‘Most of us still talk of “Mrs Gaskell”,’ writes Jenny Uglow at the beginning of her splendid new biography. Like Samuel Johnson, Elizabeth Gaskell has long been saddled with a cumbersome, misleading (and, in Gaskell’s case, vaguely demeaning) handle; and so before even opening Uglow’s life, we can take heart at its apt and promising title: Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories. This is the story of a woman and a writer, not a matron, who had a compulsive ‘habit of stories’, and ‘could write anywhere, under any conditions’. And what she wrote of – political and industrial unrest, crime and illegitimacy, a tribe of Amazons making do without men in Cranford, a tragic and scandal-tinged biography of Charlotte Brontë – was far from women’s proper literary sphere of domestic realism, though Gaskell explored this too in her last novel, Wives and Daughters. Perhaps no nineteenth-century writer – male or female – was so versatile, or so successfully worked within, and deviated from, the literary conventions of her day. Cranford and Wives and Daughters were uncontroversial best sellers. But Mary Barton aroused a storm of protest; The Life of Charlotte Brontë ditto, plus libel suits; while Ruth was not only denounced but burned in an atmosphere that now seems to anticipate events in Bradford a few years back.
It is odd, then, that Elizabeth Gaskell has long been appreciated (and dismissed) as some sort of paragon of womanhood in Victorian letters. Lord David Cecil rhapsodised about her as ‘a dove … she was all woman was expected to be: gentle, domestic, tactful, prone to tears , easily shocked. So far from chafing at the limits imposed on her activities, she accepted them with serene satisfaction.’ Jenny Uglow provides a brilliant riposte to Cecil from Gaskell herself. In 1838, when she had not yet published a novel, but was already addicted to fabricating stories, Gaskell confessed to a friend, ‘I feel a stirring instinct and long to be off … just like a bird … But … I happen to be a woman instead of a bird … and … moreover I have no wings like a dove to fly away.’ She didn’t have wings but she had something even better: words, and these transported her, liberated her, and in the course of time enriched her and made her famous. Even more, as Uglow exhaustively shows, words – the habit of stories – became her life.
This life didn’t begin auspiciously. Gaskell’s early years as Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson were shadowed by loss and death. Her mother died when she was an infant and she was raised by a widowed aunt in a houseful of what Gissing would later call ‘odd [because single] women’. From a very early age, then, the important people and communities in Gaskell’s life were female. She had a genius, in fact, for female friendship, and in Uglow’s account, Gaskell’s youth in Knutsford with her aunt and female cousins is balanced by her maturity as ‘Mrs Gaskell’ with her four daughters and scores of women friends.
Her husband, William Gaskell, a Unitarian minister, remains in more ways than one, the odd man out. I wish Uglow had speculated a bit more about this strange marriage where William habitually read his wife’s correspondence (received and outgoing), often pocketed her cheques from publishers, and always took holidays apart from his wife and daughters, usually timing his departure to coincide with their return from leisurely spells on the Continent. Indeed, after her four daughters were born (two sons died as infants), Gaskell became a frenetic traveller and spent less and less time at home in Manchester with her husband. The great project of her last years was the purchase and furnishing, with her literary earnings, of a large, elegant house in Hampshire of which her husband knew absolutely nothing until she died there suddenly in 1865, at the age of only fifty-five.
When Gaskell was at home in Manchester she wrote in the family dining room which had four open doors through which anyone – husband, daughters, servants, house guests (of which there were many) – could walk at any time. (It goes without saying that William Gaskell had a study with a closed door that few knocked on when he was busy writing a sermon.) Writing to her friend Charles Eliot Norton, she described a typical morning chez Gaskell in 1857:
Now in this hour since breakfast I have had to decide on the following variety of important questions. Boiled beef – how long to boil? What perennials will do in Manchester smoke and what colours our garden wants? Length of skirt for a gown? Salary of a nursery governess, & stipulations for a certain quantity of time to be left to herself, – Read letters on the state of Indian army – lent me by a very agreeable neighbour & return them, with a proper note, & as many wise remarks as would come in a hurry . Settle 20 questions of dress for the girls, who are going out for the day; & want to look nice & yet not spoil their gowns with the mud &c &c – See lady about an MS story of hers, & give her disheartening but very good advice. Arrange about selling two poor cows for one good one – see purchasers, & show myself up to cattle questions, keep, & prices – and its nt [sic] ½ past 10 yet.
With this sort of schedule – and the constant juggling of trivial but necessary demands with the desire and need to write – it is small wonder that Gaskell was continually going off on holidays where she could forget the Manchester smoke and cow prices and hem lengths and write without interruption in strange inns and boarding houses. Another escape – a common one among nineteenth-century women – was illness. We tend to think of Gaskell as a hearty, bustling soul, but she was plunged into deep depressions after the deaths of her baby sons. And as Uglow shows, she actually spent a good deal of time prostrate on a sofa with migraines, neuralgia, and debilitating lassitude. She collapsed, in fact, on a fairly regular basis, and her spells as an invalid gave Gaskell the peace and quiet to recharge and to weave the stories which were food and air to her.
And it is these stories, of course – six long novels, one biography and dozens of short stories – published over a period of less than twenty years, that are the raison d’etre of Uglow’s life of Gaskell. This is a ‘stop-and-go’ literary biography, with separate, detachable chapters on each of the novels and the life of Charlotte Brontë, and Uglow’s lengthy and detailed readings of Gaskell’s works are without exception excellent. She explores the books’ origins in Gaskell’s life and times as well as providing cogent analyses of their feminist subtexts and sound evaluations of their aesthetic merits and flaws. Uglow is also very good on Gaskell’s relations with her publishers, especially Dickens who serialized much of her early work in Household Words and was periodically driven to despair by her inability to keep to her allotted word limit. And it is interesting, too, to learn of Gaskell’s contemporary critical reception and the fact that she often evaded it altogether by leaving the country on the eve of the publication of her books.
Perhaps the highest praise one can give a literary biography is to say that its subject would have enjoyed reading it. I think Elizabeth Gaskell would have relished Jenny Uglow’s life not merely because she would have recognized her essential self in it, but also because it reads so very much like the best of Gaskell’s novels: compelling, affectionate, by turns funny and sad, gently subversive, committed, and unobtrusively wise.