The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Scale How Tuesdays: Mrs. Gaskell.
By C. N. Heath.
[Our readers may remember our note about "Scale How Tuesdays," in the Parents' Review for September, 1903. We venture to think that this should be a pleasant custom in families; so a series will be published month by month, in order to familiarize our readers with the plan. Even the younger members will enjoy taking part in the readings. It is the custom at the House of Education for one or another student to read an appreciation of some favourite author or composer, illustrated by extracts or compositions read or performed by some of those present. The passages referred to in the notice of Mrs. Gaskell were read in extenso where mention of them occurs, and the writer resumed her paper until the next quotation became apropos.--ED.]
With Mrs. Gaskell, the subject of my sketch, as with Jane Austen, the task is rendered somewhat difficult by the fact that so little is known about the details of her life. Everyone must, however, I think, be acquainted with her as authoress of that ever-delightful and refreshing story, Cranford; but I propose to show that hers is not a one-book fame, if I may be pardoned such an expression, but that her other works are such as to place her in the front rank of women novelists.
Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson, better known as Mrs. Gaskell, was born at Cheyne Row, in Chelsea, on September 9, 1810. Her father, a Unitarian minister, came from Berwick-on-Tweed, and according to records, the family originally lived in Norway. Mr. Stevenson was a most interesting character, being indeed a father worthy of such a daughter, who in her turn was proud of and attached to her parent. He wrote for several papers, among which were the Edinburgh Review and the Westminster, besides holding a classical tutorship at the Manchester Academy. It is said of him that "he had the true spirit of a faithful historian, . . . and dived into the original sources of information." In later life Mr. Stevenson was appointed Keeper of the Records to the Treasury and secretary to Lord Lauderdale, these appointments necessitating his residence in London.
Having early lost her mother, Miss Eliza Holland, of Sandlebridge, belonging to a well-known family, Mrs. Gaskell was brought up by her maternal aunt, who lived in Knutsford, in Cheshire, a place famous for all time as Cranford. Mrs. Gaskell's youth must have been a sad one, living, as she did, with her aunt and a little cripple cousin. The house was situated on the edge of the heath, and Mrs. Ritchie says, when speaking of her childhood, "I have heard that Mrs. Gaskell was not always quite happy in those days--imaginative children go through trials of their own--in her hours of childish sorrow and trouble she used to run away from her aunt's house across the heath and hide herself in one of its many green hollows, finding comfort in the company of the birds, insects, and other natural things." It must not be supposed, however, that the child was always unhappy, for we read of many pleasant hours spent playing in the old house at Sandlebridge with her cousins, the Hollands.
Elizabeth grew up to be a young woman of such beauty and sweet disposition: she had regular features, and a dignified face that was at the same time joyous; but perhaps her greatest charm lay in her capacity for being a delightful companion.
In 1832, when quite young, she married William Gaskell, minister at the Unitarian Cross Street Chapel, in Manchester, to which fortunate circumstance we owe that noble work, Mary Barton, which was finished in 1847.
Mary Barton deals mainly with the working classes of Manchester, and was the means of effecting a great reformation in their lot.
Mrs. Gaskell succeeded with this work, partly because she had studied politics, partly because she had lived among the classes about whom she wrote, but, above all, because she possessed that power of entering into other people's lives which helps her readers to understand them so fully. In both Mary Barton and North and South (another of her works), Mrs. Gaskell has tried to show how much of the misunderstanding between employers and employed was due to the fact that neither class had ever grasped the fact that, whatever their social status, each shared alike in joys and sorrows of life.
Mary Barton is the daughter of an artisan, John Barton, who in the days of her childhood was well-to-do, but who, as the years go on, falls out of work, in consequence of the introduction of new labour-saving machines and the reduction of wages. Mary, a beautiful, motherless girl, is attracted by the admiration of the son of the rich mill-owner, Richard Carson, and rejects the honest devotion of her old playmate, Jem Wilson. It is at this point that the highest note of tragedy is struck. John Barton, rendered desperate by the failure of a deputation to Parliament, and an overwhelming sense of the injustice of life, borrows Jem Wilson's gun to shoot his employer's son, Harry Carson. Suspicion naturally falls on Jem.
Mary, only now realizing her love for the accused man, makes every effort to save him from the awful fate to which she has partly contributed by her acceptance of the dead man's addresses. Her despairing chase after the "John Cropper," in which the witness necessary to prove an alibi is sailing to Liverpool, is most powerfully described. "Her throat was dry, all musical sound had gone out of her voice; but in a loud, harsh whisper she told the men (the boatmen) her errand of life and death, and they hailed the ship, 'We're come for one William Wilson, who is wanted to prove an alibi in Liverpool Assize Courts tomorrow; James Wilson is to be tried for a murder done on Thursday night when he was with William Wilson.' 'Anything more, missis?' asked the boatman of Mary, in a lower voice and taking his hands down from his mouth. 'Oh, say I'm Mary Barton. Oh, the ship is going on! Oh, for the love of Heaven, ask them to stop!' The boatman was angry at the little attention paid to his summons and called again . . . The ship flew along--away, the boat struggled after.
"They could see the captain take his speaking trumpet. And oh! alas! they heard his words."
He swore a dreadful oath; he called Mary a disgraceful name; and he said he would not stop his ship for anyone, nor could he part with a single hand whoever swung for it. But-- ". . . William Wilson stood as near the stern of the vessel as he could, and, unable to obtain the trumpet from the angry captain, made a tube of his own hands.
"'So help me God, Mary Barton, I'll come back in the pilot boat, time enough to save the life of the innocent.'"
A final comprehension of the difficulties between the two classes is only arrived at by the sight of each other's suffering. I think the following passage the finest in the book.
Mr. Carson, furious at his failure to be revenged for the death of his son by the acquittal of Jem, goes to reproach the real culprit, John Barton, in his own home, there to be confronted by a sorrow more awful than his own because of the consciousness of guilt. Life to John Barton is such a misery that he would be thankful to die, even though it be a murderer's death. He appeals to Mr. Carson to forgive him, for he has earnestly repented of his crime, and for the first time Mr. Carson's answer shows him that by his act he has rendered himself powerless to comfort the desolate old man before him.
The keynote to the situation is contained in the words used by John--"'I did not know what I was doing. Oh! sir, forgive me.' 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us,' said Job Legh, as if the words were suggested by those John had used. Mr. Carson took his hands away from his face--'Let my trespasses be unforgiven, so that I may have vengeance for my son's murder.' Mr. Carson left the house, and John Barton lay on the ground as one dead."
On the way home he hears the same words used by a little child imploring forgiveness for the rude boy who had knocked her down--"He did not know what he was doing; did you, little boy?" "He (Mr. Carson) had some association with the words; he had heard or read of that plea somewhere before. Where was it? Could it be? He would look when he got home. So when he entered his house . . . he took down the great Bible . . . and turned to the object of his search--the Gospel where he half expected to find the tender pleading--'They know not what they do.' All night long the angel combated with the demon." Meanwhile John Barton grew worse, and "in vain did Mary strive to raise him, her sorrow and exhaustion had rendered her too weak. Mr. Carson stood in the doorway. In one instant he comprehended the case. He raised up the powerless frame . . . John Barton folded his hands as if in prayer. 'Pray for us,' said Mary, sinking to her knees and forgetting in that solemn hour all that had divided her father and Mr. Carson.
"No other words would suggest themselves than some of those he had read only a few hours before--'God be merciful to us sinners,' 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us.' And when the words were said John Barton lay a corpse in Mr. Carson's arms."
Of Mary Barton it has been said that it is a book with a sob in it; that it made a great sensation cannot be doubted, when we find men such as Carlyle, Landor, and Lord Brougham writing in its praise. "She has done," said a famous writer, "what we none of us can do, she has written novels which excite the deepest interest in men of the world, and yet which every girl will be the better for reading."
North and South, which appeared in 1855, is also concerned with the working classes, and we are given in it a more intimate picture of the rich and more or less self-raised mill-owner, in Mr. Thornton. The book is not so tragic as Mary Barton, for the better understanding between the two classes is brought about by the influence of a noble-minded woman, Margaret Hale.
Of Cranford I hesitate almost to speak, because I hardly know where to stop and how to choose extracts out of that which is only worthy of being one big extract. In style it reminds one of Jane Austen's novels, but we find in it deeper echoes than in any of the latter's works, delightful as they are. Cranford remains to us as a living picture of calm old days at Knutsford, when "red silk family umbrellas" were still in use, and when ladies went to parties in sedan chairs and "elegant economy" was the order of the day.
Captain Brown, the sole male in this town of Amazons, is a charming specimen of his sex, and succeeds in spite of all prejudices in making himself universally beloved. The character of Jessie his youngest daughter is most beautifully, though lightly drawn; she is hardly appreciated, till in the hour of sorrow her true worth shines out. Bereft of father, obliged to tend the sick bed of the dying invalid sister for whom all has been sacrificed, she yet can say, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him!"
Miss Jenkins (Miss Deborah, as she liked to be called), with her Johnsonian style of conversation, belongs to quite a bygone age; she was somewhat of a blue-stocking, according to the standard for women in those days, and her letters, founded as they were on Dr. Johnson's writings, became marvels of composition.
The rules and regulations as regards calling, too, were very different form those now prevailing--"From twelve to three are our calling hours." Then after the call had been paid, "It is the third day: I daresay your mamma has told you, my dear, never to let more than three days elapse between receiving a call and returning it; and also that you are never to stay longer than a quarter of an hour." "But am I to look at my watch? How am I to find out when a quarter of an hour has passed?" "You must keep thinking about the time, my dear, and not allow yourself to forget it in conversation." As can be imagined, "no absorbing subject was ever spoken about."
Cranford was finished in 1853, when Ruth also appeared. Ruth, valuable more as a study of character than as a mere narrative of events, is the story of a woman who, having been once led into sin, is for ever condemned in the eyes of society by reason of the unjust law which has one standard of right and wrong for a woman and another for a man.
It is most interesting to follow Ruth's character through the different phases of its development, and to see how the ennobling and purifying is effected by means of the suffering entailed on her as a consequence of her sin. That she truly repented and was forgiven cannot be doubted when we read the heartfelt testimony of those amongst whom she worked. "'They say she has been a great sinner, and that this is her penance,' quoth one. And as Leonard gasped, before rushing forward to give the speaker straight the lie, an old man spoke--'Such a one as her has never been a great sinner; nor does she do her work as a penance, but for the love of God, and of the blessed Jesus. She will be in the light of God's countenance when you and I will be standing afar off.' . . . 'I could fell you,' the old man went on, lifting his shaking arm, 'for calling that woman a great sinner. The blessing of them who were ready to perish is upon her.' . . . From that day forward Leonard walked erect in the streets of Eccleston, where 'many arose and called her blessed.'"
Miss Brontë exactly expresses the meaning of the book when she says, "Such a book may restore hope and energy to many who thought they had forfeited their right to both; and open a clear course for honourable effort to some who deemed that they and all honour had parted company in this world."
The touch of humour in the book is afforded by the rugged character of Sally, the old servant of Mr. and Miss Benson; she considered herself one of the family, and therefore at liberty to break in on all conversation, occasionally with quaint results; for instance, wishing to help a dull child in Miss Benson's Bible-class to a better understanding of the word "quadruped," Sally interrupts with "quadruped is a thin wi' four legs, Jenny: a chair is a quadruped, child."
Sylvia's Lovers, completed in 1863, gives a graphic description of Whitby (under the name of Monkshaven), as it was in the days of the press-gang and the whaling trade. Sylvia, like Ruth, is a study of character, and her lover-cousin's struggles between his desire to teach her geography and his fear of offending the shy beauty are most amusing. At the conclusion of the first spelling lesson, Sylvia's feelings in the matter are shown to Philip plainly in her speech--"If iver I write thee a letter it shall be full of nothing but Abednego! Abednego! Abednego!" Later, owing to a misunderstanding, Sylvia, believing herself deserted by her lover, consents to marry Philip without feeling more than a cousinly affection for him. Unfortunately for both, Sylvia discovers that in the moment of temptation Philip has done evil that good may come, and that, far from deserting her, Charley Kinraid, her lover, had been suddenly carried off by the press-gang, having only time to confide a message for Sylvia to her cousin.
This discovery kills what little love Sylvia felt for her husband, and henceforth life is one great bitterness for the unhappy man who has lost all and more that made life worth living. Although we may feel that Philip was narrow-minded and mean, even in his love for Sylvia, one cannot but pity him, driven forth by his misery and remorse to wander unhappy over the face of the earth, longing for a sight of his darling's face, and yet not daring to go back whilst Sylvia's last passionate words are still ringing in his ears: "I'll never forgive yon man as long as I live, nor live with him as his wife again."
At last, being sorely wounded in battle and pensioned off, Philip feels that, come what may, he must return to Monkshaven, if only to die, having once seen Sylvia again. Sylvia comes to him, however, on his death-bed and comforts him with her forgiveness and with the love that has slowly grown up in her heart during his absence.
"'Child,' he said once more, 'I ha' made thee my idol; and if I could live my life o'er again I would love my God more and thee less, and then I shouldn't ha' sinned this sin against thee. But speak one word of love to me--one little word--that I may know I have thy pardon.' Then she lifted her head and said, 'Them were wicked, wicked words as I said, and a wicked vow as I vowed, and Lord God Almighty has ta'en me at my word. I'm sorely punished, Philip, I am indeed . . . I think I shall go about among them as gnash their teeth for iver, while yo' are where all tears are wiped away.'"
Other books that Mrs. Gaskell wrote are, My Lady Ludlow, Wives and Daughters, and Cousin Phyllis, as well as many short stories of which it is not now my intention to speak; suffice it to say they are all worth reading.
Cousin Phyllis gives us a charming and inspiring sketch of a Dissenting minister, who is at the same time a plain, simple farmer, toiling in the fields with his men during the day-time and on the Sunday preaching to them. Ebenezer Holman is one of those noble characters in whose presence it seems easier to think good thoughts and to do good deeds; he is, in fact, like one of those seventh waves helping to lift us nearer our goal.
Wives and Daughters, which promised to be the best work of her life, was never completed, as the authoress died suddenly of heart disease, at Holybourne, in Hampshire, on the 11th November, 1865. Though not finished, yet little remains to be added, and that little we can tell for ourselves from our knowledge of the characters.
As a novelist, Mrs. Gaskell's early death was much to be regretted, for in her last work, in Sylvia's Lovers and in Cousin Phyllis, she had begun a new style of writing of even more power than she had previously shewn. Mrs. Gaskell possessed a marvellous power of finding material in the commonest events--the little incidents of every-day life which to the ordinary novel-maker present no opportunity. How many people, for instance, would see "anything" in an old and discontented gentleman smoking a pipe with his son, or a picture in the old farmer-minister closing the day's labors in the field with a hymn? And yet, as told by Mrs. Gaskell they are incidents we can never forget.
Molly Gibson, in Wives and Daughters, is one of the sweetest characters in fiction. To read about her is to make a new friend, and I think Edna Lyall describes her very well when she says, "Molly Gibson, with her loyal heart and sweet sunshiny nature, we will venture to think, represents better the majority of English girls than the happily abnormal Dodo's and Milicent Cheyne's of the present-day fashion."
To successfully create a Cynthia was a greater sign of perfection than even the work of Mary Barton; "perfect art obscures the difficulties it overcomes," and so, till we study her closely, we do not see how exquisitely finished her character is. Had this not been so we should have been merely annoyed at Cynthia's selfishness, and her want of moral backbone, instead of, almost despite ourselves, being made to realize her charm of manner and the gifts that made her pleasing to all who came in contact with her.
I am afraid that you have not heard much about Mrs. Gaskell's life, but I have rather tried to show you by her books what she was as a woman as well as a novelist; and that she must have been not only a clever woman, but, what is better still, a good and wise one. Her domestic duties were not neglected for her work: she was a devoted wife and mother, looking carefully after the training of her children and all household matters. It was indeed to divert her thoughts from the sad loss of her only son that Mary Barton was begun. She also shared much in her husband's labors among his people, and was greatly beloved of them all. What she was to Charlotte Brontë, that intensely shy, reserved woman, only the latter can say, and those who had the good fortune to hear the paper read last term on Charlotte Brontë, will realize that, indirectly, we owe much to Mrs. Gaskell. Once Charlotte Brontë said to the latter, when refusing an invitation, "Do not think that I throw your kindness away, or that it fails of doing the good you desire; on the contrary, the feeling expressed in your letter goes right home where you would have it go, and heals as you would have it heal"; and again she says, "Thank you for your letter: it was as pleasant as a quiet chat, as welcome as spring showers, as reviving as a friend's visit; in short, it was very like a page of Cranford."
It is, I think, very pleasant to know that Mrs. Gaskell was laid to rest in the churchyard in Knutsford, to which place she had always returned for refreshment when overdone and tired. It is, too, delightful to know that in still recent years she was remembered by the people of Knutsford, who recall with pleasure her love of the country, her ready sympathy in all their troubles, and her comprehension of the practical facts of life as well as of it sentiments.
Typed by Blossom Barden, June, 2023; Proofread by LNL, June, 2023
|Copyright © 2002-2021 AmblesideOnline. All rights reserved. Use of these resources subject to the terms of our License Agreement.