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gaskell - social change

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Social Change and the Woman Writer

Gaskell's disclaimer ‘I know nothing of political economy’ in the preface to Mary Barton can be seen as a attempt to avoid the criticism that she was writing outside her sphere of knowledge, as one reviewer put it ‘the authoress know too little about the cotton trade to e entitled to add to the confusion by writing about it.’ 

In both North and South and Mary Barton Gaskell explores the condition of England from a potion complicated by the double bind expecting women to write semi-autobiographically. Gaskell’s first novel was written in 1848, a year Williams argues was decisive for the social novel as a group of writers found a common form but varying methods not just to reflect their changing society but to define it.

Lucas has argued that social novels are limited by their reliance on stock political attitudes and a failure to deal really honestly with the issues they presented. Gaskell’s novels have been criticised for the way they are perceived to ‘slide off’ the public topic as Oliphant put it. ffrench sees this as a natural escapism which Gaskell attempts to reconcile with the sense of obligation forced on her by upbringing and the times. 

Marxist critics have seen this escapism as the inevitable result of Gaskell’s position as ‘fence sitter’ and observer, her novels marked with a ‘district visitor flavour’ as Kettle put it, with the implication that her distance from the other nation lead her to simplify the muddle of their lives into ‘wild romance’. 

In MB the murder can be seen as a ‘dramatisation of the fear of the mob' as Williams argued bringing about a welcome change of direction to the conventional novel of sentiment. This problematises Gaskell’s claim that John Barton was her hero. 

In NS on the other hand the legacy and marriage can similarly be seen as a way for Gaskell to solve difficulties by going outside them in a symbolic resolution. NS is as Swindells has argued in part a rewriting of MB from the masters point of view, Williams sees it in terms of Gaskell’s taking up her actual position and depicting attitudes to the working class rather than attempting to reach their lives imaginatively.

A central focus of the "muddle" Gaskell faces in MB can be seen in the vacillation Gallagher describes between conscience and causality, most striking in the Frankenstein metaphor where the writer invites sympathy for the poor in speaking of their ‘mute reproach’ and suggesting the responsibility of society but then alters this by finding a positive in free will ‘being a visionary shows a soul’.

The ‘superb reconciliation’ in MB which Tillotson argued shows hope for the persistence of human heartedness is revealed as inadequate as the characters are transported to an uncompromised new world where as Schor says, there is no narrative or structures of authority to ‘overlook’ them. In NS a similar model of reconciliation describes the friendship which develops between Higgins and Thornton which Lucas has argued is characterised like the murder in MB by a move from representative lives to eccentricity. 

Lucas argues that Gaskell’s liberal pieties became her first novel's lies and that her moralising comments and shallow interpretive side stands between the audience and the hero. However he also notes the persistence ‘reek of helplessness’ in the novel, the sense of the inadequacy of words in the davenports scene for example where Wilson and John Barton attempt, one by clichés the other by rage, to understand the muddle. 

In NS, this search for a pattern can be seen in Bessy who as Stevenson says is a figure for the author, but whose breath runs out halfway through the novel, and whose prophetic role is undermined by the turn to the book of revelation. Bessy however is no little Nell, as John Barton is no Stephen Blackpool. As Gallagher has noted, when he turns to religion it is not for solace but revenge: comparing Dives and Lazarus.

The realism in the novels is not restricted to Gaskell’s often documentary style but also for the presentation of life, which goes beyond imaginative identification. The fact that the davenports like Boucher are not saved like mb’s giving money to a starving Italian child suggests the futility of charity which offers only temporary relief and repudiates the common idea that only the working class can help and better each other. 

Gaskell’s counters this by her accounts of suffering emphasised as Eason has argued by contrasts. Asa Briggs calling Manchester a theatre of contrasts indicates the sense in which the two nations where divided at the time. As Tillotson has said, bridging this divide by creating images in the comfortable readers mind was perhaps primarily the role of the novelist. While Gaskell does not she argues provide blue prints fro social reform she promises a changed heart. In these terms Tillotson sees Gaskell’s novels not as a novel with a social purpose but with a social effect, stemming from her involvement in her subject.

Tillotson however repudiates the view that Gaskell is a propagandist for sympathy as Barbara hardy says, taking the scene where job and john describe alternate London experience in her argument that Gaskell’s concern was with the gentle humanities of life beyond the frustrations of political action, this makes John’s story timeless. The ‘courage and kindness’ with which Gaskell presented unfamiliar views in order to promote sympathy invites a paternalist reading of Gaskell as presenting a model of benevolent authority finally shown in the change in a forgiving Carson and a humanised Thornton. 

In MB this can be seen in Schors reading of Gaskell as maternal author. Jennings putting on a woman nightcap to hush a baby includes a suggestion Schor argues that the imitation of maternal ‘watching over’ rather than the overlooking encoded into the masculine industrial system. 

In NS Hughes and Lund describe the ‘slide’ from the mob scene into the courtship plot in terms of Gaskell’s women’s work like Margaret's saving a blow, disrupting the male plot of progression to climax. In contrast to the Marxist critics Stoneman sees NS as dealing more honestly with class issues than MB, where she argues the axes of gender and class intersect as the working class are feminised. In NS on the other hand both working class and middle class are controlled by the masculine codes of aggression and violence. 

In this sense the marriage is not a symbolic resolution but a step beyond the gender lies which structure the industrial system, the feminine lie which places modesty above all, and the masculine lie which rejects emotion. However, the idea of Gaskell as maternal author is also problematic as Schor argues. While masters reduce working class to animals or clowns, motherhood requires children, reducing john barton’s articulate arguments to a ‘cry’. 

As Gallagher has noted the religious homily which ends the novel includes a new interpretation of John Barton’s life, as he struggles with his soul for a character to take into the next world. The struggle of interpretation which Gallagher sees as marking the whole book and necessitating its generic inconsistency ends with the shift from ‘cause’ as causality to partisan politics ‘the cause he had so blindly espoused’ and to being ‘the cause of another’s woe’. The insensitivity which had been the province of the masters is shifted onto John Barton as he becomes guilty like Carson of deafness to the ‘pitiful cries’ of children and responsible for ‘blighted homes’.

As Lovell has argued, MB while structured around public scenes concentrates on the private, with the rejection of the petition for example told offstage. Similarly in NS we do not see the factory girls Margaret’s describes at work, Bessy’s experiences are narrated, and her sister is kept from the factory at all costs. There is a parallel here with Esther’s story’s whose fall began with factory work. Stevenson suggests this is connected to the problem of working women, as Feltes argues writers in the 19c saw themselves as workers in control of their own labour. 

In this sense the reduction of arguments to a cry like Bessy’s literal inability to speak can be seen in terms of Gaskell’s identification with the voicelessness of the working class. The chartists struggle for a voice and rights often seems to become a parallel to the women writers struggle to shape her own plots. This can be seen in the way the anonymity of MB is countered by the feminine tone which finds the authority to speak in empathy with suffering, deciphering the ‘wild romance’ of the lives of those who ‘elbowed [her] daily in the streets’ as a way to call for a reformation of the world which produces such plots as D’Albertis argues, and the ‘slide’ in this context can be seen in terms of a twinned perspective which differentiates between social realism words which inspire action, and the quietism of melodrama. 

Taking on the domestic task of persuasion Gaskell’s social novels reveal the tensions between public and private spheres and in their ‘formal fusion’ enact as Bodenheimer says, the experimental social activity Gaskell supports, as she says ‘I believe we all do strengthen each other by clashing together’. 

written: 2007;
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