The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

A Talk by Anthony Burton to the Gaskell Society, 5 February 2019.

This talk considered ways – from the scholarly to the commercial – of promoting writers, and their fan-clubs, museums, and houses.  With Gaskell at the forefront, it also took Austen, the Brontës, and Dickens (all, like Gaskell, top 19th century novelists) as useful case-studies for comparison.

I began by suggesting how literature itself became a business:  the printing press enabled multiple production of texts, and publishers came into being to organise the marketing and circulation of texts.  I briefly described how the four authors broke into print, and how they organised their writing lives.  I went on to survey their publishing histories, which climaxed in modern scholarly editions of their collected works – in Gaskell’s case, the Pickering and Chatto edition in ten volumes, 2005-6.

I then suggested that the texts might themselves put out shoots, in the form of imitations and plagiarisms, dramatisations, and adaptations for the TV or cinema screen.  Dickens led the field here, but Austen and the Brontës did well too.  Gaskell was not so much developed in this way, but her works were adapted for TV:  Cranford in 1951, 1971, and 2007; Mary Barton in 1964; North and South in 1966, 1972, and 2004; Cousin Phillis in 1982; Wives and Daughters in 1966 and 1999; and films of The Manchester Marriage were produced in 1923 and 1945.  After tantalizingly showing a slide of the Laurence Olivier/Merle Oberon Wuthering Heights film of 1939, I left aside film versions of the four authors, as a field too large to cover on this occasion.

Also, for the most part, I refrained from discussing illustrations.  Only Dickens made illustrations a true part of his product; the other authors did not bother.  One thread of illustration was pursued, however: the pretty Regency-style illustrations lavished upon Austen around 1900.  This ‘Quality Street’ idiom turns out to have originated with High Thomson’s illustrations to Gaskell’s Cranford in 1891.  It is no better suited to her vision of the world than to Austen’s tough-mindedness.

The talk then turned from the ‘product’ (the texts) to the personal angle of the literary business, focussing first on authors.  Dickens was a celebrity and played up to it: Gaskell disliked publicity.  Oddly enough, she was responsible for making Charlotte Brontë into a posthumous celebrity, through her biography.  I sheered away from assessing biographies of the four authors but did review editions of their letters, which are staple raw material for biographers.  I alluded to the popularity nowadays of studies of the reputations of writers, characterised as ‘afterlives’ and ‘myths’, and of fictional elaborations of their biographies.  Gaskell has recently been caught up in ‘fan-fic’, in the book Mrs Gaskell and Me by Nell Stevens. Still dealing with the personal, I turned from authors to readers, and considered the ways in which literary societies had been formed.  Again, Dickens provided the most colourful inspiration in this field, with whimsical clubs, such as the Pickwick Bicycle Club, the Boz Club, and the City Pickwick Club.  These were eventually overtaken by the more serious Dickens Fellowship, founded in 1902.  The Brontë Society was formed in 1893, the Jane Austen Society came along later in 1940, and the Gaskell Society began in 1985.  These societies combined serious literary interest with congenial recreation.

Running such societies is organisationally and financially quite simple.  But when the societies become involved, in one way or another, in running a museum or a house once occupied by their writer, the business angle becomes more demanding.  The biggest player in the literary heritage business in the UK is the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.  This (according to the Charity Commission website) has a turnover of about £10m.  None of the other literary houses is in this league, but the Brontë, Dickens and Austen houses/museums have a turnover of around £1m each.  Elizabeth Gaskell’s House lags behind, with a turnover of £140,000, but it is a newcomer in the field (opened 2014), and will perhaps eventually catch up ,


Having arrived at the question of hard cash, I devoted the final minutes of my talk to the business of making money, and flashed up various suggestions for commercial retail.  Literary societies could, beyond their usual diet of lectures, trips, and conferences, perhaps embark on publishing.  Literary houses could enter the souvenir market.  Stationery, homeware, costume jewellery, accessories and gimmicks are the categories of goods which seem to play well in the market for ‘literary gifts’ (try googling that phrase to see what is out there).  I concluded by urging that, while the House must, understandably, try every means of earning an honest penny, its best selling-point was Elizabeth Gaskell herself.

Anthony Burton