Monday, October 20, 2008

Austen's Influence on Gaskell: Background Thoughts

A few weeks ago, I posted about what I saw as the striking similarities between Pride and Prejudice and North and South.

Now, I'd like to back up and put N&S and Gaskell into context before thinking about why N&S might be modeled after P&P.

Austen’s reputation is currently at its high water mark. Scores of 21st century authors eagerly note Austen’s influence on their own work and not only have no problem in being compared to Austen, but clearly strive for that distinction.

But that was not always the case.

Austen died in 1817—as you know, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously, and Austen’s brother, Henry, introduced them with a 7-page biographical notice that emphasized the author’s piety and saintliness but not a lot more. In fact, there was not another bio of Austen until 1870, when her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, published A Memoir of Jane Austen. Austen’s novels were reissued starting in 1833 and have never been out of print since then, which indicates that they were regularly read.

Timothy Spurgin, professor of English at Lawrence University, in one of his two lectures on Austen in his Teaching Company course, The English Novel, states that Austen’s earliest admirers were other writers, including Sir Walter Scott, who wrote a review of Emma that she was very proud of. He says that by the time of her death, she enjoyed a modest fame, but was not regarded as major figure. He goes on to say, that her reputation throughout most of the 19th century is that of a cult writer, a writer’s writer, whose fans admired her masterly use of dialogue and dramatic scenes.

Apart from Scott her early fans included Richard Whately, a professor of political economy at Oxford, and later Archbishop of Dublin. In 1821, he reviewed Persuasion and Northanger Abbey and wrote:
"The moral lessons…of this lady's novels, though clearly and impressively conveyed, are not offensively put forward, but spring incidentally from the circumstances of the story; they are not forced upon the reader, but he is left to collect them (though without any difficulty) for himself: hers is that unpretending kind of instruction which is furnished by real life; and certainly no author has ever conformed more closely to real life, as well in the incidents, as in the characters and descriptions. Her fables appear to us to be, in their own way, nearly faultless ... the story proceeds without the aid of extraordinary accidents…We know not whether Miss Austen ever had access to the precepts of Aristotle; but there are few, if any, writers of fiction who have illustrated them more successfully."

Thomas Babington Macaulay, poet, historian and politician, wrote extensively as an essayist and reviewer, though he died before completing his masterpiece, The History of England from the Accession of James the Second, which was published posthumously in 1861. In 1843 in an article entitled “The Diary and Letters of Mme. D'Arblay” published in the Edinburgh Review, Macaulay wrote that “Shakespeare has had neither equal or second. But among the writers who, in the point which we have noticed, have approached nearest to the manner of the great master, we have no hesitation in placing Jane Austen, a woman of whom England is justly proud. She has given us a multitude of characters, all in a certain sense, common place, all such as we meet every day. Yet they are all as perfectly discriminated from each other as if they were the most eccentric of human beings.”

Two other individuals—John Forster and G.H. Lewes—both praised Austen highly during this time period.

John Forster was the publishing industry’s first literary agent and a well-known and influential theatre and literary reviewer. In his 1872 biography of Dickens, Forster recalls discussing Nicholas Nickleby with Dickens when it was in draft form and he says, "I told him, on reading the first dialogue of Mrs. Nickleby and Miss Knag, that he had been lately reading Miss Bates in Emma, but I found that he had not at this time made the acquaintance of that fine writer."

Forster goes on to compare Dickens’ characterization with Austen’s: "This [characterization], which must always be a novelist's highest achievement, was the art carried to exquisite perfection on a more limited stage by Miss Austen…"

George Henry Lewes was also an influential Victorian reviewer and critic who wrote articles on a number of topics including philosophy, literature, and theatre. Lewes was a huge fan of Austen and wrote of her frequently, praising her technique and lamenting her lack of popularity. To give you a flavor of Lewes’s praise of Austen, in 1859, in an article entitled “The Novels of Jane Austen,” which was published in Blackwood’s Magazine, he says that “For nearly half a century England has possessed an artist of the highest rank, whose works have been extensively circulated, whose merits have been keenly relished, and whose name is still unfamiliar in men’s mouths….Miss Austen, indeed, has taken her revenge with posterity. She will doubtless be read as long as English novels find readers…[she] has generally but an indifferent story to tell, but her art of telling it is incomparable.”

Gaskell herself in Mr. Harrison’s Confessions in 1851 refers to Austen. Here, Mr. Harrison describes his new lodgings as his mentor, Mr. Morgan, helps him get settled:
Mr. Morgan took the house and delighted in advising and settling all my affairs. I was partly indolent, and partly amused, and was altogether passive. The house he took for me was near his own: it had two sitting-rooms downstairs…The back room was my consulting-room ("the library," he advised me to call it), and he gave me a skull to put on the top of my bookcase, in which the medical books were all ranged on the conspicuous shelves; while Miss Austen, Dickens and Thackeray were, by Mr. Morgan himself, skilfully placed in a careless way, upside down or with their backs turned to the wall.

So, the stage is set for our discussion of Austen’s influence on Elizabeth Gaskell, though we are now seeing a renaissance of her popularity after a decline into almost complete obscurity, was one of the leading Victorian novelists of her day. As I’ve discussed, Austen’s novels were being reissued starting in 1833 and were popular enough to stay in print indefinitely. Literary critics were occasionally singing her praises as a portrait painter and an effective teller of moral tales. Her somewhat self-deprecating remark about her art being confined to painting on bits of ivory with a small brush is taken at face value by these critics and she is appreciated as an artist within those limitations.

So let’s dive N&S, and then come back to a more general discussion of Gaskell. Unlike Austen’s novels, N&S is not a comedy, though it does follow the classic comedic tradition in that in ends with the marriage of the hero and heroine, but it has few if any funny scenes or characters. Unlike any of Austen’s works, it is very topical to its time and portrays all levels of society, from the desperately poor and oppressed factory workers in the north of England to London’s high society. Unlike Austen’s work, it drips pathos and is devoid of irony. In a nutshell, the heroine, Margaret Hale, moves with her parents from the south of England to the city of Milton, which was Gaskell’s name for Manchester in this novel. Her father has given up his living because he has developed doubts regarding the infallibility of the Church of England—this part is a bit complicated, and I’m not going to go into how it all worked—but suffice it to say that the Hales leave their beloved rural home to live in a manufacturing town where they are not only complete outsiders but have no understanding of the issues that keep the factory workers and the mill owners at each others’ throats. Mr. Hale now earns his living by teaching, and one of his students is mill owner, John Thornton, a self-made man, a master, and a self-described “hard” man known for his stubbornness, his ruthlessness in business, and his integrity. In addition to getting to know the Thorntons and other mill owners, Margaret also becomes friends with a family whose father, Nicholas Higgins, is a union man who is instrumental in organizing strikes against the mills. Through Margaret, Thornton and Higgins first come to know each other and then to understand each other. From that understand, they learn to work together to meet their common objectives.

No comments:

Post a Comment