Welcome to the Classic Friday Page!
Your monthly journey into Classic authors and their Literature with Nisha Moodley.
You’ll find all her Classic Fridays To Date below. We hope you enjoy them
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.
1. ELIZABETH GASKELL
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
2. Book Review: Turn of the Screw by Henry James
AUTHOR: HENRY JAMES
GENRE: 19th century GOTHIC HORROR
DATE FIRST PUBLISHED: 1898
NO. OF PAGES: 133 (my copy : Vintage Classics/Random House)
It’s been mentioned in numerous popular TV shows including CSI and LOST; it has been the inspiration for many Hollywood movies like Deborah Kerr’s The Innocents (1961) and Nicole Kidman’s The Others (2001). Oscar Wilde described it as “a most wonderful, lurid and poisonous little tale.”
So what is it about Henry James’ Turn Of The Screw that makes it the quintessential classic ghost story?
Brief Synopsis :
A bachelor offers a young woman the position of governess to his orphaned niece and nephew whom he takes no interest in and considers to be a burden. She accepts the job offer, which gives her complete authority and sole responsibility of the children. When she moves to their home in the Essex countryside, she finds herself immediately enchanted by her new charges: a boy, Miles (10) and his sister, Flora (8).
The children at first seem perfect in every respect. Both beautiful, charming,intelligent and obedient, they win over the young woman’s heart completely. In her eyes they can do no wrong. But when a letter arrives from Miles’ school stating that he has been expelled (with no reason given) and when two ghostly apparitions start making their appearance in and around the country home, her sanity and loyalty are put to the test. With the help of her new confidante, Mrs. Grose the housekeeper, she learns that the apparitions resemble those of her predecessor and lover, both of whom died mysteriously. Convinced that something diabolical is at work, she strives to take action and protect the children at all costs.
The diminutive story hardly possesses a complicated plot so what makes Turn Of The Screw stand out from other books in its category? Perhaps it is not only the supernatural apparitions and the eerie country house in an atmospheric locale that play the starring roles in this ‘poisonous tale.’ As James clearly suggests in the opening narration, the fact that young innocent children are involved adds to the dark and disturbing quality of this tale. The corruption of innocence is an apparent motif in the story. This corruption seems to present itself as something to be feared the most, more so than the ghostly appearances themselves. Although, what form this danger or corruption takes is not made clear to us. The beauty of this novella, I feel, lies in its noted ambiguity; the intended loose threads keeping the reader wondering long after they’ve put the book down.
Written in the first person perspective, The Turn Of The Screw possesses all the sentimentality that characterizes many Classic novels. At first I didn’t think anything of it. Usually sentimental dialogue is there to create emotional depth and feeling for the characters but in this case it also serves another function, which I’m not sure if James had intended or not. For the main character at least, her emotional dialogue adds uncertainty, creating that aforementioned ambiguity. The inconclusive nature of the story has been both criticized and praised in equal measure by literary critics and other book reviews I’ve come across. Nevertheless James created a psychological narrative here, the main plot and ending of which, relies on the reader’s interpretation.
The equivocal storyline has one positive quality, if nothing else. It enhances the mystery of the plot, adding a sense of uneasiness, helping us to identify with the main character but at the same time, making us question her as well. James gets us thinking, which has to be lauded even if the narrative does confuse us at times.
Is this book for you? This is definitely a must-read for any fan of 19th century horror fiction. Readers of general Classic fiction might also enjoy it but be warned it is not the easiest of reads. I have not read any of his other works so I don’t have a general view of his writing style but judging from Turn Of The Screw, Henry James seems to have an affinity for long complex sentences with far too many comma breaks. I found myself re-reading sentences over and over in order to comprehend them which did hinder my enjoyment of the book to a certain extent. If you can overlook this one writing characteristic or if you are well-accustomed to it, then Turn Of The Screw is well worth a read.
About the author :
Henry James was born in New York in 1843 but moved to Sussex, England in 1915 and became a British citizen. A former Harvard student, he gave up his Law degree and took up writing full-time. He published his first novel, Watch and Ward in 1871. His other notable novels include The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Ambassadors (1903) and What Maisie Knew(1897). Turn Of The Screw, however, is his most famous work.