Books: Wives and authors: Was she the one who achieved it all? No neurotic Victorian or intemperate radical, Elizabeth Gaskell is seen, in a new book, as well-adjusted and vivacious, a novelist of astonishing energy and a loving mother

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WHICH Victorian novelist constructed this story of secrecy, deception, financial risk and sudden death? A married woman has been away from home for six weeks, first abroad, then in southern England, leaving her husband to his work in Manchester. She has not told him where she is staying. She is preparing a surprise for him, and the surprise involves her in doing things of which he, as a Nonconformist minister, particularly disapproves. She has borrowed money to buy and furnish a country house in Hampshire, and concocted a plan that he should retire there in three years' time, in defiance of his known deep attachment to Manchester.

Her daughters are in the plot, and she is taking tea with them at the secret house when, in mid-sentence, she gives a slight gasp and leans forward. Or rather, she seems to lean, and then she is obviously falling. As she sits on the newly bought sofa her heart has simply stopped beating, without a moment's warning, and she is dead: in the bloom of life - she is only 55 - and in flagrante too. When the news is carried to her husband, he is grief-stricken; but he rejects the Hampshire house, and remains in Manchester until his own death, which comes some 20 years later, in 1884.

The husband's name was William Gaskell. His wife, the novelist, never wrote this story, of course, but lived and died it instead. How many wives, even today, you wonder, would hatch such a plot for (or against) their husbands?

What we learn from the story is that Elizabeth Gaskell was a far stranger person than the usual picture of her allows. A strange, strong person - the superwoman of Victorian literature, perhaps? For she was lovely, charming, clever, expansive, brave, without vices or even neuroses, and formidable. With no more education than any other nice girl born in 1810; with marriage at 21, and seven pregnancies thereafter; with all the domestic and social duties of the wife of a Unitarian minister, and the care and upbringing of her children; not to mention a taste for travel, prison visiting and humanitarian work among the poor, a social life as exuberant as that of Dickens and a circle of friends as large - with all this, still, at the age of 36 she became an enormously successful and respected writer in a hugely competitive field.

Compare her with other great women writers of her generation, all of whom felt obliged to protect themselves from the normal world in order to get any writing done. George Eliot (childless) refused even to keep a spare room for friends, knowing what it would do to her working schedule. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (one child) made herself into an invalid to get time and privacy in which to write. Christina Rossetti (childless) turned determinedly away from the pleasures of earthly life. The Bronte sisters (all childless, though Charlotte died pregnant) defended their isolation with ferocity, at the cost of any semblance of conventional womanly happiness.

But Mrs Gaskell would dance half the night; she had a hearty appetite; she played cards, went to the theatre, cared about fashion and gossip, adored her children, enchanted almost everyone who met her, and was forever entertaining and being entertained. Annie Thackeray described her conversational manner as 'gay yet definite', a description that suits many aspects of her behaviour perfectly. Even when her husband, with his degree from Glasgow and his classical scholarship, put her down for 'slip-shod' letter-writing, she remained a cheerful correspondent to his sister; and when she was quite tired out from all the demands made on her, the letter-writing pen only dashed the faster. Dickens, who admired her work, but did not expect women to fight him, was driven to exclaim, in the course of an editorial battle with her: 'If I were Mr G, O Heaven how I would beat her.'

Mrs G was unbeatable. Her range and achievement as a writer of biography, novels and stories over the mere 20 years she had at her disposal are staggering. How was it done? She was certainly not the meek, dovelike creature some earlier biographers have drawn; equally, she was not the full-blown Marxist and feminist others have divined beneath the Cranford cap. Jenny Uglow lets us see how various she was, in this warm, rich and detailed biography, and shows that she knew herself to be diverse: 'One of my mes is, I do believe, a true Christian (only people call her a socialist and communist), another of my mes is a wife and mother . . . then again I've another self with

a full taste for beauty . . . How am I to reconcile all these warring members?'

She did not waste energy, practical or emotional. For instance, she felt passionately about her books, and suffered in their composition; but she decided to scorn the reviews, and took to going off on holiday, preferably abroad, when they were due to appear. And these holidays abroad, which became the high points in her life, were almost all planned by herself and undertaken without her husband. Early in the marriage, she found that he was happy to go away without her when he spent 10 weeks on the continent with friends, leaving her behind with their first two children; and in this fashion he continued. Still the marriage prospered, and she neither complained - at least as far as we know, since no letters survive from her to him - nor repined. Instead, she set about making her own arrangements, practical and financial, to go where she wanted and see the friends she liked, in Paris, Rome or Heidelberg.

Sons were expected to do while daughters had merely to be, she wrote, apropos the Bronte family. It was not a dictum she ever accepted for herself. As a daughter, her life was sad, her mother dying when she was just one year old; but she was taken in by a middle-aged aunt who lived, separated from an insane husband, and with a crippled daughter, in the little Cheshire town of Knutsford. So her consciousness was formed among strong, odd women, and apart from her only brother. Knutsford was to become Cranford four decades later, its female society reconstituted in gently humorous prose. Jenny Uglow suggests that the Cranford stories 'make the dangerous safe, touching the tenderest spots of memory and bringing the single, the odd and the wanderer into the circle of family and community', which is perceptive both about the book and about its origins in the life of an orphan.

As she was growing up, Elizabeth was not unhappy; but she saw little of either her brother or her father and, when she did, found she had acquired an uncongenial stepmother. The sore and empty places left in the heart and the imagination by such experiences - lost parents and siblings, false geniality - must be thought of when you ask what makes someone become a writer. Add to them the disappearance of her brother at sea when she was 18, immediately followed by the death of their father: small wonder if the imagination had the edge on the real world. Yet she was cheerful, popular, serene, apparently pleased enough to keep moving from one set of friends and relations to another.

Jenny Uglow is good on the various circles of cousins who helped to form Elizabeth: the Unitarians, who liked their women clever and well informed, the scientists and doctors, the businessmen; the card-playing ladies too, and the young people with picnics and dances and love-affairs, in Newcastle, Edinburgh, Cheshire; and the holidays in wild, romantic Wales, which so stirred her imagination. Still better are the chapters devoted to the books, where an exceptional knowledge of the period allows Jenny Uglow to say many new things. Mrs Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Bronte, for example, is well known as a great biography, and known to have caused scandal and threatened lawsuits because of its frankness about living people. Uglow also shows how it spoke not only of Charlotte Bronte but of the condition of all women writers: how it became the instrument through which Mrs Gaskell could say what she could not otherwise have said. She points out that a passage from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh is used as the book's epigraph: 'Oh my God, / - Thou has knowledge, only Thou, /

How dreary 'tis for women to sit still / On winter nights by solitary fires / And hear the nations praising them far off.' Jenny Uglow gives the comment of another contemporary, Mrs Oliphant, who called the book a 'revolution as well as revelation' and said it 'shattered . . . the 'delicacy' which was supposed to be the most exquisite characteristic of womankind'.

'Revolution as well as revelation' characterised other Gaskell books, notably Mary Barton, with its sympathies for the oppressed workers of the industrial city, and its distaste for the masters; and Ruth, with its questioning of the comfortable apportionment of blame entirely to the young women who became pregnant outside marriage. The courage of these two books, written in the 1840s and 1850s by the wife of a Manchester minister whose congregation saw itself held up to criticism, was immense, though Uglow is right in showing how Mrs Gaskell's nerve failed at certain junctures. John Barton, the working man who goes too far in opposing the masters, has to die, and the masters mend their ways through pity rather than justice. Ruth is also killed off; so is the prostitute Esther, and the other prostitute Lizzie Leigh's child: outside marriage, sexual activity in women, whether innocent or the result of economic desperation, has to be punished. But still these remain brave as well as good books.

Mrs Gaskell wrote to a woman friend, during a blissful working period quite alone at home in 1854: 'Nature intended me for a gypsy-bachelor.' Curiously, she used the same phrase as Dickens, when he spoke of setting up his 'gypsy encampment', meaning his bachelor flat. But unlike Dickens, she made her marriage work. To be fair to Mr Gaskell, it was he who encouraged her to start writing seriously, in the aftermath of the death of their small son, which nearly broke her heart. And although she did mention his inability to express affection, you can't help wondering whether a certain emotional emptiness, first in childhood, then in marriage, may not have helped to make and keep her a writer. Too much intimacy, too much 'happiness' can be a problem, a distraction from the world of the imagination, a spoke in the mechanism that manufactures fiction. Had she lived, had she led Mr Gaskell triumphantly to the intimacy of the Hampshire dream house, would she have gone on writing so well? We can't tell.

'Mrs Gaskell: A Habit of Stories' by Jenny Uglow is published tomorrow by Faber, price pounds 20