Rebecca Metcalfe

Why I’ve been reading Elizabeth Gaskell and why you should too.

I have recently been binge-reading Elizabeth Gaskell. Novels, novellas, short stories: anything I can get my hands on. This started when I found out that one of her novels is required reading for my course this year, but once I read one, I couldn’t stop and I barely read any other authors during September.

For those unfamiliar, Elizabeth Gaskell was a Victorian writer most famous for her novel North and South: a bleak and unashamed look at the conditions and lives of poverty-stricken mill workers in a fictionalised version of Manchester, contrasting their experiences with those of the city’s wealthier residents. It tells the story of Margaret Hale, a wealthy young woman from Hampshire who moves to the northern mill-town with her family and about her romantic and often turbulent relationship with mill-owner John Thornton. But the love story is not the focus of Gaskell’s writing. Instead, the novel explores social inequality and the vast dichotomy in the quality of life for people at either ends of the social spectrum during the mid-19th century.

This is fierce social-criticism and Gaskell holds nothing back. The reader is shown exactly how awful some character’s lives are and the difficulties they face. Neither does Gaskell hold back in stating who is the blame and throughout the novel she continually scrutinises the views and actions of the upper and middle classes in relation to how they treat the poor. But there is no binary evil villain versus innocent victim, all of Gaskell’s characters are well-rounded and complex. It’s an intricate exploration of a society and the people in it but more than that: it’s a gripping story that draws you in.

Even more gripping is Gaskell’s first novel: Mary Barton. Like North and South, this is a social-criticism novel exploring poverty in 19th century Manchester, but unlike North and South, it focuses purely on the lives of a family of mill-workers. Gaskell takes the reader deep into Mary’s world and shows the grip of poverty and the shocking actions to which characters are driven. Like with North and South, Gaskell holds nothing back and the social-criticism is no less fierce. It’s an incredibly gripping story and the events that we see occur in the lives of Mary and her family climax in the second half of the novel in a way that I can only describe as thrilling. Gaskell’s plots are well thought out and frequently take unexpected turns that left me desperate to know how it ends.

It’s not just Gaskell’s social criticism novels that do this. She also wrote many gothic short stories and novellas which are also amazing. Her short story The Old Nurse’s Tale is a a simple and traditional haunted house ghost story but it is seriously chilling. Similarly, her novella The Grey Woman, the story of a woman escaping from an evil husband, explores marriage, gender, lies and crime as well as being an engrossing page-turner that I couldn’t stop reading and was still thinking about several days later. It’s my favourite Gaskell work and I think what impressed me so much about it wasn’t just the enjoyment I gained from reading it, but the way it feels both Victorian and modern. It contains all the hallmarks of a Victorian ghost story, but it possesses a modernity and an awareness of issues that are still very present 200 years later. This story isn’t ashamed about exploring complex issues that weren’t talked of openly in 19th century society, but it does so in a way that is still recognisably Victorian. It’s this balance between classic Victorian writing and modern, progressive ideas that make me love this story, not just because of how much I enjoyed reading it.

I also enjoyed Gaskell’s novella Lois the Witch, which has a much slower pace to some of her other gothic works. Yet it is still thought-provoking and stuck with me for several days after I finished it. It tells the story of Lois, a young English woman who in 1691 moves to be with her last surviving relatives in Salem, Massachusetts. The setting combined with the title means you can guess where it goes, but although it doesn’t have the weaving and unexpected plot twists that feature in Gaskell’s other works, it still says a lot about religion, hysteria, sexuality and the treatment of women by society. Lois is accused of being satanically possessed by a man whose very creepy marriage proposal she recently turned down. These themes of female sexuality and autonomy and how men react to them are still relevant in today’s society. In fact, everything I’ve read of Gaskell’s, be it gothic explorations of the treatment of women or social criticism about the treatment of the poor, retains both its relevance to society and its readability.

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