I’ve mentioned before that I love British Literature from the Victorian era, or slightly before. It was a minor tragedy when I ran out of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Bronte sisters a few years ago.
Enter: Elizabeth Gaskell.
I had never heard of Elizabeth Gaskell (known as Mrs. Gaskell during her publishing career), until I took a Bronte seminar in college and read parts of her The Life of Charlotte Bronte. Generally, I am terrible at reading nonfiction, biographies especially, but I found that I enjoyed Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte. Granted, some scholars claim that Gaskell took some liberties to make Charlotte’s life story a bit more like a novel. I forgive her for that, though, because her skill obviously lies in the novel form. Two of her works, Wives and Daughters and North and South are some of my favorite books.
Wives and Daughters is the story of Molly Gibson and her family. At the beginning of the novel, Molly is a motherless child, being brought up by her father, the village doctor. Molly enjoys her companionable relationship with her father. By and by, her father decides to marry again. His choice is questionable, but it makes for a great novel. The woman he marries has a daughter, Cynthia. Cynthia is affectionate towards her new sister and father, but has made questionable choices in the past that come to light along the way. This novel also has a great villain, Mr. Preston. Wives and Daughters is centered on the family and village life, but it also has a lot to say about the struggle between science and traditionalism in the 1830s. Squire Hamley, a family friend and main character in the novel, is entrenched in his old farming ways, while his son, Roger, is an up and coming naturalist and has big ideas of what needs to change. That and many other plot lines and wonderful characters makes Wives and Daughters a beautiful work, comparable to the best novels of the time. Lauren Lerner calls it “surely the most neglected novel of its century” in his introduction to the Penguin Classic 1986 edition. Its only shortcoming is the fact that Mrs. Gaskell died before she tied up the ending into the beautifully wrapped package Victorian novels usually become. However, I think the ending is quite sufficient. Yes, it has a bit more of a modern, open-ended feel, but it’s pretty obvious where it’s going. If you like Austen, I think you’ll like Wives and Daughters.
North and South surprised me with how different it was from Wives and Daughters. While Wives and Daughters closely follows a family and a several other village characters, North and South is full of social contrasts: industrial vs. agricultural, city vs. country, poor vs. rich. The title refers to the contrast in England between the industrial, factory-operated North and the pastoral, high-society south and London. It has a bit of a critical, Dickensonian approach. When Gaskell first introduces Margaret Hale, the main character, she is returning to her country home in Heston from a London visit to cousins. Margaret loves the picturesque cottage her family enjoys as her part of her father’s position as a minister in the Church of England. Margaret’s life quickly changes when her father’s conscience can no longer bear some differences he has with the Church of England, and he breaks ties with it. The family moves to a Northern city called Milton. Then, Margaret is thrust into a new perspective, as she watches and makes her own judgment of the factory life the Milton runs on. She meets a mill owner, John Thornton, and they form a tension-filled acquaintance, as Margaret disagrees with his treatment of the people he works for. As the novel progresses, the Margaret and Mr. Thornton find their opinions challenged and changed by one another and the circumstances that surround them.
Margaret Hale is one of my favorite literary characters of all time. I’d liken her a bit to an Elinor Dashwood or Ann Elliot, but much more lively. Margaret is aglow with the cause she champions and the people she wants to help. She is full of compassion and love tempered by steel determination and quite an ability to dislike as much as like. Her complexity is unparalleled in any Victorian literature I have read.
I hope you read both of these works by Gaskell. If you don’t think you’ll like them, perhaps you should try the Masterpiece Classic adaptations of them and see if they might whet your appetite for Elizabeth Gaskell. I’d usually not recommend watching the movie before reading the book, but they are pretty great, as far as movies go. =)
Links to movies on Amazon (please note: this post contains no affiliate links):
I think there are some videos from these movies on YouTube, but I’m not sure of their legality.
And finally, a disclaimer: if you read Elizabeth Gaskell, I would not recommend Mary Barton or Ruth. I’m sure that there are people somewhere who like those books. I found them to be rather trite–fallen Victorian woman plight, etc. Perhaps they were a little more cutting edge in their time, but if you’ve read The Mill on the Floss, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, or any number of similar stories, you don’t really need to add Ruth or Mary Barton to your repertoire, unless you find that you have become a die hard Mrs. Gaskell fan and must read all her works.
I hope you check out Elizabeth Gaskell and find a new favorite, or at least an enjoyable read. Happy reading!