Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens

Elizabeth Gaskell is probably most known among Anglophiles for the BBC's stunning adaptations of her books Wives and Daughters, Cranford and North and South, the later being responsible for the cult of Richard Armitage. She could also be considered the half way point between Jane Austen and the Brontes, being bleak, like the Brontes, but willing to embrace romanticism and love in a way the Brontes never did, seeing as they looked down their noses at the likes of Austen.

Elizabeth Gaskell published Mary Barton anonymously in 1848, though within a year her authorship was widely known. Mary Barton was an immediate success, like her previous venture of a book of poetry with her husband William, a Unitarian minister, Sketches Among the Poor, she dealt with the harsh realities of the Victorian poor. Always an advocate for those without a voice and believing in good works, in early 1850, she wrote to Charles Dickens asking his advice on a young woman she met in prison. While the fate of the young woman is unknown, at least to me, Dickens had praised her work on Mary Barton and invited her to contribute to his magazine, Households Words. Cranford began it's serialization in Households Words the following year, with North and South to follow in 1854.

With the exposure from Dickens's magazine and his help, Elizabeth Gaskell became a popular writer, her Gothic ghost stories being favorites among her readership. While Dickens did help establish Gaskell, whom he referred to as dear Scheherazade, there was a power dynamic between them that lead to constant struggle between the two. From the onset Dickens tried to exert control over Gaskell, making editorial changes to Cranford despite the lack of her approval. He even would deny having gotten letters from her, even though he had, till after the story had gone to press so that his changes would remain. While his main change was to omit the jokes about his own story, The Pickwick Papers, claiming that it seemed like self-aggrandisement, being published in his own magazine, it comes across that perhaps he couldn't take a joke. The reason the reference is funny in Cranford is because everyone knows Dickens and therefore gave the joke a universality!

During the publication of North and South, a title foisted on Gaskell by Dickens, he was also writing of similar material with Hard Times and criticized her story, which he was publishing it must be said, as "wearisome to the last degree." Gaskell herself had a hard time working within the serialized construct of Household Words as well as the technical constraints and time pressure. When her books where eventually published after their serialization, she would often go back in and fix things Dickens had changed and expand on ideas he had made her omit. Their difficult working relationship can be summed up with what Dickens said to his sub editor about Gaskell's work on the magazine as a contributor: "Oh! Mrs Gaskell-fearful-fearful! If I were Mr G. Oh heavens how I would beat her!"

Needless to say, that she eventually moved on from Dickens and her final piece, Wives and Daughters, was serialized through Thackery's magazine, The Cornhill Magazine. This could be considered a slap in the face to Dickens who was occasionally on rancorous terms with Thackeray. Sadly, Gaskell died in 1865 before Wives and Daughters was complete, which was a true lose to literature. For awhile it seemed as though she would disappear into obscurity, but luckily she now ranks as one of the most highly-regarded British Victorian novelists. I'm sure that her connection to Dickens helped, despite their ups and downs. Also, the miniseries didn't hurt any either, mmm, Richard Armitage.


I didn't know about their working relationship. Thank you for the illuminating post! I haven't read any of Gaskell's books yet, but after watching North and South (and yes, I I fell head over heels in love with Richard Armitage *_*) I had to buy the book and I'm going to read it really soon!
I also bought Wives and Daughters, but I had no idea it isn't complete. What a pity!

Oh, I so hope you enjoy them. I really love Wives and Daughters so much.

Found this blog piece while searching for the quote where Dickens says he'd beat he were Mr G.
I'm guessing part of the reason Gaskell never rose to fame on the level of Bronte and Dickens is that as a woman, she wrote on too many serious subjects that were controversial.
I love N&S and W&D. Love Gaskell for her prose and her social messages.

Oh totally Trudy! She was willing to go bleaker then Dickens, and that's hard to swallow for some readers. Also, unlike her male contemporaries, she was also raising a family, helping with her husband's charitable work. She was a totally modern woman in this day and age's standards, can you imagine how she shocked the Victorians?

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