The Victorian writer Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell wrote six full-length novels. Of these, three — Cranford, North and South, and Wives and Daughters — have plots that are borrowed from other ninenteenth century novelists. It is interesting to consider that Mrs. Gaskell was one of the latest of the literary artists who thought nothing of casually lifting plots from the works of others. Nowadays, of course, this antiquated custom is tabboo, and the moderns insist that while, in the newest of new genres, characters may be borrowed from the classics, stories are the unique properties of their creators.
Whatever method of borrowing we may ultimately decide to prefer, Mrs. Gaskell accomplished her best work when she used the old-fashioned one. Not only does the design — plot, in this case, would be too strong of a word — for Cranford comes from Dickens’ Pickwick; the former novel is an homage to the latter. Just as The Pickwick Papers chronicles the adventures of a group of wandering bachelors, Cranford records the doings of a town full of widows and spinsters (who, of course, since they have no gentlemen to accompany them, tend not to travel). Neither book tells a story; both consist of a series of loosely connected humorous episodes. Mrs. Gaskell intentionally draws our attention to her muse by placing a volume of Pickwick in the hands of one of the few daring gentlemen who venture into the town of Cranford.
Cranford also functions as a mild rebuke to one of The Pickwick Papers‘ many subplots, in which Dickens mercilessly indulges in the sport of old maid mocking, with a caricature of a foolish, shrewish, and selfish single older woman, and scathing aspersions on the modesty of her kind. Mrs. Gaskell’s book-length response is a beautiful vindication of the dignity of elderly virginal women. Her humorous female characters are not, of course, without foibles, but by the end of the book we acknowledge that just as Pickwick is “a great man,” the ladies of Cranford are great women.
The other two of the borrowing books derive their plots from Jane Austen: North and South comes from Pride and Prejudice, while Wives and Daughters, Mrs. Gaskell’s last novel, has much in common with Mansfield park. Unlike Cranford, the later novels do not dialogue with their sources. The similarities between the stories are quiet and unobtrusive: it seems that Jane Austen’s plots were used less to make a point and more because they were convenient. Mrs. Gaskell is often passed over in discussions of nineteenth century women writers: everyone is in a hurry to go from Jane Austen to Charlotte Bronte to George Eliot. Mrs. Gaskell’s borrowing habit might be supposed to justify this haste, — those who have heard of her, without having read her work, are apt to dismiss her as a cheap imitator of Jane Austen. Once we have read the novels of Mrs. Gaskell, however, there is no going back to the comfortable supposition that, since she is now relatively unpopular, she must be unimportant. George Eliot, in an essay entitled “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” names her (together with Charlotte Bronte) as a female novelist who has not only escaped writing silly novels, but has “reached excellence.” Since two of Mrs. Gaskell’s novels bear such a distinct similarity to two of Jane Austen’s, comparing the tones and philosphies of the two authors may lead us to a clearer underestanding of what Mrs. Gaskell’s unique contribution was.
Towards the middle of North and South, an infatuated bachelor called Mr. Thornton proposes to a young woman who dislikes him. Margaret Hale, the Lizzy Bennett of Mrs. Gaskell’s novel, rejects the proposal rather rudely, but as the novel progresses, falls in love with Mr. Thornton, and bitterly regrets her quick rejection. Just at the end of the book, she is able to signal to him that she has changed her mind, and the couple becomes engaged to be married. This outline is, of course, identical to that of Pride and Prejudice. Even the sins of Lizzie Bennett and Margaret Hale are similar: both ladies entertain unfair prejudices against their eventual husbands.
The causes of prejudice for the two heroines, however, are different. Lizzie Bennett dislikes Mr. Darcy partly because she (correctly) thinks that he is proud and rude and partly because she (incorrectly) thinks that he has been unjust in the past. Although her belief in the unsubstantiated slander she has heard against Mr. Darcy is imprudent and uncharitable, she can hardly be blamed by the reader for her rejection of a discourteous suitor. Margaret, on the other hand, has never heard anyone speaking about Mr. Thornton in any tone that fell short of respect, nor has she suffered anything but kindness and thoughtfulness at his hands. The reason for her prejudice against him is simply that he, as a factory owner, is a member of the middle-class, while she has been raised as a member of the upper-middle-class. Towards the beginning of the novel, she explains to her parents that she does not
like shoppy people. I think we are far better off, knowing only cottagers and labourers, and people without pretence… I call mine a very comprehensive taste; I like all people whose occupations have to do with land; I like soldiers and sailors, and the three learned professions, as they call them. I’m sure you don’t want me to admire butchers and bakers, and candlestick-makers.
It is tempting to equate Margaret’s rejection of Mr. Thornton’s proposal with the reluctance of the upper-class Mr. Darcy to ally himself with the upper-middle-class Elizabeth, but the two cases are not really similar. We find that when we compare Mr. Darcy to his friend Mr. Bingley, who is also a member of the upper-class, the former gentleman is revealed to be an unusually proud snob. By contrast, Margaret is merely an unthinking believer in the almost universal social dogma of her time. The romance of Elizabeth and Darcy falls well within the orthodoxy of ninteenth century social mores: the literature of that time-period is positively brimming over with member of the upper-class falling in love with members of the upper-middle-class, people who, like themselves, would be considered by their “inferiors” to be “ladies and gentlemen.”
Mr. Thornton thinks nothing of the line in the sand between the genteel and the ungenteel, and does not aspire to use his wealth to buy a ticket to acceptance among the higher classes. When Margaret asks him whether he considers another person to be a “gentleman,” the following exchange ensues:
‘I am not quite the person to decide on another’s gentlemanliness, Miss Hale. I mean, I don’t quite understand your application of the word. But I should say that this Morison is no true man.”…
‘I suspect my “gentleman” includes your “true man.”‘
‘And a great deal more, you would imply. I differ from you. A man is to me a higher and a completer being than a gentleman.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Margaret. ‘We must understand the words differently.’
‘I take it that “gentleman” is a term that only describes a person in his relation to others; but when we speak of him as “a man,” we consider him not merely with regard to his fellow-men, but in relation to himself,—to life—to time—to eternity. A cast-away lonely as Robinson Crusoe—a prisoner immured in a dungeon for life—nay, even a saint in Patmos, has his endurance, his strength, his faith, best described by being spoken of as “a man.” I am rather weary of this word “gentlemanly,” which seems to me to be often inappropriately used, and often, too, with such exaggerated distortion of meaning, while the full simplicity of the noun “man,” and the adjective “manly” are unacknowledged—that I am induced to class it with the cant of the day.’
In order to conquer her prejudice and love Mr. Thornton, Margaret does not have to do what Elizabeth Bennet does, and repent of a personal fault — a lack of prudence. She must convert to a different social faith.
Mr. Darcy and Mr. Thornton both must also change in order to win over the women they love. Mr. Darcy’s job is simple: he has to become less proud and snobby. This he does. Mr Thornton’s transformation is more complex. He is a mill owner whose method of dealing wih his employees, though just, is uncompromising and unempathic. One millworker explains that, let
John Thornton get hold on a notion, and he’ll stick to it like a bulldog; yo’ might pull him away wi’ a pitch-fork ere he’d leave go. He’s worth fighting wi’, is John Thornton…Thornton’s as dour as a door-nail; an obstinate chap, every inch on him,—th’ oud bulldog!’
He is fair, but not merciful, to his employess. He also uncharitably thinks that Margaret is immodest when he sees her walking after dark with a strange man, not realizing that the man is her brother. Just as Mr. Thornton teaches Margaret that virtue transcends artifical social classes, Margaret teaches Mr. Thornton about the specific virtue of Charity. He ends up cultivating friendships with his employees and attempting to dialogue with them, instead of just pitting his strength against theirs.
Putting the personal virtues of the heroes and the heroines aside, the most obvious difference between Pride and Prejudice on the one hand and North and South on the other is that, while the former novel takes place in the drawing rooms, ballrooms, and parks of the comfortable classes, the latter novel is set in a factory town, and involves many supporting characters who are members of the working class. One of the main subplots in North and South is about the decision of Margaret’s father, an Anglican clergyman, to renounce his living and choosing to live in poverty, due to theological scruples. Another chronicles the friendship between Margaret and a consumptive factory worker who is eagerly anticipating death and looking forward to Heaven. It is impossible to imagine Jane Austen writing about such people. Her characters may be carried away by Gothic interests and idealized human love, but it would never occur to them either to torture themselves with or to be comforted by Divine love.
The Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning was, like Mrs. Gaskell, very concerned with social problems and the plight of the poor. She is dismissive of Jane Austen’s goals, but not her of talents, as an artist:
She is perfect in what she attempts…but the excellence lies, I do hold, rather in the excecution than in the aspiration. It is a narrow, earthly and essentially unpoetical view of life: it is only half a true view. Her human creatures never look up; and when they look within it is not deeply…Conventional Life is not the Inward Life…and a writer who is not one-sided must comprehend both in his view of Humanity. Jane Austen is one-sided, and her side is the inferior and darkest side. God, Nature, the Soul, what does she say or suggest of these?
This does seem a bit harsh. Before we start thinking of Jane Austen as an important philosophical predecessor to Oscar Wilde, let us remember what her messages are (if, indeed, she has any): Darcy’s pride is bad. Elizabeth’s imprudence and vanity are bad. Lydia’s giddiness and unchastity are bad. Mr. Wickham’s lying, cheating, and stealing are bad. These are not, perhaps, the deeply poetical sentiments that Mrs Browning is looking for in a work of art; but they are not, after all, so very far removed from what most people associate with “God, Nature, and the Soul.”
We cannot help but feel, however, that there is some substance to the complaint that Jane Austen’s characters “never look up.” It may be enlightening to categorize writers according to which of the seven “Christian virtues” are important to them. Jane Austen writes about the four “secular,” or common sense, virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice. Mrs. Gaskell (like Mrs. Browning) tends to be more interested in the three “theological” virtues, which are not supposed to be knowable or achievable without God’s grace: Hope, Faith, and Charity. In other words, Jane Austen’s outlook is moral in a general sense, while Mrs. Gaskell’s is specifically religious.
The fact that Mrs. Gaskell’s writing is overtly Christian is in itself a sufficient explanation as to why her work is relatively unpopular in our secular age. The credit for the stirring up of what little interest there has been in Mrs. Gaskell in modern times goes, of course, to the feminist theorists and academics who are constantly combing through old and neglected books, looking for female literary stars who have not received their just dues. Much of the feminists’ attention has, understandably, been bestowed upon the last and the best of Mrs. Gaskell’s novels. In Wives and Daughters, Molly, the Fanny Price character, falls in love with Roger, a sweet and steadfast family friend who regards her as a sister. Like Jane Austen’s Edmund, Roger does not notice the regard of our heroine, and falls in love with a shallow but beautiful woman instead. When he finally realizes his error, he asks for Molly’s father’s permission to propose to her. We never do get to read about Roger’s proposal, however, since Mrs. Gaskell died suddenly, and never wrote the last chapter.
Before embarking upon our own analysis of her final work, let us stop a moment to consider the feminist reading of Mrs. Gaskell, as represented by Pam Morris’s introduction to Wives and Daughters. Ms. Morris concedes that Mrs. Gaskell does not protest against the male dominated status quo quite so clearly and passionately as her sister novelists, Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot, do. However, Ms. Morris, contends, Mrs. Gaskell does observe the male suppression of women, albeit in a quieter and subtler way:
…while the self-denials of…Molly, as advocated in Roger’s moral parable of Harriet, the dutiful daughter, are represented without comment in the text, the cost of such repression is clearly indicated…The story of Molly is set upon [a] trajectory of self-extinction. Molly tells her father after her unhappy visit to the Towers “I felt like a lighted candle when they’re putting the extinguisher on it!”…In a Darwinian world, the imposition of such self-repression upon women fits them only for extinction.
Let us now examine the moral parable to which Ms. Morris refers, and Molly’s consequent self-denial. The context is that Molly has just learned that her widower father is about to remarry, and she is insulted and angry, not least because her father is engaged to a woman whom she does not like. After some preliminary understanding words, Roger comforts Molly in this way:
I want to tell you of a girl I know. Her mother died when she was about sixteen — the eldest of a large family. From that time — all through the bloom of her youth — she gave herself up to her father, first as his comforter, afterwards as his companion, friend, secretary — anything you like. He was a man with a great deal of business on hand, and often came home only to set afresh to preparations for the next day’s work. Harriet was always there, ready to help, to talk, or to be silent. It went on for eight or ten years in this way; and then her father married again,—a woman not many years older than Harriet herself.. Well—they are just the happiest set of people I know—you wouldn’t have thought it likely, would you?…Harriet thought of her father’s happiness before she thought of her own.
The feminist contention, that this parable is intended by the author — a Victorian minister’s wife — to be ironic, is so ludicruous, that we could not have believed it had been made if we had not seen it with our own eyes. The “proof-text,” Molly’s complaint about feeling like a candle that is being put out, is literally a non-sequitur, — it occurs at the beginning of the novel, and is the expression of a child’s loneliness when she find herself uncared for in a strange house, not an adult woman’s feelings upon suppressing her irrational anger towards her father.
The Harriet parable is actually an informal paraphrase of the commonplace that virtuous behavior, and not the possession of any superficial trait or external object, can be the only true source of happiness. “Virtue is its own reward.”
In the last few chapters of North and South, both Margaret and Mr. Thornton seem to be in a metaphysical prison of sorts. Margaret appears to be cut off from love — both of her parents have died, and she does not believe that she will ever marry, since she does not expect that Mr. Thornton will propose to her again. Mr. Thornton is cut off not only from Margaret, but also from his business, which he has lost because of the vicissitudes in the demand for his products and his stubborn refusal to invest money — that he requires for paying debts — on the unreliable stock market. Both Mr. Thornton — who, incidentally, studied philosophy with Mr. Hale while that gentleman was alive — and Margaret courageously face their fates and resolve to be happy by behaving as well as they can. Margaret devotes herself to helping the London poor, while Mr. Thornton resolves to get a position as a manager in someone else’s factory, and try to work there for the betterment of relations between masters and hands. When they finally do get engaged, they joke about how Mr. Thornton’s mother will respond to the news by saying, “that woman,” and that Margaret’s aunt will respond by saying, “that man.” This is a reference, of course, to their previous conversation about class, but also to the old idea that “man” is an appellation deserved only by philosophers who remember their free and rational nature, and are not subservient to vice.
The main character of Cranford, one Miss Matty, an elderly lady, also suffers from a bad turn of fortune’s wheel. She was convinced by her domineering older sister to reject a good suitor in her youth, and never married. After the death of her sister — who was also her housemate and the manager of her finances — Miss Matty loses the principal source of her income when the bank where it was invested declares bankruptcy. When she hears of this event, her first instinct is that she is responsible for making reparations to the working class holders of bank-notes of the institution in which she was partially a proprietor. She is not of course, completely stoic, — she struggles with feelings of destitution and helplessness — but puts her bravest face on and is willing to do whatever she must to support herself. Instead of railing against fate, she behaves philosophically and well. In the end, her servant, friends, and neighbors all band together to help lighten her load, and she adjusts her manner of living, behaving as well in her adversity as she had when things were easier for her. One of the characters, speaking about Miss Matty, observes, “See…how a good, innocent life makes friends all around. Confound it! I could make a good lesson out of it if I were a parson.”
Henry James claims that Mrs. Gaskell’s writing is “the offspring of her affections, her feelings,” and contain little “intellectual matter.” “We should say,” wrote James, “that in her literary career, she displayed, considering her success, a minimum of head.” We should say, rather, that the novels of Mrs. Gaskell are, if anything, a bit top-heavy and didactic. Two of her three novels not mentioned here are concerned, like North and South, with social problems of the Victorian age, and in both of them Mrs Gaskell makes forceful arguments insisting upon the need for charity and understanding towards the destitutes and outcasts of her society. What clouded James’s judgment? One factor is Mrs. Gaskell’s skill as a literary artist, which makes the reader feel pure pleasure in her narrative, and discourages him from stopping to think whether she has a “message.” James himself also writes that
…in Wives and Daughters the late Mrs. Gaskell has added to the number of those works of fiction — of which we can not perhaps count more than a score as having having been produced in our time — which will outlast the duration of their novelty and continue for years to come to be read and relished for a higher order of merits…So delicately, so elaborately, so artistically, so truthfully, and heartily is the story wrought out.
The greater obstacle which prevented James from seeing Mrs. Gaskell for what she was, is that the kind of thinker she was was not the kind of thinker he was looking for. The sort of person who would be able to earn the respect of Henry James would have to be an original: someone who would blow a horn and declare a new era. Mrs. Gaskell, although she was a capable woman who felt confident in her own abilities, was not particularly interested in the typical Feminist cant of self-assertion. She was even less moved by Progressivism, Utilitarianism, Socialism, Aestheticism, or any the other isms of the Victorians, so many of which are still with us. She lived too early to be ones of those conservative reactionaries who are so notable for their insistence on ideas which they feel are being unjustly disregarded; she was not, like Chesterton or C.S. Lewis, a warrior taking up arms to defend a dying civilization. Because Mrs. Gaskell did not set up to prophesy in favor of any brand-new ideas, or even to defiantly assert the legitimacy of old ones, James concluded that her books were barren of thought. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just as Mrs. Gaskell was the last of the casual literary borrowers, she was also the last of the unself-conscious philosophical religious believers.