while still a baby. There was another daughter, Florence, and their son William. "This bright, red-headed baby brought Elizabeth intense joy, but at ten months he caught scarlet fever" and died. Elizabeth sank into a deep depression.

In 1846, a last daughter, Julia, was born to Elizabeth and William. A year later, encouraged by her husband, Elizabeth began to pour out her first stories. She was 37.

Somehow the birth and death of her children, her love of literature, her passion for social reform, her brother's and her husband's encouragement and a mysterious force had combined to create Elizabeth Gaskell the writer.

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Controversy

Her energy, volubility and romanticism flowed into her books. So did her intelligence and her fascination with the intellectual controversies of the day; her sensitive insights into relations between women; her passionate and wry insights into relations between men and women; her love for poetry and for rural customs; and her belief in social causes.

Her first novel, Mary Barton: a Story of Manchester Life, confronted readers with strikes, murder, prostitution, misery and redemption. Manchester manufacturers "felt they had been unfairly, and ignorantly, represented". Elizabeth stuck to her guns, defying public criticism. She forged friendships with Charles Dickens, Jane Carlyle and Charlotte Brontë.

Elizabeth was tough. She saw writing "'as the proper use of a God-given talent'". She wrote her second novel, Ruth, about the redemption of a young girl in prison for prostitution. The book caused an even greater uproar, and was burned by members of her husband's congregation. Neither William nor Elizabeth appear to have been greatly perturbed.

Revelations

The 1850s saw Elizabeth writing dozens of stories, including the original episodes of Cranford, which she set among a community of village women whose gossip could be acidic. Cranford appears idyllic, but death is always lurking. For reasons both clear and mysterious the women change from comically petty to wise and compassionate - though not all at once and not all the time!

The characters in Gaskell's novels include small, impoverished boys, ministers, young doctors, spinsters, railway agents, maid servants, duchesses, shopkeepers, scholars and reformers. How they face tragedy - the small boy in Cranford is more dignified than a duke - is a revelation.

In 1854 Elizabeth wrote North and South, an "industrial Pride and Prejudice". The love story supports Gaskell's belief that God had made us "mutually dependent". In 1856-7, she researched and wrote, at the request of the novelist's father, the biography of Charlotte Brontë. Another storm erupted, with complaints coming from many quarters. Gaskell stood her ground, hoping she had conveyed a truth -"'the split that the creative life involved for women, something that she herself experienced'".

She continued to write short stories, some of them stunning Gothic tales. When Manchester's economy was devastated by the American Civil War she and Meta sprang into action to provide part-time training and employment for women. Elizabeth and her daughter worked so hard they collapsed with exhaustion. In 1863 Gaskell published Sylvia's Lovers. In this novel and in Cranford, she grappled with the searing effects of industrialization and the arrival of the railway on rural communities. Like us, she was also aware that industrialization brought benefits.

In close touch with her four daughters, with whom she often travelled, Elizabeth began writing Wives and Daughters in 1864. This "touching novel combines a comedy of manners with the parallel tales of adolescent growth to self-knowledge of Molly Gibson and Cynthia Kirkpatrick". There is also a husband's bitter discovery that he has allied himself to a wife whose materialism cuts his heart and offends his sense; a father's grief-stricken recognition that it is too late to tell his dead son he loves him; and a young scientist, expert at identifying insects, who must learn to distinguish between women.

The heroine, Molly Gibson, has a wonderful way of saying exactly what she is thinking. Driving to her father's wedding, Molly indignantly challenges Lady Harriet's snobbery. It's part of Gaskell's genius that she simultaneously conveys Lady Harriet's longing for friendship with a woman she respects.

By mid-August Elizabeth was ill and "rushing through the final chapters of Wives and Daughters" to meet serial deadlines. In November 1865, while at tea with her family, she collapsed with a massive heart attack and died.

Literary critics have found the work of Elizabeth Gaskell to be whatever they were interested in finding, or criticizing. Her books and the films based on them are popular in countries as various as Italy, Japan and America. Perhaps this is because Elizabeth Gaskell described 19th century Britain, the close weave of a community, the eternal movements of heart and soul and the usefulness of a moral compass.

Julia understood the choices Elizabeth Gaskell made. Harold would have been delighted to take care of her car.

All quotes thanks to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Comments (3)

jlh:

OK. Now see if you can write a post one fourth as long about Islamic women.

Cat:

"Now see if you can write a post one fourth as long about Islamic women."

We've written about Gina Khan, a brave opponent of violent Islamists, here.

jlh:

Absolutely right! The problem, of course, is that the list is just now being written, because women in Islam have been submerged, until they made some contact with the values of the West.

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