Discover a woman writer: Elizabeth Gaskell

This women’s history month, I’m pledging to highlight the work of women writers I’ve loved. This series is intended to show the breadth, variety and quality of women’s writing, and to challenge the notion of a narrow category of “women’s fiction.”

In this first instalment, I wanted to start with a classic. Partly because I like the semblance of chronological order it gives this first post, and partly because I’m really excited to talk about a book that I haven’t geeked about in quite sometime.

If you were a certain type of girl book nerd, maybe you fell into one of the Jane (Austen) vs. Charlotte (Bronte) camps. Y’know, where you just really really over-identified with Lizzie Bennett or Jane Eyre or what have you. But because I’ve always been a contrary sort*, I was always team Elizabeth Gaskell.

*side note: I also always loved Persuasion more than Pride and Prejudice, and I may be the only person who actually liked the Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

I feel like Elizabeth Gaskell gets a kind of raw deal in the classic lit stakes. For one thing, she still (still!) gets referred to as Mrs. Gaskell all over the place, as if it’s still really important that we signify the married respectability of this woman. She also kind of tends to get shuffled out of the classic reading lists – because if you’re running a university course on, say, 19th Century British  Writing  and you’re going to include your lone token women writer, you’re gonna go with a Bronte, right? At a stretch George Eliot, maybe. And given that most people probably encounter their classics through assigned reading, I’m guessing most people miss out on Elizabeth Gaskell.

Which is really sad for me, because, despite the fact that my undergraduate degree is in American literature, and my masters degree is contemporary fiction and Elizabeth Gaskell is ostensibly neither of these things, she might still have written my favourite book of all time.

I’m pretty sure I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve read North and South at least five times, the first time probably roughly thirteen years ago. I’ve run through printed copies: one I wore out, one I dropped in the bath, and one that mercifully still survives. I also now have an e-book version. And yet I’m not sure if I’ve actually ever successfully managed to convince someone to read this book: apparently I struggle articulating my love, so bear with me.

North and South is the story of Margaret Hale, a clergyman’s daughter, raised in a genteel southern village. Following her father’s decision to leave the church due to a crisis of conscience, the family is uprooted to the northern manufacturing town of Milton, where Margaret gets a rude introduction to class, inequality, and her own previously unexamined prejudices.

The joy of North and South (and probably why I’ve read it as many times as I have) is that it can be read through so many different lenses.

Read it as a straightforward love story (and I promise you, Mr. Thornton will give Darcy and Rochester more than a run for their money). The novel completely stands up on this ground, and if you’re looking for escapist romance it’s all in here.

Read it for the sustained examination of class and labour struggle, in which the union movement forms a central plotline of the novel. This is one of my favourite aspects of the book, as Margaret becomes caught up with a union leader, and she begins to understand how the idyllic southern landscape she has left behind was actually propped up by workers so crushed by poverty that they were unable to fight back. There’s a stern moral reformist conscience at the heart of this novel, which also engages the question of how far should authority (religious, milatary, industrial) be obeyed.

Read it because Margaret is a heroine who struggles spectacularly against the gender norms of her era. She frequently outrages public opinion, crosses boundaries, asks questions she shouldn’t, turns down perfectly acceptable offers of marriage. She acts boldly to protects those she loves, and risks bodily harm to defend what she believes in. She even decides to claim some measure of independence for herself:

… she had learnt, in those solemn hours of thought, that she herself must one day answer for her own life, and what she had done with it; and she tried to settle that most difficult problem for women, how much was to be utterly merged in obedience to authority, and how much might be set apart for freedom in working.

And sure – I admit, this is a 19th C novel with all the flaws and foibles of a 19th century novel. It’s long and sentimental and expository and melodramatic and I care not a jot. It’s worth it. (And if nothing else I’ve just convinced I’m due another re-read the next time I head off on vacation).

Finally if reading the classics just isn’t your bag (and believe me, I understand this) I can recommend the BBC adaptation of North and South – as far as adaptations go its fairly faithful, and stars the wonderful Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage as Margaret and Mr. Thornton.

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