The Unwritten Fiction of Dead Brothers

Dinah Birch

  • Elizabeth Gaskell: The Early Years by John Chapple
    Manchester, 492 pp, £25.00, May 1997, ISBN 0 7190 2550 8

The daughter of Samuel Holland, a prosperous Cheshire farmer and land agent, the wife of William Stevenson, a scholar and writer of some reputation, and the mother of Elizabeth Gaskell, one of the most celebrated Victorian novelists, Elizabeth Stevenson has vanished. No portrait survives, no letter or scrap of journal, no cherished family anecdotes, no remembered trace of her character or opinions. She died at the age of 40 in 1811 – we don’t know how, or why – leaving a 12-year-old son and a sturdy little girl, also called Elizabeth, who was just a year old. She may, or may not, have had six other children who died in infancy. John Chapple is punctilious about what he calls ‘the knotty entrails of oaken facts’, and will not pretend to know what he cannot prove. The pathos of Mrs Stevenson’s faded existence is not lost on him, and he does what he can for her – referring, twice, to a ‘desperately trivial’ mention of a curious fan she seems once to have owned (was it rare, he wonders, or finely worked?) as almost the only sure evidence that she had a life of her own. Her daughter seems to have felt something similar. Thirty-eight years after her mother died, Elizabeth Gaskell unexpectedly acquired some of her letters. Thanking the donor, she said that they were ‘the only relics of her that I have, and of more value to me than I can express, for I have so often longed for some little thing that had once been hers or been touched by her’.

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