Sunday, November 30, 2014

Bridging Austen and Brontë: Elizabeth Gaskell

This year my reading list included novels by Jane Austen's influences such as Fanny Burney (Cecilia), Maria Edgeworth (Belinda), and Charlotte Lennox (The Female Quixote). This was also the year I first read Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and Villette. But perhaps the books I've most enjoyed over the past twelve months are by a writer who bridges the disparate worlds and sensibilities of Austen and Brontë: Elizabeth Gaskell.

In 1849 Gaskell—whose first novel Mary Barton had been published the year before—wrote a fan letter to the author of Jane Eyre. That letter initiated a correspondence and friendship that continued for the rest of Brontë's short life. The two writers met in person for the first time the next year; afterwards Gaskell wrote to a acquaintance, "She and I quarrelled and differed about almost every thing,—…but we like each other heartily I think & I hope we shall ripen into friends…" [1]

Perhaps one of the things that drew them together was the similarity of their experiences. Both Gaskell and Brontë had lost their mothers at an early age; Gaskell was a year old when her mother died, while Brontë was five. Both were primarily raised by their mother's sisters in the north of England: Gaskell was sent to Knutsford, a small town near Manchester, to live with her mother's relatives, while Brontë's aunt came to Haworth, a village near Leeds, to live with the Brontë family. Both were sent to boarding schools as young girls. Both of their fathers were ministers, although Gaskell's father resigned from the church before she was born, and both were deeply religious. And both married clergymen themselves, although Brontë was unmarried when she and Gaskell first met. Perhaps these affinities are what moved Charlotte's father Patrick to ask Gaskell to write an account of Charlotte's life shortly after she died (see "I am not like you": Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë).

That Brontë and her novels deeply impressed Gaskell is evident from novels Gaskell wrote after their friendship was established. Jessie Brown in Cranford (1851-1853), Margaret Hale in North and South (1855), and Molly Gibson in Wives and Daughters (1865) are all young women caring for widowed fathers (Gaskell's father remarried when she was four; Brontë's father never did). All of these heroines defy convention, as did Jane Eyre, Lucy Snowe (in Villette), and Brontë herself. Jessie Brown insists on walking behind her father's casket to his burial, though this action is viewed by some as "against...propriety" [2]; Margaret Hale involves herself in the lives of the immiserated working class of Manchester; and Molly Gibson is interested in the scientific developments of her day, and risks her own reputation to help her stepsister out of a romantic dilemma.

North and South
North and South is the Gaskell novel that perhaps most clearly brings together the influences of both Brontë and Austen. Margaret Hale is the most Brontë-like heroine in Gaskell's fiction. Like Caroline Helstone, heroine of Brontë's Shirley (1849), she falls in love with a textile mill owner at a time of labor unrest, and sympathizes with both the workers and the owner. This is a connection that Gaskell clearly intended the reader to make: the bucolic village in which Margaret and her family are living at the beginning of the novel is called Helstone. There's also an Austen connection: the fictional village of Helstone is located in Hampshire, the rural county in the south of England where Austen was born and raised.

Margaret is portrayed in terms that Gaskell might have used to describe Charlotte Brontë herself:
...her quick perceptions and over-lively imagination made her hasty, and her early isolation from sympathy had made her proud; but she had an indescribable childlike sweetness of heart, which made her manners, even in her rarely wilful moods, irresistible... [3]
Margaret's life also closely parallels of that of her author. Her father is a clergyman who leaves the church because of a crisis of conscience; Gaskell's father did the same before she was born. At age 19, Margaret must move with her family to the industrial city of Milton; on her marriage at age 22, Gaskell moved with her husband to the industrial city of Manchester. Margaret has a brother, Frederick, who joins the Navy; Gaskell's brother John sailed with the East India Company's merchant fleet.

The central narrative in North and South is Margaret's slow recognition of the depth and nature of her feelings for Mr. Thornton, the (relatively) young and (relatively) progressive owner of a textile mill in Milton. Mr. Thornton is brought to recognize his love for Margaret much more quickly. In the midst of a near-riot at his mill during a strike she stands next to him to try to protect him from the crowd's wrath, and is injured. Shortly afterwards, he declares his feelings to her, but she rejects him abruptly:
'You seem to fancy that my conduct of yesterday'—again the deep carnation blush, but this time with eyes kindling in indignation rather than shame—'was a personal act between you and me; and that you may come and thank me for it, instead of perceiving, as a gentleman would—yes! a gentleman...that any woman, worthy of the name of woman, would come forward to shield, with her reverenced helplessness, a man in danger from the violence of numbers....You seem to have imagined, that I was not merely guided by womanly instinct, but'—and here the passionate tears (kept down for long—struggled with vehemently) came up into her eyes, and choked her voice—'but that I was prompted by some particular feeling for you—you! Why, there was not a man—not a poor desperate man in all that crowd—for whom I had not more sympathy—for whom I should not have done what little I could more heartily.' [4]
This is perhaps reminiscent of another independent-minded young woman's rejection of another prideful suitor:
Elizabeth felt herself growing more angry every moment; yet she tried to the utmost to speak with composure when she said:
'You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner....I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.' [5]
Neither Mr. Thornton nor Mr. Darcy can forswear their love; and both continue to work, without perhaps a full consciousness of their own motivations, to be worthy of the heroine's affection.

Good as North and South is, it's not without flaws: Nicholas Higgins, the representative of the "deserving poor," seems a bit too virtuous to be true (he gives up drinking entirely under Margaret's influence, for example). And Mr. Thornton, who is brusque and business-oriented, does not excite this reader's sympathies to anywhere near the same degree as the heroine. We come to feel that Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy are meant for each other; but the potential union of Mr. Thornton and Margaret does not seem to have the same sense of emotional inevitability.

Perhaps Gaskell's most delightful and charming work, Cranford was based on her experiences living with her aunt in Knutsford, a small town in Cheshire near Manchester. Cranford, located near the manufacturing town of Drumble, is governed (at least socially) by spinsters and widows. The interconnected stories that make up the novel (and which were originally published separately in Dickens' magazine Household Words) are narrated by a younger woman, Mary Smith, and describe the responses of the Cranford ladies to the rapidly changing mores and modes of life of the Victorian era.

The tone is warm and affectionate; the foibles and eccentricities of each of the Cranford ladies are acknowledged, but their underlying generosity and good-heartedness (particularly that of Miss Matty Jenkyns, who becomes the novel's central character) shine through. But not all is sweetness and light in Cranford. Gaskell's novels do not shy away from the fact of death, and several of the characters in Cranford, major and minor, pass away over the course of its 150 or so pages.

Gaskell herself wrote to John Ruskin that "It is the only one of my books that I can read again;—but whenever I am ailing or ill, I take 'Cranford' and—I was going to say, enjoy it! (but that would not be pretty!) laugh over it afresh!'" [6] The deep sympathy and tender fondness with which Cranford is written indeed inspire laughter and (even if Gaskell isn't willing to say so herself) profound enjoyment. If you have never read Gaskell it is the perfect place to start.

Wives and Daughters
If North and South is Gaskell's most Brontë-like novel, Wives and Daughters is her most Austen-esque—and her greatest achievement. It takes place entirely in the village of Hollingford (another version of Knutsford) and follows the fortunes of Molly Gibson, a young woman who lives with her widowed father, the town's surgeon. There's also a Brontë connection: Molly's governess is named Miss Eyre.

When Molly's blossoming beauty attracts the ardent attention of one of his apprentices, Mr. Gibson resolves to marry again to provide Molly with a stepmother. The woman he chooses is Mrs. Kirkpatrick, the widowed former governess to the children of the local lord:
Her voice was so soft, her accent so pleasant, that it struck him as particularly agreeable after the broad country accent he was perpetually hearing. Then the harmonious colours of her dress, and her slow and graceful movements, had something of the same soothing effect upon his nerves that a cat's purring has upon some people's. He began to think that he should be fortunate if he could win her, for his own sake. Yesterday he had looked upon her more as a possible stepmother for Molly; to-day he thought more of her as a wife for himself. [7]
Mrs. Kirkpatrick, for whom life has been a struggle since her husband's death, has her own reasons for accepting Mr. Gibson's offer:
She was looking out of the window...thinking how pleasant it would be to have a husband once more;—some one who would work while she sat at her elegant ease in a prettily-furnished drawing-room. [8]
We may be reminded of another man who chose his wife for her superficial attractions, but discovered too late how unsuited they were to one another:
Had Elizabeth's opinion been all drawn from her own family, she could not have formed a very pleasing picture of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort. Her father captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour, which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind, had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence, had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown. [9]
If Mr. Gibson's situation echoes that of Mr. Bennet, Molly's echoes that of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park (1814). Fanny, a demure young woman, has grown up in the household of the widowed Sir Thomas Bertram, and has fallen in love with his second son Edmund. Edmund, however, becomes infatuated with the worldly Mary Crawford, and Fanny must watch their growing attachment with dismay. Molly has grown up admiring the second son of the local squire, Roger Hamley, but he is captivated by the sparkling Cynthia, Mrs. Kirkpatrick's daughter. Roger is interested in the latest scientific theories, and embarks on a lengthy African expedition. Cynthia could not be less interested in science; she only cares about gowns, jewels, and making a brilliant impression in society. The quiet Molly understands and shares Roger's interests, but he has eyes only for Cynthia's beauty. Will Roger come to his senses and recognize Molly's true worth before it's too late?

The stage is set for a fairy-tale struggle between the evil stepmother and -daughter and the virtuous heroine. Fortunately Gaskell subverts our expectations: Mrs. Kirkpatrick is not evil, only shallow; and Cynthia and Molly, despite their differences, become close. And when a figure from Cynthia's troubling past threatens her with exposure and disgrace, Molly risks her own reputation in order to save Cynthia's.

Wives and Daughters was the last work Gaskell wrote, and she left it unfinished—she died unexpectedly before completing the final chapter. But with its close observation of the social world of a small English village and its touching portrait of the shy, sensitive and steadfast Molly Gibson, Wives and Daughters bears comparison to the work of Austen, Brontë, and to George Eliot's Middlemarch—that is to say, to some of the greatest novels ever written.

Judi Dench as Miss Matty Jenkyns in Cranford
BBC adaptations
All three of the Gaskell novels discussed here were adapted for BBC television. I wrote briefly about two of them, Cranford (2007) and Wives and Daughters (1999), in my post on Favorites of 2011: Television. North and South (2004) features Brendan Coyle, later of Lark Rise to Candleford and Downton Abbey, and Anna Maxwell Martin, later of Bleak House (2005) and South Riding (2011). All three Gaskell adaptations are excellent. But give yourself a treat and, if you haven't already done so, read the novels first.

Update 24 December 2014: On looking back today at my Favorites of 2010: Books I realized that Bollyviewer had left a percipient comment recommending Elizabeth Gaskell's novels. It only took me four years to follow her excellent suggestion. Many thanks, Bollyviewer, and apologies for my obtuseness in not following your advice immediately.


1. Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, Penguin Classics, 1985, Appendix B, p. 561.
2. Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford, Oxford World's Classics, 1980, Ch. II, p. 18.
3. Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South, Penguin English Library, 1970, Ch. 49, p. 508.
4. Gaskell, North and South, Ch. 24, pp. 253-254.
5. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Pantheon Books, 1949, Ch. XXXIV, p. 191.
6. Quoted in Gaskell, Cranford, Introduction, p. v.
7. Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and Daughters: An Every-Day Story. Penguin Classics, 2001, Ch. 10, p.105.
8. Gaskell, Wives and Daughters, Ch. 10, p. 104.
9. Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Ch. XLII, p. 233.

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