Why I love Elizabeth Gaskell

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For all of you who do not know, Elizabeth Gaskell was a novelist in the 1850’s at the same time as Charles Dickens.  In fact, the two were friends and critiqued each other’s work on occasion.  I have now read four out of her six novels and I have LOVED all but one (Ruth I liked but did not love).  North and South may very well be my favorite book.  (I know- all you Austen-attics can scream in shock!).  To me it is as close to perfect as a novel can be- perfect characterization, settings, conflict, romance, social consciousness etc.  Wives and Daughters is also great, but Gaskell died before finishing it so the ending is a bit abrupt.  Recently  I  finished Cranford, which is more a series of short stories rather than a novel of a town called Cranford, and I LOVED it!  I laughed and laughed throughout the entire thing.  It is wonderful.  Let me say a few more things I love about Gaskell’s writing:

1. Her characters are the most fully realized voices I have read.  Each person Gaskell invents are complex, confusing, imperfect and human all at the same time.  He or she changes bit-by-bit like real human beings and by the end of the story I feel as if I have come to know a new friend intimately.   Some of my favorite characters are:

Molly Gibson (Wives and Daughters)- I can’t think of a higher compliment than someone telling me I am like Molly.  I know I keep saying this but she is perfectly well-rounded.  She is smart but not too bookish, kind but no pushover, spunky without being obnoxious, good but not pious, shy but not too shy.  She is willing to do brave things throughout the book but she does not seek after such tasks.  She loves but does so quietly out of true friendship. She loves her father but is still willing to speak her mind to him on occasion.  She’s just great! I don’t think I have ever wanted a character to fall in love as much as I wanted it for Molly.

John Thorton (North and South)- As much as I love Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, John Thorton is an even better man.  He is lower class-wise than Darcy but he holds himself up as high in the beginning of the story.  He is what Darcy might be had he been a self-made man.  Thorton’s father lost his fortune in speculating and the resulting poverty caused Thorton to pursue business with a passion.  That said, he never becomes a Scrouge-like character- consumed with greed.  Perhaps it is the presence of his mother that keeps a softness to him, but it is also the presence of literature and philosophy that convince Thorton he has more to learn- keeps him humble. I don’t want to give too much away but it isn’t until Margaret judges his lifestyle as inferior that Thorton’s pride becomes a stumbling block.  He believes that his factory, his life, is a benefit to the world and is shocked to find Margaret in disagreement.  This eats at him and causes him to slowly change.  (Again, Gaskell gives us a complicated and layered character).

Miss Matty (Cranford)- An old spinster who bases all her life choices on the opinions of her sister- or that’s at least what Gaskell wants you to think at first.  Again, without giving too much away, Matty looks  at the need around her and then subtly encourages her more headstrong sister to do the right thing.  With the exception of a man she might have married early in life, Matty seems to know what she wants in life and then finds a way to get it without ruffling any feathers.  This is shown when she has financial problems and through the support of her town she finds a way out of it without hurting anyone. (All of the women in Cranford are like this- Miss Matty was just my favorite).

2. The next thing I love about Elizabeth Gaskell is how contemporary her novels feel.  You might think I am crazy to say this given their length; however, the themes and characters are very modern.  For instance, the women in Cranford are almost entirely self-sufficient.  The narrator actually says in the opening of the book that the gentlemen in Cranford “seem to disappear.”

“What could they do if they were there?  The surgeon has his rounds and sleeps at Cranford;  but every man cannot be a surgeon…for kindness to the poor, and real tender offices to each other whenever they are in distress- the ladies of Cranford are quite sufficient. ‘A man’ as one of them observed to me once ‘is so in the way in the house”.

Now tell me, does that not seem like the words of a contemporary novelist? It’s not just her bold, dynamic women that I love but the mixture of tradition with a willingness to change that her characters embrace- is that not also very modern?  Even traditional Miss Deborah in Cranford changes in her views about death and certain traditions.

There is an independent voice to all of Gaskell’s characters. which I also find very modern.  I never feel like they are touting a party-line or saying something to be politically correct.  For instance, Margaret in North and South intervenes at a key moment not because she believes in a particular philosophy but because it is her innate human response. Someone like George Eliot (who I admire greatly) would have given tons of weighty reasons for why her characters act- instead of just letting them be human. Each Gaskell  character is unique and wonderful- and that individuality is very modern.

The women in all her books are independent thinkers, which you don’t see in a lot of other novels of the day. In Ruth, Gaskell even gives her readers a woman who has an illegitimate child that she keeps.  This must have been shocking for readers of the 1850’s, but doesn’t it seem like something that could have been written today?

Dickens, on the other hand, definitely has characters that are meant to symbolize or bring to light particular philosophies, practices or beliefs of his time. Plus, the women in Dickens are uniformly silly (With perhaps the exception of Estella in Great Expectations).  Most of this works in Dickens, but I prefer the organic feel of Gaskell’s characters.   I honestly think you could publish North and South or Wives and Daughters as  new books today (with perhaps a slightly different setting) and they would be equally applicable to our modern sensibilities.

3. I love the language of Gaskell.  I love that she can pull imagery from a flower, a piece of cotton, a butterfly.  There are scenes in her books where all you have to know is the character’s cravat is untied and you know everything.  I have never been to England but the way Gaskell describes the scenery makes me want to visit.  Whether it is the industrial South, the lush North, or the small isolated town of Cranford, Gaskell’s descriptions are just beautiful.  I love them!

4. Gaskell has some of the best pacing I have ever read.  Like Austen, she builds tension slowly with each scene until I am about ready to burst.  Then she gives us the climax or moment of crisis finishing off with a subtle yet triumphant ending.   That’s why Wives and Daughters kills me- I want to read the ending! As much as I try to fill in the blanks I know it is nothing to how great Gaskell would have ended it.

Given her great settings and characters, I buy what happens in Gaskell’s plots.  It just makes sense, and it always has me enraptured.  I don’t think I have ever wanted to know how a book would end more than while reading North and South.  I really did not know if it was going to be a tragedy or a romance- it is a perfectly executed  plot. In all of her books I just can’t wait to know what is going to happen and how it will all turn out.

I could go on and on.  Gaskell’s books are fantastic.  They make me want to write and to read more.  I find them funny, romantic, sad, tragic, gossipy, and immensely satisfying.  I know they are long books (with the exception of Cranford) but it is worth the effort.  Enjoy the length.  Enjoy every word of delight, every wonderfully layered character, and every perfectly executed scene.  I know that literature is very subjective, but if I could recommend any book to a friend it would be one of Gaskell’s.  I consider all of you to be my friends so there it is- read her books!

I will close by saying that the BBC miniseries’ based on North and South, Wives and Daughters and Cranford, are all superb.  Great, great, great, great.  They are long but I enjoyed every moment.  North and South is probably my favorite (Richard Armitage as Mr. Thorton- totally gorgeous).  It’s not only acted well but filmed in an interesting contemporary style which is in fitting with Gaskell.  Cranford is wonderful also with Dame Judy Dench, Dame Eileen Atkins, Imelda Staunton (who steels every scene she’s in- the scene with the cat is the best!) and Michael Gambon.  I can’t praise it highly enough.  Wives and Daughters managed to do the impossible by finding a Molly Gibson that I like.  Michael Gambon is wonderful in that as well.  All of the miniseries’ are great.  I just wish she had written more books for them to make into more miniseries’! If any of you want to borrow I have all 3 on DVD.

By the way- the next comment I get on the blog will be my 100th!  I wonder who will get the honor?! Thanks for making the blog a great part of my life.

11 thoughts on “Why I love Elizabeth Gaskell

  1. From one Gaskell fan to another, this was a very enjoyable post to read. I discovered Gaskell a few years ago, along with everyone else when the BBC adaptation started appearing, and am still amazed that I never read her before then. Talk about an unsung author.

    If you are interested in her life, I can heartily recommend Jenny Uglow’s bio of her, which I am reading while I read all of her works (novels, short stories, and non-fiction) in order…I am about to start W&D, which means I am nearing the end of her life, but it’s been a wonderful journey to take with her.

    Hope you continue to find new Gaskell gems to love 🙂

  2. Meg- I know you didn’t like North and South as much as I did, but you really should try her other books. They are wonderful. Cranford is hilarious.

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