The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

We’re thrilled that there’s to be an exciting new Gaskell Conference taking place in Paris in April 2025. Annick Rello-Pommier tells us more and issues a call for papers. 

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité

Revolution is a word that remains intrinsically linked to France and its turbulent history. From Britain, however, the French Revolution soon became tainted by the reign of Terror (1792-93) that killed almost indiscriminately and compelled many French aristocrats to flee and seek refuge across the Channel. Although Gaskell’s first visit to France was only in 1853, France played an important role in her writings. As Gaskellian scholar Carolyn Lambert notes, Gaskell:

‘had strong linguistic, emotional, and literary ties to France starting well before […] 1853. She had an excellent grasp of the language, a group of close friends with whom she socialised and stayed—most notable among them Mme Mohl—and was very knowledgeable about French history and literature’ . (Elizabeth Gaskell’s Smaller Stories, 2021, p. 77).

Gaskell’s fictional and journalistic writings are often set against the backdrop of French history and culture. Without attempting to be exhaustive, one may think of ‘Traits and Stories of the Huguenots’, ‘My French Master’ (both published in 1853, following her first stay in France), My Lady Ludlow (1858), ‘French Life’ (1862), and ‘Company Manners’ (1854). The latter presumably depicts Madame de Sablé’s salon and her art of entertaining, while, in reality, Joanne Shattock notes, drawing inspiration from ‘Mary Clarke Mohl’s style of salon, in contrast to the stiff formality and ostentation of English middle class entertaining’ (The Works of Elizabeth Gaskell, Vol.1, 2005, 293). 

Gaskell’s ambition was to write the memoirs of the French woman of letters, Madame de Sévigné, with whom she felt a great affinity, regarding her as ‘a well-known friend to [her] all [her] life’ (The Letters of Mrs Gaskell, 1966, p. 675). Unfortunately, her ‘Memoirs elucidatory of the Life and Times of Madame de Sévigné’ remained in draft form, despite a tour to Normandy to gather material. Even its manuscript, which she deemed very interesting, was lost. Gaskell’s interest in Madame de Sévigné, however, may indirectly shed light on the importance she attached to letter writing.

Her taste for the French language never wavered, judging by her late works which are peppered with untranslated French expressions, especially her last unfinished novel, Wives and Daughters (1866), in which a strong, frequently subversive bond exists between some of the characters and France. References to France, in Gaskell’s writings, seem either fraught with danger or a byword of transgression, whether it is from a social, historical, narrative, or linguistic viewpoint. The word ‘revolutionary’ may, thus, hint at the often-overlooked subversive undercurrent pervading her whole work—the one that ‘shocked Victorian readers’, just as much as Charlotte Brontë or George Eliot. As her biographer, Jenny Uglow, remembers,

I had always admired Gaskell’s fiction and the vigour and humour of her letters. I liked the way she stood at odds with orthodoxies and eluded pigeon-holes. Conservatives and radicals, Christians and sceptics, Marxists and feminists, all acclaimed different aspects of her work, but all in the end seemed to tap their pens in frustration: she somehow did not ‘fit’. (Uglow, Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories, 1993, p. IX).

Call for Papers

This conference aims to explore Gaskell’s unorthodoxies, including (but not limited to) her relationship with France, her keen observation of a Victorian society grappling with social upheavals, her advocacy of the marginalised, and her challenge to conventions.

Possible topics of interest include, but are not restricted to:

  • Gaskell and France: its enduring presence in her fictional and journalistic pieces and in her letters, whether cultural, historical, linguistic, narrative, etc.
  • Gender and Society: Gaskell’s portrayal of gender roles and societal expectations
  • Society and Revolution: her exploration of the upheaval of industrialization in Victorian Britain (its impacts on social classes and family)
  • Gaskell’s Aesthetics and its Innovations: her narrative techniques and strategies, her linguistic creativity.
  • Periodicals and Networking: the impact of this expanding method of publication by instalments on her works (a comparison may be drawn with other Victorian female writers); her turbulent relationship with Dickens.
  • Gaskell, her Contemporaries, and her Literary Legacy: how comparative studies may illuminate her unique voice.
  • Religion and Morality in her narratives
  • Visual Adaptations of her writings.

 

The Conference will be held at Université Paris Cité on 3 and 4 April 2025.

Proposals of around 300 words with a short biographical note should be sent by 20 September 2024 to Annick Rello-Pommier and Jean-Marie Fournier .

And of course the Gaskell Society website will carry more information about the conference as soon as we have it. 

Annick Rello-Pommier