In October 2022, our Chair, Libby Tempest (pictured), talked to journalist Danny Moran about just why she loves Elizabeth Gaskell so much. This is a longer version of the interview, first published in About Manchester and reproduced here with their kind permission.
Why do you love Elizabeth Gaskell?
For her warmth, her humour, her empathy, her understanding of human nature and relationships: for the way she campaigned for women and for the working-class: for her superb ability to tell a really good story and the sheer quality of her writing: for her bravery in tackling subjects that were continually ‘swept under the carpet’ by her fellow authors.
Why do people refer to her as ‘Mrs Gaskell’ and is it still okay to do so?
She’s referred to as ‘Mrs Gaskell’ – well, because that’s who she was! She was the wife of William Gaskell, minister of the Unitarian Chapel at Cross Street in Manchester. But as she said of herself – she had ‘many me’s’ – she was also a famous, nationally acclaimed, extremely successful author – she was also the adored and adoring mother of 4 daughters – as well as being a lifelong campaigner for social justice. But in Victorian times, married women (even famous writers!) would always be seen, first and foremost, as a wife. Today maybe we should call her Elizabeth Gaskell – but I still often find myself referring to her affectionately as Mrs G….
Is she ‘second tier’ when it comes to Victorian literature?
The answer to this question refers directly back to the previous one. In Victorian times, married women authors seem to have been taken less seriously than their single sisters – for example, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot. As if women who fell in love and got married (and even worse, had children) had inferior brains and capabilities. My Russell Group university English degree course did not even mention Elizabeth Gaskell!!
The first time I read her, I could hardly believe what I was reading – where had she been all my life??
Is her first novel Mary Barton (the one most directly associated with Manchester) not sometimes referred to as ‘a practice attempt’?
I have never heard this description! Mary Barton was indeed written partly in response to the death of Elizabeth’s baby son in 1845 – as my friend the writer and academic Sherry Ashworth puts it – “she was writing herself back to life”. But this was a groundbreaking novel as well as a first novel; I defy anyone to read Chapter 6 Poverty and Death, in which Mary’s father John and his friend Wilson encounter the Davenport family, and not be affected and angered. Mary Barton is now acknowledged to be one of the very first English novels to truthfully confront the effects of social injustice between the classes.
Is North and South basically a Mancunian Pride and Prejudice?
North & South is indeed a great love story but it is also once again a novel highlighting the need for social change and reform. And Elizabeth Gaskell was brilliant at both – her description of John Thornton’s passionate love for Margaret Hale and his despair at her rejection of him is so powerful – this is a writer who understood sexual love and passion. However in a recent event with the Jane Austen Society, even I had to admit that, given the choice, I’d go to the pub with Lizzie Bennet rather than our Margaret anyday….
Is it not the case that, as the wife of a clergyman, her pleas for understanding of the poor refer largely to the misguidedness of their actions?
The opposite is true – as the wife of a clergyman, Elizabeth saw Manchester working-class life in all its reality: for example the Davenport story, referred to in point 4 was based on a real-life case told to William by a visitor for the Domestic Home Mission, while he was on the committee enquiring into the state of the poor in the 1840s. This was real life. As a Unitarian, she was not judgmental – she was constantly shocked at the levels of poverty, death, disease and hardship she witnessed in Manchester. Her job as she saw it, was to write about working-class life honestly, to make her readers aware, as the first steps towards change.
Is Cranford the good / popular one?
Cranford is perhaps still the best-known and best-loved of Elizabeth Gaskell’s works and this was helped enormously by national treasure Dame Judi Dench appearing in the popular BBC adaptation. But how Cranford is regarded as a literary work has changed and evolved in recent years – is it the story of a collection of twittery middle-class old ladies? Or is it a work of quiet feminist revolution? Just the act of putting women of a certain age at the centre of your novel, not to mention describing them as Amazons, should give us a clue….Go back and re-read with different eyes.
Which is your favourite?
I do genuinely love them all, but my favourite is her last novel Wives & Daughters, though I must prepare you for the fact that sadly it was unfinished at her death in 1865.
I did not know this when I first read it and got to page 648 before I realised, by which point I was nearly tearing my hair out! Having said this, it is pretty clear where she was going with her plot and characters….The reason I love this one the best is that I believe she was writing at the peak of her powers – she knew it was good and she writes almost with joy, certainly with panache and confidence. I’ve seen the MS of Wives & Daughters in the John Rylands Library and there’s hardly an error or an alteration – I think it was a fully-formed masterpiece inside her head – it feels like a privilege to read such a novel.
Is her Life of Charlotte Brontë any good given she left out all the juicy stuff?
Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of her friend Charlotte Brontë could be described as a labour of love and her partial objective was to rescue her friend’s reputation from the allegations of ‘coarseness’ that her family and friends had found so distressing. But Elizabeth did also very much want to tell the truth and to this end, The Life of Charlotte Brontë largely consists of letters written to and by Charlotte over her lifetime. Elizabeth WAS protective of her friend but it has to be remembered that most of the people named in the book were still alive – and there must have been some ‘juicy bits’ in the first edition because she was threatened with two libel suits…..
What is your favourite story about her?
This is taken from a letter Elizabeth wrote to her friend Charles Eliot Norton, dated October 1859 – it concerns the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, famous for the glossy-haired women in his paintings –
I think we got to know Rossetti pretty well. I met him at two evening parties, where I had a good deal of talk with him, always excepting the times when ladies with beautiful hair came in….It did not signify what we were talking about or how agreeable I was; if a particular kind of reddish-brown, wavy hair came in, he was away in a moment, struggling for an introduction to the owner of said head of hair. He is not as mad as a March hare, but hair-mad.
Love it – and love her.
Chair – The Elizabeth Gaskell Society