This Month in Writing – September

How would you then define a hero?

‘The Sexton’s Hero’, was published in William and Mary Howitt’s Journal during September 1847, the year before Gaskell ‘s first, and much-loved, novel Mary Barton appeared in print.  Suzanne Lewis in her introduction to The Moorland Cottage and Other Stories (Oxford  1995) describes the Journal as rather didactic, stodgy and short lived’(p. xiv); however, Gaskell’s story  is far from being overtly didactic – and certainly not stodgy. 

Crossing Lancaster Sands by David Cox (1783-1859) Google Art Project/Wikimedia)

As with Mary Barton, Gaskell uses a location known to her – the Silverdale area of Lancashire, where she holidayed with William in 1843 and returned on many subsequent occasions. It was a place of great natural beauty, unspoiled by the city smoke. She writes to Charles Eliot Norton in 1858, describing Silverdale as ‘so wild a place we may be happy to get a leg of mutton at all’ (letters, p. 505).

Their accommodation looked across the Morecambe Bay and, from their garden wall, the family could see the ‘slow moving train of crossers, led over the treacherous sands by a Guide, a square man sitting on a his white horse…On foggy nights the guide…has let people drown before now, who could not pay his fee’ (L. p. 505).  This was a popular route as reduced journey times by hours.  

‘The Sexton’s Hero’ begins with an English country idyll. Two travellers sit in a quiet country churchyard beneath the shadow of a yew tree where ‘[t]he everlasting hum of myriads of summer insects made luxurious lullaby’.  To the narrator this view goes beyond words: the ‘meadow green, and mountain grey, and the blue dazzle of Morecambe bay as it sparkled between us and the more distant view’. The work also ends with two travellers, but this time they are fighting to stay alive against time, tides and the quicksand of Morecambe Bay – the initial idyll has now become a nightmare.

‘The Sexton’s Hero’, published at the start of Elizabeth Gaskell’s career, still displays elements that were to become  typical of her writing: the love story often with rival suitors, the dramatic event (or two),  and a moral element as would be expected from a minister’s wife. Through the dramatic events of this story Gaskell examines and redefines the concept of heroism. In fact, Suzanne Lewis describes the works a  ‘a quiet rebuttal of Carlyle’s rhetoric ‘in On Heroes, Hero worship and the Heroic in History. Gaskell cleverly presents her ideas through the main narrative, a story told by an ordinary man, the old sexton of Lindale church, who has experienced life at its best and at its worst. By the end of his narrative we cannot deny him his definition of heroism, nor Gilbert Dawson his right to claim the title of hero – Gaskell has made her point and we, her readers, have acquiesced to her view.  

Morecambe Bay ©openstreetmap.org. Lindale, Silverdale and Arnside are all on the top right-hand side (click to enlarge)

Like many of her contemporaries, Gaskell has used fact and turned it into fiction. The dangers of Morecambe Bay are as relevant today as they were when she was looking out from her lodgings in Silverdale.  In 2004, twenty-three Chinese cockle pickers were drowned on these sands; ten years later a fifteen year old boy was dramatically rescued from the quicksand, and so it goes on.

So beware, as Gaskell would be pleased to tell us, behind beauty there often lurks danger!

Diane Duffy