Warring Members: Elizabeth Gaskell, Writer

  • Jane Spencer
Part of the Women Writers book series (WW)


There are many Elizabeth Gaskells. She has been described as a sweet, gentle, utterly conventional Victorian woman who happened unawares to write some good novels; and as supporter of the women’s movement whose writing embodies a rational and radical social critique.1 In her lifetime much of her work was controversial: Mary Barton brought accusations from the manufacturers that she was too much on the side of the workers; the first volume of Ruth was burnt by some respectable men of her acquaintance; and the first edition of The Life of Charlotte Brontë had to be withdrawn because of threatened libel action. Yet by the early years of the twentieth century many of her readers thought of her chiefly as the charming author of delightful Cranford. Reviving interest in Gaskell from the 1950s onwards has reopened old controversies and started new ones. Marxist critics, reassessing her novels of industrial life, have praised her sympathetic rendering of working-class life, but concluded that she was an apologist for middle-class power.2 Feminist critics re-reading her presentation of gender relations have found her on the contrary deeply critical of the power structures of her society.3


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  1. 1.
    Lord David Cecil’s discussion of Gaskell in Early Victorian Novelists (London: Constable, 1934) is a notorious example of devaluing a writer by reference to her femininity: ‘she was all a woman was expected to be; gentle, domestic, tactful, unintellectual, prone to tears, easily shocked. So far from chafing at the limits imposed on her activities, she accepted them with serene satisfaction’ (p. 198).Google Scholar
  2. The first writer to give extended treatment to Gaskell’s involvement in feminism is Aina Rubenius in The Woman Question in Mrs Gaskell’s Life and Work (Uppsala: Lundequistka Bokhandeln, 1950).Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    Raymond Williams finds that despite her ‘deep imaginative sympathy’ for the workers, Gaskell in Mary Barton shares and expresses middle-class fears about working-class action. Culture and Society (London: Chatto, 1958) p. 90. John Lucas writes that the reconciliation between classes in North and South comes down to teaching the lower orders to know their place. ‘Mrs Gaskell and Brotherhood’, in Tradition and Tolerance in Nineteenth-century Fiction ed. David Howard et al. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966) p. 205.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    See especially Patsy Stoneman, Elizabeth Gaskell (Brighton: Harvester, 1987)Google Scholar
  5. and Margaret Homans, Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-century Women’s Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    Winifred Gérin, Elizabeth Gaskell: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976) p. 17.Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    Annette B. Hopkins, Elizabeth Gaskell: Her Life and Work (London: John Lehmann, 1932) p. 34.Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    See Sally Stonehouse, ‘A Letter from Mrs Gaskell’, Brontë Society Transactions, vol. 20 (1991) pp. 217–22;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. and J. A. V. Chapple, ‘Two Unpublished Gaskell Letters from Burrow Hall, Lancashire’, The Gaskell Society Journal, vol. 6 (1992) pp. 67–72.Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    Elizabeth Gaskell, My Lady Ludlow and Other Stories (Oxford: World’s Classics, 1989) p. 131.Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    John Ruskin, ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’, in Sesame and Lilies (1865; rpt. London: George Allen, 1901) p. 108.Google Scholar
  12. 11.
    Françoise Basch, Relative Creatures: Victorian Women in Society and the Novel (London, 1974) pp. 7, 269.Google Scholar
  13. 12.
    Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987) pp. 28–58.Google Scholar
  14. 13.
    [J. Ludlow], North British Review, vol. 19 (May 1853) pp. 167–9.Google Scholar
  15. 23.
    Woolf writes: ‘if one is a woman one is often surprised by a sudden splitting off of consciousness, say in walking down Whitehall, when from being the natural inheritor of that civilization, she becomes, on the contrary, outside of it, alien and critical’—A Room of One’s Own (St Albans: Panther, 1977) p. 93.Google Scholar

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© Jane Spencer 1993

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  • Jane Spencer

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