The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

Only four pieces of Gaskell’s writing were published in May: the last two episodes of Cranford, an obscure piece entitled ‘Company Manners’ (1854) and the short story, “Six Weeks at Heppenheim”.

“Six Weeks at Heppenheim” was published in volume five of the Cornhill Magazine in 1862, the year before Cousin Phillis, with which the earlier text has much in common.  John Chapple avers that ‘“Six Weeks in Heppenheim” could be regarded as an admirable trial run’ for Gaskell’s longer and more complex work.[1] Two obvious similarities are its male narrator, an outsider, and its rural setting, although one is set in rural Germany, the other in rural England.

Illustration by George DuMaurier (Smith Elder & Co, 1865)

Setting plays an important part in this text, as Gaskell’s detailed descriptions of the German countryside and its customs are acutely observed; memories of two holidays spent in Germany during October/November 1858 and the summer of 1860. This is not the first time that Elizabeth Gaskell has used her experience of the German countryside in her stories; but compare these descriptions with those in the opening pages of ‘The Grey Woman’ and the presentation is very different. In ‘The Grey Woman’, the peaceful countryside of the Neckar is disrupted by a violent storm. Whereas in ‘Six Weeks’, the quiet, natural surroundings of the village at Heppenheim are peaceful and healing. There is a strong sense of community here – one of Gaskell’s favourite themes – which is embodied in the grape harvesting. The story is not without its turbulence: conflicting passions, illness and the fear of death, but the overriding experience here is one of life moving slowly and peacefully forwards.

As with many of Gaskell’s narrators, the male narrator of ‘Six Weeks’ is an outsider, an Englishman. Outsiders are common in Gaskell’s narrative, as they can observe events in a more objective and questioning way. The narrator in ‘Six Weeks’ is an Oxford graduate who has inherited some money and feels that this windfall is an opportunity to postpone what will be a responsible career at the bar: a career that might, during his struggle for success, restrict his experience of life outside the narrow confines of work. He calculates his budget precisely, again typical of Gaskell. The allocation of £50 only for his journey to the continent brings to mind a letter written by Elizabeth to her daughter Marianne, just before she died ‘I think we could spend 3 weeks stationary in Switzerland for 60£??’.[2] Travelling as cheaply as possible was always part of Gaskell’s agenda and these ideas are reflected in her text.

In order to create a sense that this is not rural England, Gaskell inserts snippets of the German language and provides her characters with German names. The servant girl who is the ‘heroine’ of the tale is named Thekla, which is an echo of the past. In 1841 Elizabeth and William stayed in Heidelberg with Frau von Pickford, ‘a widow with 3 daughters’ who was ‘a noble lady’, although Gaskell adds in her fun-loving fashion, ‘although nearly every other person is noble’.  The middle daughter of this ‘noble lady’ was nineteen and named Thekla: ‘very lovely, and one of the most elegant people I ever saw’.[3] Although the fictional Thekla is not aristocratic, she is noble, having a kind and loving nature with a strong sense of duty, which made her both lovable and vulnerable. By averring that Thekla’s ‘fair complexion was bronzed and reddened by weather, so as to have lost much of its delicacy of feature’, Gaskell is not condemning her coarseness, but showing her active participation in the work of the community. Thekla was not beautiful or elegant, but she was compassionate, hardworking and reliable.

Weiderman is another German name used in this story which resonates with Gaskell’s own life. In 1858 she brought a German girl home to Plymouth Grove as a servant: her name was Karoline Weidermann. Both of these names are used at different points in the story. The doctor who attends the nameless narrator during his fever is called Weiderman while Karoline is the name of the innkeeper’s young daughter. Gaskell has a habit of recycling names from her own life, although the characters to which these names are ascribed, generally bear no resemblance to their real-life counterparts.

‘Six Weeks’ is also typically ‘Gaskell’ in the way it develops character and ideas through contrasts. Two men are vying for Thekla’s hand in marriage and they are diametrical opposites. Franz is the young and attractive lover of her youth, whose has appearance and character has deteriorated through his materialism and dissolute lifestyle. The innkeeper, while less physically attractive than Franz, is kind, steady, and ‘well to do, God be thanked’. Like Jane Austen, Gaskell was aware of the importance of money in any marriage, the landlord was in our terms, ‘a good catch’!

In ‘Six Weeks’ as in much of her fiction, Gaskell explores the qualities necessary to make a successful marriage, a topic that recurs throughout her fiction. Humanity and compassion are two major requirements in Gaskell’s view and Fritz, the innkeeper, possess just these. He is a caring man who does not force the narrator to leave the inn until he is completely well, even though he has no money left with which to meet the cost of his stay. Fritz is also presented as an integral member of the village community. The men whom Gaskell admire are also usually feminised in some way; the innkeeper by his caring nature, a quality ore typically ascribed to women, the male narrator because of his illness rendering him weak, vulnerable and confining him to a domestic space, a room at the inn. From here he becomes a passive observer of events rather than an active participant, and is thus able to empathise with the other characters and their problems, as well as appreciating the tranquil beauty of his surroundings; all characteristics more typically associated with women.

The narrator, is also a tourist, an outsider by nationality who must try and understand this country and its customs, providing Gaskell with an opportunity to elaborate from her own knowledge. But the real outsider is Franz, due to his of his lack of human sympathy. He is presented as stereotypically male, pursuing all the pleasures and pastimes that are associated with that type of masculinity – drinking, gambling and womanising. The narrator describes him as ‘weak and vain’ an ‘egotist who cares little for the wider community, absorbed only in pursuing his own interests and concerns. Ironically, the English national is accepted by this community, while the German, Franz, is exiled. Moreover, as a traveller the narrator is in transit, accepted by but functioning outside this community, and is thus able to comment objectively on events as they unfold. He can foresee the potential tragedy in a marriage between the compassionate Thekla and the egotistical Franz: ‘to an outsider it seemed as if one was so inferior to the other that their union would have appeared a subject for despair’.

Without delving too deeply into a biographical reading which can be misleading, this last quotation resonates with a time in Gaskell’s own life when her daughter, Meta ended her relationship with Captain Hill, who had been proved unreliable. Compare Gaskell’s letter to Charles Eliot Norton, May 1858: ‘Meta is far from well, – more from deep disappointment in character, I think than from wounded affection; for she says “he is not in the least what she fancied he was”,[4] with the narrator’s comment to Thekla about Franz: “You loved an ideal man; he disappointed you, and you clung to your remembrance of him. He came, and the reality dispelled all illusions.” Gaskell believed that it was better to live a single life than be unhappily married and therefore she is not averse to keeping her heroines in single blessedness if the appropriate man does not come along, a situation we see in Cousin Phillis.

This story ends by focusing on a shared humanity and the strength of human bonds not just among the living but also between the living and the dead.

Diane Duffy


[1] Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford and Other Stories ed John Chapple ( Wordsworth Classics,  2006), p. 195

[2] Letters, Chapple and Pollard (Mandarin, 1999), p. 772.

[3] Letter to Elizabeth Holland, late 1841 Letters, p, 42.

[4] Letters, p. 506.