In This Article Elizabeth Gaskell

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Critical Biography
  • Critical History
  • Journals and Edited Essay Collections
  • Cranford
  • Mary Barton
  • North and South
  • Ruth
  • Sylvia’s Lovers
  • Wives and Daughters
  • Shorter Fiction
  • The Life of Charlotte Brontë
  • Class
  • Religion
  • Darwin, Natural History, and Science
  • Politics and Economics
  • Manchester and the North

Victorian Literature Elizabeth Gaskell
by
Ella Dzelzainis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0013

Introduction

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.

General Overviews

All the works listed in this section offer critically sound and accessible introductions to Gaskell’s key works. Easson 1979 and Wright 1965 are seminal works in the history of Gaskell criticism, and the former in particular continues to be much cited. Lansbury 1984 is a useful introduction to the major works, while Sharps 1970 also remains relevant for its wealth of detail relating Gaskell’s work to her biography and the sociohistorical context in which it was produced. Flint 1995 is an ideal first port of call for undergraduates new to Gaskell, being both succinct and critically astute. That Stoneman 2006 is a revised edition of a work first published in 1987 is testament to the continuing centrality of feminist critical approaches in Gaskell studies. Both Spencer 1993 and Wright 1995 also provide useful introductions to gender issues in Gaskell’s oeuvre: the former concerned with gender’s relation to questions of class; the latter scrutinizing it in relation to the forms of literary realism. Readers may want to supplement these introductory overviews with two further monographs on Gaskell, D’Albertis 1997 and Schor 1992 (see Genre, Narrative, and Victorian Culture), because these two influential works develop the discussion of gender’s relation to genre in sophisticated detail.

  • Easson, Angus. Elizabeth Gaskell. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.

    E-mail Citation »

    The introduction emphasizes the importance of Gaskell’s Unitarianism and her education in her writing (while noting her position “amongst the most interesting of the Victorian novelists of second-rank”). Also discusses the major novels, short stories, and miscellaneous writings and letters. Some careful literary analysis supported by biographical detail and publishing context.

  • Flint, Kate. Elizabeth Gaskell. London: British Council, 1995.

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    Incisive and elegant, placing the novels in sociohistorical context. Notes two separate trends in Gaskell criticism—discussing her both as social-problem novelist and as a woman writer—but sees them as inextricably linked, particularly through her handling of the problem of authority. Close readings of major works, plus chapter outlining critical history.

  • Lansbury, Coral. Elizabeth Gaskell. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

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    Readable survey of the major novels and short stories, plus The Life of Charlotte Brontë. Focused on demonstrating her experimental and innovative approach to narration. Useful as an introduction.

  • Sharps, John Geoffrey. Mrs. Gaskell’s Observation and Invention: A Study of Her Non-Biographic Works. Fontwell, UK: Linden, 1970.

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    Much-cited, informative work that is widely available in libraries. Moves through Gaskell’s oeuvre and career chronologically and encyclopedically, patiently detailing the specific connections among text, the wider sociohistorical context, and her life (often drawing on her letters) to emphasize how her observation and invention are inextricably linked in her writing.

  • Spencer, Jane. Elizabeth Gaskell. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1993.

    E-mail Citation »

    Notes fissured critical response to Gaskell (seen as middle-class apologist by Marxist critics, but deeply critical of power relations by feminists). Suggests her self-description as having multiple, “warring” selves argues for critical reading that incorporates questions of class and gender. Chapters cover the major novels, the biography, and Cousin Phillis.

  • Stoneman, Patsy. Elizabeth Gaskell. 2d rev. ed. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2006.

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    Well-regarded work that was first published in 1987. Applies an illuminating feminist critical reading to the major fiction. Opening chapters survey the history of Gaskell’s critical reception, consider her gendered mediation of self and author, and provide historical context to the intersection of class and gender in the Victorian period.

  • Wright, Edgar. Mrs. Gaskell: The Basis for Reassessment. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.

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    This remains a significant work in the history of Gaskell criticism because of its early, strong challenge to the long-held view of her as a charming but limited novelist, and it thus broke new ground for subsequent scholars.

  • Wright, Terence. “We Are Not Angels”: Realism, Gender, Values. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1995.

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    Sees Gaskell as a “deeply poetic novelist” and gives a series of sensitive and admiring close readings of the major novels and most well-known shorter fiction. Takes topics of realism, gender, and values as inextricably linked and concludes that “her most pervasive structural impulse is one of duality.”

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