Gaskell, Dickens & Austen

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

If it be an error, that the woes, which come withever-returning tide-like flood to overwhelm the workmen in our manufacturingtowns, pass unregarded by all but the sufferers, it is at any rate an error sobitter in its consequences to all parties, that whatever public effort can doin the way of legislation, or private effort in the way of merciful deeds, orhelpless 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 theyseem to me to be left in a state, wherein lamentations and tears are thrownaside as useless, but in which the lips are compressed for curses, and thehands clenched and ready to smite.

Gaskell’s novels have enjoyed another burst of popularityrecently, triggered by a number of acclaimed mini-series adaptations mounted byBBC radio and television. The modern editions link her talent for the “domesticnovel” and the “English Provincial novel” to Jane Austen’s,describing this book as a “Jane Austen sequel” or “Jane Austenby Charles Dickens.” The two women do seem to share a similar style ofwit:

  • 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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