REDISCOVERING MRS GASKELL

Professor Peter Skrine, University of Bristol, on 6 May 1999

Mrs Gaskell has always been in print. The reason must surely be that readers respond readily to her. She knew how to capture their attention, as the beginnings of Cranford, The Moorland Cottage, Mary Barton and Wives and Daughters all show in their different ways. They also show something of her range: from whimsical to poetic, from realistic to make-believe.

Major new studies, such as those by Uglow and Chapple, have revealed a woman who was in many ways very unlike the traditional image we have of her. We knew that she livcd in Manchester and that she opened up the world of the Industrial Revolution to her readers, but we may not have realised that in a work such as North and South she was also expressing the culture shock she had experienced when, after her marriage to the distinguished Unitarian minister William Gaskell, she moved to the industrial North from the entirely different girlhood surroundings at school in Stratford-upon-Avon and at home in rural Cheshire. Her ability to transport her reader into unfamiliar surroundings is evident in all her major and most readable works. We notice it particularly strongly in stories such as Lois the Witch, a dark tale of a young English orphan's exposure to Christianity gone astray, set in late-seventeenth century Massachusetts, or Six Weeks at Heppenheim, a story of a young man's awakening to the beauty and pathos of life as he recovers from illness in a small town in Germany. In none of these works is there any trace of the sentimental, insular parochialism which still clings to the accepted view of her.

To re-read her novels and stories, and discover her lively letters and wide-ranging essays today is to discover a supremely adaptable woman, equally at home in the urban industrial world of Mary Barton and amongst the farmers and landowners of Wives and Daughters, as with the dons of Oxford and Rome. In a word, we rediscover a writer who was not a Victorian in the modern meaning of that term, but a woman of the Age of Prince Albert, when change was in the air. Her portrayal of character may sometimes remind us of Jane Austen, while her sense of society is closer to George Eliot's, but her books are her own. They are the work a writer who had the rare gift of creating worlds which we can enter simply by picking up one of her books and starting to read.

P. Skrine