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.

Gaskell’s penchant for gathering stories underpinned her talent for describing local cultures; but it could also get her into trouble. It is delightful to be in the hands of a novelist who will tell you, as she does in Sylvia’s Lovers, what kinds of shoes and stockings young girls wore in the late 18th century, or that smugglers on the coast near Whitby were helped by farmers on the bluffs to haul up illegal goods hidden in buckets of seaweed. Gaskell’s elaboration of details about places and households can give a clearer window on ordinary life in the 19th century than novels that rope every detail into the service of a larger ironic or poetic vision. But she also had a way of believing – or at least of fully entering into – the stories her informants told her. She was immensely interested in the rumours that a Mr Liggins of Nuneaton had written Adam Bede, and later apologised to George Eliot for having been taken in by them. Her ability to internalise views of industrial relations expressed by both factory-workers and mill-owners created the impression that her own position was either tendentious or incoherent; in fact she was trying to get each side to listen to the stories of the other. When it came to writing biography, however, the public consequences of this receptiveness were greater.

Gaskell first met Charlotte Brontë in 1850, five years before Brontë died. The effect of Gaskell’s sympathetic presence might be measured by the fact that the thorny Brontë trusted her new friend, invited her once to Haworth, and told her a good deal about the sad family history. It may have been for these reasons that Patrick Brontë commissioned Gaskell to write his daughter’s biography, a task that could have been made to order for her. In the first volume she set her motherless heroine as a domestic, shy but compassionate feminine jewel set in a gothic Yorkshire. The blunt opinions and eccentric behaviour of northern folk account for Brontë’s harsh sense of realism but don’t damage her moral delicacy. Gaskell’s keen sense of place and the stories associated with it come into view in the wonderful description of the approach to Haworth that opens the biography, and return each time Brontë moves, to go to school or take up a position. In the second volume, Currer Bell the novelist is heavily represented through excerpts from her strong-voiced literary correspondence. Her biographer, clearly ambivalent about the radical expressiveness of her subject’s work, concentrates, as she so often did in fiction, on the sad succession of deaths in Brontë’s family.

Gaskell’s research for the biography involved her in a situation like the ones she invented in her novels: she became the carrier of someone else’s secret, and felt compelled to substitute other stories for the one she was concealing. The secret was Charlotte Brontë’s hopeless love for the married Belgian schoolmaster Constantin Héger, which Gaskell learned about when she interviewed Héger in Brussels and read Brontë’s letters to him. Any Victorian biographer would have hushed up a matter like that; it was understood to be part of the job. The only question was how it would be done. Gaskell filled some pages about Brontë in Brussels by printing (in French) several of the pieces of work Brontë wrote for Héger. Then she made a more dangerous, more novelistic move, substituting the story of Branwell Brontë’s involvement with his employer Mrs Robinson for Charlotte’s parallel obsession with M. Héger.

Although it wasn’t quite clear to what extent this relationship existed outside Branwell’s drug-ridden fantasy, Gaskell took local storytellers at their word and condemned Mrs Robinson for her scandalous seduction and ruin of a youthful dependent. This earned her the threat of a libel suit, from which she was saved by the timely action of her husband, who printed an apology and retraction in the Times while she was on her way home from a restorative holiday in Rome. The second edition was cancelled; Gaskell’s punishment was to rewrite substantial passages for the third, altering her treatment of the Branwell story, and responding also to numerous other outraged claims brought by people who had figured in the biography in ways they resented. Patrick Brontë, who appears in the first edition as the chair-burning, pistol-firing maniac Gaskell had heard about from an unreliable witness, was the only one to forgive her. (The Pickering and Chatto volume, edited by Linda Peterson, rightly gives us the offending first edition, along with translations of all those devoirs.)

Gaskell’s experience with The Life of Charlotte Brontë seems only to have strengthened her interest in using lies and cover-ups as central devices in fiction. Most Victorian novels are plotted around secrets; often the hidden facts are kept from the reader as well as from the characters. Gaskell’s use of secrets is quite different: she is interested in the lies or silences that protect another person from judgment or harm, and she is concerned with the effect of secret-keeping on the keeper. In Mary Barton (1848), the working-class heroine learns that her Chartist father has murdered her secret fantasy love, the factory-owner’s son; her mission is to protect her father while exonerating her actual lover, who is accused of the crime and brought to trial. Her performance as a witness is one of Gaskell’s compelling scenes, its tension based on an act of truth-telling that is also a desperate attempt at concealment. The stress causes Mary to collapse into a serious illness that purges her youthful restlessness and prepares her for marriage to the worthy working-class hero.

Variants of this sequence appear again and again in Gaskell’s novels. In Ruth (1853), a 16-year-old orphan apprentice is seduced, impregnated and abandoned by an upper-class sensualist. Rescued and taken in by the household of a Dissenting minister, she is represented to the community as a widow. The ramifications of this benevolent fiction create the turning points in the story of the book’s second heroine, Jemima Bradshaw, whose growing-up and readiness for marriage depend on the way she deals with Ruth’s secret when she learns it. In North and South (1855), the heroine lies to a police inspector in order to protect her brother, who has come back to England under threat of arrest; the lie, for which she can never quite forgive herself, becomes a key factor in overcoming her resistance to marriage. Sylvia’s Lovers (1863) is built around a more self-serving deception: Philip, in love with Sylvia, conceals from her that her accepted suitor, taken by a press gang, has promised to return to her. Wives and Daughters (1866) has two concealed relationships: a secret marriage and a case of romantic blackmail. Molly Gibson, who is privy to both, suffers the effects of concealment to the point of scandal and illness before she is allowed at last to move towards the worthy man who has shared in the consequences of both cover-ups. Further variants may be found among the novellas: in A Dark Night’s Work (1863), for example, the heroine witnesses her father’s impulsive murder and burial of a colleague, binding her to her father’s secret and destroying her romance.

Gaskell’s interest in lying and concealment has been linked to her Unitarian belief in the paramount importance of truth-telling, and its relation to her profession as a writer of fiction. There is an amusing passage in Ruth when the minister’s sister, Faith Benson, takes pleasure in elaborating on the lie about Ruth’s past. Gaskell makes up for her indulgence here in a brief sequence in which Ruth’s illegitimate child, Leonard, is found taking liberties with the truth; the household goes into serious reform mode, and Leonard is quickly cured. Gaskell certainly gestures towards the destructive consequences of lying, if only by showing the inward strain and physical suffering of characters burdened with secrets. It is also true, however, that her worthiest characters are generally those who carry secrets and tell lies, or at least don’t tell the whole truth. But secret-keeping is not only a moral problem in Gaskell’s fiction. Its role becomes clearer if we think about these deception plots in relation to Gaskell’s representations of family life.

Her central subject – the one that distinguishes her most clearly from other 19th-century novelists – is the relationship between parents and children. Romance plots in many novels turn on the question ‘Who is the right man for this woman?’ Gaskell’s chart a murkier territory in which parents cling protectively to their children and daughters struggle with the transition from parental connection to love and marriage. Mr Holman in Cousin Phillis keeps his sexually mature daughter in pinafores; Dr Gibson in Wives and Daughters is so panicked when his apprentice becomes infatuated with his daughter that he remarries, bringing unhappiness to himself and Molly. Mrs Thornton in North and South is aggressively jealous of her son’s love for Margaret Hale, while Margaret lovingly serves her father, and is deeply offended by any indication that she is considered as a romantic object. In Ruth, Jemima Bradshaw fights off her incipient love for her father’s business partner in order to resist feeling that she is being controlled by her overbearing father. In Sylvia’s Lovers, Sylvia falls in love with Charley Kinraid, a daring whaler who lives as her father fantasises he lived in his youth; meanwhile, her mother encourages Kinraid’s rival, Philip Hepburn, to give Sylvia the kind of near maternal protection she thinks Sylvia needs. Although the movement from ‘wild’ or wilful girlhood to self-disciplined care for others lies at the heart of all these stories, Gaskell finds it difficult to show the way her heroine makes the shift from daughter to lover and wife. Instead, she provides the daughter with a secret – her own or someone else’s – that effectively creates a barrier of knowledge between parent and child. Neither the heroines nor the readers of these books know exactly what is happening; the trials of secret-keeping stand in for the mysterious passage into adult sexual life.

Gaskell’s own mother died when she was 13 months old, leading her to imagine again and again in her work the conscious connection with a mother and the conscious loss of one, both things she had been too young to experience. Her father sent her as an infant to her Aunt Lumb’s household in Knutsford, where she was well brought up, surrounded by cousins. Nonetheless, her father’s apparent lack of interest in her, along with the painful visits she later paid to him and his second wife and family in London, left her with a sense of abandonment that was deepened by the disappearance of her only full brother on a journey to India. After her marriage she threw herself wholeheartedly into motherhood, only to be devastated by the death of her son, William, at ten months. That loss famously led to the writing of Mary Barton – which was followed by a spate of stories strewn with dead mothers and children.

The first volume of the Pickering and Chatto edition opens with an unpublished document that serves as a prelude to Gaskell’s writing life: the diary in which she recorded her feelings during her eldest daughter’s early years. ‘If I should not live to give it her myself,’ she writes, the diary ‘will I trust be reserved for her as a token of her mother’s love, and extreme anxiety in the formation of her little daughter’s character.’ The diary gives evidence of the latent conflicts in her ideals of parenthood, which mixed efforts at character formation – with an emphasis on emotional self-control – with a keen desire not to frustrate the child’s individual nature. Throughout her fiction, the combination of parental vigilance and imaginative love is the key to character; when it is absent, bad things follow. She is continually alert to the ways parents can fail, and to the almost invisible acts of forbearance, guidance or soothing that make up good mothering – whether it’s done by women or men.

Lovers, too, earn their stripes by acting like mothers. When the tough harpooner Kinraid finds Sylvia weeping and blushing, he ‘lulled and soothed her in his arms, as if she had been a weeping child and he her mother’. His rival, withholding knowledge of Kinraid’s pledge to return, ‘felt like a mother withholding something injurious from the foolish wish of her plaining child’. Roger Hamley in Wives and Daughters comes across the weeping Molly Gibson after she has learned of her father’s plan to remarry, and takes her despair seriously enough to calm her down; his maternal care guarantees his fitness as Molly’s mate. The best-known scene in North and South shows Margaret Hale flinging herself between the body of the master, John Thornton, and his striking workers, in an effort to defuse the threatening violence of the encounter. ‘What possessed me to defend that man as if he were a helpless child!’ she wonders later. The plot’s answer is that she will eventually come to love him; for Gaskell, all love is measured by the maternal instinct.

Maternity can be ideologically overcharged. In the climactic scene of Sylvia’s Lovers, Sylvia chooses her daughter over the husband she dislikes and the returned lover she has always yearned for; motherhood is a way of avoiding an impossible choice. Ruth’s joy in pregnancy and her faultless devotion to her son are seen as erasing the ‘sin’ of her youth. Gaskell uses apparently casual scenes of dialogue to capture the relationships and sensitivities of the members of her households. Sylvia is quick to sense when either of her parents has been made uncomfortable by a passing remark, and comes to their defence with a comment of her own. Molly Gibson’s badly mothered, refreshingly cynical stepsister, Cynthia, earns the reader’s affections by sarcastically deflecting her mother’s sneak attacks on Molly. The Oedipal connection between Molly and her father is nuanced by the mixture of understanding and obtuseness with which Gibson responds to his daughter’s flights of fantasy: he plays their pet word games without quite allowing himself to know the strength of his daughter’s feelings. No one is ever entirely understood; characters get credit only from the narrator for the kindness of their interventions or their silences.

In October 1856, Marian Evans, not yet George Eliot, wrote a piece in the Westminster Review called ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’. She exempted three women from her criticism – ‘Harriet Martineau, Currer Bell and Mrs Gaskell’ – whose excellence results in their having ‘been treated as cavalierly as if they were men’. Today the exceptional trio would read ‘George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell’. The notion of genius clings to the first two names and not to the third, and Gaskell would have been quick to acknowledge this. It was part of her excellence, part of the appeal of her writing, that she never made more – or less – of herself than she deserved.