12.01.2009

Elizabeth Gaskell - A Portrait in Letters, by JAV Chapple

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

12 comments:

Nymeth said...

Letters! Dante Gabriel Rossetti! Victorian Gossip! Letters letters letters! Must.have.

Rebecca Reid said...

I've never read author letters before and this sounds delightful. What a fun way to get to know the author better.

How much of Gaskell have you read before you dove in to this?

Thanks for joining the Circuit!

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Nymeth - Yes, as fellow 19th-centuryophile, you'd love this book purely as cultural history. It's a lot of fun, and she really DID know everybody! The letter shown in the pic, btw, is from her to Rossetti - though this letter didn't feature in the book (though, apparently, the author has collected more of her letters in another volume)

Ms Reid - I have read a few of her books (Cranford, North and South, Life of Charlotte Bronte) and have a beginner's knowledge of 19th century British history, both of which DO make the book more fun to read. But, it is so lush with details that it would actually make an interesting read to someone not as familiar - she wrote about the commonplace, and so you really get a feel for what life was like at the time.

Amanda said...

This sounds fun, though I would want to actually read something by Gaskell before reading her letters.

Jason Gignac said...

Amanda - I *was* dissapointed at the lack of 'O Gentle Readers'... ;P

Stefanie said...

I love reading other people's letters. I am g oing to have to read this one for sure as well as Emily Dickinson who I never knew had letters available for reading.

Jason Gignac said...

MS Stefanie - OK, slight tangent. YES Emily Dickinson's letters are wonderful! There are a LOT of them - I have a hardback edition and it's over a thousand at least, with pretty small type. They can be kind of intimidating, since you don't know all the context of the letters. A really good intro book, and one of my favorite Dickinson books generally, is Open Me Carefully by Martha Nell Smith, which collects the letters between Emily and her most prolific correspondent, Susan Dickinson, with excellent foot notes. One of my favorites!

JaneGS said...

>Ms Gaskell, on the other hand, was a charming, scattered, playful, gossipy creature, and a pleasure to spend a few hundred pages with.

I agree--Gaskell was a wonderful creature, and a pleasure to know, even though she was born 200 years ago next year.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Uglow bio and am looking forward to reading the letters in 2010.

Terrific review, btw. I really enjoyed reading your post.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms JaneGS - I'm glad to hear it was good! I will definitely keep the bio on my toread list :). And thank you for the compliment :)

Emily said...

That anecdote about Rosetti is TOO funny - that's exactly how I imagined him behaving in my mind's eye, but I thought I was being satirical!

Interestingly, as someone who's choosing to remain formally unmarried to my life partner, I've been getting a lot of that "I wish you were Mrs. Llewes" stuff, even now in the 21st century. It makes me feel even closer to George Eliot/Mary Ann Evans than I already did. :-)

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Emily - Yes, I liked Ms Gaskell not because I agreed with her abotu Eliot, but because she was willing to accept that things could be inconsistent with her world view. I felt like she said "I don't understand why you are good, but I won't pretend you aren't."

Karenlibrarian said...

What a wondeful and insightful review. And who the heck is this other person who was reading a Gaskell bio this month? It wasn't me. Enquiring minds want to know. And no wonder you couldn't finish it, it's almost 700 pages!

I haven't any author's letters either, but now I must read this book.