Since completing Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South on August 1st, I’ve read all four of her other novels (Ruth, Mary Barton, Wives and Daughters, Sylvia’s Lovers) as well as her novella collection (Cranford) and one story collection (Cousin Phillis And Other Stories). I’m currently reading her biography of Charlotte Bronte, which should finish me out on Gaskell, although I am seriously considering chasing down a few of her other short stories, just for completeness’s sake.
Aside from Sylvia’s Lovers, which is her second to last book and a rare misfire (I found the plot to be way too out-sized and Romantic), I’d say all of the above books were excellent and thoroughly worth your time! If I had to recommend one, I’d probably say Cranford, because it’s the shortest, lightest, and has the best humor.
I don’t know if I’m just crazy in thinking that Gaskell is far superior to many other Victorian authors that are generally esteemed more highly, or if it’s simply that my familiarity with those other authors has given a charm to Gaskell, precisely because she does things so many of them do not (I wondered the same thing a few years ago about George Gissing). Namely, would a person enjoy Elizabeth Gaskell if they hadn’t already gone through the work of Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot, Trollope, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Ann Bronte, and Jane Austen (not a Victorian, but definitely the mother of them all).
And the answer is…I don’t know. I think too that my newfound love for Gaskell might be a result for my love of 19th century Continental literature, which generally tends to be much more realist than Victorian literature. Balzac and Zola, in particular, were far just as concerned with depicting the nature of things as they were with eliciting strong emotions, and I love that about them! But I also love English literature’s ability to be sort of fuddly and warm and good-humored! Gaskell, at her best, combines both tendencies! For instance, there is no writer I’ve seen who is more concerned with precise amounts. I’ve learned more, from Gaskell, about the impact of the penny post on daily life than I did from reading nineteen Trollope novels, and Trollope actually worked for the postal service for most of his life!
Gaskell seems to have this insane ability to write about anyone, from any walk of life. North and South is about the relations between the family of a curate and the family of a manufacturer. Mary Barton is about mill workers. Ruth is about an orphan who goes to work in a dress shop. Wives and Daughters is about the gradations of rank between the children of a local lord; a country squire; and the nearby town doctor. Several of her stories concern laborers, servants, tenant farmers, and yeomen. Nobody else in the Victorian era is writing novels that cover the whole breadth of the economic spectrum.
Even today, almost nobody tries it! I mean the other day I was overhearing the conversation of two girls at a café, and these two girls were in town to begin college at SF State. One was going to study communications, and the other was going to study fashion design. Now you can go to the bookstore and you can search through shelf after shelf, and you won’t find a literary novel that’s about lower-middle class people. People write about themselves, and authors tend not to be lower middle class. And even when they are, they, like DH Lawrence, become so rapidly acculturated to upper- and upper-middle class mores that it seems never to occur to them to write about the people they left behind.
It’s an incredible achievement, in a time even more class-bound than today, to write novels of manners that are about lower middle class, working class, or poor people. Some of Gaskell’s protagonists are illiterate, or barely-literate, and yet she still effortlessly maps out their emotional life. It’s incredible! Even Zola has a hard time doing that–he views poor people as being too thoroughly marked by their class. Every character, for him, represents an archetype, and someone like Gervaise Macquart–a laundress who achieves brief prosperity before being toppled by alcoholism and economic insecurity–doesn’t get credit for her indomitable will to survive: even her virtues are nothing more than the sorts of virtues that a person would demonstrate in her situation. They don’t feel specific to her.
I think the best Gaskell story I read was “The Crooked Branch,” which is about a farm laborer who comes into money late in life, buys a farm, and marries his childhood sweetheart (herself now working as a maid). He has one child, a son, who he sends off to school, but the school educates his son to want better things, and the son develops dissipated habits. The father and mother have an inkling of what’s going wrong, but he’s still their only son! The child of their old age! And so they alternately rage against and enable him. It’s not a by-the-numbers situation. It’s a situation that could only occur to people of a certain class, but their fate doesn’t feel fore-ordained. They could have reacted, and the world could have responded, in so many different ways. And the brilliance of the story comes in the specific details of how these people respond to their trials.
Anyways now this blog post is perhaps too long, so I’ll leave off saying more, but she’s a good one! Definitely worth your time (I think).