Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by A. W. Ward
Elizabeth Gaskell (18101865)
[Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson was born in Lindsay Row (now part of Cheyne Walk), Chelsea, 29th September 1810. On 30th August 1832, she married at Huntsford the Rev. William Gaskell, minister of Cross Street Unitarian Chapel, Manchester. During the rest of her life she resided chiefly at Manchester. She died at Holybourne, near Alton in Hampshire, on 12th November 1865.]
THE TIME may come, peradventure it is even now with us, when the distinction or difference between authors and authoresses will needs be obliterated from any critical survey of the progress of English prose. Whether or not Mrs. Gaskell would have derived any special joy from witnessing the advent of such an epoch, is a more or less idle inquiry; as a matter of fact, although in her way herself a classic writer of English prose, besides being the standard biographer of another, she lived not in a new literary age, but in a period of transition. Beyond a doubt this helps to explain the remarkable contrasts, as well as developments, observable in her style and manner as a writer; although nothing could be more obvious than that it was a conscious restraint of her powers, rather than the granting of a free hand to them, which enabled her genius to concentrate instead of dissipating the efforts of a maturity that knew no decay. In Mary Barton, her first and to this day most famous book, Mrs. Gaskell asserted the right of treating serious social problems sentimentallya womans right if ever there was one, although women have not always agreed as to which are really the serious problems of society. She vindicated her claim by means of that kind of pathos which comes straight from the heart and goes straight to it, and which, being in this instance fed by just observation not less than by intense sympathy, was already here and there relieved by touches of the humour so characteristic of her later works. Yet it may, notwithstanding, be said of her that her literary reputation was more than half made before she began fully to form her literary manner. In my judgment, the example of Dickens counted for not a little in the process; and to his art her own, without forfeiting at any time its originality, was more signally indebted than was the craft of his hundred imitators to the mannerisms of the master. It has been little noticed, though the phenomenon is full of interest to the students of style, that Mrs. Gaskell had already with conspicuous success essayed what in the absence of dates would inevitably have been set down as her later manner, while she was still following to all appearance her earlier lines of composition. The majority of the Cranford papers appeared in Household Words before Ruth was published; and North and South, where no doubt a growth of something beyond form is to be noted, was completed some time later. The charm of Cranford, although perhaps a little fainter than of old, now that associations of time and place have lost much of their force, is still very real, and the little book will always be treasured by those for whom the miniatures of the early part of the century have an irresistible attraction. When, after the strain to which Mrs. Gaskell had been subjected by the publication of her Life of Charlotte Brontë, a masterpiece, in spite of all early cavils and later supplements, she returned to fiction, she proved to have finally formed the style which is inalienably her own. Its exquisite delicacy of texture and tender grace, subduing but not concealing an irony which is the secret of the finest of English humorous prose, characterise each of her last three fictions. Of these, Sylvias Lovers probably displays the greatest intensity of feeling, together with the most vivid individual colouring, while the (nominally) incomplete Wives and Daughters is enlivened by the most masterly management of the tranquil sidelights of pure and playful humour. But the choicest gem of all is the idyll of Cousin Phillis, simply set in surroundings which seem as if designed to reveal mysteries of poetic feeling destined to remain for ever peculiar to English art, whose inspiration is drawn from the life of English homes.
The biography of Mrs. Gaskell, we know, is likely to remain unwritten; and though literary criticism must chafe against conditions which impair its force, the restriction may in this instance not prove wholly disadvantageous. Something may be learnt by guessing, instead of being taught in detail, how a self-control which matured a literary style as strong as it is tender, and as subtle as it is sweet, reflected the wondrously diversified experiences of a pure and disciplined womans life.