Two Nations and Separate Spheres: Class and Gender in Elizabeth Gaskell's Work

Patsy Stoneman

in Elizabeth Gaskell

Published by Manchester University Press

Published in print September 2006 | ISBN: 9780719074479
Published online July 2012 | e-ISBN: 9781781701188 | DOI:
Two Nations and Separate Spheres: Class and Gender in Elizabeth Gaskell's Work

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The society in which Elizabeth Gaskell lived and wrote was intersected horizontally by class, and vertically by gender divisions. Critics have created a divided image of her work by focusing on one or other of these axes – ‘industrial’ or ‘domestic’. This chapter begins by drawing examples from Gaskell's lesser-known fiction, in which the issues are often very clear, but which critics have less completely labelled and categorised. What emerges from her work as a whole is that, at subsistence level, gender divisions are blurred; women exercise responsibility; men give basic nurturance. In the middle class, ideology heightens differentiation, producing infantilised women and authoritarian men. Gaskell's work as a whole highlights working women – not just factory workers but seamstresses, milliners, washerwomen, ‘chars’, a tailor, beekeepers, farmers, housewives and domestic servants. By stressing women's common need for economic self-sufficiency, supportive friendships and maternal roles, Gaskell's novels blur distinctions between classes and between married and unmarried women. The parental imperative is at the basis of Gaskell's unorthodox treatment of gender roles.

Keywords: Elizabeth Gaskell; novels; class; gender; gender roles; working women; responsibility; servants; economic self-sufficiency; maternal roles

Chapter.  6555 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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