Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories Summary

Jenny Uglow

Elizabeth Gaskell

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Although this is a long biography, it rarely flags. Much of its success has to do with Uglow’s narrative strategies. On the first page, she has Gaskell writing about the weather to a friend, and then Uglow immediately observes that Gaskell could write anywhere and under any conditions. Thus the theme of the fluent, gifted writer is announced in the first two paragraphs by an equally fluent and gifted biographer.

Uglow refers to her subject as Elizabeth. This is not a trivial matter because so many biographers and critics have referred to “Mrs. Gaskell,” thereby emphasizing her conventional life and contrasting it with the lives of other Victorian women authors such as Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot. Gaskell may have seemed to lead a routine existence, but in fact she hungered for stories—as her biographer puts it—and was as quietly devoted to her art as her more dramatic contemporaries.

Gaskell did feel the pressures of conventional womanhood, and Uglow shows that it was sometimes a strain to maintain a home and career. Publicly, Gaskell did not confront the strain, and she minimized the problem in her biography of Charlotte Bronte, making her biographical subject more like herself than the evidence of Bronte’s life warrants. Yet Uglow shows that Gaskell broke new ground in her biography’s candid presentation of human character, even though she was forced to compromise somewhat on her version of the truth. Consequently, Uglow presents a Gaskell that is at once more of a real person and more of a real writer than the “Mrs. Gaskell” of tradition.