Saturday, June 03, 2006

Elizabeth Gaskell, by Winifred Gerin

Winifred Gerin has written biographies on all four Brontes. The biography of Emily Bronte I have read and remember it being excellent. Winifred Gerin has the writing style of someone born to write. You imagine her beginning her reading life from a very early age, thus creating a mind to which words and writing comes most naturally. For this reason she is a delightfully accessible author.

Elizabeth Gaskell never wanted a biography written of her. Winifred Gerin has gone through the author's letters and pieced together this life. It mostly covers her marriage, children and novels. It has a bit of a 'potted' feel, like there are large gaps missing.

Anyone who has read Gaskell's work will recognise her as a wise and humane author. So I was a bit surprised to find her a bit of an eccentric crank. On the one hand, she is a good natured, sympathetic, civic minded woman. Then she can be quite peculiar and irritatble. This probably comes through most clearly in her dealings with Dickens. Stupid me, I thought everyone would love Dickens. She did not.

They developed a bit of a professional relationship after Gaskell published her first novel, Mary Barton, which Dickens was a fan of. Dickens asked Gaskell to write for some of his publications. Friction developed, it seems, because Dickens was the professional writer, concerned with deadlines being met, whereas Gaskell saw herself as a wife and mother first. When Gaskell had one of her characters read from The Pickwick Papers, Dickens changed this to another novel because he didn't want to be seen as a self promoter. She flipped her wig and made her displeasure known.

The biography reprints some of the correspondence between the two, and I'm more sympathetic to Dickens. He really does try to placate her and keep on her good side. Things would not improve in their relationship: when Dickens left his wife, that was the last straw with Gaskell.

This is a decent enough biography of Elizabeth Gaskell, from a sympathetic biographer. Her chapter on Gaskell's best novel, Wives and Daughters, shows the mind of an incisive literary critic. Winifred Gerin basically says that the best books, especially their characters, write themselves. In Wives and Daughters, Gaskell writes in the most effortless style (ironic, seeing she wrote against ill health and did a lot of complaining about the actual writing of the book). This is a novel that constantly delights. You never want the book to end. Unfortunately, Mrs Gaskell died before finishing the last installment. But we must be glad she lasted as long as she did.

Elizabeth Gaskell doesn't have as big a name as the other literary lions of the age, like Dickens and Eliot and Trollope. Lots of people who read don't seem to know that she exists. That saddens me. Elizabeth Gaskell wrote two utterly wonderful books. Firstly, her haunting Life of Charlotte Bronte, which exemplifies her humane side, sympathetic to those in pain and suffering. Then there is her witty masterpiece, Wives and Daughters. Late in life she discovered herself a natural comedy writer, despite writing in a grumpy mood and bitching about being paid.

How ironic, that Elizabeth Gaskell saw herself primarily as a wife and mother, with her books written as a side venture, yet how they live on.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not only did Gaskell write W+D, she wrote North and South, which is an amazing book!