Secret-Keeping

Rosemarie Bodenheimer

  • The Works of Elizabeth Gaskell edited by Joanne Shattock et al
    Pickering & Chatto, 4716 pp, £900.00, May 2006, ISBN 1 85196 777 X

The new Pickering and Chatto edition of the complete works of Elizabeth Gaskell arrived just in time to mark a century since the publication of the previous standard text, A.W. Ward’s Knutsford Edition of 1906. In the meantime, Gaskell has been transformed from a charming woman who wrote wry nostalgic sketches to a major figure in Victorian studies.

Raymond Williams jump-started this re-evaluation in 1958, when he described her first novel, Mary Barton, as ‘the most moving response in literature to the industrial suffering of the 1840s’. Although Williams went on to complain about the book’s shift of focus from factory politics to romance, his work assured Gaskell’s place in critical discussions of industrialism, or at least the place of her two Manchester novels, Mary Barton and North and South. Others remained more attached to the Knutsford Gaskell who wrote Cranford, Wives and Daughters and Cousin Phillis. Those tenderly detailed studies of provincial life, they argued, contained Gaskell’s best and wittiest voice. There was puzzlement about the problematic outliers: Ruth, which took the side of a seduced girl and her illegitimate child, and Sylvia’s Lovers, a historical novel dealing with the press gangs of the Napoleonic Wars. No one paid much attention to Gaskell’s steady production of sketches, tales and novellas for such periodicals as Dickens’s weekly journals Household Words and All the Year Round, and later for the more prestigious Cornhill Magazine.

In the 1980s, these disparate pieces of work were gradually brought together in studies that blended feminist and cultural-historical approaches. There have been several new biographies since the 1990s, while The Letters of Mrs Gaskell (1966), edited by J.A.V. Chapple and Arthur Pollard, were reissued in 1997 and supplemented with Further Letters of Mrs Gaskell in 2000. Gaskell’s image, too, was transformed: the married woman whose earnings were pocketed by her husband, the Rev. William Gaskell, gave way to a canny, adaptable negotiator, keen to make money for the holidays she needed to restore her health after frenetic periods of writing, family life and social activity. The stories and novellas proved to be gold mines for biographical interpretation, since they tend to draw directly on Gaskell’s experiences, to play out her melodramatic fantasies, and to include material that would later be developed in the novels.

All of this scholarly and critical activity leaves its trace in the new edition. The first four volumes are devoted to Gaskell’s stories, journalism and novellas, each piece authoritatively introduced with information about its editorial history, sources and connections with other work. The six major works – the five novels and The Life of Charlotte Brontë, each with its own editor – are based on consistent source editions and are accompanied by notes on textual revisions; all have substantive introductions.

Gaskell has always been described as a storyteller; it was one of the things she called herself, and later commentators used the word to gesture towards differences between her writing and that of other Victorian novelists. She loved to collect and retell stories; gossip was as important to her as the collecting of odd tales from regional oral traditions. In her letters she repeatedly insists on being told every last detail of a reported event, and she was good at telling stories out loud. Her representations of the storytelling of relatively uneducated characters in Mary Barton and Sylvia’s Lovers are among her most vivid contributions to working-class portraiture; these humorous or touching tales are used to attest to the teller’s intelligence, imagination and ear for language.

The contemporaries whose work came closest to her own were Dickens, Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot, but Gaskell never practised the art of the novel as they did. Her details do not build up to form larger patterns of interpretation or metaphor; her voice generally lacks their double-edged ironies and strategic modulations. Although Gaskell tended to organise her novels by setting up two contrasting but connected households and pairing heroines, she did not employ the more intricate organisation of scene against narrative summary that ensures readers will keep reading. Gaskell wrote, as she lived, in a hurry and on the run. When she was at home she worked in the dining-room, where her four daughters, servants, relatives and friends came and went freely. Long passages of narrative summary sometimes take the energy out of her work, as if she had been distracted for a while; characters are occasionally put on hold for chapters. But when it came to beginning a book or producing its central confrontational scenes, Gaskell was concentrating: she knew when she had to gather her resources and write brilliantly.

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