Wives and Daughters
In Elizabeth Gaskell, alone among the major Victorian novelists, the idyllic element became more rather than less pronounced as she developed.1 Except for Cranford all her early novels are explicitly and persistently concerned with public social problems, at least as much as with private domestic ones. Most of the action of Mary Barton and North and South is set in Manchester (the ‘Drumble’ of Cranford and the ‘Milton’ of North and South) where the social tensions of modern life reveal themselves in their acutest form. But even the purely domestic tale The Moorland Cottage paints an austere, melancholy picture of family division and moral decay in a small community, bespeaking the influence of Wordsworth and Crabbe as well as that of Mitford and the Howitts. In Ruth the two towns in which the heroine begins and ends her career, though they have their idyllic aspects, are scenes of economic exploitation, class and sectarian conflict, spiteful Pharisaism and bitter family dissension. And in North and South the village of Helstone, located near the New Forest in the unspoilt south and looking idyllic ‘like a village in a poem—in one of Tennyson’s poems’, strikes Henry Lennox as owing most of its picturesqueness to its state of dilapidation; when the heroine returns to it near the end of the novel, traversing a landscape that reminds her of ‘German Idyls’ and ‘Evangeline’,2 she finds it riddled with antagonisms, discontent and brutal pagan superstition—somewhat like Deerbrook. Such unidyllic elements are far less conspicuous in Gaskell’s last two novels, Cousin Phillis (1864) and Wives and Daughters (1866).
KeywordsCorn Dust Amid Expense Smoke
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- 2.Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South ( Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970 ) p. 472.Google Scholar
- 9.R.H. Hutton, Review of He Knew He Was Right, Spectator, XLII (1869) 707.Google Scholar
- 14.Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and Daughters (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969) pp. 36, 661.Google Scholar
- 15.The same conclusion was reached by Edgar Wright, in Mrs. Gaskell: the Basis for Reassessment (Oxford University Press, 1965 ) pp. 194–5.Google Scholar