Gaskell, a Victorian novelist whose 200th birthday is being celebrated throughout England this year, is Jane Austen with a social conscience. When she died in 1865, the London literary journal The Athenaeum called her “if not the most popular, with small question, the most powerful and finished female novelist of an epoch singularly rich in female novelists.” Though less well known on this side of the pond, her popularity has been increasing in recent years, thanks to several recent BBC productions of Gaskell’s work.
Her novels—best known is Cranford, produced as a miniseries with Judi Dench and Imelda Staunton in 2007 and 2009—feature smart, lovable heroines who, like Austen’s, know how to deliver a zinger and appeal to the sensibilities of a liberal persuasion today.
The daughter of a Unitarian clergyman, the young Elizabeth Stevenson was raised by an aunt in the country market town of Knutsford, the model for Cranford, after her mother died. Some of the situations in her novels, such as a cow who is dressed in flannel pajamas after it falls into a lime pit, are based on true incidents. At age 21, Elizabeth married the Rev. William Gaskell, minister of Cross Street Chapel, a Unitarian church in Manchester. They had four daughters, and both Gaskells were active in the ministry, teaching Sunday school and championing the plight of the poor.
Gaskell lived in the English Midlands during the Industrial Revolution, and her religious and political leanings hone the edge of her prose. Starting with her first novel, Mary Barton, a love story set in the Manchester slums, Gaskell provoked outrage, even among the more enlightened cotton mill owners attending her husband’s church. But her witty narratives and pointed subtexts quickly found an audience. Some compared her social observation skills to Friedrich Engels. Charles Dickens invited her to contribute to his journal Household Words, which published many of her stories. On one occasion, he called her “my dear Scheherezade.”
In North and South, which depicts the formation of a union and a violent strike, the opinionated heroine falls in love with a mill owner, and her minister father questions the Trinity and leaves the church. Though Gaskell didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a Unitarian writer, she betrays her affiliation in passages such as: “Margaret the Churchwoman, her father the Dissenter, Higgins the Infidel, knelt down together. It did them no harm.”
Her multilayered fiction seamlessly weaves together story lines, sometimes even showing conflicts between workers’ and women’s rights. At the same time, she portrays a wide range of everyday characters—women and men; landed nobility, industrialists, poor servants, and workers; conservative and liberal—with a good degree of sympathy to all. Therein lies her skill and readers’ delight in her work.
Twice, Gaskell’s books brought her public scandal. Her novel Ruth, an indictment of the moral rigidity that forced unmarried pregnant women into prostitution, shocked even some among her more tolerant readership. Some Cross Street parishioners burned the book. Gaskell stirred up more serious trouble with a biography of her friend Charlotte Brontë, which Brontë’s father asked her to write. She apparently repeated statements made by family members about others and avoided a libel suit only with a retraction and withdrawal of the second edition.
Today Gaskell’s reputation as a beloved novelist is enjoying a revival. In September, her name was added to a stained glass window in the Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey in London. And throughout this year, special events celebrating her life and work will be held in Manchester and Knutsford.