Elizabeth Gaskell

Ella Dzelzainis

in Victorian Literature

ISBN: 9780199799558
Published online April 2012 | | DOI:
Elizabeth Gaskell

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In her own lifetime, Elizabeth Gaskell (b. 1810–d. 1865) was an eminent and sometimes controversial writer. Her literary stature at the start of the 21st century is at least as high: she is known as a formally versatile canonical novelist, a vivacious correspondent, a delicate miniaturist as a teller of short stories, and the author of a groundbreaking biography in The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857). Yet, it was not always so: in the early part of the 20th century, her reputation was much diminished, arguably reaching its nadir when she was patronizingly categorized as a writer of merely feminine charm by Lord David Cecil in 1934. It was not until the 1950s, when Marxist literary critics recognized the affective power of her portrayal of working-class poverty in her social-problem novels Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1855), that Gaskell’s stock once more began to rise. With the advent of feminist criticism in the 1970s, questions of class were joined by questions of gender. A work such as Ruth (1853)—a novel about a sexually fallen seamstress (which was burned by one of Gaskell’s fellow chapel goers) was ripe for such an analysis, and she is now seen as a more ideologically and formally subversive writer than previously acknowledged. Gaskell was a woman whose religious commitment was as profound as that of her husband, William, a leading Unitarian minister; she lived in Manchester and was immersed in its radical and liberal culture, and she numbered several men of science among her acquaintance, including Charles Darwin (who was a cousin). Her fiction is suffused with figurations, plots, and narrative modes from fields such as religion, natural history, economics, and politics. Consequently, the recent turn to interdisciplinarity in Victorian studies has opened up further areas of scholarly inquiry into her writing: for example, research into the scientific context of her unfinished novel, Wives and Daughters (1866), has supplied new insight, while understandings of Cranford (1853) have been refreshed by a focus on economics. Nonetheless, key works by this fine writer remain critically underexplored: in particular, Sylvia’s Lovers (1863) and the short stories are crying out for reconsideration.

Article.  19082 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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