Make your own free website on

gaskell - romance & realism

literary theory
reading women's writing
the novel
modern american literature
decoding advertisements

Realism and Romance in Gaskell

Lucas has argued that the major defect of Victorian social problem novels is their failure to deal "really honestly" with the problems they depicted. Gaskell’s novels have often been seen as an example of the escapism which ffrench saw as Gaskell’s natural tendency, counter pointed by an obligation placed upon her by the times she lived in. 

This reading goes back to Oliphant’s comment that Gaskell’s novels often ‘slide off’ the public topic, into private lives, and melodramatic plots. While critics have often noted the reportage-like realism and documentary tendency in both Mary Barton and North and South, both novels also show a ‘fascination for the alien, the other’ as Uglow put it. 

The doubleness in both books has been read negatively, for the most part by Marxist critics who see the ‘slide’ as a distortion of working class reality. Williams for example locates this in the murder in MB which he argues is a dramatization of the fear of the mob, an unrepresentative projection which sets it apart from Gaskell’s claim to have modelled John Barton on ‘a poor man I know’ as well as her seeing John Barton as the hero of the story. 

In NS, similarly, Williams says that as Gaskell takes up her ‘actual position’ in society, there is a similar tendency to go outside the story in the use of the familiar Victorian legacy devise, the stumbling through coincidences and convenient deaths and most markedly perhaps in the Frederick story which provides the problem to the courtship plot.

Lucas’s argument that the murder in MB is there to simplify complexities, as Gaskell’s backing away from the ‘muddle’ to liberal pieties which become the novel’s lies can be seen as underlying Gallagher’s analysis of Gaskell’s generic inconsistency, which she sees as an attempt to expose false conventions. 

Significantly however, Gallagher argues that the murder in MB in fact terminates the melodrama of the courtship plot, and exposes the distortions of romance and farce, foregrounding our misreading of the tragedy which these false conventions hide. This can be seen in the romantic idealism of Esther and Mary (originating in the romances Mrs Simmon’s young ladies recommend to each other) as well as in the farcical blindness which seeing nothing as true, authorises victimisation, reading Mary’s behaviour as ‘sly affectation’ as Henry turns the delegation into clowns. 

The melodramatic inclination is embodied in the characters themselves, as they read Jem as the murderer. Mary’s task in saving Jem is, Gallagher argues, a repudiation of melodramatic lies, although it also involves a suppression of the tragic reality. 

In NS, there is a parallel to this view of melodrama as distortion in the Frederick plot which O’Farrell has argued, shows the world’s denial of female expressivity in Margaret’s submission to melodramatic misreading. In contrast to Mary’s journey, facing the ‘pathless ocean’ to the ‘sea of faces’ in the court in her effort to expose the melodramatic lie, Margaret can only regret Bell’s death, since it was one way Thornton might have learned the facts. 

On the other hand, Margaret’s public moment in facing the mob, a scene often compared with Mary’s court appearance, invites a different interpretation. Harman sees this as the central event in the book, a ‘thrilling’ moment as Pilkoulis said, and a very melodramatic one, which Harman argues, stages the difficulty of female publicity, as Margaret’s impersonal ‘woman’s work’ is interpreted within the domestic sphere as a very personal and bold action ‘hugging him before the people’. 

Margaret’s attempt to repudiate this reading can be seen as a parallel to Mary’s denial of the melodrama plot, yet in both cases this is problematised. In MB Sally’s ‘you’ll turn out quite a heroine’ in it’s theatrical idea of heroism as universal regard is not what we see, because Harman argues, Mary’s melodramatic public appearance lacks the agency of Margaret’s, in being disconnected from her act of heroism as well as in her complete loss of control at the end. 

Margaret on the other hand shows an awareness of the romantic implications of her supposedly impersonal action as she regrets throwing herself into the melee ‘like a romantic fool’. Mary’s loss of control and the illness which Gallagher reads in terms of a suppression of the reality of the murder is comparable to Margaret’s regret and subsequent submission to melodramatic misreading but in both novels there is a sense that the melodrama of courtship plots and public appearances serves a purpose beyond the exposure of lies and distortions. 

In MB Lovell argues that the change of direction some have seen as a failure is in some ways appropriate as part of the concentration on the private throughout the novel. The melodrama has in fact been pervasive, located in family suffering, and serves to authorize the author’s right to speak. In this reading, Gaskell’s disclaimer, ‘I know nothing of political economy’, is a strategy which takes the right to speak from empathising with suffering, and the heightened melodramatic forms of suffering in MB serve to enable this.

In a sense, Gaskell takes Carlyle’s ‘articulating the deep wants of the people’ within the woman’s work of sympathy in an attempt to evade the criticism that ‘those who know nothing about the cotton trade should not be allowed to add to the confusion’. Her indirect answer to this reviewer is that ‘we strengthened each other by clashing together’ a belief paralleled in her generic eclecticism.

In NS the resolution in marriage which has been seen as a symbolic resolution can also be seen as Stoneman has argued in terms of a criticism of the ideology of separate spheres as Thornton and Margaret recognise the lies of feminine modesty and unemotional masculinity which underlie the structural of industrial society. Similarly Hughes and Lund have read Margaret’s woman’s work in terms of Gaskell’s interest in the affective lives of her characters rather than in the traditional masculine idea of realism as event and restrained objective analysis. 

This is why the tension which builds up in a climax is deflected into courtship initiated by Margaret’s protective action – Gaskell’s way as a maternal author of saving a blow. This can be compared to Schor’s reading of the maternal in MB as a disruption of the symbolic for example in the gothic mode of visitation, both Mary’s mother’s ghost and Esther’s mother, daughter and sister circling her bed, which Schor reads as the ‘eternal woman’ authoring and erasing herself. 

D’Albertis however rejects this reading as an acceptance of the conflation of deviance and melodrama with the woman’s body and argues that at the end Esther is isolated, another discredited convention in Gallagher’s sense, she is shown to be as Anderson has argued a ‘ghost from another genre’. 

Gaskell’s formal fusion of realism and melodrama "maps urban reality through a twinned perspective" but at the same time reinstates a system of difference between the moral suasion Esther practised and the work of female intermediaries. 

While Esther is a body double for the lady visitor in the sense that both are ‘stopping out when honest woman are in their beds’ her failure to communicate shows the dangers of a fallen status which while allowing paradoxical freedom also involves a Cassandra like quandary. Gaskell’s statement ‘I don’t call the use of words action’ shows the strategy behind her isolating her narrator from Esther’s perspective, from a melodrama which rewards quietism to social ‘realism’ which utilises quasi allegorical scenes promoting sympathy and action.

Esther can in some ways be compared to Bessy in NS. Bessy's role can be seen as a melodramatic portrayer of the favourite Victorian fantasy of dying young woman, yet she is as Stevenson has argued far from little Nell. Her anger is paralleled to Esther’s romance hiding tragedy, and her death, like the Davenports in MB and finally Esther’s can be seen less as an eliding of the issues than as a illustration of the difficulty of intervention and interpretation: Jem fondly restrains Mary from trying the save Esther, John Barton’s money does not save the Davenport’s and Bessy’s authorial and prophetic role is collapsed into her the higher authority book of revelations and her heroic attempts to speak are ended as her breath runs out. 

The parallel Stevenson sees with Gaskell’s attempts to control her own fiction can be seen in the qualifications and self-consciousness of her novels, in MB the shifts in genre, in NS the plot which Holt saw as "sadly disjointed", both show the difficulties facing the woman writers attempt to write other than autobiographically from within what Chapman described as the double bind. To the view that she was, as Chorley put it, risking the danger of ‘unmooring the eager’, Gaskell could only say ‘I’m sure I believe I wrote truth.’ 

written: 2007
Creative Commons License