A Century of Gaskell Studies

Elizabeth Gaskell was a natural author. Born in 1810, she seems to have written stories from quite a young age, but marriage in 1832 and the births of seven children prevented her from publishing anything substantial. All was to change with the appearance of her first novel, Mary Barton, in 1848. It had a great impact on the reading public. Its subject matter, the appalling state of the poor in the industrial cities of the North of England, and Gaskell's empathic treatment of suffering workers in the Manchester area awakened the conscience of the nation. She led an exceptionally busy family and social life, and was engaged with her minister husband in many works of charity. Nevertheless, she was able to write and publish a stream of successful novels and stories in several different genres, only brought to a close by her premature death in 1865. These, together with a remarkable biography of her friend Charlotte Bronte, reinforced her fame during her lifetime.

The end of the century, however, saw the rise of great novelists like Henry James and Joseph Conrad. The manifest sophistication and broad international scope of their compositions threw into relief the two works of hers that remained most popular. Cranford, for all its subtle charm, could be seen as no more than a simple portrait of a small Cheshire town and a selection of its citizens. The Life of Charlotte Brontë, one of the great Victorian biographies, was necessarily focussed upon Northern provincial life and its constraints upon the individual, though community was always the ideal that Elizabeth Gaskell sought. True independence definitely did not mean alienation from ordinary society.

Gaskell's writings began in the twentieth century to appear increasingly old-fashioned. The standard Knutsford edition of her fictional works in eight volumes, brought out with good introductions by A. W. Ward in 1906, however welcome in itself, seemed valedictory in nature. D. H. Lawrence might have begun his career with similar provincial material, but soon reached heights of visionary unorthodoxy and exoticism. As for James Joyce, the advanced Modernist style of his Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake ended by exploiting the outer borders of intelligibility. The many novels and stories Elizabeth Gaskell had created in her short career were not even regarded as important Victorian works, and were appreciated by relatively few enthusiasts. Fortunately, A. Stanton Whitfield was one of these. The preface to his pioneering Mrs Gaskell: Her Life and Work, completed in 1925, was actually dated from Niigata, Japan, December, 1928. (An omen there!) Not long after, an American scholar, Jane Whitehill, edited the important correspondence of Mrs Gaskell with Charles Eliot Norton of Harvard.

In the early 1950s the Swedish scholar Aina Rubenius published a careful analysis of the woman question in Gaskell's life and works, and another American, Annette B. Hopkins, provided both a major account of Gaskell's life and a critical study of her writings. Hopkins drew freely upon the Norton correspondence, and also upon the largely unpublished and significant letters of Gaskell to the great publisher George Smith. A strong revival of interest was now under way. Gaskell's unrivalled story-telling power and imaginative realism, praised so highly by Henry James, began to find more and more appreciative readers.

Major critics like Kathleen Tillotson, Raymond Williams and John Lucas began in the next decade to draw discriminating attention to her social-problem novels. The breadth of her sympathies with the outcast and the oppressed was undeniable. Political or religious solutions might vary from those she tentatively proposed, but the voice she gave the silent Victorian masses was impressive. A more advanced criticism was echoing the first reception of her earliest fiction, an d would soon come to recognise the exceptional quality of later works like Lois the Witch, Sylvia's Lovers and Wives and Daughters.

Readers now naturally wished to know more about such an underestimated author. Arthur Pollard, delighted with the personal liveliness and general interest of her correspondence, much of it still in manuscript, began the work that ended with the publication of a collected letters in 1966. The scholarly task of transcribing and editing undertaken with J. A. V. Chapple was in practice complicated but relatively simple. Their edition was soon complemented by a massive and remarkable feat of original research, Mrs Gaskell's Observation and Invention (1970), by J. G. Sharps. The documentary foundations of Gaskell studies were solidly laid. This revival of interest was supported by the formation of The Gaskell, which publishes highly informative journals. Numerous critical editions of Gaskell's individual works have been prepared in the last forty years, published by Oxford, Penguin and Everyman presses in particular. Amongst these Angus Easson's editions of Mary Barton, Wives and Daughters and The Life of Charlotte Brontë are pre-eminent. Paperback issues of most of these texts, so valuable for the student and ordinary reader, have been usefully surveyed by Shirley Foster in The Gaskell Society Journal for 1997.

A sequence of introductory bio-critical studies began to appear: by Edgar Wright (1965), Arthur Pollard (1965), Margaret Ganz (1969), Coral Lansbury (1975), Wendy Craik (1975), Winifred Grin (1976), Angus Easson (1979) and Enid Duthie (1980). Each author brought a distinctive approach that emphasises the remarkable variety of Gaskell's literary career. It becomes evident that no simple, narrowly angled account is adequate, a point substantiated with admirable clarity in Patsy Stoneman's Elizabeth Gaskell (1986). Explicitly feminist in orientation, it nevertheless begins with an analysis of several possible approaches before settling upon maternal thinking as potentially the most illuminating. More recently, Felicia Bonaparte (1992), Hilary Schor (1992), Jane Spencer (1993), Terence Wright (1995), Anna Unsworth (1996) and many others have produced discriminating critical studies, valuably characterised by Mary Kuhlman in The Gaskell Society Journal for 1999. Jenny Uglow's fine Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories (1993) is generally held at present to be the foremost account of Gaskell's life, works and times.

Various remaining lacunae are being filled. J. A. V. Chapple and Anita C. Wilson published a critical edition (1996) of the diaries Elizabeth Gaskell and her relation Sophia Holland kept about their infant children. Chapple, acutely aware of how little was accurately known about Elizabeth Gaskells family, background and early life brought out a substantial volume, Elizabeth Gaskell: The Early Years (1997), based upon many hitherto unknown documentary sources. The letters written to her by her brother John Stevenson in the 1820s, for example, help fill the gap left by the complete loss or destruction of anything she herself wrote before she was twenty. Further Letters of Mrs Gaskell (2000), edited by Chapple and Alan Shelston (who also supplies an urbane introduction), provides even more evidence for future commentators. For instance, the five sparkling letters to Harriet Carr in 1831-32 bring the future author wonderfully to life about the time of her marriage. The late discovery of completely unsuspected letters to Barbara Fergusson sheds a flood of light upon the problematic relationship between Elizabeth Gaskell striving to be a perfect mistress and the governess whose treatment of her young daughters proved inadequate. There are many other examples to be assessed.

We need not rely naively upon primary evidence nor defer to what Emerson called 'the solid angularity of facts'. Personal letters resemble diaries, journals and autobiographical memoirs. The very act of writing down and ordering experience provides models of self-construction, highly dependent upon those linguistic and rhetorical conventions that form part of the very fabric of our beings. In addition, even the most intimate of letters demonstrate a sense of audience. Relationships with correspondents are carefully tuned. And the letters of authors tend to exploit all the available resources of style; they delight by their free play of trope and metaphor. Reading through those that are now available for Elizabeth Gaskell, we become aware of a fascinating multiformity -- contradictions and tensions between successive states of being, within as well as between individual texts. There is a bewildering range of presented selves, a history of the author ever in process, growing like a tree. We might find a parallel in D. H. Lawrence's assertion of 1914, 'You musn't look in my novel for the old stable ego -- of the character. . . .'

Letters can be also the crucible in which literature is created, as Gaskell's descriptions of her meetings with Charlotte Bronte make apparent, or even continue it, as those letters concerning Cranford and Cousin Phillis demonstrate. In this new century, novelists like A. S. Byatt, biographers like Richard Holmes and autobiographers like John Bayley are making a deliberate point of obscuring the boundary between fiction and non-fiction. Life and literature are interwoven and form an imaginative continuum. Consequently, a more subtle and penetrating criticism of Elizabeth Gaskell's life and writings taken together is now being published for a growing readership.

John A. V. Chapple, Lichfield, March 2001

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