Monday, December 29, 2008

Elizabeth Gaskell's Resurrection

Last week I read a marvelous paper in the latest Gaskell Society Journal entitled "Elizabeth Gaskell's Legacy from Romanticism," by John Beers. It provided yet more detailed examples on how Gaskell was a writer of the first order when it came to layering meaning upon meaning by showing her use of and illusion to the Romantic poets, especially Wordsworth and Coleridge.

But, that's not what I want to write about today. What I want to write about today is a 2006 article in The Times OnLine that Beers refers to frequently in his paper--it is Heather Glen's article, Elizabeth Gaskell's resurrection.

Glen addresses head-on the issue that has been troubling me for some time now. Why did I never encounter Gaskell before a few years ago? Glen answers that Gaskell "was the victim of various kinds of condenscension" and was denigrated to secondary status by critics who never were able to see beyond her surface "sympathy."

The article is actually a review of a 10-volume complete works, edited by Joanne Shattock, et al. In the article, Glen shows the books as divided into two parts (five volumes in each part, and each part costing £450). I found a five-volume set on Amazon for $671--this looks to be one of the two parts, but the listing doesn't specify which parts are included.

This is all rather academic as I can't afford the set, partial though it is, and enticing as it is. This edition, according to Glen, provides the "first comprehensive critical and textual edition" of all Gaskell's known works and records "variants scrupulously" and contextualizes "the works it presents by providing explanatory footnotes and a clear account of the production and reception of each text." While I have been enjoying Uglow's bio of Gaskell immensely whilst reading Gaskell's works in order, it provides just a bit on the production and reception of the works, an area that I would love to explore further.

Glen then goes on to analyze the opening scene in Mary Barton in terms of her use of Wordworth's Lucy poem, the politics of 1847 and the implications buried in her use of specific words and phrases such as "republican" and "holiday." This is fascinating stuff!

Glen talks about Gaskell's "intelligent disinterestedness...that attentiveness and responsiveness to the multifacetedness of reality that Michael Wood has called 'the kindess of novels' and that Gaskell's contemporaries described, in a term too easily confused with sentimentalism, as 'sympathy.'"

This is one of the aspects that I love about Gaskell--her ability to see all sides of an argument, and respect the different points of view and the different paths that brought individuals to where they are in the story.

I especially appreciated Glen's discussion of Ruskin's Modern Painters III. Ever since I read in Uglow's bio that this was one of Gaskell's favorite books, I have wondered why she loved it so much. What did it say to her that resonated? According to Glen, Ruskin's theory on the "'mighty pictorial fusion' to be made out of the multifariousness of a faithfully registered reality" fascinated Gaskell, who strived to "write truthfully."

Finally, I cannot wait to reread Wives and Daughters, and enjoy for myself the "rhythmic repetition" and invocation of nursery rhyme in the novel's opening. This, according to Glen, demonstrates Gaskell's "artfulness of her seemingly artless method." In the end, I think that is why Gaskell was considered second rate for so long--she made it look too easy.


  1. Have you checked out Project Gutenberg
    for Mrs Gaskell? The Internet Archive has a number too.... All Free & Legal.
    Enjoying The Blog!

  2. I love Project Gutenberg, especially since I started recording for LibriVox. I've noticed some pretty severe holes in what's on there, however, and hope to be able to add some books myself someday.

    Back to Gaskell's Complete Works, I do like reading critical commentary, which is what the Complete Works offers over the Gutenberg online texts.

    That said, I am thrilled that places like Project Gutenberg exist, making public domain works accessible.

    Thanks for stopping in. Your sites look interesting as well.