Why does Elizabeth Gaskell take a back seat among nineteenth-century classic novelists? Is it because we think her too Victorian – over-doing sentiment, religion and morality?

 Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels vary considerably. You might try one, not care for it, and dismiss the rest. Or love one, and feel disappointed not to get more of the same.

Blame Cranford here. Elizabeth Gaskell is best known – and loved – for this altogether delightful account of small town life and the splendidly independent and inter-dependent women living almost entirely without the support and companionship of men. It’s a far cry from the uncompromising depiction of the harsh realities of Manchester’s workers and factory conditions in Mary Barton  and North and South. Eye-opening reading at the time, and Elizabeth Gaskell is a terrific story-teller. But nobody could call these two novels cosy reads, despite the satisfying romantic love stories woven into the plot.

Even less cosy is Sylvia’s Lovers, set in a coastal town during the Napoleonic wars and described by Elizabeth Gaskell as ‘the saddest story I ever wrote’. Not a good choice when you want a comfort read. You need to be in the mood for Thomas Hardy-style mischance and tragedy.

Elizabeth Gaskell was married to a Unitarian minister based in Manchester where conditions for the working classes at a time of rapid industrialisation were a squalid mix of poverty, disease, and early death. She was deeply concerned with how Christian belief translates into social action, working alongside her husband and for charitable causes to alleviate the misery she saw around her.  In Mary Barton, subtitled A Tale of Manchester Life, published in 1848, she was writing about what she witnessed first-hand: those who are ‘doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and want’.

In North and South published in 1855 we are shown the violent clash between employers and employees. Elizabeth Gaskell doesn’t take sides. She tells the stories clearly and sympathetically of those individuals caught up in either side of the conflict. She was interested in the need to reconcile different interests and classes, and how society can work together for the good of all.

In these novels dealing with social problems and industrial relations, Elizabeth Gaskell knew what she was talking about. How Lord David Cecil in his Early Victorian Novelists published in 1934 can write that these subjects ‘… entailed an understanding of economics and history wholly outside the range of her Victorian intellect’ is a mystery. He has to be forgiven much, given his later championship of Barbara Pym, but it’s difficult not to feel indignant at his condescending description of Elizabeth Gaskell as a ‘mild feminine Victorian’ who ‘sees nothing but flowers in the garden.’

Religion in novels – as in life – isn’t plain sailing. Jane Austen, although a devout Christian, largely steers clear of the spiritual lives of her characters. It’s understood they are governed – or not governed – by Christian principles, but we are left to imagine them on their knees in prayer. In contrast, Elizabeth Gaskell is unashamedly explicit in how religion shapes their thinking and behaviour.

Characters talk about God and quote the Bible. In North and South Christian faith is what drives the courageous heroine Margaret Hale and comforts the dying mill worker Bessy Higgins. ‘Nay, Bessy – think!’ said Margaret. ‘God does not willingly afflict. Don’t dwell so much on the prophecies, but read the clearer parts of the Bible.’ ‘I dare say it would be wiser; but where would I hear such grand words of promise  – hear tell o’ anything so far different fro’ this dreary world, and this town above a’, as in Revelations? …It gives me more comfort than any other book i’ the Bible.’

Elizabeth Gaskell doesn’t go in for theological debate – we are never told the reasons for Mr Hale’s dissent in North and South – that isn’t what interested her. Instead she shows how disparate people can be brought together. Higgins looked at Margaret doubtfully. Her grave sweet eyes met his; there was no compulsion, only deep interest in them. He did not speak, but he kept his place. Margaret the Churchwoman, her father the Dissenter, Higgins the Infidel knelt down together. It did them no harm.

Mary Bennet pronounces in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice ‘that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable; that one false step involves her in endless ruin.’ Mary’s sister Lydia gets away with it, but for Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘fallen women’ it involves a life of atonement. It’s a subject which recurs in her work – Esther in Mary Barton, Ruth, and the short story Lizzie Leigh.

Elizabeth Gaskell was the hands-on, intelligent, and perceptive mother of four daughters. In Sylvia’s Lovers, Cousin Phillis, and Wives and Daughters she shows us how young girls are morally exposed, how vulnerable they are. Plus ça change.

Modern readers may well find the highly-charged emotional religion in Ruth, a story of the repentance and redemption of an orphan seduced and abandoned by an older man all too much. She’s the victim not only of a self-entitled rake but a nasty mix of hypocrisy and judgmental morality. It doesn’t sit well with our twenty-first century thinking. What has she got to atone for?

Contemporaries found Mrs Gaskell too much for different reasons: they were shocked at the bold way she wrote about illegitimacy and prostitution. She was ahead of her time in a careful, thought-out compassion – and unswerving in her wholesale condemnation of seducers like the self-entitled Henry Bellingham in Ruth through the voice of the Good Samaritan character Mr Benson. ‘Men may call such actions as yours youthful follies! There is another name for them with God.’

Religion isn’t always presented in what some may feel to be an over- melodramatic manner. In the novella Cousin Phillis, published in 1864, Mr Holman ends the day’s haymaking with a psalm. Elizabeth Gaskell gives us here perhaps the loveliest religious scene in all her work – a moving image of harmony between nature, work and God.

But for those who wish Jane Austen had written another book, Elizabeth Gaskell’s last and unfinished novel Wives and Daughters is the perfect choice. It’s written on a similarly small canvas: families living around the small country town of Hollingford, based like Cranford on the real life Knutsford, where Elizabeth Gaskell lived as a child.

In this novel Elizabeth Gaskell employs almost the same reticence on religion as Jane Austen. Christian values are mostly unspoken but no less present. Early in the novel, the teenaged heroine Molly struggles to overcome her resentment of the new stepmother when her father returns home from the deathbed of a patient. She is remembering what Roger Hamley advised her: to think of others.  ‘Papa, I will call her “mamma”! He took her hand, and grasped it tight; but for an instant or two he did not speak. Then he said, – ‘You won’t be sorry for it, Molly, when you come to lie as poor Craven Smith did tonight.’

Like most Victorians, Elizabeth Gaskell didn’t shy away from talking about death in the way we do today. The deaths in Wives and Daughters are affecting and unforgettable. But this is a novel which faultlessly and satisfyingly combines the the profound with the comic. Here is social-climbing Mrs Gibson, who’s always parading and misquoting her superficial reading, speculating about the advantages of the possible death of the heir to an estate: ‘I should think myself wanting in strength of mind if I could not look forward to the consequences of death. I really think we are commanded to do so somewhere in the Bible or the Prayerbook.’

The very last part of Wives and Daughters was never written – Elizabeth Gaskell died suddenly in November 1865 – but we know what’s going to happen, and it’s the ending we long for.

Elizabeth Gaskell doesn’t necessarily give us the secure, happy endings of Jane Austen, the philosophical worldview of George Eliot, the wild passion of the Brontes. But she gives us something equally remarkable. Despite being written over 150 years ago, her novels speak strongly and clearly, and they say something important in the confusing fragmented world of today.

Elizabeth Gaskell