Despite her own creativity, which certainly had the support of her husband, Elizabeth Gaskell, when questioned by a young writer, insisted that a woman’s first duty was to husband and family. Friends recollected her carrying out her early career while conducting household activities. Later, however, she often went traveling alone or with her daughters but—except for jaunts to a beloved vacation spot near Manchester—never with her husband. The traveling periods gave her isolation for writing, suggesting that her own practice ran counter to her advice.
Enid L. Duthie has found in Gaskell’s fiction a strong interest in natural scenery, in country customs, crafts, and tales; a sympathy for conservative small towns, yet equally a concern for working men and women; a desire for practical knowledge to enhance living; a focus on the family as the stable social unit where affections are close but able, on occasion, to extend to others in need; and an insistence that violence is futile, the human condition precarious, faith necessary. John McVeagh sees Gaskell as insisting that absolute judgments become meaningless when related to concrete human situations requiring compromise. In Gaskell’s treatment of the laboring element, Calder sees her as avoiding the duality of other portrayers of working-class families—sympathetic yet condescending—and refers to Gaskell as one of the few major Victorian writers showing marriage from a woman’s viewpoint and not simply as an escape, a bid for social status, or a profitable contract.
Gaskell has been praised for her concrete presentation of social milieus, in the spirit of seventeenth century Dutch genre painters, and her gift for recording the relationship between work and home and between husbands and wives is a special one. Spacks refers to a “steady integrity of observation” and “penetrating accuracy,” especially as Gaskell draws, tacitly, the analogy between the plight of women in their dependence and that of workers in relation to their employers.
Gaskell’s dilemma for a feminist such as Showalter lies in Victorian expectations of feminine domesticity and marriage as an end to intellectual creativity. Gaskell herself surmounted the problem, but her characters find it a difficult challenge. Spacks points out that Margaret Hale, Gaskell’s greatest heroine, from North and South, tries to mediate between an impoverished working class that really does respect its own labor and an enlightened upper-class self-interest that enjoys emotional and cultural richness. In the end, however, Margaret must inherit property as a defense for her own introspective feeling and the diminution of her former social vitality. It is her way of surviving in a materialistic world.
The titular heroine of Mary Barton has a true lover, Jem Wilson, and a potential seducer, Henry Carson, son of a textile mill owner. The love interest is established as the background for a social problem that Gaskell treats with historical accuracy. John Barton, Mary’s father, aware of the sufferings of his fellow mill workers during a lockout by the employers, is enraged by the death of the wife of his friend, Davenport, while the masters enjoy leisure, modernize their mills, and keep up profits by using scabs and decreasing wages when they reopen. Barton is hopeful that the workers will find redress for their grievances from a sympathetic parliament, to which the unionists will present the Chartist Petition. The charter is rejected, however, and the embittered workers are further incensed by Henry Carson’s casual caricature of the striking workers, which he passes around at a meeting of employers.
Carson is selected as the target of assassination, Barton being chosen to murder him. Jem is accused of the murder, and Mary faces a conflict, since she can clear Jem only by exposing her father. Though Jem’s acquittal makes this step unnecessary, the other workers shun him (a situation Gaskell borrowed from the true story of a former convict ostracized by those in the workplace), and he and Mary are forced to emigrate. Her father, still publicly innocent, confesses, somewhat implausibly, to Carson, Sr., and gains forgiveness. The solution to class conflict comes through mutual goodwill, recognition of wrongdoing, and restitution.
The heroine of Ruth, which takes issue with Victorian hostility toward the unmarried mother, is seduced among the romantic clouds and mountains of Wales. The idyllic moment turns to desperation when she is abandoned by her lover, Bellingham. A kindly, crippled Unitarian minister, Thurstan Benson, and his sister, Faith, take Ruth into their home and community, modeled on Knutsford, and deceive people about her condition to protect her reputation. The lie is the price of social respectability. Ruth’s discreet conduct from this point on gains her admittance to the mill-owning Bradshaw family as companion to their daughter, Jemima.
The electoral reforms of 1832 give Bellingham a chance to stand for political office, his reappearance in Ruth’s life leading to a renewal of his interest in her and a new temptation for her to forgo her independence by accepting an offer of marriage. Her pride in her child, Leonard, makes Ruth reject Bellingham. Unfortunately, Bradshaw learns the truth about Ruth, and his self-righteous indignation leads him to repel Ruth and denounce his friend, Thurstan. Denied the opportunity for further cultural development in the Bradshaw family, Ruth must turn to nursing to establish her social usefulness. As a visiting...
(The entire section is 2303 words.)