Saturday, April 25, 2009

Gaskell and Mr. Gibson: Feet of Clay

I can't tell you how disappointed I was to read this passage (Chapter 35, "The Mother's Manoeuvre,") in which Mr. Gibson has just told Squire Hamley of Roger and Cynthia's engagement. Mr. Gibson is encouraging the squire to stop by his house to meet Cynthia, whom he refers to as "your son's future wife":

'Roger's "future wife!" - He'll be wiser by the time he comes home. Two years among the black folk will have put more sense in him.'

'Possible, but not probable, I should say,' replied Mr Gibson. 'Black folk are not remarkable for their powers of reasoning, I believe, so that they have not much chance of altering his opinion by argument, even if they understood each other's language; and certainly if he shares my taste, their peculiarity of complexion will only make him appreciate white skins the more.'

In no other works of Gaskells is there any hint, that I recall, of prejudice, racial or otherwise on her part. But this passage is there, and Mr. Gibson, although he has his failings, is portrayed as a thoroughly upright, honorable man. If Gaskell puts these words in his mouth, is he speaking for her?

With her deep Unitarian ties and her desire to affect social change through her writing, I can't help but wonder why she had Mr. Gibson, an overall sympathetic character, say such a thing.

The chapter closes with another psychological portrait of Mrs. Gibson in which the narrator labels her as "amiably callous." I think it is a wonderful description of Mrs. G (aka Hyacinth, Clare, Mrs. Kirkpatrick). I hope it is not also an accurate description of Gaskell.

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