Did any of Elizabeth Gaskell’s daughters follow in their mother’s footsteps to become published writers? Dr Diane Duffy has the answer
There is no evidence that Marianne, Flossy or Julia wrote for publication, but Elizabeth’s second daughter, Margaret, affectionately called Meta, had a story published in Charles Dickens’ Household Words, July 4th, 1857. The story was called ‘Helena Mathewson’. It was seventeen columns long and split into nine chapters.
In 1857 Meta was twenty and had just met Captain Charles Hill on the way to Rome; just a month after her return, he became her fiancé, an engagement that was to end by May 1858.
‘Helen Mathewson’ begins in a small northern town named Lichendale ‘one of the smallest boroughs in England[and…] at the passing of the Reform Bill, everyone thought it likely to become a populous seaport’ . Elizabeth certainly liked to write about places she knew (as many women did) and therefore if Meta was following her mother’s lead, Lichendale could be a nod to Silverdale where the family spent many happy summers, or Pen-Morfa, close to Tre-Madoc in North Wales where Elizabeth’s uncle lived.
This area was well known to the Holland family and Elizabeth used it to begin her story ‘The Well of Pen-Morfa’ where the long opening paragraph is written in the style of a travelogue. The narrator explains how the village declined after the land had been reclaimed from the sea and the cottages were no longer lashed by the winter tides. Meta’s Lichendale may be an amalgam of these two places with some added imaginative licence. However, unlike her mother, Meta does not use the setting to create atmosphere or give topographical information, she merely illustrates the conflicting feelings among the local inhabitants about the progressive plans for the town. Her idea concurs with Rousseau’s political theory of the corrupt city and the more natural and therefore moral countryside, a belief that was common during the Romantic period. Stereotypically, it is the older people who are ‘terrified at the prospect of change’, others felt that the sea ‘receding form the town’ mark the place as ‘doomed to sink into a quiet decay…’ just like Pen-Morfa.
Lichendale is the home of Helena and her two older brothers, Paul and Lawrence Mathewson, whose father is the rector of the ‘grand old parish church’. The family is brought up in an Anglican tradition and has no mother. Motherless families – or families with inadequate mother figures – are recurring features of Elizabeth’s writing but here there is no sense that the lack of a mother figure meant no moral guidance.
Again, like Elizabeth, Meta uses contrasts to draw attention to the opposite personalities of these two brothers, although her writing is far less strikingly developed than Elizabeth’s. Paul Mathewson (the elder of the two) is serious, morally upstanding and disliked any ‘unnecessary shows of affection’ which he deemed ‘harmful’. This made him rather less attractive than his warm-hearted, high-spirited and charismatic brother, Lawrence. Lawrence was a firm favourite with his younger sister, Helena, but Meta shows how these characters should not be taken at face value. Without family guidance, Lawrence becomes dissolute and reckless, despite the fact that in their youth Helena and Lawrence were almost inseparable until the latter went to Italy at a very young age to further his studies.
The use of Italy in the story is not surprising as Elizabeth, Meta, Marianne and Catherine Winkworth had returned from Rome at the end of May 1857, just over a month before ‘Helena Mathewson’ was published. However, the way Meta uses Rome is very different from Elizabeth’s presentation of the ‘Eternal City’. When Lawrence is given permission to go to Rome, Helena explains:
My father had lived for so long in Lichendale. That he seemed to have forgotten how full of danger a city like Rome would be to one eager and reckless like Lawrence.
Meta’s Rome becomes a place of death and dissipation for two of her main characters, Lawrence Mathewson and the local landowner, Sir Edward Stamford. Elizabeth, on the other hand, makes Rome a place of life-affirming energy and healing. In ‘A Dark Night’s Work’, Rome is where Ellinor goes to recover from the illness caused by her father’s secret and her broken engagement , and where Elizabeth herself went to recover from the troubles she experienced while writing The Life of Charlotte Brontë, as well as to escape from the backlash that she knew would follow its publication. Rome became her haven, the place where she met her long-term friend Charles Eliot Norton and where she claims to have spent the happiest days of her life: ‘I shall never be so happy again. I don’t think I was ever so happy before’ [Letters p. 476].
Sir Edward Stamford is the owner of Lichendale Hall and landlord to many tenants on his estate. His character at the outset is one of careless self-indulgence:
The life Sir Edward led abroad was wild and dissipated; and those that recollected him in Lichendale in the old Baronet’s time, declared that he had been always self-willed and passionate.
On his return to Lichendale to canvas votes for a seat in parliament, it is Helena who gently guides him towards recognising and executing his duties to his tenants by making him ashamed of his negligence. Helena, like Margaret Hale, is the moral voice of the text, a role which was demanded of women by the contemporary conduct book writers such as Sarah Ellis and Sarah Lewis. However Helena is more conservative and much less nuanced than Margaret: she is more of a self-sacrificing victim of family loyalty than a woman who makes her own choices. Her growing love for Sir Edward is not developed in detail and the move from attraction to impending marriage is extremely swift.
It is at this point that complications set in when Paul discovers that is was Sir Edward who killed their brother in a duel; a pursuit that was illegal in Britain but not in Italy. Paul forces Helena to break off her engagement or vows to expose Sir Edward’s crime which would ultimately result in his expulsion from parliament. Helena makes the sacrifice but like Ellinor ‘A Dark Night’s Work ‘the loss of her lover and her chance of becoming a wife make her extremely ill. Meta does not dwell on this illness as Elizabeth does on Ellinor’s; neither is there a kindly suitor waiting in the wings, but the seriousness of her case is reflected in the time it takes her to recover. After three years the physical symptoms have abated leaving only emotional scars.
It is Edward who then becomes seriously ill with a life-threatening fever and now Helena takes on the stereotypical female role of nurse. This is a typical sickbed scene and it is in this latter section that the text takes on the style of a novel of sentiment. It becomes littered with exclamation marks, dashes and question marks to heighten the tension and anxiety. Edward’s brush with death becomes the turning point in the story, a metamorphosis of the kind Pip undergoes in Great Expectations, although in Meta’s tale there is far less darkness and much more light. The ending has echoes of Jane Eyre in its swift move from debility to happy family unity. Helena is finally portrayed as the champion of good over evil, but in that quiet feminine way, through fortitude and perseverance, which are a new form of heroism. Furthermore the role of God is made explicit in the final paragraph: ‘I see now how sorrow is sent with divinely merciful purpose’, something that may not appeal to a modern audience. However, Helena’s final comment to her child ‘We will never let you marry such a wicked man as Sir Edward Stamford, though mama has done so – will we?’ is odd as it might be read ironically: Helena has allegedly reformed Edward’s character which is now no longer wicked – or there could be a darker reading, suggesting that Edward may still be so? Elizabeth is very skilful at deftly handling this duality, Meta, perhaps less so, for whether this subtle suggestion of darkness has much effect on the overall story is debatable!
This is a story that could have been longer and would have benefitted from some of Elizabeth’s attention to detail that really make her writing come to life.
Note: Household Words has been digitised at Dickens Journals Online and you can read ‘Helena Mathewson’ in facsimile or in accompanying transcript. https://www.djo.org.uk/household-words/volume-xvi/page-13.html