200 years of Elizabeth Gaskell

on 29 September 2010

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Elizabeth Gaskell.  And since she's one of my all time favorite writers I thought that I would jot down some thoughts and inspire all of you to pick her up and give her a read.

I read this extraordinary biography of her last year in Brunswick, called a Habit of Stories.  It talked about how she had this life that was at once very ordinary and NOT ordinary at all.  Her mother died when she was very young and she was raised by these very loving aunts.  Because she was Unitarian, she was surrounded by very well educated, progressive thinking people.  She later married a Unitarian. 

She did all the things a good, upstanding, middle-class housewife does in the mid-nineteenth century.  She bore and cared for her children, she organized and ran her household, she supported her husband as a minister, she gave to the poor and the needy, she read and educated herself.  And when her young son died at just 10 months old, she dug herself out of her grief by writing.

One of the things I love about Gaskell is that she never really LOVED writing.  She was very good at it.  But she did it more because a story kept poking at her to be told and not because she genuinely loved the act of writing.  In some of her letters she seems almost annoyed that she has to devote so much time to writing this confounded book or another.  It's quite funny but also not.

She worried compulsively about her daughters.  She wanted them happy above all.  She didn't care if they married or not so long as they were content.  She tried to provide a variety of opportunities for them, for education, for travel and for interaction with a wide circle of people. 

She wasn't the kind of self-righteous, hypocritical "preacher's wife" that one almost comes to expect in the 19th century.  She was interested in practical Christianity, in using the way one lived one's life to define the scope of their religious belief.  Of using our choices and our actions to proclaim our faith.  She didn't let societal conventions stop her from doing something she knew to be right.

But most of all she was interested in living her life to the fullest.  The happy and the sad.  She didn't want to shrink from any of it.  She didn't gloss over or edit out the seamier, seedier, shiftier, shadier parts of life.  She seemed to create this bounty around her and you really see that in her novels.  They burst beyond the two dimensional page into a fullness of flowers and landscape, of emotions and intuitions, of fully developed and complicated people.

She's absolutely wonderful.  Now go and read one of her books today.


Cel and JP said...

yes, ma'am. you hooked me!