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’.

Chapple’s quarter of a million closely printed words are expended as much, or more, on the obscurities of Gaskell’s family history as on her own progress. Readers interested only in Gaskell’s writing will throw the book away in exasperation. But as a reconstruction of a successful Dissenting family, a loving, scholarly, honestly unimaginative resurrection of departed lives, it has its fascination – and its representative value. Elizabeth Stevenson’s early death is one of the many tragic commonplaces Chapple’s story encompasses. For Gaskell, as for every motherless daughter, it was anything but commonplace. The ‘lost mother’ haunts her writing. But there was no danger that the baby girl would not be cared for. Her father, though erratic and sometimes distant, maintained a vigilant presence in her life. Her older brother seems to have been particularly attached to her. Still more fortunately, she had a kindly aunt, Hannah Lumb, who was willing to give her small niece a comfortable and dependable home in the Knutsford that Gaskell later remembered so sympathetically in Cranford. Despite her absent mother, Elizabeth was lucky.

What emerges most clearly from Chapple’s work is a sense of the independence and vitality that characterised the prosperous Nonconformist communities of British provincial towns. Born of seafaring people in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Elizabeth Gaskell’s father trained for the ministry in Daventry and then Northampton, in the new Dissenting academies which provided an education that made syllabuses at Oxford and Cambridge look pinched indeed: ‘classics, divinity, ethics, ecclesiastical history, Hebrew, New Testament, shorthand, mathematics’, ‘doctrine of the human mind’, government and several natural sciences – ‘not to mention a “set of lectures against Popery”, some lectures on Anatomy and a course on Oratory’. Nonconformist tutors, especially those emerging from the developing Unitarian congregations, thought it their duty to encourage open minds in their students. ‘Freedom of enquiry on all subjects is the birthright and glory of a rational being,’ declared one of Stevenson’s teachers. Inevitably, this liberty sometimes led to controversies and damaging divisions within the academies, but it also formed a body of adventurous and well-informed young men. William Stevenson travelled to the Continent in the early 1790s, when Revolutionary passion was at its height, returning only when war broke out. He taught for a while at the newly founded academy in Manchester, where the brilliant scientist John Dalton was a fellow tutor. He abandoned, on principle, the idea of entering a paid ministry, and published an uncompromising polemic called Remarks on the Very Inferior Utility of Classical Learning (later he proved rather an enthusiastic classicist – William was never afraid to change his mind). He married, and unsuccessfully tried farming, whose traditional practices were then attracting thorough-going scientific reform. Eventually he found a berth as Keeper of the Papers at the Treasury, and from there he produced a stream of learned writings.

The fact that so much more is known of Elizabeth Gaskell’s father than her mother points to the depth of the divisions between the lives of men and women in the early 19th century. Self-improvement was for all, and one of the pioneering features of the Unitarian faith was its insistence that intellectual training should be available to both men and women. But the dangers and trials of life were thought to be largely men’s business. Marriage and motherhood might have seemed hazard enough for the women of these families. Hannah Lumb’s own marriage had been ill-fated: her husband turned out to be mentally unstable, and Hannah almost immediately left him to return to a single life in Knutsford. This was a decision made possible by affluence. Her husband was wealthy, and the family provided sufficient allowance for her to live in reasonable comfort as a single woman. There was a spirited daughter of this failed union, Marianne, who had been crippled as an infant: the story went that she had jumped from a window to greet her mother. Marianne was around twenty years old when her aunt died in London. ‘Poor little Elizabeth! what will become of her? ... Do you not think she might come to us?’ Marianne’s letters to Hannah, urging the rescue of Elizabeth, make touching reading.

I have measured between the Bed on my side and the Door and I find there is ample room for a pretty large Crib (which I will pay for) but should you think it will crowd the room too much, or having the child in the room at night, will disturb you in the least, I will most joyfully take my little charge up in to the Garret and sleep there ... My allowance is so handsome that it has enabled me to procure for myself many things which I have not the least occasion for, and which for the future I intend to be without, as I shall have double pleasure, when I shall have little Elizabeth to share with me.

This mixture of practical sense, warmth and an open mindfulness of money is entirely typical of the family. But Marianne’s health was no more robust than Elizabeth’s mother’s had been, and a few months after the toddler’s arrival in Knutsford she too died. Perhaps Hannah’s life would have been lonely without the new responsibility of bringing up her niece. It is certainly true that Gaskell’s fiction repeatedly returns to the theme of the charitable protection of bereaved children. The family which lies at the centre of her fiction as of her life can never be quite secure.

The men were expected to get on, providing for the unremitting progress towards better things that defined Nonconformist values. Both Elizabeth Stevenson and Hannah Lumb came from the forceful Holland family, ideally suited to prosper in this competitive world. Mary Holland, Elizabeth’s cousin, remarked rather sardonically that the ‘Hollands are a useful, working, money-trying-to-get family, and not intended for an ornamental or pleasure-taking race.’ The women were permitted to interest themselves in the production of fine music or literature; the men were required to go out and make money. This they did with notable success. Henry Holland, another of Elizabeth’s cousins, became a celebrated traveller and physician, and a rich man. He was one of those who attended Prince Albert in his final and fatal illness. Others prospered as merchants or bankers. Intrepid speculations abounded, often overseas. Elizabeth’s uncle Samuel Holland was briefly engaged in privateering, on a Liverpool ship authorised to attack enemy vessels and capture them for profit. Charles Holland, another cousin, sailed round South America in a trading vessel he had bought. He later became entangled in one of Simón Bolívar’s liberation wars, was captured, and underwent a mock execution. He escaped, and eventually returned to a moneyed life in Liverpool.

The Stevensons, however, were not made of quite the same stuff as these indomitable Hollands. For all his restlessly enquiring mind, William Stevenson was not really a risk-taker. His post in the Treasury was acquired under the patronage of the wealthy Lord Lauderdale. It is hard to imagine one of Elizabeth’s Holland cousins accepting such dependency. When offers of adventure did come William’s way – the chance, for instance, to become a professor at Kharkov in Russia – he turned them down. He found it increasingly hard to fulfil promises to editors and publishers. Worst of all, he failed to make money. His later years were dogged by financial problems. Elizabeth’s brother John conformed to family tradition in becoming a sailor, but resembled his father in the difficulties he had in coming to terms with the demands of his situation. Elizabeth was protected by a replacement for her lost mother. John was not. Letters to his sister are often emotional, wistful and finally bitter. There were literary ambitions, reluctantly revealed. John had no resources with which they could be turned into reality. His bid to publish a book was firmly turned down by Smith and Elder. He seems to have wanted security and affection rather than a life of foreign peril, but with little money there could be few prospects of marriage. England seemed to have nothing to offer him. Like his mother, but in very different circumstances, John evaporated from Elizabeth’s life. He vanished from his ship, berthed at Calcutta, and was never heard of again. Whether he drowned, succumbed to an accident or illness, committed suicide or absconded could not be determined. Lost sailors, like lost mothers, often figure in Elizabeth Gaskell’s fiction. Men, too, could be overwhelmed by the struggle for survival.

Elizabeth must have been conscious that her own father and brother were not altogether measuring up to the exacting standards set by her male cousins, and that as the sheltered niece of the respectable but hardly wealthy Hannah Lumb she was something close to a poor relation. She seems to have taken the role of the observant outsider in the family’s many activities, rather than that of a leading player. Yet her part was easier than John’s, for no one expected her to make a fortune. Her dresses might not have shone in the Holland family gatherings, but other more solid advantages came her way. At the age of 11, Elizabeth was sent for five years to one of the best girls’ schools in England, run by the Byerley sisters in Stratford-upon-Avon. Here her father’s influence may well have been crucial, for the Byerleys had family connections with the second Mrs Stevenson. However, it was Hannah Lumb who seems to have paid the rather substantial bills. Half a year’s fees came to £74 in 1832, more than twice as much as a private governess would have charged. Perhaps there was a lower tariff for family associates. The Byerleys’ School for Young Ladies was a far cry from Charlotte Brontë’s Clergy Daughters’ School (£14 per year). Effie Gray, later to become Ruskin’s wife, was a pupil there; there was even talk of sending Princess Victoria. The teaching was proficient and though the curriculum was not as wide-ranging as that offered in the Dissenting academies for young men, it included some mathematics, French, Italian, Latin and a good deal of quite ambitious music. The school was not large – no more than 25 boarders could be accommodated – and seems to have cultivated an atmosphere of religious tolerance. Mixing on equal terms with some of the brightest and most active girls of her generation, Elizabeth profited immensely from her time with the Byerleys. She emerged as a capable, confident and very lively 16-year-old.

Her education didn’t stop there, as she followed the common custom of staying with various branches of the family, sometimes for extended periods. She continued to work on Latin, French and Italian with her father. She visited North Wales, then considered rather a wild and primitive place, where one of the Holland men was making money out of the slate-quarrying that would provide roofs for so many urban houses. After her father died, she spent long periods with the enterprising William Turner, a Unitarian minister in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, whose eclectic approach to learning (geology, mining, literature, antiquities, natural history, chemistry, optics and astronomy all attracted his eager attention) was a further inducement to Elizabeth to take the development of her mind seriously.

There was no immediate pressure on her: no institution to please, and no living to earn. Though she was attractive and likely to marry, funds would have been sufficient for her to cope fairly respectably if her spinsterhood was prolonged. Meeting people, noticing and analysing, she was laying down stores that would feed her fiction for years. The accumulated detail of Chapple’s study underlines what recent scholarship has often suggested: that Elizabeth Gaskell’s writing was formed in the rich and resourceful world of early 19th-century Nonconformism, and of Unitarianism in particular. Marriage to William Gaskell, a Unitarian minister, was the confirmation of this. Chapple’s research is also a reminder of how deeply family relationships matter in accounting for the origins of Gaskell’s work. Her father was an accomplished writer who died without having quite fulfilled his early promise. Her brother also had wanted to write, and had not been able to do so. One of John’s last letters to her contains a moment of encouragement that might have lingered in her mind: ‘You have really made a very pretty story of Captain Barton – it would almost make the foundation of a novel.’ Years later, her first novel was about a family called Barton. Gaskell was prompted to write Mary Barton by the death of her only son, a tragedy that could well have revived her earlier grief for the loss of her brother. Charlotte Brontë, who became a close friend and the subject of one of Gaskell’s best books, also lost her mother while still very young and was left to the care of an aunt. She, too, had a father with frustrated literary hopes, and a brother whose aspirations to write terminated in a pitiably early death. Though Victorian women had to contend with many disadvantages, to be born a man was no guarantee of success. The autonomy that produced the novels of Gaskell and Brontë was shadowed and sanctioned by the unwritten fiction of dead brothers.