Welcome to our first Classic Friday with Nisha Moodley, your monthly journey into Classic authors and their Literature!
Nisha is a South African writer, blogger, amateur historian, mystery-chaser and former ghost-hunter who, with a completed collection of short-stories under her belt, is currently working on her first full-length novel.
I hope you enjoy this ‘Classic Friday entry and I’ll be back on Friday 28thDecember for some more…
While writing this, I struggled with how to introduce Elizabeth Gaskell. In my eyes the woman needs no introduction yet many bibliophiles have never heard Gaskell’s name, more still, are unfamiliar with her work.
Referring to her as the ‘lesser known Jane Austen’ would have not only been predictable, but somewhat unfair to Mrs. Gaskell who, considering her unique writing style and compassionate themes, deserves no comparisons.
Indeed, few have questioned her talent for storytelling. Charles Dickens himself, in his letters to her, addressed her often as ‘My dear Scheherazade,’ in reference to the heroine of Arabian Nights.
Having won fans amongst literature’s 19th century elite, her life I feel, is worth taking a look at…
LIFE AND TIMES OF ELIZABETH GASKELL
Elizabeth Stevenson was born on 29 September 1810 in London, England but was raised by her aunt in Cheshire. In 1832 she married Reverend William Gaskell, of the Unitarian faith and in 1832 the couple moved to Manchester. They had 4 daughters and one son who died of Scarlet Fever in infancy.
The Gaskells were known for their humanitarian ways. Elizabeth helped her husband with his Church duties, distributing food and clothing to the poor. In between her domestic duties, Mrs. Gaskell dabbled in poetry writing but when she had a breakdown following her son’s death, her husband suggested she channel her grief by writing a novel. She took his advice and the result was Mary Barton (published in 1848). Mary Barton brought Mrs. Gaskell some recognition and caught the attention of the famous Dickens.
When the two met in 1849, Dickens invited her to write for his serial publication, Household Words. Gaskell soon became Dickens’ protégée although the two often locked horns when Gaskell refused on many occasions to take the advice the great man had to give. Her independent nature was legendary and was often a source of frustration for Dickens.
He was not the only famous author whose admiration Gaskell had won. In 1850, she met Charlotte Brontë and the two became firm friends. After Brontë’s death, Gaskell wrote her autobiography, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, which was published in 1857.
Apart from her literary career, she travelled extensively and dedicated much of her life to helping the poor. She passed away suddenly from heart failure on 12 November 1865 at the age of 55.
In 2010, Elizabeth Gaskell was honoured at Westminster Abbey’s prestigious Poets’ Corner where a memorial window was put up bearing her name.
What is easily noted about Gaskell, gathered from the themes of her novels alone, was the fact that she was a woman who had a conscience and a mind of her own. In a period of social unrest (the early 1800’s) she did the unthinkable and sided with the disadvantaged and so-called lower classes. Indeed after Mary Barton (in which she highlighted the plight of the poor and the injustices of the class systems) was published, a few of her husband’s middle-class parishioners burnt the book in protest.
The criticism did not stop her though. She started writing a similar themed story in 1854, the brilliantly poignant North and South, where conditions of the factory and mill workers were put under the spotlight as well as the differences in lifestyle and attitude between England’s Industrial North and the more genteel South.
Unlike Jane Austen, whose stories focused on the lives of the middle class, Gaskell’s novels lacked a social bias. They contained characters that were diverse in their social standings but her messages were also very clear. An advocate for the disadvantaged, she was quick to hit out at the wealthy and privileged where need be.
Illegitimacy might have been a common motif in Victorian literature but few authors have handled the theme with as much compassion as Gaskell did with Ruth (1853), about the sufferings of a young girl, pregnant by rape, and the injustice inflicted upon her by society.
Her fiction writing did not always have a sombre-serious element to it however. Cranford (1851) seems to be one of Gaskell’s most popular novels, a satirical look at the lives of a group of women in a small village. Her talent as a writer can really be seen in the characterization and humour is put to good effect in her portrayal of each of the characters, their prejudices and their idiosyncrasies.
Wives and Daughters was her last novel. It was left incomplete following her death in 1865. Frederick Greenwood, editor of Cornhill magazine which published many of her works, finished the book and had it published as a serial in 1867.
In a writing career spanning 20 years, Gaskell wrote six novels, over 25 short stories, four works of non-fiction (including Brontë’s autobiography) as well as a few novellas.
In the addendum that was included in Wives and Daughters, Greenwood added a final note that I feel best sums up the woman that was Elizabeth Gaskell:
“It is unnecessary to demonstrate to those who know what is and what is not true literature that Mrs Gaskell was gifted with some of the choicest faculties bestowed upon mankind; that she has gifted us with some, the truest, purest works of fiction in the language. And she was herself what her works show her to have been- a wise good woman.”
The Gaskell Society – http://www.gaskellsociety.co.uk/
The Gaskell Web – http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/Gaskell.html
Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Gaskell