The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

Published in 1863, ‘A Dark Night’s Work’ was first serialised in Dickens’ periodical All The Year Round between January and March 1862. Despite its title, it is predominantly a psychological exploration of class, parental expectations, love and duty, a domestic tale!

In 1862, when Gaskell’s story was first sent to Dickens for inclusion in his periodical, it was entitled ‘A Night’s Work’, a title which Gaskell had lifted from the text. These simple words, devoid of emotive adjectives, distance the narrative from any association with either Gothic or Sensation fiction. However, Charles Dickens had other ideas on how to market Gaskell’s  work. After reading the manuscript, he wrote to his sub-editor, William Henry Wills: “I see that Mrs. Gaskell has put a name to her story—at the end, instead of the beginning—which is characteristic. The addition of one word will make it a striking name. Call the story ‘A Dark Night’s Work'” (164).

Dickens knew exactly what this strategy would add to reader’s expectations of the narrative content. Furthermore he sandwiched the announcement of Gaskell’s story between announcements for contributions by Wilkie Collins and Charles Reade, two popular writers of Sensation fiction, another, of course, was Mary Braddon.  The advertisement read:


To be continued from week to week, and completed within Two Months, entitled


By the Authoress of “MARY BARTON.”

This was an astute and cleverly orchestrated marketing strategy, but needless to say it did not please Elizabeth Gaskell, who had never liked being dictated to by Dickens.

However, there are similarities between these writers. When Margaret Oliphant praised Wilkie Collins for his novel The Woman in White, the qualities she selected for praise are also  found in Gaskell’s work:

everything is legitimate, natural, and possible;  all exaggerations of excitement are carefully eschewed …as if it had been a domestic history of the most gentle and unexciting kind….Its power arises from no overstraining of nature – the artist shows no love of mystery for mystery’s sake…

Dickens attempted to create that mystery by adding ‘dark’ to the title: an adjective which suggests a secrecy, deceit, incarceration, murder, mystery and excitement. All these are  present, but in an understated way. Gaskell’s story fits far more securely into Oliphant’s description of ‘a domestic history of the most gentle and unexciting kind’, rather than the Gothic narrative suggested by Dickens’ title. There is nothing supernatural here, the events are driven by human forces and powered by guilt.

Critics certainly appear disappointed by the central event, a murder which takes place a third of the way through a story and is narrated in a very matter-of-fact fashion.  The whole episode, which includes the death and  burial, undertaken secretly during the night, takes up barely six pages, causing one critic, Stephen Severn, to write: ‘Blink twice and you will miss them’. Although this death may seem disappointingly mundane it is literally pivotal to the story, as Gaskell examines the proceedings leading up to this incident and its aftermath. Below this slowly unfolding drama lies a darker history: the claustrophobia of parochial life and parental expectations, the destructive nature of thwarted ambition and the haunted existence of those ravaged by guilt. This is a real, rather than a gothic, darkness.

Edward is the son of a parochial, though successful, attorney; an accomplished, but pampered child, whose high aspirations are thwarted by his father’s insistence that he take over the family business. Thus Gaskell shows that imprisonment need not be in a castle dungeon. Most of her characters are, or become imprisoned in some way: if not in their home situation, in the darkness of their own mind. Edward’s dissatisfaction with his parochial existence has far-reaching effects, especially as he is unable to find a social position to suit his ambitious nature. He wastes his money in socialising above his class and becomes dependent on alcohol, and his office clerk seems to show up Edward’s growing incompetence at every turn. It is the ensuing jealousy, suspicion and anger which result in the dark night’s work of the title.  Gaskell’s psychological evaluation of the consequences that attend this night and its dark deeds are both detailed and disturbing.

As with all her fiction, misery abounds, but not without some light relief. Here, as in many other short stories, Gaskell includes some of her travel writing. To recover from the traumas of a broken engagement and the ravages of guilt, Edward’s daughter Elinor is invited to Italy, thus giving Gaskell the opportunity to reminisce on the time she spent there in 1857 . It was there that she met the American art critic Charles Eliot Norton at the Shrove Tuesday Carnival in Rome.  This was a time of peace and happiness for Elizabeth, after the ordeal of writing Charlotte Brontë’s biography, became indelibly printed on her memory. In 1858 she writes to her friends in Italy, the Storys:  ‘Oh, I so long for Italy and Albano that it makes me ill’ (L p. 515). Later she calls Rome ‘the great witch…upon her seven hills’. Rome was a place of healing for Gaskell and it serves the same purpose in this novella. However, it is also rather an indulgence on the part of the writer; a vehicle through which she can relive the happiest time of her life as well as recounting the traumatic journey she had on her way  ‘south toward the sun’. In the novel, however, the accident which blighted their journey to Italy  becomes a way in which Gaskell can heighten the dramatic tension as her story draws to its climactic conclusion. Elinor has to race against time to save her trusted servant from death; echoes of Mary Barton!

Nevertheless, despite its heightened drama, misery and missed opportunities,  ‘A Dark Night’s Work’ – unlike many of Gaskell’s shorter works of fiction – ends in warm glow of family life for those whose actions deserve reward; for others there is less happiness, success but regret. Religious precepts stand out clearly in this narrative, although as in all Gaskell’s work, they do not intrude too forcefully on the story.  ‘A Dark Night’s Work’ was the very first piece of Gaskell’s shorter fiction that I read and it still stands among my favourites as an  enjoyable and thought-provoking piece.

Diane Duffy