I’ll keep this one short and sweet.
“Mrs.” Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-65) has since her own day or shortly thereafter been placed in the second tier of English novelists, not because she was a woman, but perhaps just a bit because, unlike the more prestigious spinsters Jane Austen and “George Eliot,” or the all-but-spinster Charlotte Brontë, she was not only happily married and a mother of five, but used her husband’s (not very euphonious) name, and after publishing her first novel anonymously, put “Mrs.” instead of “Elizabeth” on her title pages.
No doubt, in terms of historical and cultural breadth, she cannot be compared to Dickens or Thackeray or Eliot, nor to Charlotte or Emily Brontë for lyrical-emotional intensity, nor to Austen for mastery of classical prose and sharpness of wit.
But are those the only ways to measure novelists? I would claim that Gaskell deserves to be considered among the great ones because her unique qualities allow her to do things with words that none of the others do. Her style, devoid of rhetoric, is uniquely engaging and unpretentious, and her characters, closer to her own life than those of the more encyclopedic writers, are lived more deeply. Above all, none of the others approach the clarity, nor the charity, of her moral vision.
Not to speak of the fact that, like Charlotte Lennox (and a few others) in the preceding century, she knew how to convey, no doubt from personal experience, the numinous quality of a woman’s charm and beauty, her charisma.
I hope in a future Chronicle to provide an overview of Gaskell’s writings. This one was inspired by the following extraordinary passage from her shortest and least-known novel, a conversation between two sweethearts:
Frank [wealthy family]: “Will you let me wish I had been born poor, if I am to stay in England? I should not then be liable to this fault into which I see the rich men fall, of forgetting the trials of the poor.”
Maggie [modest family]: “I am not sure whether, if you had been poor, you might not have fallen into an exactly parallel fault, and forgotten the trials of the rich. It is so difficult to understand the errors into which their position makes all men liable to fall. Do you remember a story in ‘Evenings at Home,’ called the Transmigrations of Indra? Well! when I was a child, I used to wish I might be transmigrated (is that the right word?) into an American slave-owner for a little while, just that I might understand how he must suffer, and be sorely puzzled, and pray and long to be freed from his odious wealth, till at last he grew hardened to its nature; — and since then, I have wished to be the Emperor of Russia, for the same reason. Ah! you may laugh; but that is only because I have not explained myself properly.”
“I was only smiling to think how ambitious any one might suppose you were who did not know you.”
“I don’t see any ambition in it — I don’t think of the station — I only want sorely to see the ‘What’s resisted’ of Burns*, in order that I may have more charity for those who seem to me to have been the cause of such infinite woe and misery.”
The Moorland Cottage (1850), Ch. 7
*A reference to the following passage from “Address To The Unco[mmonly] Guid, Or The Rigidly Righteous,” where Robert Burns mocks the self-righteous for not appreciating what temptations may have been resisted by those who sin:
Who made the heart, ’tis He alone
Decidedly can try us;
He knows each chord, its various tone,
Each spring, its various bias:
Then at the balance let’s be mute,
We never can adjust it;
What’s done we partly may compute,
But know not what’s resisted.
I have never read a passage in a novel or anywhere else that so unpretentiously explores the depth of Christian morality, in contrast with its victimary defiguration that we witness today ad nauseam. As she explains, Maggie doesn’t relish thinking of herself as enjoying the wealth and power of the slaveholder or the Tsar; she wants to understand their suffering, or rather the suffering that she would feel in their place, a moral suffering that, in opposition to the famous later-Victorian quip (in a very different context) of Oscar Wilde, she imagines as worse than the physical suffering of the poor, which she had described at length not long before in her first novel, Mary Barton, published in the revolutionary year 1848. And as a friend pointed out to me, the notion of transmigration, whimsically borrowed from an “Oriental” fairy tale, makes this passage a parable of the novelist’s relationship to her characters, the villains as well as the heroes and heroines.
I think there is implicit in Maggie’s desire a realization, in Gaskell’s post-Revolutionary era, that the sufferings of the poor have their compensation, sinful but no longer condemned as such, in the self-righteous resentment they feel—and that Mary Barton’s father had realized in action in the murder of the wealthy scion Henry Carson—whereas the rich have no such outlet, and can therefore be said to suffer more acutely in their souls, a suffering that Gaskell imagines as very different from the self-regarding travails of those afflicted with White Guilt in our era.
In this passage, the protagonist, who resembles a number of Gaskell’s other thoughtful heroines, and surely the author herself, expresses charmingly and without melodramatics, within a world seemingly at peace with itself, a profound Christian sensibility of which only a Dostoevsky, writing in far more apocalyptic times, would normally be thought capable. I submit that our lives would be poorer without Elizabeth Gaskell’s revelation, here and elsewhere, of the moral sublime.