I had no idea what to expect when I opened an Elizabeth Gaskell novel. When she was referred to in books about other women writers of her time period, it was often dismissively. I had an idea in my mind from these comments made in books about other, what were considered more serious writers, that she was a petty gossip and unimportant woman writer. She seemed best known for botching a biography of Charlotte Brontë, one of those serious contemporary writers. Therefore, I successfully ignored Elizabeth Gaskell until a month ago. I absolutely regret now that I fell for those negative depictions and that it took me so long to turn a serious gaze toward Elizabeth Gaskell.

Wanting to read her without interpretation, I acquired Gaskell’s novel North and South, published in 1855, from the library and flipped past the introduction.

I was immediately taken in by the story, the impressive main character, and the writing. This is a good book, I thought, becoming excited knowing how much more writing Gaskell had accomplished and therefore how much of her writing lay yet unread ahead of me.

Elizabeth Gaskell is the author of 8 novels, 7 novellas, 35 short stories, 5 works of nonfiction, one of which is The Life of Charlotte Brontë. The Life is the first biography of Brontë and the first time a woman novelist wrote the biography of another woman novelist. That’s a big first. Gaskell and Brontë supported each other’s writing and careers. Watch for a future post about Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Brontë in Nasty Women Writers ‘revealing the web of women writers—connections that nurture and inspire.’

Elizabeth Cleghorn (Stevenson) Gaskell was  born in London in 1810. When she was only one, her mother died. Gaskell was moved to Knutsford, Cheshire to be raised by her mother’s sister, Hannah (Holland) Lumb, and her mother’s large extended family who called her, ‘Lily.’ She saw her father only sporadically. Hannah Lumb was separated from her husband and lived in a village of mostly other single women. These strong, independent women surely influenced the woman Gaskell would become and the female characters she created. On how Gaskell would immortalize Knutsford and these women in her book  Cranford, Gaskell’s biographer Jenny Uglow writes:

“Hannah Lumb, in true Unitarian (and Holland) style, taught Elizabeth that kindness and nurture belonged not only in the family but should be extended  to the world at large. Moreover she could be ‘more than mother’ because—although Peter Holland was head of the family—in their actual household there was no husband or father whose needs must be met, whose whims obeyed. However much Gaskell may poke fun at the women of Cranford, remembering the women of Knutsford, her opening lines are not altogether a joke:

“In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women. If a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentlemen disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship, or closely engaged in business all the week in the great neighboring commercial town of Drumble, distant only twenty miles on a railroad. In short, whatever does become of the gentleman, they are not at Cranford”(Uglow 24) .

Equally as influential as these powerful female role models was the fact that Gaskell was born into a family and community of Unitarians. This influenced her whole life and way of thinking.

“Unitarians asked, as Gaskell does in so many novels and stories, ‘Why do we live in an unjust world if we are all equal in the eyes of God?’ To the predominantly Anglican establishment, this made them suspect on political as well as religious grounds. They were identified with revolution because they believed that men and women should speak openly against the things they felt were wrong, in personal and social life as well as on issues of faith. . . . Florence Nightingale, Harriet Martineau, Barbara Bodichon, Bessie Parkes, Emily Shaen and Mary Carpenter all share a Unitarian background to some degree and most were Elizabeth Gaskell’s personal friends. Like them, she believed that the witness to truth should be taken, if needs be, to the point of martyrdom. In every fierce controversy about her work—over Mary Barton, Ruth, even The Life of Charlotte Brontë—she would revert to this deep justification: she had to tell the truth”(Uglow 7).

Gaskell was brought up in a house filled with books and reading. She received an education combined of boarding schools and independent scholarship from her father and the other adults around her. The habit of reading and telling stories aloud lived large in her youth and in adulthood Gaskell continued to be a sought after story teller. Indeed her first published stories were ghost stories which were popular at the time and which she liked to tell and create.

North and South

North and South begins with an ending and transition. Margaret Hale is from a town in the countryside named Helstone that she adores and romanticizes, and where her father serves as an Anglican minister. She has an older brother, Frederick, the apple of the mother’s eye, who is in exile because he was accused of mutiny on a ship in his time of service in the navy. Though the family believes his cause for rebellion was just, if he returns to England he will go to jail or maybe even be hanged. Margaret has been sent to live with her cousins in London while attending school there. The opening scene of the novel is the event of her cousin Edith’s wedding and Margaret’s subsequent return to Helstone, since Edith will move with her husband to Spain after the wedding.

In Helstone we are immersed into the uncomfortable dynamics of Margaret’s family of origin. Margaret finds her mother to be unpleasant and complaining while her father depends on his daughter to do his emotional work. Through the plot and action of the characters, North and South explores the psychological distress daughters of that time period were under, burdened with caretaking their parents and upholding rigid morals and strict decorum at their own emotional expense.

In Helstone Margaret is visited by Mr Lennox, a friend from London who quickly proposes to her. She is taken aback and bluntly refuses while also assuring him that she will never be interested in the future.

“I have never thought of – you, but as a friend. I like to think of you so; but I am sure I could never think of you as anything else. Pray, let us both forget all this (‘disagreeable,’ she was going to say, but stopped short) conversation has taken place”(31).

Margaret is blunt and unassuming as well as spirited and, dare I say, opinionated. People’s initial impression of her is cold and rude.

Marriage rejection #1. Mr Lennox is to become a lawyer and have a very prosperous life. The reader is left to wonder after what comes next if Margaret should, perhaps, have said yes, or if she would have, had she known.

Next her father tells her he has lost faith in the church he has dedicated his life to and is moving the family, in two weeks time, to Milton-Northern, a mill town in the north famous for its soot and chimneys of smoke. Worse than that, he confides this to Margaret before he has told his own wife. To top it off he asks Margaret to break the news to her mother. Her mother, who has been unsatisfied with their quality of life in Helstone all these years, is about to move to what southerners consider a hellacious place in the north.

“I don’t think it can be true” said Mrs Hale at length. “He would surely have told me before it came to this.”

It came strongly upon Margaret’s mind that her mother ought to have been told: that whatever her faults or discontent and repining might have been it was an error in her father to have left her to learn his change of opinion, and his approaching change of life, from her better-informed child. Margaret sat down by her mother, and took her unresisting head on her breast, bending her own soft cheeks down caressingly to touch her face”(45).

From this point in the novel, Margaret is able to achieve compassion for her mother and their relationship improves. She even feels, at times, the genuine warmth and love she has longed for. Though they had a humble living in Helstone, they employed a couple of servants. In Milton the Hale’s are officially poor. Her mother retains her private, devoted, servant but Margaret must learn housekeeping and cooking.

In Milton her life is very much changed. She has no need for her fancy London clothes. She is completely in service to her mother to make sure she makes the transition well. Alas, her mother falls sick and dies soon after the move.

Margaret arrives in Milton with her already formed opinions about the treatment of the workers by the mill owners and a well-formed disdain for said owners. At the same time, though she is now of their class, she holds herself above the workers.

Befriending a family of mill workers forces Margaret to acknowledge her own prejudice and distaste of them. Simultaneously her father is tutoring one of the mill owners, Mr Thornton, who frequents their home.

His first impression of Margaret is as usual, off-putting.

“Her dress was very plain: a close straw bonnet of the best material and shape, trimmed with white ribbon; a dark silk gown, without any trimming or flounce; a large Indian shawl, which hung about her in long heavy folds, and which she wore as an empress wears drapery. . .

Margaret could not help her looks; but the short curled upper lip, the round, massive up-turned chin, the manner carrying her head, her movements, full of soft feminine defiance, always gave strangers the impression of haughtiness”(63).

His encounters with Margaret in her home do not contradict this first impression. Margaret and Mr Thornton argue frequently about the conditions of the workers and the threat of an impending strike. While Margaret defends the position of the workers, Mr Thornton stands up for himself and articulates his position as a business owner. Though they argue, both he and Margaret listen and learn from one another. The reader can clearly see, through these spark-filled and cheek-flushed debates, that the pair are falling in love.

When the strike turns violent and the workers approach the door of the Thornton’s home to do harm, Margaret surprises herself by standing in front of Mr Thornton and wrapping her arms around him, to protect him from their assault.

After, she is humiliated by what she has done and flees home. Thornton pursues her, confesses his love and proposes, which she flatly refuses in a gripping and icy manner.

Marriage rejection #2.

She is so polarized in her opinions that she cannot imagine succumbing to feelings of love for this man. Though, as readers, we have watched the passion stirring inside her, she will not allow it. What he represents is against her idealistic beliefs.

Up until that day Thornton found Margaret snobbish and privileged with a lack of understanding of the real world. But the feeling of her warm, passion-filled arms wrapping around him brings his repressed physical longing and desire to an undeniable truth. He knows he will continue to long for her and surrenders himself to that fate.

Margaret and Thornton are both up against Victorian notions around sexuality and passion as well as the gap in their classes of upbringing. They are equally crippled by these repressive tendencies and they equally suffer from them.

North and South is an invigorating, stirring read; we care about its forceful, troubled characters. The fusion of politics and love is too simple, but Gaskell knows this: she never expected that all the old battles could be ended by a marriage. All she shows, at the end, is that Margaret and Thornton are awake – to each other and to the realities they face, as Thornton laughingly imagines Aunt Shaw’s horror at “That man!” And Margaret his mother’s indignant tones as she says ‘That woman!.’ This is one of the earliest novels of industrial alienation, tellingly linked to the plight of nineteenth-century women”(Uglow 386).

Both Margaret and Thornton grow up in the novel. Their simplistic ideas of good and evil are confronted. They come to understand the complexity of life and the nuances of political and social issues. When Margaret returns to London and hears the way her peers speak of the people and towns of the north, the bigotry that she also once freely engaged in is unmasked. Thornton is forced by circumstance to engage with his employees and comes to understand them as people he cares about and wants to collaborate with rather than forcefully dominate.

I love how this book first reveals a prejudice or judgment, then breaks it apart, forcing the characters to face their own limited thinking and worldviews. Those they did not see as whole human beings become whole and that very wholeness exposes biases.

Who is Elizabeth Gaskell?

This left me wanting to learn more about Gaskell and so I undertook to read Jenny Uglow’s 600-page biography, Elizabeth Gaskell, A Habit of Stories, published in 1993.

I was interested to learn that Gaskell lived most of her life in Manchester which the mill town, Milton, is modeled after in North and South. She had portrayed it in such harsh terms that I would not have expected her to have spent most of her life there. And yet, Margaret does return there in the end of the novel to open the factory subsidized by her money with her husband, Mr Thornton.

Gaskell indeed found life in Manchester oppressive. At the same time, she was devoted to it.

Elizabeth Gaskell is a fascinating and inspiring woman. Along with her writing achievements, she was married to a Unitarian minister and upheld the duties of a minister’s wife. She birthed six children, one stillborn and one son who died at a little over a year. She raised her four daughters through adulthood and was actively involved with their lives.

She maintained an extremely busy life, engaged in her community and social causes as well as the literary world. It is almost exhausting to read about her bustling social life, writing life, family life as well as travels around England, trips to Rome, Paris and Germany.

We don’t often read about successful career women who maintain family and social ties, especially in the nineteenth century. From this era and earlier we mostly read about women who wrote who did not have a family and are often remote from community and connection. Elizabeth Gaskell is a woman writer who managed to have it all. Is this possibly the reason we don’t hear about her?

While remaining married, Gaskell subtly liberated herself to live a life similar to her Amazon aunties. Through her success in writing, she financed her own projects and goals. Toward the end of her life she agreed to write a new novel for a required amount of money to buy herself a dream house in the clean air of Hampshire, Austen country. Unfortunately she died of a heart attack at age 55 in that house before she could fully enjoy it.

She was friends with Charlotte Brontë, had a correspondence with George Eliot, and Elizabeth and Robert Browning, knew Florence Nightingale, Harriet Martineau, Geraldine Jewsberry, knew Dickens and wrote for his periodical, knew Thackeray, knew Darwin and his family, met Emerson and was dear friends with Bostonian Charles Norton, publisher George Smith, Jane and Thomas Carlyle, and Mary and Thomas Howitt. She was in touch with people from all over the world.

“The richness of Gaskell’s fiction derives from the very fullness of the daily life which constricted her writing time. She moved in a world where personal contacts and the flow 0f ideas were so interconnected that the idea of the web will not do, unless one thinks of an autumn hedgerow where the web after web glistens in the sun, each so intricately linked to the other that the slightest touch sets them all in motion. A better image is that of overlapping circles, drawn by a compass whose point is fixed in a central circle of Elizabeth’s family, marriage and faith. Family relationships shade into a wider Unitarian circle, and this in turn overlaps with others—philanthropic, political, literary, scientific—which embrace people of different religious affiliations: Anglican, Evangelical, Quaker, Christian Socialist, agnostic. Such rings then touch and connect with others, with circles of theologians, writers and radical refugees from Europe, with American Transcendentalists, feminists and abolitionists”(Uglow 309).

Read more about Elizabeth Gaskell in, Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865): Part 2—A Voice for Women and the Working Class

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell is a Nasty Woman Writer.

© Theresa C. Dintino 2024

Works Cited

Gaskell, Elizabeth. North and South. Penguin, 2003. First serialized in Household Words, 1854-1855, then published in 2 two volumes 1855.

Uglow, Jenny. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories. London, Faber and Faber, 1993.