Ernest Holmes, 1950
Elizabeth Gaskell wrote those kind of Victorian novels which make perfectly good reads, but which do not receive the commemoration that other novelists of her era receive. Her work could have a sketch-oriented quality, anticipating in some ways other writers who would abandon the strictures of plot and play with the possibilities of the novel. But Mrs. Gaskell used the novel form to write about social justice. Mrs. Gaskell was spurred to writing fiction by two events in her life. One was the observation of conditions for the poor in Manchester, England, where her husband was a Unitarian minister. The other was the loss of her son. She was encouraged to write by her husband, a Unitarian minister and social activist who encouraged and defended his wife's choice to pursue her muse throughout her life.
Her first novel, "Mary Barton" tells a tale of class hatred and poverty. Two writers as disparate as Dickens and Carlyle praised this novel, and Dickens invited her to serialize in a Dickens periodical.
The resulting serialized novel, "Cranford", showed Gaskell's keen eye for the "shabby genteel" among whom she had grown up. The novel is less a story than a series of images, allusive, drawn to create images, and then discarded.
The Gaskells did not merely write and preach about their purposes, though. On Sundays, they taught at schools designed to give working folks basic skills. William Gaskell taught a night class on "Poets and Poetry in Humble Life", and ultimately also founded a missionary board to train working class folks to become Unitarian ministers. The couple helped workers dislocated by the effect of the American Civil War (and its shipping blockade) upon the textile workers. In an effort to fight cholera in industrial Manchester, he lectured on hygiene. He tutored female students in an era in which women found getting an education relatively quite difficult. She wrote novels with social conscience and sometimes keen satire.
By 1855, Mr. Gaskell became the senior minister of the Cross Street Chapel in Manchester. He lacked the gift of impromptu or extemporaneous speech. But he realized that his congregation needed a brief, conversational narrative sermon style. So he learned how to write sermons of the type his listeners could absorb, and then memorized them, so that he could give them as if he were speaking extemporaneously. He said something about this process I find useful in a lot of ways: "If you would move others you must first be moved yourself".
Sometimes when we consider the very real dangers and despairs of our time, we can forget that each time has its own challenges. In the 1840s, when William Gaskell was in his 40s, the Irish Potato Famine began to decimate Ireland with massive starvation. The English Whig government under the First Earl Russell, devoted to laissez faire economic policy, stood by while a tragedy turned into a calamity. From 1854 to 1856, about the time Gaskell became the senior minister at his church in Manchester, the British joined in a ruinous war on the side of the Ottomans against the Russians, called the Crimean War. The Crimean War was a comedy of tragic, murderous errors. Cholera decimated a French invasion force. The Light Brigade, immortalized in the Tennyson poem, made a foolhardy charge with cavalry directly into artillery positions, having misinterpreted an order in a way that led to their doom. "Into the Valley of Death rode the six hundred,", wrote Tennyson. Wounded British soldiers were neglected and treated with unsanitary methods (supply ships with supplies having been lost in storms), creating the setting in which Florence Nightingale spent a lifetime seeking to reform the military medical services.
Manchester in that time was a place where big business dominated, while social critics watched. Friedrich Engels lived there from 1842 to 1844, and wrote about the working poor in England based upon that experience. Manchester was the center of an industrial era sweeping away much of what was vital and human in everyday experience, but replacing it with an economic engine, which, if harnessed, held the promise of economic opportunity even as it consumed the workers who made it run.
The Gaskells did not turn away from the things they saw. Ms. Gaskell wrote in her first novel what she wished to show:
"I bethought me how deep might be the romance in the lives
of some of those who elbowed me daily in the busy streets
of the town where I resided. I had always felt a deep
sympathy with the care-worn men, who looked as if doomed
to struggle through their lives in strange alternations
between work and want".
The writer de Tocqueville described this Manchester as a place in which big business had free rein:
"Everything in the exterior appearance of the city attests the individual powers of man; nothing the directing power of society. At every turn human liberty shows its capricious creative force.
There is no trace of the slow continuous action of government".
In this milieu each Gaskell labored, one a minister and teacher, and the other a novelist and biographer of a Bronte sister. William Gaskell argued for doing good in substance rather than merely appearing to be good. He deplored in one sermon the attitude that "turns away thoughts from moral goodness to fix them on mental correctness". His theology was oriented towards seeking moral inspiration from the gospel stories rather than detailed dogma. He felt that unduly dogmatic approaches "limit the boundless mercy of the Universal Father to such alone as could bring themselves to worship their idea of truth."
Ms. Gaskell, whose literary light shone brighter than her husband's, sadly passed away of a heart attack at the age of 55. Her widower survived her by some twenty years, and spent that time preaching, teaching ordinary folks at a Working Man's College, editing the Unitarian Herald, and continuing with his charitable work. The author Beatrix Potter, grandchild of one of his friends, remembered him fondly:
"If ever anyone led a blameless peaceful life it was he. There has always been a deep childlike affection between him and me."
The Gaskells had their fortunes and misfortunes, large and small, as all do. They lost an infant child. They faced criticism for daring to teach non-religious subjects such as the alphabet to working folks on Sunday. Mrs. Gaskell's career outside the home proved controversial with the small business owners of their church congregation. Mr. Gaskell, unable to say "no" to requests for help, proved something of a workaholic. He lost his wife when she was far too young. They lived in a rugged industrial city, during a time of war and often-poor government.
I don't set the Gaskells up as perfect people. They had many flaws, and neither entirely accomplished some of the things professionally that they each set out to accomplish. But I like that in a time of deep division, senseless war and shameful disparity between rich and poor, they did what they could to bring positive change to their surroundings. They used words, deeds, and hard-working effort.
Mrs. Gaskell forbade her letters to be released, and her novels, though still respected, are not widely read. Mr. Gaskell's sermons and hymns, once famous, are now largely forgotten. But the progressive movement of which they were a part ultimately improved labor conditions, educated people, and brought sanitary and workable conditions to their part of the world. I admire people who take the context they are in, and fight the good fight.
Obviously, I think this is a lesson in 2004.