Gaskell, Dickens & Austen

November 12: Elizabeth Gaskell died suddenly on this day in 1865, while Wives and Daughters, the last of her six novels, was still in magazine serialization. Gaskell's wide popularity in Victorian England was partly due to her association with Charles Dickens, who had contacted her after reading her first novel, Mary Barton. Dickens was just then launching Household Words, and he approached Gaskell as one who shared "the general mind and purpose of the journal, which is the raising up of those that are down, and the general improvement of our social condition." In her preface to that first novel, Gaskell says that her inspiration came from her sympathy for the working people of her native Manchester, who rightly or wrongly blamed their misfortunes upon their rich employers:

If it be an error, that the woes, which come with ever-returning tide-like flood to overwhelm the workmen in our manufacturing towns, pass unregarded by all but the sufferers, it is at any rate an error so bitter in its consequences to all parties, that whatever public effort can do in the way of legislation, or private effort in the way of merciful deeds, or helpless love in the way of widow's mites, should be done, and that speedily, to disabuse the work-people of so miserable a misapprehension. At present they seem to me to be left in a state, wherein lamentations and tears are thrown aside as useless, but in which the lips are compressed for curses, and the hands clenched and ready to smite.

Gaskell's novels have enjoyed another burst of popularity recently, triggered by a number of acclaimed mini-series adaptations mounted by BBC radio and television. The modern editions link her talent for the "domestic novel" and the "English Provincial novel" to Jane Austen's, describing this book as a "Jane Austen sequel" or "Jane Austen by Charles Dickens." The two women do seem to share a similar style of wit:

  • Mrs. Gibson and I didn't hit it off the only time I ever saw her. I won't say she was silly, but I think one of us was silly, and it wasn't me.  (from Gaskell's Wives and Daughters)
  • I will not say that your mulberry-trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive.  (from one of Austen's letters)

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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