Saturday, November 15, 2008

Final thoughts on Austen's Influence on Gaskell's North and South

I posted on the similarities of plot lines here; the background on Gaskell and her reputation pre-N&S here; similarities of language and characterization here; and some thoughts on why Gaskell might have turned to Austen and P&P for a model and inspiration here. In this final post on the topic, I want to address who might have put this idea to turn to Austen into Gaskell's head.

To reiterate...

So, based primarily on the comedic plot outline (which is definitely not part of either MB or R) and to a lesser degree the similarities in language, characterization, and some scenes, it seems that Gaskell used P&P as a way of approaching her story, N&S, and making it more generally appealing and less controversial than the earlier social problem novels. While Mary Barton and Ruth were ultimately successful, the controversy they aroused was uncomfortable. Knowing that Cranford, which was evocative of Austen in terms of rural village life, was well liked, it seems that Gaskell turned to Austen more directly in her next novel, N&S.

I’ve been wondering whether she did this on her own, or whether someone else suggested it.

I first thought of John Forster, literary agent and close friend of both Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell. They were regular correspondents, and he provided guidance regarding her career as an author. My thought process is that if Forster admired Austen so much that he assumed Dickens had read Emma and was influenced by it, it is not unlikely that he would have counseled his friend Gaskell to study Austen as well. In fact, in his review of Ruth, Forster compared Gaskell to Austen saying that both writers are characterized by "little unexpected touches that surprise the reader into tears or laughter," arising from "a quickness of minute observation and light movement of the fancy, feminine qualities employed in a charming feminine way."

I’ve also thought a lot about G.H. Lewes, his admiration for Austen, and his clout with the Victorian intellectuals. While Gaskell didn’t personally like Lewes, she read his articles and seemed to respect his intellect and opinions. More significantly, though, Lewes did actually counsel Charlotte Bronte to study Austen, and Gaskell and Charlotte were close friends.

Charlotte wrote to Lewes after he reviewed Jane Eyre in 1847 and he wrote back advising Charlotte to take Austen as a model. She did not like this idea one bit and wrote in return:

"What a strange lecture comes next in your letter! You say I must familiarise my mind with the fact, that 'Miss Austen is not a poetess, has no "sentiment" (you scornfully enclose the word in inverted commas), no eloquence, none of the ravishing enthusiasm of poetry,'--and then you add, I MUST 'learn to acknowledge her as ONE OF THE GREATEST ARTISTS, OF THE GREATEST PAINTERS OF HUMAN CHARACTER, and one of the writers with the nicest sense of means to an end that ever lived.' The last point only will I ever acknowledge.”

While Gaskell does reprint another exchange on Austen between Lewes and Bronte in her bio of Bronte, Gaskell does not comment in the narrative on her friend Charlotte’s dislike of Austen. Gaskell wrote The Life of Charlotte Bronte immediately after finishing the serialization of North and South—perhaps she found herself between the proverbial rock and hard place. P&P clearly influenced N&S—Charlotte Bronte clearly disliked Austen. Gaskell neatly walked the tightrope by quoting Charlotte’s letter on the subject without additional commentary. Perhaps she didn’t think it would be fair to disagree with her on Austen posthumously and publicly—when Charlotte couldn’t explain herself further. Had she agreed with Bronte on Austen, I don’t think she would have hesitated to let the world know that. This itself seems to corroborate Austen’s influence on Gaskell.

My personal favorite musing on this subject is that Charlotte Bronte herself recommended Austen to Gaskell with regards to N&S. I find it significant that Gaskell mailed the outline of N&S to Dickens, who published it in serial form in "Household Words," the day after Charlotte Bronte left the Gaskell home where she had been visiting for a few weeks. It is speculated that the two authors discussed their next projects during this visit, and it’s likely that Gaskell discussed her plans, hopes, and frustrations with the reading public with Bronte and her ideas around N&S. While George Lewes recommended that Bronte read Austen, and specifically P&P, it's not a stretch that though Bronte didn't care for Austen herself, she might have recommended the same thing to Gaskell, who was a very different sort of author from Bronte. Perhaps they might have recalled Richard Whately’s opinion that Austen was a master at presenting a moral tale in a highly palatable fashion and that if Gaskell wanted to continue writing her own moral tales—i.e., addressing social problems and resolving them through fiction—then she might study how Austen accomplished this.

One final point on Bronte and Gaskell, in my reading on both authors, I have seen no evidence of the “green-eyed monster” – that is, any professional jealousy between Bronte and Gaskell or for earlier authors, male or female. In fact, such jealousy would be very out of character for either of them. So I can’t really accept the notion that Gaskell used Austen but didn’t acknowledge this because of jealousy of “rising star.” In Uglow's bio, she discusses how Gaskell befriended younger female authors, and her relationship with Bronte really seems to be that of an older sister and not a rival.

Finally, Gaskell’s husband, William, had a big influence on her writing career. He had urged her to write in the first place, and read, commented, and proofed all of her work. He, like his wife, was well-educated and he taught literature at the Working Men's College in Manchester. As one of his students recalled, he was "the most beautiful reader I have ever heard." With Austen’s novels showing up on the bookcases of the fictional Mr. Harrison, we can safely assume that Austen’s novels were on the Gaskell bookcases as well, that Wm. Gaskell read them aloud in his lectures on literature, and perhaps suggested to his wife that she could do worse than look to Austen and Pride and Prejudice for inspiration, technique, language, and comfort.


  1. Sadly, I have never read Gaskell, although I have been meaning to for a while. I'll have to re-visit your [very informative] post after reading North and South :)

  2. I would love to hear your thoughts on N&S when you get to Gaskell.

  3. Hello. I've just noticed your comment on my post about Mrs Gaskell. Sorry to have misled you, but it is vaguely intruguing to see the house she visited a lot in Wales, isn't it? Your blog looks very interesting - I'm an English teacher and a great fan of the 19th century novel - but I must rush up to my mother's to help her with her pills. I will return.

  4. Jane I love your detective work and conclusions. I have no doubt that it is accurate. North and South is so similar to Pride and Prejudice that how they not be?

    Cheers, Laurel Ann

  5. Hi Isabelle--by all means help your mother! Looking forward to your return :) Have you visited the house that Gaskell stayed in in Wales? That would be interesting.

  6. Hi Laurel Ann - thanks for stopping by and commenting. BTW, I visited your site a bookmarked it--it's an absolute treasure trove. I can't decide whether to read your reviews of Lost in Austen or wait until I've watched it myself. Either way, I'll be visiting frequently.

  7. Interestingly Shirley by Charlotte Bronte may have influenced North and South. The name Helstone appears, Charlotte's birthplace in Thornton is the hero's name, Margaret Hall becomes Margaret Hale, and while Mary Barton is told from the working-class perspective, North and South like Shirley is more middle-class. Mrs Gaskell admired Charlotte Bronte and might have written this as a tribute to her.

    1. That is an interesting thought, Caroline. I haven't read Shirley yet, but definitely plan to within a year or two. Thanks for stopping by!

  8. Hi JaneGS

    Really great analysis of the similaries between P&P and N&S and why Gaskell may have wanted to write an Austen type novel that also dealt with social problems. I too had heard that Bronte was not a fan of Austen. On the one hand its not suprising. Bronte and Austen lived in different times, had different life experiences and also came from different regions of England, the grittier North vs the refined class conscience South. Its a shame though because Charlotte Bronte was a genius and you would hope she could see the genius in Austen as well. I wonder too how Austen's novels would have differed if she had been born forty years later? She might have written something very similar to North and South and though I prefer Darcy to Thornton, I much prefer Margaret
    Hale to Elizabeth Bennett. Margaret throughout North and South proved herself to be both courageous and good hearted. I'm not sure the more sheltered and self satisfied Elizabeth Bennett could have withstood with such grace the disappointments and shocks Margaret went through.