The prevailing attitude towards Elizabeth Gaskell's writing in the first half of the twentieth century was typified by Lord David Cecil's characterisation of her in Early Victorian Novelists as
all a woman was expected to be; gentle, domestic, tactful, unintellectual, prone to tears, easily shocked. So far from chafing at the limits imposed on her activities, she accepted them with serene satisfaction.
It is this kind of attitude to her writing that would dismiss it as no more than charming, delicate, and exquisite.
While we can recognise the complimentary nature of these words, it is vital that they be recognised also for their underlying patronising tone, which is barely hidden at all in this context. There is possibly no more underhanded a way to devalue the worth of something than to attack it with patronising compliments which underrate its worth, and to describe Gaskell's work as no more than pretty is to do just that. Nonetheless it is also worth examining why and how her writing could attract such criticism, as well as why it is worthy of greater praise. At the heart of such descriptions of Gaskell's work is an attitude of sexism. 'Charming,' 'delicate,' and 'exquisite' all suggest a lack of substance and an obsession with thee superficial which some critics have labelled 'feminine'. If Gaskell's writing is indeed 'feminine' in its style, this works in its favour, allowing social problems to be approached more sensibly from a different, more Christian angle.
Taken at face value, Gaskell's writing can seem very much bound by convention. As Cranford demonstrates, she is a great story teller with a particular talent for noticing the detail that characterises the particular situation she describes. Gaskell enjoyed collecting and using anecdotes both in her letters and in her books, and it might even seem at first glance that Cranford backs up quite well the image of her as nothing more than a Victorian story teller. But as Kate Flint suggests, even the apparently superficial Cranford, 'may represent quite a bold experimentation in narrative techniques' (Writers and Their Work, Elizabeth Gaskell, p.60).
In Mary Barton and North and South, Gaskell uses the form of the typical Victorian romance novel to bring to the fore certain important social issues, such as industry, the role of women, and the differences between our internal and external behaviours in different settings. It is in how she strays from the traditional superficiality of the style, that much of the interest in her novels lies. She sets these novels in a socially acceptable way to the audience of her day, but deliberately turns the work round so that it is by no means a simple romance. Her ability and willingness to do this is a credit to her writing skills, and should not be used to denigrate her work.
Cranford may seem to centre round domestic issues, and it's very first sentence might suggest an intentionally and unashamedly feminine style when it declares that, 'Cranford is in the possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women'. In fact, however, this can also be read as quite un-Victorian in it's attitude, and almost suggests that what we are about to read is in some way a proto-feminist novel, though this would be to argue too far in favour of Gaskell as a feminist. It is true that the writing in Cranford shows Gaskell's eye for what Flint calls 'whimsical detail': we read of the newspaper spread over the new carpet too protect it from visitors and sunlight, and the fifteen minute visiting habits of the ladies in Cranford, but the consistent distance maintained in the narration suggests a degree of irony. It is through living in the nearby industrial city of Drumble, that the narrator Mary Smith can keep this distance in her observations of Cranford society. While the details of what is referred to by the chapter title as 'our society' may seem 'Charming' and 'delicate', it is not for this reason that Gaskell has described them, or rather it is, but only in order to show that the attitude of those living in Cranford seems to be one of denial: they try to preserve the past through a delicately ned and carefully executed set of rules by which they live. To speak of one's poverty is not done, to visit on someone for more than fifteen minutes is impolite. Flint suggests that 'their minutiae of detail [seems] to ward off threats of the change and disruption of modern life'. It is therefore not Gaskell's writing which is in any way devoid of value in the way some critics might suggest, but the subject about which she writes. Indeed, it is her wish to display this shallowness which is apparent in her writing. She is writing in Cranford about the mundane and the slightly ridiculous, but only to highlight its more unusual elements, and show it to be something of a bad method for tackling the social problems of her time.
Gaskell's ability to combine an apparently superficially attractive writing style with serious attitudes, something which can be argued works more in her favour than against her, is particularly apparent in North and South (1854). Similarly, Mary Barton (1848) concentrates on industrial and social issues while also sticking to an accepted form (that of the Victorian Romance novel). It is In Mary Barton, in fact, that we see the true genius of Gaskell's seemingly 'feminine' approach: it deals mainly with the working class, but also allows us to reconsider while we read each character and to judge them on their own merits, rather that on their stereotypical role in the romance plot alone. For example, John Barton who kills out of pure class hatred is exactly the kind of character who could easily be left as a hated villain in a romance novel, but in North and South Gaskell builds him up as a real character, and quite uncharacteristically for a feminine Victorian novel, he is transformed in the eye of the reader into a flawed, tragic ure.
The key role played by Esther equally transforms her in the reader's mind from being merely a prostitute and goes deeper into her personality, allowing her to develop more as a character. So while this concentration on the working class might rule out the sort of complexity of intertwined issues we find elsewhere in Gaskell's writing, it must also rule out the possibility of 'charming' or 'delicate' writing in the normal senses of the words. There is a distinct realism to her portrayal of these very real people. Though Gaskell does handle the issues in Mary Barton in a highly sensitive way, the word 'delicately' seems somewhat deficient if we wish to describe this sensitivity. In North and South Gaskell manages to bring to the fore the issues of industrial expansion, intertwining them with those of class and gender, once again making the accusation of superficiality implied by the criticism of Gaskell mentioned in the title rather hard to justify.
The dismissal of Gaskell's work as no more than charming and pretty is typical of the kind of criticism that would devalue a writer simply by referring to her femininity. As if to challenge this type of attitude herself, Gaskell shows how Margaret Hale in North and South ends up having a lot more to her personality and character than the 'ladies' business' Henry Lennox speaks of in the opening chapter. Yet this does not stop her taking part in the 'playing with shawls' that the ladies in the Harley Street gathering seem to enjoy. As a sensible and balanced person she is quite able to do both, playing the part of a lady when she is in London, and playing the part of a responsible decision maker when she is back with her parents in Helstone, or in a dispute between the workers and their master in Milton. Moreover, Margaret shows a great deal of bravery when she puts her respectable reputation in danger twice, in order to protect a higher ideal: first by flinging herself at Thornton in the riot scene; and second in lying and letting Thornton believe that she was loitering at the station with a man in order to protect her brother. If anything her balanced personality makes her a stronger character, and makes her a great deal more likeable. It is after all Margaret Hale who bridges the key rifts in the novel, such as that between North and South, and that between the workers and their master, and ultimately, that between her an John Thornton. But all the time it is pleasant for the reader to realise she is realistically human as this gives hope for some sort of resolution in the actual Victorian world of reality. What saves the day, so to speak, is a character who is strong in Christian values, and applies sensible, possibly feminine or domestic policies to the social problems of the period. Much in the same way Margaret Hale is able to combine her role as a woman with that of being the uniting force between all the areas of weakness in her society, Gaskell is able to draw attention in her novels to the social unrest and concern of the day, whilst also managing to indulge in the 'ladies' business' of charming writing.
One of the very issues Gaskell tackles in North and South is the role of women. Nothing is further from the truth, therefore, than Lord David Cecil's assertion that Gaskell accepted the limits imposed on her. Margaret Hale proves to be a very responsible person, and shows great strength of character and judgement in all her decisions regarding the relocation of the family's life. She knows exactly where they should stay, and is willing to say the 'right' things for the sake of her parents, even when she is unsure herself. In this sense there is something of a role reversal as Margaret takes on the job of comforting her parents and helping calm their fears about their newly changed future. She grows up at an amazing rate, and has to cope with a great many important decisions regarding her family's home, her parents' health, the safety of her brother, and the well-being of the Higgins family not just with 'ladies' business'. It is this that makes her suitable to go forth into the future by means of her marriage to Thornton at the end.
So it is the combination of Gaskell's ability to combine the feminine 'ladies business' of charming writing with a strong grasp and understanding of the social problems of her time, that gives her work the impact it has. This is not to suggest that she has in any way sanitised or sentimentalised the Victorian social problems; on the contrary, Gaskell has managed to combine an understanding of the poor situation of the working class with an amazing power of description and empathy, whilst also managing to make her writing beautiful and exquisite when appropriate. When the situation requires a blunt and brutal description of the poverty and social conditions that were far from attractive and superficially pleasing to her middle-class readership, however, Gaskell is quite capable of delivering. A good example of this is the passage in which John Barton goes too visit the Davenports:
They went along till they arrived in Berry Street. It was unpaved; and down the middle a gutter forced its way, every now and then forming pools in the holes with which the street abounded. Never was the old Edinburgh cry of 'Gardez l'eau!' more necessary than in this street. As they passed, women from their doors tossed household slops of every description into the gutter; they ran into the next pool, which over-flowed and stagnated. Heaps of ashes were the stepping-stones, on which the passer-by, who cared in the least for cleanliness, took care not to put his footÉ After the account I have given of the state of the street, no one can be surprised that on going into the cellar inhabited by Davenport, the smell was so fetid as almost to knock the two men down.' (Chapter 6, 'Poverty and Death,' Mary Barton)
Here, real squalor is evoked, but Gaskell is also careful to be euphemistic about the piles of excrement. As Arnold Kettle points out, Mrs Gaskell has quite an understanding of the social problems which surrounded her, and she manages well to present to us in a thoroughly believable and convincing way, the 'material conditions, the grinding pressures of poverty and, above all, a sense of the dignity and decency of people' (The Early Victorian Social Problem Novel). She is not insensitive, nor is she blinkered to the facts of poverty.
Gaskell is concerned above all with sympathy, and especially in Mary Barton with sympathy for children. This is one way in which she shows links between the poor and the rich. After all, much of Gaskell's knowledge of the working class she stood up for in Mary Barton was second had, but the knowledge of what it was like to loose a child was certainly not. It is well known that she wrote the novel as a means of escape after the death of her son. So it is unsurprising that the novel has its fair share of mortality, and that much of the misery in the novel is the result of people trying to help their children. Without hiding the fact that poverty was the cause of much of the infant mortality at the time (John Barton says about the rich when it is argued that they too suffer, 'han they ever seen a child o' their'n die for want o' food?' (Mary Barton, e 105), Gaskell manages to make love of children and the grieving at their death the common factor between rich and poor. John Barton loses his son, the Wilsons' twin boys seen with their parents in the opening scene in Green Hays Field, die of typhoid fever in the course of the narrative, Esther explains how she took to prostitution in a vain attempt to save her daughter's life, and when John Barton kills Harry Carson as revenge against employers, his death is seen as the death if a son. It makes Carson suffer in the way that so many of his employees have suffered through the death of a son. Indeed, Gaskell makes this the universal method of feeling pain. Certainly this near obsession with the death of children is far from delicate or tweed, and it shows a well considered method for bringing the two divided classes together: through mutual pain and loss. Eventually, the improvements in employment practices are put down to Carson's being 'taught by suffering' (Mary Barton, 460).
So it is unfair to dismiss Gaskell's writing as superficial, which is what the adjectives 'charming' etc do. They suggest a femininity that is weak and submissive in being bound by convention. They deny the very apparent sense of Christian justice present in Gaskell's novels, and they deny the accurate painting of a picture of what it was like to be poor in Gaskell's day. Gaskell challenges the role of women, and the divisions of classes in her novels, and often does so in a decidedly un-charming way. To dismisses her work as light and pretty is entirely unfair, and to suggest any weakness is implied by the presence of any touching or charming moments is to deny that sentiment does in fact play a part in real life. Gaskell's novels are of worth because they combine sensitivity with a spirit of challenge, and because Gaskell knows how and when to use her skills as a charming writer.
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