Mrs. Gaskell


I thought I'd occasionally write about authors who had been fairly popular and famous in their day, but are now pretty much forgotten and ignored.  Talbot Mundy, perhaps, or Robert Ingersoll.  Sure, some forgotten works aren't worth resurrecting, but it's worthwhile to see   It's always fun to guess which of the current bestsellers that will happen to -- the opposite of guessing which ones are currently writing deathless prose.

Elizabeth Gaskell's first published work, Mary Barton, came out in 1848 -- anonymously.  Later works were published under the name "Mrs. Gaskell."  Now, doesn't that say a lot about the position of women in British society and literature at the time?  Some of her works remind me of George Eliot -- a woman writer publishing under a pseudonym.  And Mrs. Gaskell's most ambitious work was a biography of Charlotte Bronte who -- like her sisters -- also published under a pseudonym.

Mrs. Gaskell published a few novels, that bio of Charlotte Bronte and a number of ghost stories (published in a mag edited by Dickens), in the dozen years that she wrote before she died.  I just finished reading Mary Barton, and it stills read pretty well.  As with most novels written in that period, the prose can be overwrought by today's standards, and the plot needs a couple of convenient deaths and a miracle cure to get everything tied up neatly -- but, overall, it's still worth reading.

In the first place, besides the love story, the book is largely about conditions among the weavers in Manchester factories, and the class struggle drives the plot.  It was published in 1848 -- the same year as The Communist Manifesto and the same year as a number of popular uprisings throughout Europe.  She wrote it the year before, so she was reacting to the mood in the air, not the actual uprisings.  No surprise it was a hit at the time.  Gaskell's position on the uprisings is unclear.  While she sympathizes with the plight of the working poor, she makes the point, a couple of times, that they aren't necessarily doing the right thing in unionizing and taking action -- but that she's just pointing out why it's come to this.  Maybe she was playing to her audience, or maybe she can't help her middle-class gentility (daughter of a minister, wife of a minister).  And she doesn't portray all the workers or the bosses as the same; she shows differences in opinion in what is to be done.  And the book ends with a debate between a self-educated weaver and an owner who rose from the working class -- with both possibly learning something from the other.

Another thing about Gaskell is that she writes her dialogue in dialect -- to the extent that some of it needs to be footnoted.  It's mainly a Manchester dialect, but the older characters emigrated from the surrounding countryside, and have different accents and vocabulary.  And then the plot takes us to the dockside at Liverpool, and the speech there is totally different, and often incomprehensible to pretty little Mary Barton, the Manchester seamstress.  In fact, one of the characters talks so strangely that the narrator breaks form and admits that she didn't understand what was said and isn't going to try to write it down.

And that's another thing about Gaskell's writing in Mary Barton:  the narrative voice.  It was still fairly early in the development of the novel, and maybe the rules particularly well-formed -- but she uses the omniscient narrator with the occasional odd little break (like the comment that she couldn't do the right accent for the Liverpudlian).  My favorite is during the trial scene, during which she describes the emotions and body language of all the characters and, then, out of nowhere, says that she wasn't there, but that Mary looked just like a particular famous painting. She only breaks out of that narrative voice a dozen times or so, interjecting herself.  I doubt that it's a literary device (as it would be if someone did it now).  If the rules existed, she didn't know about them.  And this naivete adds to the earnestness of her message -- that the masters should think more about the lives they're affecting.