A Celebration of Women Writers

"Mrs Gaskell" by Virginia Woolf

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell lived from 1810 to 1865. In addition to her work as a novelist, she wrote a well-known biography of Charlotte Bronte. Here, Virginia Woolf reviews Mrs. Ellis Chadwick's biography of Mrs. Gaskell: Mrs Gaskell: Haunts, Homes, and Stories. Woolf's review was first published in The Times Literary Supplement, 29th September, 1910.

From what one can gather of Mrs Gaskell's nature, she would not have liked Mrs Chadwick's book. A cultivated woman, for whom publicity had no glamour, with a keen sense of humour and a quick temper, she would have opened it with a shiver and dropped it with a laugh. It is delightful to see how cleverly she vanishes. There are no letters to be had; no gossip; people remember her, but they seem to have forgotten what she was like. At least, cries Mrs Chadwick, she must have lived somewhere; houses can be described. 'There is a long, glass-covered porch, forming a conservatory, which is the main entrance.... On the ground-floor, to the right, is a large drawing room. On the left are a billiard room... a large kitchen... and a scullery..... There are ten bed rooms... and a kitchen garden sufficiently large to supply vegetables for a large family.' The ghost would feel grateful to the houses; it might give her a twinge to hear that she had 'got into the best literary set of the day', but on the other hand it would please her to read of how Charles Darwin was 'the best-known naturalist'.

The surprising thing is that there should be a public who wishes to know where Mrs Gaskell lived. Curiosity about the houses, the coats, and the pens of Shelley, Peacock, Charlotte Bronte, and George Meredith seems lawful. One imagines that these people did everything in a way of their own; and in such cases a trifle will start the imagination when the whole body of their published writings fails to thrill. But Mrs Gaskell would be the last person to have that peculiarity. One can believe that she prided herself upon doing things as other women did them, only better-that she swept manuscripts off the table lest a visitor should think her odd. She was, we know, the best of housekeepers, 'her standard of comfort', writes Mrs Chadwick, being 'expensive, but her tastes were always refined'; and she kept a cow in her back garden to remind her of the country.

For a moment it seems surprising that we should still be reading her books. The novels of today are so much terser, intenser, and more scientific. Compare the strike in North and South, for example, with the Strife of Mr Galsworthy. She seems a sympathetic amateur beside a professional in earnest. But this is partly due to a kind of irritation with the methods of mid-Victorian novelists. Nothing would persuade them to concentrate. Able by nature to spin sentence after sentence melodiously, they seem to have left out nothing that they knew how to say. Our ambition, on the other hand, is to put in nothing that need not be there. What we want to be there is the brain and the view of life; the autumnal woods, the history of the whale fishery, and the decline of stage coaching we omit entirely. But by means of comment, dialogues that depart from truth by their wit and not by their pomposity, descriptions fused into a metaphor, we get a world carved out arbitrarily enough by one dominant brain. Every page supplies a little heap of reflections, which, so to speak, we sweep aside from the story and keep to build a philosophy with. There is really nothing to stimulate such industry in the pages of Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope, and Mrs Gaskell. A further deficiency (in modern eyes) is that they lack 'personality'. Cut out a passage and set it apart and it lies unclaimed, unless a trick of rhythm mark it. Yet it may be a merit that personality, the effect not of depth of thought but of the manner of it, should be absent. The tuft of heather that Charlotte Bronte saw was her tuft; Mrs Gaskell's world was a large place, but it was everybody's world.

She waited to begin her first novel until she was thirty-four, driven to write by the death of her baby. A mother, a woman who had seen much of life, her instinct in writing was to sympathize with others. Loving men and women, she seems to have done her best, like a wise parent, to keep her own eccentricities in the background. She would devote the whole of her mind to understanding. That is why, when one begins to read her, one is dismayed by the lack of cleverness.

Carriages still roll along the streets, concerts are still crowded by subscribers, the shops for expensive luxuries still find daily customers, while the workman loiters away his unemployed time in watching these things, and thinking of the pale, uncomplaining wife at home, and the wailing children asking in vain for enough of food-of the sinking health, of the dying life of those near and dear to him. The contrast is too great. Why should he alone suffer from bad times? I know that this is not really the case; and I know what is the truth in such matters; but what I wish to express is what the workman feels and thinks.

So she misses the contrast. But by adding detail after detail in this profuse impersonal way she nearly achieves what has not been achieved by all our science. Because they are strange and terrible to us, we always see the poor in stress of some kind, so that the violence of their feeling may break through conventions, and, bringing them rudely into touch with us, do away with the need of subtle understanding. But Mrs Gaskell knows how the poor enjoy themselves; how they visit and gossip and fry bacon and lend each other bits of finery and show off their sores. This is the more remarkable because she was hampered by a refined upbringing and traditions of culture. Her working men and women, her outspoken and crabbed old family domestics, are generally more vigorous than her ladies and gentlemen, as though a touch of coarseness did her good. How admirable, for instance, is the scene when Mrs Boucher is told of her husband's death.

'Hoo mun be told because of th' inquest. See! hoo's coming round; shall you or I do it? Or mappen your father would be best?'

'No; you, you,' said Margaret.

They awaited her perfect recovery in silence. Then the neighbor woman sat down on the floor, and took Mrs Boucher's head and shoulders on her lap.

'Neighbor,' said she, 'your man is dad. Guess yo' how he died?'

'He were drowned,' said Mrs Boucher feebly, beginning to cry for the first time at this rough probing of her sorrow.

'He were found drowned. He were coming home very hopeless o' aught on earth.... I'm not saying he did right, and I'm not saying he did wrong. All I say is, may neither me nor mine ever have his sore heart, or we may do like things.'

'He has left me alone wi' a' these children!' moaned the widow, less distressed at the manner of the death than Margaret expected; but it was of a piece with her helpless character to feel his loss as principally affecting herself and her children.

Too great a refinement gives Cranford that prettiness which is the weakest thing about it, making it, superficially at least, the favourite copy for gentle writers who have hired rooms over the village post-office.

When she was a girl, Mrs Gaskell was famous for her ghost stories. A great story-teller she remained to the end, able always in the middle of the thickest book to make us ask 'What happens next?' Keeping a diary to catch the overflow of life, observing clouds and trees, moving about among numbers of very articulate men and women, high-spirited, observant, and free from bitterness and bigotry, it seems as though the art of writing came to her as easily as an instinct. She had only to let her pen run to shape a novel. When we look at her work in the mass we remember her world, not her individuals. In spite of Lady Ritchie, who hails Molly Gibson 'dearest of heroines, a born lady, unconsciously noble and generous in every thought', in spite of the critic's praise of her 'psychological subtlety', her heroes and heroines remain solid rather than interesting. With all her humour she was seldom witty, and the lack of wit in her character-drawing leaves the edges blunt. These pure heroines, having no such foibles as she loved to draw, no coarseness and no violent passions, depress one like an old acquaintance. One will never get to know them; and that is profoundly sad. One reads her most perhaps because one wishes to have the run of her world. Melt them together and her books comprise a large, bright, country town, widely paved, with a great stir of life in the streets and a decorous row of old Georgian houses standing back from the road. 'Leaving behind your husband, children, and civilization, you must come out to barbarism, loneliness, and liberty.' Thus Charlotte Bronte, inviting her to Haworth, compared their lives, and Mrs Gaskell's comment was 'Poor Miss Bronte'. We who never saw her, with her manner 'gay but definite', her beautiful face, and her 'almost perfect arm', find something of the same delight in her books. What a pleasure it is to read them!

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom