At the beginning of this challenge, I had agreed to take a biography of Ms Gaskell on - an amazing looking book by a Ms Uglow. I put it on hold at the library, and got it, and SOMEONE else put it on hold. So I didn't have it long enough to finish it (seriously, how many people could, in any given year, be putting a hold on a bio of Ms Gaskell? Really?). In the end, I ended up picking up this much slenderer book because it presented a different charm - it is a collection of Ms Gaskell's letters, placed so as to tell the story of Ms Gaskell's life. And while I still plan to eventually go back and read the full bio, I am IMMENSELY glad I got this book. On the one hand this is because I only finished it tonight, having had a lazy, sad sort of November (of my own volition, so no need to commiserate). But that hand isn't important right now. The other hand is.
And that hand is that Ms Gaskell is a charming woman, in a way that really surprised me. I have only extensively read the letters of one other writer: Emily Dickinson. I am in no way going to demean Ms Dickinson's letters, which are some of the queerest, most beautiful things I've ever read. But, in Ms Dickinson's letters, you come to realize that she really actually just WAS more than human. She wrote letters in the same gnomic, beautiful, profound, deeply layered way that she wrote poems.
Ms Gaskell, on the other hand, was a charming, scattered, playful, gossipy creature, and a pleasure to spend a few hundred pages with. She wrote letters much the same way she wrote Cranford. Witness this anecdote about her visiting the studio of Dante Gabriel Rossetti:
I went three times to his studio, and met him at two evening parties -- where I had a good deal of talk with him, always excepting the times when ladies with beautiful hair came in when he was like the cat turned into a lady, who jumped out of bed and ran after a mouse. IT did not signify what we were talking about or how agreeable I was; if a particular kind of reddish brown, crepe wavy hair came in, he was away in a moment struggling for an introduction to the owner of said head of hair. He is not as mad as a a March hare, but hair-mad.Which brings us to the other great fun of the book - Ms Gaskell seemed to know everyone. Or, as I expressed it earlier to Amanda, apparently 19th century England was not a terribly large world. She visits famous collector Milton Milnes, who loans her an original print manuscript of William Blake to read (!!!!). She talks playfully about her old friend Florence Nightingale. She has a visit with Mrs. Wordsworth, where she tells funny stories about William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She went to school with the wife of John Ruskin, and thinks she was a cold-hearted flirt. She writes letters to Charles Darwin's sister.
My favorite story of literary fame was her exchange of letters with George Eliot (that is, Mary Ann Evans). After reading Adam Bede and Scenes of a Clerical Life, she takes the liberty, on the pretext of a funny anecdote, to write a letter to Eliot who, at this point, she still believes to be a man:
Since I came up from Manchester to London I have had the greatest compliment paid me I ever had in my life, I have been suspected of having written Adam Bede. I have hitherto denied itl but really I think, that as you want to keep your real name a secret, it would be very pleasant for me to blush acquiescence. Will you give me lead?Later, of course, she learns the melancholy truth: The author was a woman, and a woman living in sin with a married man. Gaskell, a very traditional woman was crushed, and had great difficulty dealing with the seeming contrast between Eliot's noble, virtuous writing and 'ignoble' life. She worries over this in a letter to Harriet Martineau (yes, the famous feminist), who told her the story behind the author:
I would rather they had not been written by Miss Evans, it is truel but justice should be done to all; & after all the writing such a book should raise her in every one's opinion, because no dramatic power would, I think enable her to think & say such noble things, unless her own character - perhaps somewhere hidden away from our sight at present, - has such possibilities of greatness & goodness in it.Martineau, while she respected Eliot's writing, could not bring herself to respect Eliot. Gaskell, a minister's wife, was able to bend a little, and a month later wrote a letter to Eliot - graceless, at times a little condescending, but in retrospect, probably extremely difficult for her:
Since I heard from authority, that you were the author of Scenes from Clerical Life & Adam Bede, I have read the again; and I must, once more, tell you how earnestly fully, and humbly I admire them. I never read anything so complete, and beautiful in fiction, in my whole life before... I should not be quite true in my ending, if I did not say before I concluded that I wish you were Mrs Lewes (ed: that is, that she was married to her lover, G H Lewes). However, that can't be helped, as far as I can see, and one must not judge others. Once more, thanking you most gratefully for having written all -Eliot seemed to take this in the spirit it was offered, and even responded, saying she had hoped Gaskell would be fond of her books, because she had loved Cranford and Mary Barton. The whole sequence, in many ways, wraps up what Gaskell is to me. She isn't a radical thinker in the way that, say, Eliot was, and she's not a deeply original genius the way that the Brontes were. What she is is someone who loved humanity very, very deeply, and had the eye that makes the best philanthropists - or the best gossips. Or both. And this same eye, an eye that playfully mocks and sincerely loves, is in her letters. The book concludes with an excerpt of a letter to Gaskell from Charlotte Bronte, and Brontes eyes see this with a touching clarity:
A thought strike me. Do you, who have so many friends... find it easy, when you sit down to write, to isolate yourself from all those ties, and their sweet associations, so as to be your own woman, uninfluenced or swayed by the consciousness of how your work may affect other minds... In a word, are you never tempted to make your characters more amiable than the Life, by the inclination to assimilate your thoughts to the thoughts of those who always feel kindly, but fail to see justly? Don't answer the question; it is not intended to be answered