Mrs G

John Bayley

  • Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories by Jenny Uglow
    Faber, 690 pp, £20.00, February 1993, ISBN 0 571 15182 5

To an admirer who wanted to meet him on account of A Shropshire Lad Housman replied discouragingly that while most men might be more interesting than their books his book was definitely more interesting than its man. Conversely, there are good writers who are nonetheless more interesting to read about than to read, and Mrs Gaskell is one of them. Few Victorians would have been more agreeable to encounter, less likely to disappoint, intimidate, or merely bore. She was delightful company: not like an author at all, as many of her numerous acquaintance remarked after she had become well-known. These good qualities – vivacity, shrewdness, caringness, intent and intelligent curiosity about other people’s lives – lend virtue to her books, but also in the aggregate lend a kind of undeserved and unexpected dullness. Why this should be so is not at all easy to see, unless it is that unlike most novelists she made her books out of a busy, open, outgoing self: not a brooded, secretive, internal one.

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