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Archive for the ‘Jenny Uglow’ Category

I had been looking forward to Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories by Jenny Uglow after hearing it praised by so many other bloggers and, when I came to read it, I was delighted by how well it lived up to its stellar reputation.  Going into it, I knew the outline of Gaskell’s life and had a vague impression of her personality but really did not know very much.  I can’t even call myself a well-read fan of hers, having only read North and South (which I enjoy) and Wives and Daughters (which I adore and reread at least once every year).  But from what I did know of her life, what I had read of her work, she seemed like one of those authors whose real life I might find even more interesting than her fiction, whose personality might make her a more interesting character than any one of her creations. 

I’m sure I should have been more interested in Gaskell’s childhood than I was.  There are many parallels between her own experiences and those of her characters, after all: Elizabeth’s mother died when the girl was only a few months old and she was sent away to be raised by her mother’s relatives in the country.  Her elder brother, John, was a sailor who went missing when Elizabeth was a teenager.  Her father had married again and had two more children but Elizabeth was not brought into the new family and remained with her aunt in a Cranford-esque village.  But, frankly, it was an unexceptional, seemingly happy childhood and is perhaps covered a bit too thoroughly. Elizabeth was intelligent and quick, but seemed destined to be a wife, albeit one who wrote clever letters with a strong narrative, rather than a respected authoress:

As a schoolgirl Elizabeth had responded eagerly to books and to her teachers, but she showed no passionate hunger for learning; she was no Mary Ann Evans seeking fuel for her devouring intellect; no Harriet Martineau complaining that she had to sit in the parlour and sew instead of learning Greek.  Nor did she, like the Brontë sisters, create her own imaginary world built from the books she read, the distant wars she heard of.  She was a clever child, but those warnings against displayed learning seem to have had their effect, since for many years, as an adult, she hid her cleverness, claiming not to have read economics, not to understand science, not to like sermons, not to be ‘metaphysical’.  But she did escape into literature and drew on her reading constantly, for comparisons with other lives, for different visions of the world – and for ways of telling stories.

But then, in 1832 at the age of twenty-one, Elizabeth married the Reverend William Gaskell, a fellow Unitarian, and moved to Manchester.  I was hugely intrigued by what was glimpsed of William Gaskell and of the relationship between husband and wife. Elizabeth was energetic, almost sprightly: Uglow mentions an instance in 1860, when Elizabeth was fifty years old, where the author went directly from ten days at her daughter’s sickbed to a ball at Oxford where she danced until four in the morning.  William, on the other hand, was much more sedate and the match between two such different personalities must have seemed strange to their friends.  But the marriage was a happy one and both partners gained from the association:  

Elizabethwas lively and open.  William, until people knew him well, appeared grave, scholarly, rather austere.  Yet these contrasts strengthened their relationship.  She drew him out, finding his warmth and humour, and touching a romantic-vein in his nature, while he gave her a fixed point in the compass of her emotions, a stability which she sometimes resisted but never undervalued.  At times she wished he was more demonstrative, less dry, less rule-bound, less busy.  When he was away, she confessed she breathed more freely – but she always yearned for his return.  She turned to William not to make decisions for her, but to reinforce or question those she made for herself.  He became a valued critic and a stalwart support against the criticism of others, upholding her right to publish the truth as she found it.

If only their letters to one another had survived!  Elizabeth was a wonderful letter writer and William’s letters are witty and intelligent, if not quite so chatty as his wife’s.  They spent a lot of time apart once the girls were adults, pursuing different careers and interests, so there must have been hundreds of letters (Elizabeth was nothing if not prolific in her correspondence) and had they survived what details of their characters would have been revealed, I wonder?  I like to think that for all their separations, they were gaps in distance, not affection or loyalty.  An elderly Mr. Gaskell was a great favourite of young Beatrix Potter and she, I am convinced, was a good judge of character.    

It is wonderful to realise how well-connected the Gaskells were to some of the great people of the day, both through Elizabeth’s work and through their Unitarian faith.  Scientists, artists, feminists, social activists, and, of course, writers, are counted among their friends and family and it is rather giddy-making to think of Gaskell chatting with Florence Nightingale, the Darwins, the Carlyles, Harriet Martineau, Charles Dickens, and countless others.  The Unitarian emphasis on rational thought and questioning rather than blind faith seems to have attracted and created some of the best, most innovative minds of an incredibly exciting era:

The richness of Gaskell’s fiction derives from the very fullness of the daily life which constricted her writing time.  She moved in a world where personal contacts and the flow of ideas were so interconnected that the idea of the web will not do, unless one thinks of an autumn hedgerow where web after web glistens in the sun, each so intricately linked to the other that the slightest touch sets them all in motion.  A better image is that of overlapping circles, drawn by a compass whose point is fixed in a central circle of Elizabeth’s family, marriage, and faith.  Family relationships shade into a wider Unitarian circle, and this in turn overlaps with others – philanthropic, political, literary, scientific – which embrace people of different religious affiliations: Anglican, Evangelical, Quaker, Christian Socialist, agnostic.  Such rings then touch and connect with others, with circles of theologians, writers and radical refugees from Europe, with American Transcendentalists, feminists, and abolitionists. (p. 309)

And if she was able to converse with the great people of the day, then so too was she able to witness the great social changes: Manchester, dirty and smelly as Elizabeth may have found it, was certainly the place to see first-hand the transformations wrought by the industrial revolution.  As a minister’s wife working among the city’s poor, Elizabeth had a better idea than most how the workers lived and what their struggles were.  Her novels now are remarkable to both casual readers and social historians for the detailed and realistic portrait of an industrial city’s working class. 

Elizabeth died in 1865, age only fifty-five.  Far too young, obviously, but, and this may be a callous thing to say but I don’t particularly care, what a wonderful death she had!  As Uglow describes it, it was a Sunday, so Elizabeth had attended church, visited with some friends while showing off her new home, walked about the garden, and then had sat down to tea with her daughters and her son- and future-son-in-law in a nice cozy room, where they happily chatted away.  She died in the middle of sentence – quickly, so painlessly that no one else at first realised what had happened.  Yes, too young, but ideal in all other aspects. 

It is a wonderful and thorough book, with Uglow preferring to perhaps overshare rather than hold back any facts from the reader.  Uglow’s writing is competent but not dazzling.  There are no brilliant passages here and few memorable lines.  I might have loved it better had not so much time been spend analyzing the novels and stories themselves.  I understand the logic of this approach but when the analysis is not being used to illustrate Gaskell’s life effectively (and it rarely was), it seems wasteful.  It has made me eager to read more of Gaskell’s works for myself, to sample her diverse offerings as a storyteller, to find what I now know of her in her work:

The variety of her fiction has often baffled those who wish to pigeon-hole her neatly; social comedy, protest novel, domestic drama.  Such labels sacrifice her richness and complexity to false gods of order and unity.  Each of her selves, at various times, found its own voice and form…

But, more than anything, I know I must now track down the published books of Elizabeth’s letters.  Uglow quotes from them at length and, really, they appear to be more entertaining, more energetic than even her wonderful fictions.  And when isn’t real life more interesting than a made-up story?

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