The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

June was not the most prolific of months in Gaskell’s publishing calendar.  Cranford first appeared in book form in June 1853, ‘My Lady Ludlow’ began as a serial in Household Words, June 1858 and ‘French Life’ concluded in Frasers Magazine, June 1864. Apart from these longer pieces, there was very little else of note. Two short pieces appeared in the five years from 1853 to 1858 and a short story, ‘Libbie Marsh’s Three Eras’ published in Howitt’s Journal in 1847. It is the latter story that will be the focus of this blog; but first let us consider the two short pieces of writing.

‘Disappearances’ appeared in Household Words in 1853 and tells the story of six men who disappeared in strange circumstances.  Modern reviewers have suggested it reads more like a collection of news reports than a unified story. Yet when we know of Gaskell’s history, it becomes clear why she would have been fascinated by such tales of loss: her own brother, John, disappeared in strange circumstances during the 1820s after a voyage to India. The last record of John Stevenson was in the Calcutta Directory of 1831, where he is listed as a free merchant.[1]

In addition to ‘Disappearances’, 1858 saw the publication of an obscure piece entitle ‘An Incident at Niagara Falls’ in the American periodical Harper’s Monthly Magazine. The provenance of this story is probably more interesting than the writing itself. Despite varying opinions on the authorship of this text, Angus Easson believed it to be Gaskell’s work; part of her contribution to the British edition of Maria Cummin’s Mabel Vaughn.   Gaskell was asked by the publishers, Samson Low, to make changes to ‘better appeal to an English audience’ and the novel came out in 1857 ‘Edited by Arrangement with the Author by Mrs. Gaskell’. Gaskell’s modifications were quite comprehensive, and included an Introduction, the glossing of words and phrases and the removal and addition material. Easson notes that the story in question was one of these additions, published by Samson Low without her knowledge. [2]

The short story, ‘Libbie Marsh’s Three Eras’, was one of Gaskell’s early contributions to the literary market place. It was published in three parts in Howitt’s Journal on 5, 12 and 19 June 1847 with the title ‘Life in Manchester/Libbie Marsh’s Three Eras’ and signed by ‘Cotton Mather Mills, Esq.’. This work appeared over a year before Mary Barton but it carried some of that novel’s major themes:  a detailed account of working-class life in Manchester, the bond of mothers to children, an examination of attitudes towards marriage and the mutual support of women. Moreover, in ‘Libbie Marsh’ Gaskell uses the mixture of real and imagined locations as she does in much of her later fiction. Libbie moves – or flits, to use Gaskell’s Lancashire term – from Dean Street to Albemarle Street. However, although both are real locations they were not both in Manchester.  Dean Street was and still is  in Manchester, just off Great Ancoats Street, but Albemarle Street did not exist in the Manchester of 1847. It was, however, the London address of the publisher John Murray. Albemarle Street can now be found on a Manchester A-Z, situated on the borders of Rusholme, Greenheys and Moss side, close to where Pepper Hill Farm had once existed; the farm mentioned in the opening pages of Mary Barton published the following year.

A visit to Dunham woods and park comprises the middle section of this tale; it is the site of a Whitsun holiday for the mill workers. As a girl brought up in Cheshire, Gaskell would have known Dunham, not least because her cousin, Sir Henry Holland, had attended Lady Stamford in 1809 while he was apprenticed to Charles White at Manchester Royal Infirmary. The whole occasion caused furore as Holland’s contract did not allow him to treat a patient living so close to either Manchester or Salford. Dr. Holland also treated the Stanley’s of Alderley, the rival venue for the Whitsun holiday excursion in ‘Libbie Marsh’. Elizabeth’s biographer, Mrs Alice Chadwick, notes that Gaskell is likely to have visited Dunham on a Whitsun outing with her Sunday School charges, although there is no evidence in the letters which are available to date to suggest that. Her letters, however, do substantiate the fact that she sometimes travelled by coach. She writes to Mary Howitt in 1838: ‘if I travel I must go by coach and remember the coachman’ and in ‘Libbie Marsh’ Franky is transported to Dunham by coach. The following year in Mary Barton, Dunham is used as the name of the Manchester Street from where crowds of workers watch the fire at Carson’s mill.

Family names also appear in this story for the first time; Dixon is the name of the family that Libbie initially stays with in Albemarle Street, later Dixon is the loyal servant in North and South (1854) and Susan Dixon gives up an offer of marriage to look after her brother who was ‘not a quick strong lad’ in Gaskell’s story ‘Half a lifetime ago’ published in 1857. While we might muse that Dixon was named after Mary Dixon, a friend of Charlotte Bronte that Gaskell knew, or Dr, James Dixon the recipient of a letter about Sylvia’s Lovers, it must be borne in mind that this Dixon existed long before either of those people had been mentioned in any letters.  The prototype for Dixon would have to be from a time before Mary Barton and Plymouth Grove; a time which is far less well documented in letters that the later years of Gaskell’s life.

In fact, there are many ways in which this novel can be viewed as a prototype for Mary Barton. In the canary seller we see the makings of Job Legh, the self-educated naturalist and grandfather to Mary Barton’s friend Margaret.  Gaskell was keen to present the workers as individuals, people whose lack of education was the result of lack of opportunity, nurture not nature, as many became willing students, filling classes at the Mechanics Institute where William Gaskell taught two nights a week.

‘Libbie Marsh’ like Mary Barton, is a story of Manchester life, a life that Gaskell herself came to experience in 1832 when she married William Gaskell, a Unitarian minister in the city. When she writes about Manchester in Chapter 2 of ‘Libbie Marsh’ she could easily be writing down her own feelings about the city that had adopted her and which she never completely embraced:

Far, far away in the distance on that flat plain, you might see the motionless cloud of smoke hanging over a great town, and that was Manchester,—ugly, smoky Manchester, dear, busy, earnest, noble-working Manchester; where their children had been born, and where, perhaps, some lay buried; where their homes were, and where God had cast their lives, and told them to work out their destiny.

Elizabeth Gaskell and her family did indeed work out their destinies in Manchester. Elizabeth herself had lost three children during her life in the city. In fact, this tale, published only two years after her son’s death, reveals the deep personal grief felt by mothers who lose their children. What Gaskell makes clear here is that grief is universal and what might appear as stoicism among the working classes is merely a matter of necessity. After the death of her son, Margaret explains:

And I mun go washing, just as if nothing had happened,” sighed forth Mrs. Hall, “and         I mun come home at night, and find his place empty, and all still where I used to be sure of hearing his voice ere ever I got up the stair: no one will ever call me mother again.

Only those with independent means are allowed the extravagance of indulging their grief.

In ‘Libbie Marsh’, Gaskell presents the struggles of ordinary life through an acute attention to detail, a technique which she developed in Mary Barton. The Dixons are hardworking people who belong to the wealthier section of the working classes:

never grudged her a share of their extravagant meals, which were far more luxurious than she could have met with anywhere else, for her previously agreed payment in case of working at home

Their extravagant meals included ‘eggs to put to the cream, it was so thin; ham, to give a relish to the bread and butter; some new bread, hot, if she could get it’, luxuries that would not be experienced by the poorest of the poor in Mary Barton, families such as the Davenports living in their damp and foetid cellar. In the later novel, Gaskell offers a far more detailed and nuanced picture of the social striations of working-class life. But what is emphasised in ‘Libbie Marsh’ as it is in Gaskell’s later novel, is the strong sense of community among the working classes. She seems to suggest that the poorer the families, the more they bond together, the Dixons, who have more independent means are

too touchy, too prosperous, too much absorbed in themselves, to take off Libbie’s feeling of solitariness; not half as much as the little face by day, and the shadow by night, of him with whom she had never yet exchanged a word.

The Dixons are particularly prickly in their dealings with the rather severe Margaret Hall. But Gaskell shows us that people are multifaceted and that the Margaret who appears in public is a very different character from the Margaret who tends her crippled son:

she scolded, pretty nearly, everybody else, “till her name was up” in the neighbourhood for a termagant, to him she was evidently most tender and gentle.

This way of looking beneath the surface and of touching a shared humanity is typical of Gaskell’s writing. We have to learn empathy with our fellow humans; to understand their feelings is the way to end social discord. Sadly, this healing process is often brought about by illness and  death. In ‘Libbie Marsh’ it is the death of Franky and in Mary Barton it is Harry Carson’s death that ultimately heals the social conflict.

What is particularly prescient throughout Gaskell’s writing, however, is the way this detail is used in a metaphoric way to extend our understanding of the story. The crippled child Franky, for example, is described as a ‘spectral shadow’ at a window:

the constant weary motion of a little spectral shadow, a child’s hand and arm—no more; long, thin fingers hanging down from the wrist, while the arm moved up and down, as if keeping time to the heavy pulses of dull pain.

This child is ‘spectral’, so although Franky is alive, he is already a ghost existing in the shadowy world between life and death, reduced to merely the shape of an arm and drooping hand seen through a window. Those long thin fingers prefigure the skeleton he will become.  Perhaps, like the twins in Mary Barton, Franky attests to the strength of the bond between mother and child that can, by pure will, keep children from death.

Finally, ‘Libbie Marsh’ gives us an early insight into Gaskell’s view of marriage. While she believed marriage to be important because it allowed women to fulfil their natural role as mothers, Gaskell was averse to inappropriate marriages that would compromise women, by making them the victim of violence and neglect. Initially Gaskell is making comment on the criteria used to judge women’s eligibility for marriage. Libbie is not only facially unattractive but she is also critical of men’s habits, in particular their propensity for alcohol which we find out has been the cause of Libbie’s brother’s death and the indirect cause of her mother’s. But Anne turns this warning against Libbie by suggesting such an attitude will never be acceptable in a wife: ‘Dear, what a preachment. I tell you what, Libbie, you’re as born an old maid as ever I saw. You’ll never be married to either drunken or sober.”’. Yet the reader sides with Libbie in her silent criticism of Anne’s husband – to –  be who believes: ‘After all, what is marrying? Just a spree’. From the outset it is clear that Anne is doomed to unhappiness despite her status as a married woman, and Libbie will be happy in the mutually supportive relationship she has with Margaret.

‘Libbie Marsh’ ends with a rather laboured moral message. Gaskell had a strong religious belief and that is clear in her writings, although her later work is less laboured in its religious ideology as this story. What is significant about ‘Libbie Marsh’ is its ability to provide an insight into her later work as here we see the germs of what were to become her more polished and popular novels. Next month we will look at another early piece which reflects many of the ideas in Gaskell’s popular novel, Cranford.

[1] John Chapple, Elizabeth Gaskell: The Early Years (Manchester: MUP, 1997)., p. 437.

[2] Angus Easson, ‘Elizabeth Gaskell, ‘An Incidentat Niagra Falls,’ and the editing of Mabel Vaughn’ English Language Notes 17 (1980), pp. 273-277.