Friday, July 16, 2010

The Woman Who Infuriated Dickens

A Miniature Portrait of The Young Elizabeth Gaskell.
William John Thomson, 1832.

(All Images Courtesy Of The John Rylands Library.)

1810 was a banner year for literary women. In the United States, Cambridge, Massachusetts to be exact, Margaret Fuller was born. Transcendentalist Fuller was such a voracious reader that at age 30 she was known as "the most well read person in New England." She went on to become America's first full-time female book reviewer, writing for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune. Fuller also wrote one of the earliest feminist texts published in the U.S., Woman In The Nineteenth Century. Events and exhibits have been planned at libraries and museums across the country to honor Margaret Fuller's bicentennial.

Elizabeth Gaskell's Childhood Home In Knutsford,
The Inspiration For Cranford.

Back in the mother country, 1810 also produced one of the finest female novelists and biographers of the nineteenth century, Elizabeth Gaskell. Gaskell was born at a home located on a street which is a wellspring of British artists and writers, Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. At one time or another in their lives, George Eliot, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Bram Stoker, Henry James, J.M.W. Turner, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Laurence Olivier, Keith Richards, and Mick Jagger all lived on Cheyne Walk. Elizabeth Gaskell's bicentennial is being celebrated across England, including the city in which she spent the last 20 years of her life, Manchester.

An Etching From George Richmond's
1851 Portrait Of Gaskell.

The University of Manchester's John Rylands Library has just opened a new exhibit containing items related to Gaskell from its own collections, and pieces borrowed from other libraries, along with with some artifacts on loan from Gaskell's descendants. The exhibit was opened on July 14 by Sarah Prince, the great great great granddaughter of Elizabeth Gaskell. The Library's Public Programmes Manager Jacqui Fortnum said at the opening: "This exhibition, which marks the bicentenary of her birth, draws on the Library’s world-class Gaskell collections to explore her place in... diverse communities. It looks at how her social networks influenced her fiction and the worlds she depicted in her books. It also considers the worldwide community of readers past and present who have found enjoyment in Gaskell’s work."

Some Of Gaskell's Unpublished Correspondence,
And Her Letter Opener.

Elizabeth Gaskell: A Connected Life includes 200 letters sent by Elizabeth to friends and family, a diary recording her first daughter’s early development (on loan from Leeds University Library), her collection of autographs, and many personal items such as her passport (which shows how extraordinarily widely travelled she was for a woman of the nineteenth century), her book of common prayer, and a Wedgwood teapot believed to be from the Gaskell house. Assistant archivist and curator Fran Baker stresses that the exhibit aims to show many aspects of Gaskell's life: "Elizabeth mixed in very different circles and we wanted to explore that with this exhibition...She wanted to highlight the problems for people who were living in appalling conditions in Manchester, and she was trying to get the people and the leaders to speak to each other."

A Page From Gaskell's Handwritten
Manuscript For The Grey Woman.

Gaskell's books reflect her interest in the good, bad, and ugly relationships between the classes in English society of the Victorian era. Characters in her books include the landed gentry, professional men, business owners, society women, wives and women longing to be married, widows, spinsters, men and women in trade, factory and farm workers. and the unemployed and down and out. The Rylands Library exhibit includes Gaskell's original manuscripts for her novel Wives and Daughters, her collection of short stories The Grey Woman, both published in 1865, and for her biography of friend and fellow novelist Charlotte Bronte. Tools of her trade are also on display, including an inkstand, quill pens, and a letter opener. Fran Baker says the Rylands Library's collection of "Gaskelliana" has long been a draw for academics from as far away as America and Japan because of its provenance. Many of the books were donated by Elizabeth’s daughters, or by the Gaskell's closest friends in Manchester.

Mrs. Gaskell's Inkstand And Quill.

One of the most interesting pieces in the collection is an 1850 letter to Elizabeth Gaskell from Charles Dickens, asking her to write for his weekly paper, Household Words. Dickens was Gaskell's first major publisher, printing her ghost stories and Gothic fiction in both Household Words and another of his periodicals, All The Year Round. Gaskell's relationship with Dickens was erratic, her natural storytelling ability led Dickens to fondly call her his "dear Scheherazade." But her slow production of material (at least compared to his own amazingly prolific output) often put the two at loggerheads. Dickens was not terribly enlightened when it came to his relationships with women. In a statement still considered acceptable in the Victorian era (but thankfully not in this day and age, witness Mel Gibson), an exasperated Dickens told a colleague, "Oh! Mrs Gaskell-fearful-fearful! If I were Mr. G., oh heavens, how I would beat her!"

On The Set Of The BBC Adaptation Of Cranford,
Actress Imelda Staunton.

Elizabeth Gaskell's novels are better known now than at any time since their initial release. This is primarily due to the phenomenally popular 2007 BBC television adaptation of three of her novels of small town life, Cranford (1853). Wives and Daughters (1866), Gaskell's unfinished final novel, was also adapted by the BBC in 1999. But for the purest and most beautiful adaptation of Gaskell's work, check out the 2004 BBC miniseries based on her most class conscious novel, North and South. (Just be careful NOT to end up with the unrelated, overwrought 1985 American Civil War drama of the same title.) North and South features Gaskell's most intelligent, independent, and opinionated heroine, Margaret Hale, and tells the story of her tortured romance with cotton mill owner John Thornton. Sublime acting, atmosphere, and direction combine to create one of the rare adaptations which is almost as good as the book.

Elizabeth Gaskell's Home In Manchester,
At Plymouth Grove.

Like Margaret Fuller, who shares her birth year, Elizabeth Gaskell was a woman far ahead of her time. Her minister husband's congregation was shocked by her depiction of prostitution and illegitimacy in her novel Ruth (1853). Her Life of Charlotte Bronte, published in 1857, also created a firestorm of outrage. Her direct depiction of Bronte as a woman uninterested in the traditional "woman's place," actually led some to declare it libelous. Early editions were withdrawn and a revised, more palatable, edition was published later that same year. One can only wonder if in the year 2210 there will be an American and a British female author whose bicentennial will be as celebrated as that of 1810's Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Gaskell.

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