I posted on the similarities of plot lines here; the background on Gaskell and her reputation pre-N&S here; and similarities of language and characterization here.
Now I want to start addressing why N&S is so similar to P&P.
I don’t want to suggest that in N&S Gaskell simply retold or reshaped P&P into her own setting and time—fan fiction it is not. Margaret is not an Elizabeth, and Thornton is not a Darcy, though I do believe that the men are more similar as characters than Margaret is to Elizabeth, and while both authors deal with the notions of pride and prejudice extensively, they diverge significantly in other themes and tone and especially setting. Nor do I want to suggest that the strong parallels between N&S and P&P are coincidence or evidence that Austen simply modeled her story on an earlier archetypal story that Gaskell is also tapping into. I believe that Gaskell consciously used P&P as a model for N&S—the trick is that there is no hard evidence that she did so. Her daughters, like Cassandra Austen, burned much of her correspondence at her death. And while, many of her letters remain, many were destroyed. So, Austen’s influence on Gaskell can only be surmised.
I think that Gaskell consciously used the story arc of P&P for N&S because she desperately wanted to produce another significant novel (i.e., one that deals with a social problem) but that was also popular with the middle-class reading public and she was either coached by one or more of a handful of likely candidates or concluded on her own that P&P was an excellent model for her story and that invoking Austen was a sure fire way to appeal to the middle-class.
So let’s review Gaskell and her career as an author.
Gaskell was born Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson in 1810—her mother died when she was a year old and though her father remarried when she was four, she lived with a maternal aunt and was surrounded by her mother’s family in Warwick, near Stratford-on-Avon. Both her parents were Unitarians, and as such she was very well-educated and was brought up to be tolerant and rational. Her father, whom she visited occasionally, died when she was 19 and two years later she married Wm. Gaskell, a Unitarian minister whose parish was in Manchester. She was active in her husband’s parish as a teacher and was sympathetic to the plight of the workers. She was very much an Elizabeth Bennet type of person—pretty, vivacious, well-educated and articulate, charming, flirtatious, sympathetic, and had many friends from all walks of life. She loved gossip and was a born story-teller. She had four daughters who lived to adulthood; one and possibly two sons who died in infancy; and a still-born daughter.
At her husband’s suggestion and example, shortly after they were married, she began writing non-fiction, mostly travel pieces, and soon transitioned to short stories. In all, she wrote seven novels, a biography of Charlotte Bronte, several novellas, and over sixty short stories. She very much believed that she could help ease society’s ills through her writing, and her first two novels were, what is called, social-problem novels. The first, Mary Barton, was written to shed light on the plight of the working class and portray them as human beings with a sense of dignity, family loyalty, capable of deep love, and beloved of God. The second, Ruth, told the story of an unwed mother who was seduced and abandoned by a rich young man. Both Mary Barton and Ruth are very much parables in that their plots and characters are intended to provide a moral lesson. They were both highly controversial but ultimately successful and brought Gaskell notoriety as well as celebrity.
Friends and family as well as reviewers were deeply divided over these two books—some friends burned them; they were often banned, and many labeled them as indecent, unwomanly, and disloyal (i.e., that is, to her class and friends). They were also highly praised, not only for their literary value but for their message, their compassion, and the way they grappled with tough issues. Though she was proud of her work in Mary Barton and Ruth, Gaskell was devastated by the criticism. Shortly after Ruth, she wrote that she wanted to write something more popular and less controversial, though still with a purpose, in her next novel. I think the important thing to keep in mind with Gaskell is that she wanted her stories to help society—she also wanted people to like her.
Also inspiring her to move away from creating another strictly social-problem novel was the success she had with Cranford. While she was writing Ruth, Gaskell was also writing a series of pieces for Dickens’ magazine Household Words that were slices of life in a small rural village in the north of England. These were nostalgic, sentimental, and absolutely beloved. She published them in book form in the same year she published Ruth. John Forster, a literary critic and close friend of Gaskell and a fellow Unitarian whom I quoted earlier praising Austen, loved the Cranford stories, and said the “little book which collects them will be a ‘hit’ if there be any taste left for that kind of social painting.’ As Forster was a big fan of Austen, it is generally assumed that he was comparing Cranford to Austen here, with his reference to social painting. In fact, when I read the book I felt that I was back in Highbury and that Miss Bates would be great friends with the sisters Jenkins and the other Amazons that inhabit Cranford. Cranford definitely feels like the "Further Adventures of Highbury."
So, based primarily on the comedic plot outline (which is definitely not part of either Mary Barton or Ruth) 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. More on that next time I address this topic.