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.

The fact remains that I would rather read about them and about their background, in such an excellent biography as this one is, than re-enter today the world of her own novels. Jenny Uglow is an erudite Victorianist, presenting with great deftness and understanding a dynamic and densely peopled world of journalists and Unitarians, clergymen, railway engineers, the labouring poor, the women who looked after them and bore their children. But the real and more unusual virtue of her biography is its close and friendly-intimate discussion of the novels that made her subject famous in her own lifetime. She understands remarkably well the ‘state of the nation’ idiom that came naturally to Elizabeth Gaskell, as it increasingly did to many Victorian writers, and which made her so popular with a growing class of thoughtful and responsible readers. This idiom has made a comeback today, and is often to be heard in the higher political correctness of contemporary bien pensantes, but to be fair to Gaskell (it’s perhaps too late to start calling her Stevenson – her maiden name) it seldom sounds in her work with our contemporary note of ideological complacence. On the contrary: her prose is always in too much of a rush (her cousin Henry Holland called her charming letters ‘a heterogeneous mass of nonsense’) ever to calm down and show itself pleased with itself. What is lacking is the note of intimacy, the tone so natural to Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Barbara Pym or Elizabeth Bowen that their readers (perhaps particularly the male ones) only notice it in terms of their own feeling of gratified response to what seems a subtlety of fellow-feeling, a gratifyingly tacit appeal to their own insight and intelligence.

None of that in Mrs Gaskell. There is too much communal bustle, cheerfulness, togetherness, wryly triumphant reconciling of the ‘separate duties’ of woman and artist. What would have happened to Charlotte Brontë if she had not died of TB and pregnancy not long after marriage? Voluntary extinction as a writer, probably. Victorian writers – novelists particularly – are deeply internalised, the men as well as the women: they needed their inner lives, their neuroses, their own kinds of deprivation. Mrs Gaskell’s case exhibits this by contrast. She wrote as she gossiped, coped with the family, ran the household, did good works. It was very much a question of ‘one life, one writing’, although not at all in the proudly psychopathic sense in which Robert Lowell threw off that phrase. Few writers can have been less disturbed in the psyche than Mrs Gaskell, and the fact suggests the uncomfortable old cliché that virtue and good writing hardly ever go together. With her heart in the right place she wrote ‘movingly’ of sorrow, affliction and injustice, of the bitter trials and struggles of the poor, of the grim divisions widening between the North and the South. These novels deeply impressed her contemporaries; but like all extrovert reportage they lose with time the power to be much more than scenic diagram and description. A telling detail thrown off in Dickens, the facts suggested or taken for granted in a Brontë drama – it is those things that really do the work her social writing seems to be doing. Only fiction from the inside has the authority to tell the outward truth. The point was obliquely noted by Tolstoy, whose admiration for Mrs Gaskell’s writings verged on the extravagant. Yet he was well aware that his own writing, like all powerful art, was deceptive, never quite doing what it seemed to be; and that in War and Peace, for instance, he was using pastoral propaganda and an apparently transparent narrative line to produce all sorts of unexpected results, and to allay his own inner tensions and doubts.

So good are Jenny Uglow’s discussions of the Gaskell novels that the actual texts may not quite live up to them, although she conveys their virtues with a kind of discernment very much in tune with her subject’s own. As one would expect, Mrs Gaskell got steadily better as a writer as she went on, learning and perceiving more until the moment she dropped dead, quite unexpectedly, in the course of one of her animated household conversations. Wives and Daughters was left unfinished; and the readers of the Cornhill magazine, in which it was appearing as the most successful novel of the year, were deeply disappointed. But good as it is it is possibly less good (leave alone its unfinished state) than the nouvelle that preceded it, ‘Cousin Phillis’, a subtle story of female deprivation which shows how much the writer had learnt and intuited from having daughters of her own. It also has a Jamesian narrator, Paul Manning, an apprentice railway engineer who possesses a feminine power of observation (he notes as odd that his cousin Phillis Holman, although a grown woman, still has the childish habit of wearing a pinafore over her dress). Gaskell’s eye for the complexities of growth in a female subject is exceptionally keen here, and the story unfolds without any suggestion of contrivance or any resort to tragic incident and pathos. The male ‘seducer’ is not a seducer at all, but a thoroughly likeable senior railway engineer who has little idea how important his visit has been for Cousin Phillis. He sees her as a Sleeping Beauty, quite unaware, and promises himself with some complacency that he will come back from Canada, where he is bound on a new railway assignment, ‘and waken her to my love’. Of course she has never been asleep, and is much more turbulently and physically in love with him than he is with her. Custom has made her grow into the appearance and habit of sweet calm and innocence. He blithely marries a Canadian beauty and that is that. Phillis remains unwed, and her parents do not realise the extent of the damage inflicted. As Jenny Uglow points out, her family, and indeed the narrator Paul himself, all speak the kinds of language which deny Phillis an identity.

Phillis’s parents assume her youthfulness and so she perpetuates it unwittingly; a similarly helpless instinct tells her that it is no good trying to approach her lover as a woman: by destroying her own stereotype she would only forfeit the identity he has given her. And this despite the fact that she is an intelligent and clever girl with a knowledge of Latin and Greek and a passionate longing to read more. The special and disquieting interest of the story lies in the way Mrs Gaskell’s grasp of its implications, though quite unpretentious, outdistance any comfortable feeling we may have today that this is a Victorian tale based on premises and modes of behaviour wholly outdated in our time. Something in the soft rigidity of the setting, and in the torment of the girl as she breaks down, are as timeless as Racine. A few years later, in A Pair of Blue Eyes, Hardy will give a comparable situation the same kind of sympathy and what seems an involuntary understanding, one which he will later harden into the tragic female stereotypes of his mature novels.

This may raise a few eyebrows among people who (like myself, in general) have no great opinion of Mrs Gaskell as an artist. And indeed it is true, as Jenny Uglow goes on to point out, that the assurance with which the writer ‘makes Phillis the subject of her story instead of its object, while following the tradition of seeing her through men’s eyes’, suggests a more conscious degree of art than she was capable of exercising. Like a kingfisher spying out fish, she knew how rather than why; and her daughters no doubt unconsciously supplied the information she drew on almost equally unconsciously. The understanding seems to claim an inevitability which the tale actually lacked, for George Smith of the Cornhill applied his guillotine by only allowing it a limited number of issues, at a time when Mrs Gaskell was still hesitating over how to end it. She gave up in despair, and had recourse to the most hackneyed of Victorian fictional formulas. ‘I cannot bear to think of the piteous scene; all the more piteous because she was so patient. Spare me the grim recital.’ The narrator and reader are duly spared, but the author had planned a further scene set years later, with Phillis setting out to improve the farm after her father’s death, using technical methods that her old lover had developed as an engineer, and with a couple of adopted children ‘clinging to her gown’. Perhaps it was just as well we were spared that recital. Hardy, himself a veteran of the Cornhill, had similar troubles with his endings, but was never reduced to such a touchingly unsatisfactory alternative solution as those two.

Reviewing Wives and Daughters for the Nation in 1866, the 22-year-old Henry James wrote that Mrs Gaskell’s genius was ‘so obviously the offspring of her affections, her feelings, her associations and (considering that, after all, it was genius) was so little of an intellectual nature’. But though she displayed, ‘considering her success, a minimum of head’ her genius consisted in ‘the peculiar play of her personal character’. James’s view was not untypical of the masculine response of the time. Leslie Stephen, a friend and near-contemporary of Mrs Gaskell, regarded her achievements in much the same light as he would have done those of his own daughter; and Jenny Uglow is surely right to stress the implicit comeback in the Gaskell novels, which show them both acquiescing in patriarchal domination and subverting it, well before the voices of feminism made themselves heard – and that in artfully domestic ways which (again) neither Jane Austen nor George Eliot could have managed. Gaskell’s novels show parables of ‘the male desire to possess and infantilise women’, just as they repeat themes of ‘mother want’ (Mrs Gaskell’s had died in her infancy), obfuscated sexuality, the beloved man who disappears, loss of a child and a son.

In fact she was singularly fortunate in her marriage. William Gaskell comes across in Jenny Uglow’s narrative as the nicest of men, although he was a patriarch, a workaholic and a Unitarian minister whose reputation grew and expanded as fast as the riches and the poverty of the Greater Manchester he did his work in. She said herself she would have made a far better bishop’s wife – ‘if the Unitarians ever come uppermost in my day’ – than the presumably Proudie-like bishops’ wives she met. Her biographer makes some of what is nowadays rather routine speculation about her sex life, knowingly quoting a letter written just before she married, which refers in her breathlessly chatty way to fears of thunderstorms and the danger in them of umbrellas (‘the brass point served as a conductor, and afterwards the steel in Mrs Boddington’s stays, conveying the fluid to within a straw’s breath of a vital part in her leg’). Couldn’t this account of a mishap on young Mrs and Mr Boddington’s wedding-tour have been merely an in-joke in her letter to her friend Harriet Carr rather than, as Jenny Uglow suggests, a Freudian symptom of premarital nervousness? Humour was certainly the Gaskells’ strong suit in marriage: William always found his wife funny, and she him, and they shared the jokes. I would suspect that always calling herself as an author ‘Mrs Gaskell’ was a part of it; humour seems to have been for her the natural feminine friend and intimate of male authority. Mrs Woolf (who could have made a joke of always being known as that) would in her own way have gone along: and of course she liked Mrs Gaskell much more than other woman writers, Victorian or contemporary. Writing to Dickens’s biographer, John Forster, about Charlotte Brontë’s forthcoming marriage to her curate Arthur Nicholls, Mrs Gaskell said that Charlotte ‘would never have been happy but with an exacting, rigid, passionate, law-giving man ... could never have borne not to be well-ruled and ordered’. She herself, she went on to say, was often being accused of ‘being “too much of a woman” in always wanting to obey someone’. Is it possible that we today take Victorian female subordination too much au pied de la lettre, underestimating both sexes’ instinctive insight into the function of role-playing? Our own politically-correct solution is to keep such role-playing for the bedroom and for fantasy life, but the Victorians assumed its social utility as well, for both children and adults, and in terms of reassurance all round.

Notwithstanding her insight into Cousin Phillis’s predicament Mrs G could fling herself into the role with complete enthusiasm, delighted to act out the Middlemarch part of coquettish Rosamund Vincy as well as its Dorothea. That gave her books their spontaneity as well as their ‘femininity’ (though significantly it is the Pyms and Austens whose novels better understand the art of flirtation in print). ‘Who – What, Where, Wherefore, Why – oh do be a woman and give me all possible details,’ she writes to her friend Tottie’s father, when she heard Tottie was marrying an artist in Rome. Her coquettishness extends to teasing the patriarch into playing a girlish role, knowing he would be flattered by the chance and enjoy doing it. She was also amused that her husband William carefully kept all the ‘love-letters’ he received from adoring females in his congregation. Victorian role-playing may have inoculated them against the grosser manifestations of envy and jealousy – can one imagine these particular sorts of interchange happening today? A contributor to Household Words when Dickens was editor, Mrs G seems to have been slyly provocative, as well as business-like, and he duly acted up to her, exclaiming: ‘Mrs Gaskell – fearful – fearful! If I were Mr G, O Heaven how I would beat her!’ He would hardly get away with that today, would he?