Camille Pissarro, Morning Light on Snow
Dear friends and readers,
Several months ago now (!), back in September I wrote a blog about how on WWTTA we had begun a reading and discussion of a group of Gaskell’s short stories and novellas that are online as well as in print in three separate collections (Cousin Phillis and Other Tales, The Moorland Cottage and Other Stories and A Dark Night’s Work and Other Stories). The plan was when we finished these to go on to Lady Ludlow, Mr Harrison’s Confessions (also online and both used in the film adaptations Cranford Chronicles and Return to Cranford), then to read the tales of Cranford themselves and finally end on Gaskell’s historical novel, set in the later 18th/early 19th century among poor sea-faring people, Sylvia’s Lovers. These two are all online.
Well I’m here to say tonight that we did in fact read all the stories and discussed most of them — three of us reading and posting about them. I began to cross-post on Trollope19thCStudies (which is supposed to be about 19th century authors) when it’s group reads ran out and the people there fell silent insofar as reading or discussing any books, and have discovered a few more people are reading along (if not posting).
Last time I discussed “Half a Life Time Ago,” “Lois the Witch,” and “Lizzie Leigh” (together with a comparison of Elizabeth Spencer’s Light in the Piazza) as examples of the powerful and varied stories with their typical woman-centered themes that we had been enjoying. Three out of eight. Since then we’ve read 15 more (many gothics or with strong gothic elements) and it’s really hard to choose, especially since I didn’t write summaries or as coherently as I did at first.
But choose I must. So here are a five more, not necessarily in the order we read them. The reader will see that Gaskell often has male protagonists and how her sympathetic imagination takes in all sorts of people. How surprisingly varied and powerful she is if you’ve only read the 4 (great) novels set in her present era. No wonder she created the Bronte myth. For 18th century readers her bent for historical fiction is usually the 18th century and gothic; Uglow; that she is usually seen as an Austen type — neither that nor Bronte, but a voice her own.
Claude Monet, Road to the Farm
Gaskell’s “My French Master” (from Moorland Cottage)
To me in tone and complicated outlook, this story anticipates Cranford. The depiction of Mr Chalabre is suffused with a nostalgia for the ancien regime’s surface courtesy, elegance, manners, and what Talleyrand called the sweetness of a luxurious life among the aristocracy; at the same time while the character himself in the first half believes nothing short of this is true for all aristocrats when together and they can all be depended upon to support one another (of course anyone outside the tiny charmed circle is to be dismissed and exploited, it goes without saying or notice as unpleasant), our narrator reminds us more than once that life in the ancien regime was hard, mean, cruel, outrageous: as for example, when Mr Chalabre goes to pieces over the beheading of Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette, the narrator tells us that the people’s “rage” at the time was a pent-up natural response to centuries of continual outrage and cruel.
Beyond the occasional undercutting, in the second half when the Bourbons are brought back and M Chalabre is suddenly joyous, thinking he will have his estates again, he discovers he is very much mistaken: he is snubbed, his estates stay with the powerful bourgeois who took them over, and he is soon back in the local community teaching French again.
So much for the frame: the delight is in the human relationships idealized in the way of Cranford so stupidity (frequent), extravagance (our narrator’s father), mean gossip are somehow continually overcome by other people who make up for this, compensate and a sense of a whole community who stick together. It was this value in our anti-social time that made the two mini-series so popular: they were a paean to now despised community.
It has her usual range across years, the many deaths and losses, people going broke (and being supported somehow or other most of the time — not all), and quiet survival of a few by the end, and this “I can see her now” emotion so common in these stories.
Not to omit, Gaskell documents the struggles of the French emigres here, civil war and revolution and reaction, the destruction of an old landed order; the teller resembles one of Gaskell’s friends, Mary Mohl, English by birth, but French in manners and married to a German professor, so autobiographical too.
John Everett Millias, Blow, blow thou winter wind, re-strike …
Gaskell’s “The Heart of John Middleton” (from Moorland Cottage)
I read this early this morning. It’s a tale of an inward conversion to religious faith. That’s the outermost plot-design. Within this though it has powerful interest in this: John Middleton is the kind of person most stories present as a bad man: poor, robber, violent, amoral, brought up by a father who worked these terrible long hours at menial dangerous tasks for tiny sums of money and he made his son do this too. What happens is father crosses even taboos among criminals and runs off and the son is ostracized by all, treated as dirt, and cannot retrieve himself.
So Gaskell is making us see the inner world of a man in most Victorian novels despised, dismissed, the kind of “other” in Sherlock Holmes’s tales. We are made aware of how unfair the lack of of opportunity for him is. No one will believe him. No one will pardon or help him in his efforts not to fall into crime again. Poaching is shown to be a way to eat: an implicit critique of the poaching laws is here.
Finally this saint like female touches his heart and he saves her from starvation when her grandmother dies. A great enemy of his, mean nasty hard man attacks said saint and she is injured for life giving Middleton a chance at her for a wife, for her relatives will give her to him as better than no one else.
What an expose of the world’s motives.
This sickly wife in bed is a common trope in Gaskell’s novels, often shown as the person who somehow saves everyone else and makes their lives better. (Not all sick people are like this at all) But the type is in Wives and Daughters, The Moorland Cottage. In W&D it’s given a twist that she’s destroyed for any fulfilling life by a dense husband.
Finally Middleton’s great enemy himself falls from favor and ends up in need and in Middleton’s house and instead of murdering him or getting back, he helps the man escape. The saintly wife dies and he becomes this person going about to convert others.
The real subject here is the heart of society: black, mean, unforgiving, laws profoundly inhuman e and unjust. It’s comparable to Trollope’s “Aaron Trowe” also about a man driven to become a criminal and then into bestial violence: no coincident AT is the initials of Trollope himself.
Claudel, Woman Bent Over (mid-20th century)
Gaskell’s “Sexton’s Hero” as anti-bullying Gothic (from Moorland Cottage)
Last night I read the very brief story by Gaskell, “The sexton’s hero,” and it just hit the right note for me: it’s a story against bullying. What kept up the ritual of male challenge, dual, murder but that if a man refused to participate, he was ever after a target for every mean dense brute that passed by, was shunned by others lest they be involved. The first writer to bring this home to me was Germaine de Stael in her _Delphine_ where for the first time I read the mechanism behind this vicious practice.
Gaskell combines a Wordsworthian figure with this theme: the gravedigger, sexton, man who is poor, in a humble position, silent overlooked tells a story to two friends who are debating what is a true hero. Is it aggression, especially of the physical, competitive kind, or something else? Well, according to the Sexton it is indeed something else, something beyond moral courage too, for Gilbert Dawson, the man who was ostracized, mocked and destroyed (lost his lady love) because he refused to duel saves his beloved’s husband from drowning. (This one also reminded me of the old quarrel over Fanny Price who is very courageous indeed.)
The story has the usual edging towards death and dying: the story occurs in a graveyard; as the story is told we are told the heroine is now dead in the grave with many other relatives; and the sexton is now digging a grave for another child. I wondered if the Sexton was not himself Gilbert Dawson.
There is much effective description; Uglow says this story resembles another by Gaskell called “The Doom of the Griffiths” and was written while she took an annual pilgrimage to the seaside (see A Habit of Stories, pp 147-49).
I connect this to gothic since at the core of the gothic is usually a hero or heroine who is being harrowed, harassed, bullied, threatened.
I’ve managed to read the latest Gaskell stories, but while sympathetic to her bravely anti-violent stance (her own pacifism can’t have been all that well received in her often jingoistic times), I can’t say I’m terribly fond of her in her overtly moralizing mode or of the sentimental religiosity of previous stories like “Lizzie Leigh.”
Fran, you make me smile. I don’t think I’m morally improved when I read Gaskell and quite take your point about the (to me) not just cloying but self-destructive veins of moralizing in stories like “Lizzie Leigh.”
My guess is what I do is take away from what Gaskell approves of that I find echoed in my own psyche, and it makes me feel better, less alone. I identified with that Sexton and wish more people in the world were like Dawson. It’d be easier to live on.
Uglow doesn’t emphasize or look at Gaskell’s texts as pacifist, but they certainly are. I like this — we could also call them quietist. At the same time I’ve been reading with my students RLS’s “Ollala” (among other gothic texts) and — very much in the gothic tradition or state of mind — RLS ends that tale with this gnomic utterance:
“pleasure is not an end, but an accident; that pain is the choice of the magnanimous; that it is best to suffer all things and do well.”
It’s a kind of intense stoicism, which plays out politically (in the real social world) as conservativism, but it is comforting at least to me, and this kind of stance is one of the reasons I so enjoy the gothic.
The question (I say in my blog on this story) is what are these ethics we are to hold fast to. All RLS’s work manifests a deep bleak pessimism concerning human fallibilities and our animal nature. Gaskell has her Christianity to impose on the worlds she creates and gives us these heroic heroines. Alas, they would not have any real play in the world and that’s what we see in these short stories, many of which are gothic.
Ellen — who goes for sites of resistance like Atwood’s too
I liked Ellen’s comment that this story has “the usual edging toward death and dying.” I, too, find this in Gaskell’s stories.
I also think Gaskell makes a point of showing how much hardship one endures in life–more so in the 19th Century because of a lack of modern medicine and technology. Life is never easy in her stories–there is no smooth sailing. Poverty is often a theme.
I think some of the morality lessons she implies are an attempt to offer comfort to those trying to make it through. Almost a false hope and cheer but welcome nevertheless in dark moments.
There is a resemblance here to Susan Hill’s Woman in Black in the pony cart and passengers trying to cross to the mainland before the tide becomes full again. The same battle against tide and time. And again tragedy. I think the story does have a gothic element.
Joseph Wright of Derby, Earth-stopper on the Banks of the Derwent (cover illustration for Dark Night’s Work volume)
Gaskell’s A Dark Night’s Work (novella)
This one is as long as Gaskell’s Cousin Phillis, a considerable novella so I’ll take three weeks. It’s another showing her great variety. The title refers to the night our heroine’s fafter, Mr Wilkins, by accident but out of a fierce fit of temper hits his clerk, Mr Dunster over the head with something or his bare hands and the man falls, hits his head on an iron substance and dies. The father was under pressure from the prospective son-in-law, Mr Corbet, to come up with a dowry for Ellinor, and when he asked this hard-working underpaid clerk, Dunster, who was responsible for the business, not falling under altogether, the clerk told him hard truths and sneered.
What’s unexpected is the old retainer who loves Ellinor and she him (Mr Corbet had tried to separate them) proposes to buy Dunster and try to pretend they know nothing of it. The burial is done in a dark night’s work.
So now we have a murder mystery stroy complicated by Mr Wilkins’s inability to run his business, his increased drinking, Ellinor’s love for Corbet (and innocence and need for this man) and Mr Corbet’s real enough but far more limited love for her. Corbet is an ambitious man whose relatives did not approve the match.
A gothic of family, money, sexual pathology, the nexus not so different from the matter Mr Whicher investigates, — like Dostoevsky
The story at first moves the story moves slowly and realistically — in the sense of psychologically complex enough characters, and we are beginning to get at the nub or crux of a crisis. It does not seem as if very gothic to me, more in her lyrical sentimental-realism style, with much depiction of real business in a small community, real social snobberies and dissensions, intimate human relationships. I was struck by this as I close the novella last night; we were moving towards the young man, Mr Corbett, finally asking for the hand in marriage of Ellinor Wilkins who he loves as much as he is capable (not nothing) and who has learned deeply to love him, Gaskell writes:
“And thus the sad events of the future life of this father and daughter were hardly perceived in their steady advance; and over the monotony and flat uniformity of their days sorrow came marching down upon them like an armed man. Long before Mr Wilkins had recognized its shape it was approaching him in the distance — as, in fact, it is approaching all of us at this very time; you, reader, and I, writer, have each our great sorrow bearing down upon us. It may be yet beyond the dimmest pot of our horizon, but in the stillness of the night our hearts shrink at the sound of its coming footstep’ (p. 28)
In the story Mr Wilkins has neglected his business and made enemies; he has not brought Ellinor up to know how to fend for herself or do anything to support herself. The sense of the sentence though implies we do and must all go to rot, and it comes unexpectedly — not so much like an axe waiting behind the door to fall in us, but insidiously.
She feels this because she’s seen it, living in a world of the 19th century with such small social net anywhere — and harshly set up too, never mind the lack of medical science.
It seems to me the story takes a turn that reminds me of Crime and Punishment. Ellinor, Mr Wilkins and Dixon just can’t live with themselves with that body buried under the flowers; she becomes haggard, ages, intensely ill: she thinks the three should have just told the truth and produced the body, but we are to see that as the population now castigates the dead man for absconding with the money (when for years he had been a hard-worknig decent type) so they would have anathemized Mr Wilkins and perhaps hung him — as much for his uppity ways and losing his money as anything else. Mr Wilkins proceeds to try hard to keep the lies up. Dixon sorrows. All avoid one another. Meanwhile Mr Corbet is having second thoughts about this marriage. A Mr Livingston who has a heart seems to me the hero at the margins of the story who may save our Ellinor yet (she too stupid to see him clearly, blinded by her own prejudice).
I realize that the story has the same problem Fran has pointed to: the super-self-sacrificing heroine, and while for the most part, Gaskell’s tact keeps her from moving into gush, she did not resist this parenthesis (which gives something of the deleterious game for women away): “(if anyone so sweet and patient could have been worried)” (in my Oxford classics A Dark Night’s Work ed SLewis, p 127). This is not an ironic utterance.
But it satisfies or gratifies some impulse in me to work through the underlying paradigm here: as dramatized by Gaskell, we have a young woman who undergoes a terrible trauma in and of itself (burying a man illegally in the garden her father has murdered however accidentally), which is made much much worse by the effect it has on her future prospects and life. It’s true that could she have ruthlessly ignored that body, she might at least have married Robert Corbet, the rich intelligent loving-enough ethical-enough suitor, but then she would not be Ellinor: she cannot bear to desert the father, which she would have had to do as he sinks into heavy drinking and bankruptcy and social misbehaviors sufficient to stigmatize him and all around him; she really can’t get herself to desert the long-time faithful loving servant, Dixon (who she stood up for when Corbet wanted to see Dixon let go. Anyway we see that once Dixon’s watchful surveillance over th piece of ground is broken, someone does dig the ground and find the body.
This effect on her real pragmatic and emotional needs and circumstances drives her wild; she becomes ill, there’s a line somewhere about her (or maybe Dixon too) not being able to sleep for worry, anxiety, nightmares, and the burden of it. What the story does then is show her coming to terms with this “crime.” (She was an accomplice to the fact.) I’d say while we are told Corbet’s breaking off the engagment is the “great terror’ of her life, for then she knows any successful life as such things are understood is out of the quesion for her — not having a dowry, being so sensitive and intelligent; nonetheless, when he does break it off, there is something of an intense relief. Ellinor is glad to be rid of the burden. When her father dies and she finds she must rent the house to survive, she resists intensely (because she wants to watch over the corpse) but she finds she must and when she does and her old governess, Miss Munro (a loving but dense woman) finds a job and a house for them at nominal rent, I put it she’s relieved. She’s glad to put off the burden of all this and retire to this cathedrale close.
This underlying retreat is the motivation for the tale — to act it out. Gaskell wants herself to find some peace and freedom. Now Gaskell is not nice to herself (I have found Trollope writes stories where he flagellates writers for writing idealistically, not for money and then punishes them by starving them and making them give up writing — a similar kind of psychological exercise to justify to himself his own materialism at the same time as acting out his desire to be otherwise and then perverse, hittnig out at his character — the fate of George Bertam is a classic case, also Fred Pickering). When Ellinor now imagined surrounded by these friends who love and appreciate her precisely because of her inward fine nature and lack of pretension (yet you see a lady) and goes to Rome, she finds herself cheerful and uplifted and gay.
So our author has news sent that the body has been dug up and Dixon blamed. Ellinor must hurry home to try to save him from hanging, the gallows, and yet she is (faithful as ever) determined not to let people know her father did the crime.
I omitted a line: by having Ellinor told when she is away at Rome (without Miss Munro, having escaped her too now) and having this good time that Dixon is now being blamed for the crime, Gaskell punishes Ellinor for escaping (the way Trollope punishes his authors who write out of idealism rather than for money). Ellinor blames herself. It’s all her fault. It’s here that I see a parallel with Briony in McEwan’s Atonement: all her fault too! McEwan is aware that something is screwed up here, I’m not sure Gaskell is.
There is some improbability here too. It seems that Corbet is glimpsed over the years; Wouldn’t you know he marries into the family who live near Ellinor and Miss Munro and can be seen in this gorgeous wedding — to which Ellinor comes wearing all black veiled. (No flagellation too much?)
And now he is the justice in the case. We have reason to know from his character he still values Ellinor — so maybe it’s to him she will have to tell the truth.
And there’s a long-time suitor in the wings: Canon Livingstone who (much to Miss Munro’s dismay) will not pop the question as he knows very well Ellinor will say no.
For he knows (as Gaskell does) Ellinor wants none of this hard life.
I find myself mocking this story as I retell it; I can’t resist it as my mind or reason sees the absurdity of it. Yet as I read it, I fall in. Within its own terms all the characters are in character; especially the portraits of Corbet (the socially ambitious man), Mr Wilkins (Ellinor’s father who sinks into degradation), Miss Munro (who I became fond of though if I had to live with her I’d go mad with irritation at times).
And as I say I think it has a paradigm which appeals at a deep level: the trauma and the terrible things of life you see you cannot avoid and must know are lived out and then escaped from and the relief is strong.
Since I’ve been reading McEwan’s Atonement and know one way to read it is of an male author in drag writing apparently androgynously, I am struck that the real way to read this 400 page flagellation by Briony against herself is that it’s a parable not to do this to yourself. If you do a bad deed, you have two choices: live with it ruthlessly and ignore what you did, or escape somehow. Briony couldn’t pull off either; she was the prisoner of her own mind.
Ellinor too is the prisoner of her own mind and can’t escape but Gaskell lets her try and my argument is that is the unconscious reason Gaskell writes this story in the way she does.
Madness? yes. But who ever said the gothic was a sane genre.
The tale concludes with a familar paradigm to anyone who’s read much Gaskell: it was Mary Barton to the rescue; then Molly (Wives and Daughter); well here we have Ellinor to Dixon’s rescue. A fairy tale ending with the Canon Livingstone waiting in the wings. It’s carried by the depth of seeing — the landscapes — the probably felt deep psychological presence of Mr Corbet (however softened by the idealism he would remember and re-see and re-value).
Pauline Bourges, Winter (mid-19th century French)
I liked your summary and analysis of this story.
All the tragedy in the story seems to stem from Ellinor’s mother’s early death. If she hadn’t passed away, the father would have stayed in line–and the fierce bond between Elinor and her father wouldn’t have come about.
The whole coverup was unnecessary. It was the father’s weakness–his alcoholism and spending habits which caused his panic. The death was accidental. Instead of burying the body, he should have reported it and faced the consequences. A matter of some unpleasantness instead of the nightmare that ensued for all three characters.
Dixon and Elinor’s tragedies arose out of their misplaced loyalty to the father. No one was thinking clearly. Corbet might have helped straighten things out if only Elinor could have brought herself to confide in him. How is it that Elinor could never even see her father’s problems with drink?
One almost thinks that Gaskell is implying this is the destiny of these characters–it was meant to be, since as you suggested, Elinor wouldn’t be Elinor if she didn’t follow these impulses.
That in the long run, there is somewhat of a happy ending is almost accidental. Elinor could easily have lived the rest of her life alone. Miss Monro did. Elinor is really lucky to have found a friend in her old governess.
Gaskell tells us again in this story of the importance of money in leading a satisfying life. She also suggests in many ways the class distinctions that dictate our standard of living. She points to the prejudice toward Mr. Dunster, because he was unlikeable–and how a group feeling rose up against him, making his disappearance a matter of no concern to anyone. There was also the prejudice of the gentry when Elinor’s father did not seem to know his place as a lowly lawyer in the early part of the story. I think Gaskell writes more of class issues in this story than she does in most of the other stories we have read.
I like Linda’s more objective take on the matter of the story too. I was (in a way) following the inner psychology of the author writing such a story: Gaskell’s inward trajectory of emotionalisms.
But yes the story itself: on the one hand, we could say it (gently) suggests to us all this loyalty to Mr Wilkins, the father is overdone, severely overdone. He was a weak man, self-centered utterly, partly because of his own class-ridden obsessions overspends and destroys himself; at the same time class protects him. I suggest Dunster was not liked also because he was a lower middle office worker. How dare he? As long as he’s not around to explain and defend, the people side with the man on the upper rung: Mr Wilkins. Note how Dixon was despised by Corbet early on and almost hung (– still goes on, in Atonement, who is suspected and sent to prison, the working class male, uppity too you see). Class is at the same time the woman’s protection: see Deborah Kaplan’s book on Austen’s conservatism; she identified with her class first as it protected her (up to a certain point as Eliot’s Mr Brooke would doubtless say).
Money too — as central as with Austen and Trollope, only no specific sums much given.
I finally managed to finish this text and then catch up with the past mails I’d been saving, so thank you for all the very constructive thoughts on the story so far.
Like Linda, I was struck by the emphasis on class and class consciousness in the story, but also thought that Gaskell was sending out mixed signals: on the one hand she seemed critical of the snobbish, upper-class, knee-jerk rejection of upwardly mobile families like the Wilkins; on the other she seemed to confirm that prejudice by having Wilkins Jun. proceed to ruin himself and his dependents in parvenu extravagance and excess.
She also seemed to imply that part of Wilkins’ own knee-jerk aversion to Dunster was based on the fact that the latter was also successfully in the process of rising through the social ranks and perhaps intensified by the fact that on order to do so he was practising and preaching those virtues which had helped Wilkins’ own father succeed professionally and which he himself had fatally turned his back on.
There seems to be an strongly Oedipal element to the story in general: the absent/dead mother, the father fixation and the father’s instinctive rejection of Elinor’s suitors and competitors for her affections until it can’t be helped etc.
Linda also mentioned the element of destiny: still staying with the Greeks, it was interesting that Elinor’s father should bring this idea into play – even seeing himself as a (somewhat unlikely) Orestes, driven to madness by the vengeful Furies, while Elinor herself is often shown as driven to sickness and near madness by guilt and remorse. Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad – mixing plays equally madly:)
Interesting, too, that the ‘gods’ use a modern instrument to bring the dark night’s work to light: the railroad, paired with capitalist greed. The mixed blessings of industrialization again.
At least Ellinor gets her peaceful happy end with her Living-stone far away from Hell-ingford….
Gaskell’s “The Grey Woman” (From A Dark Night’s Work)
Anton Menschel, his sister (18th century, German)
We did read this story on WWTTA before and I wrote a full posting then.
What we feel about something at any given point is probably a reflection of recent experience — for me often reading. So I was struck by how much this is a Bluebeard tale. I’ve now read so much about female gothics, and “The Grey Woman” fits this paradigm to a t, with its nexus or emphasis being this continual feeling of terror, anxiety, helplessness. Another super-good passive heroine — or perhaps Gaskell splits her heroine in two so the Molly-Maggie to the rescue type is Writ Large in Amante.
I was struck by how much the Radcliffe paradigm (the labyrinth, corridors) is made particular, non-formula-ized by the setting in Germany and all its particulars.
Uglow’s take on the story is strongly about it from the point of view of women or feminism. Amante ends up dead and the murderer gets away with it; Anna ends up a grey woman afraid to go out and sees her husband — still at large (reminding me here of Nader on Bush at large) — looking his right age and strong.
Uglow sees this story as among many by Gaskell where women become — are made to become, are trained to be — natural victims of the systems their required obedience supports. Until they have the courage to defy and then they may not survive. Amante and Anna are indeed a team, and could only escape by one behaving like a man, dressing like a man, working like one. Uglow says Gaskell never loses her urge to speak for the outcast.
I’d add “woman” or often the “outcast” men in her stories are criminal types soaking the old parents and relatives back home for their plessures in the city (a Wordsworth theme). Domestic hells of marriage — sometimes brought on by passion (as we saw in Manchester Marriage are here too.)
Again I’ve been much surprised at these stories, not the abject heroines nor the misery of women’s lives. The latter is simply probable when you think what the average life was under such customs and laws. What surprises me, what I had not expected is the intense depression of these stories. Varied they are but all so sad. I like that only some of these are so very painful, many of them.
How many sided and varied and interesting Gaskell is I thought the deeply felt descriptions and psychologies at times elevated her over just about every book I’m reading just now.
Claude Monet, Seine at Bougival (1869)
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