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Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell
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"Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) caused a storm in 1848 with the publication of her first novel Mary Barton, a tale of love, industrial unrest and murder in Manchester; her husband William was a Unitarian minister in the city, and his congregation included many of the mill-owners whom she attacked for their unfeeling treatment of the poor. Although Gaskell is reformist rather than radical, seeking `dialogue' and understanding between the classes, her novel showed great courage. This bravery was still more evident in Ruth (1853), the first English novel to take `a fallen woman' as its heroine - a problematic figure who is both `pure' and a sinner. While the circulating libraries banned the novel and some outraged readers even burnt it, women writers like Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Barrett Browning praised Ruth strongly, complaining only that is did not go far enough. Gaskell's justification in the face of attack was always her duty to tell the `truth', a justification she later used in connection with her brilliant and controversial Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), a biography credited with founding the `Brontë myth'. Before then she had retreated slightly from controversy with her more conciliatory, though highly dramatic, industrial novel North and South (18545). She also won readers through her short stories in Dickens's Household Worlds in the 1850s, which included the cycle that make up Cranford (1853). Partly based on stories learnt in her youth, when she was brought up by her aunt in Knutsford, Cheshire, this comic, tender yet profound study of single women in a small, gossipy town is perhaps still her best known work.
"Her fiction grew in strength, from the vivid, underrated Sylvia's Lovers (1863), set in Whitby during the Napoleonic Wars, to the haunting novella Cousin Phillis (1864). Her last magnificent novel, Wives and Daughters (1865), blends confident comedy with complex, subversive thought, linking the `male' themes of science, exploration and property to the interior narratives of the upbringing and expectations of women. Gaskell was immensely versatile, alert to the power of different genres, from Gothic melo-drama to rich dialect comedy. Her work combines a deft realism and natural story-telling power with a passionate sense of the way fiction can change people's lives and can expose and combat oppression, whether in the family or society. Beneath the easy surface of her fiction lie unresolved conflicts - about liberalism, evolution, religious doubt, sexuality and power - which give it an enduring force and lasting appeal."
Source: Jenny Uglow. Penguin Web Site (http://www.futurenet.co.uk/Penguin/Academic/classics96/britclassicsauthor.html#fielding). Accessed 17 February 1997.
This is a project of the Department of English and the Faculty of Arts and Science, funded by the Provost's Electronic Courseware Fund. The University of Toronto English Library was created by Ian Lancashire, Christopher Douglas, and Dennis G. Jerz. We wish to thank the University of Toronto Information Commons, and the members of the Centre for Academic Technology, especially John Bradley, Ian Graham, and Allen Forsyth. See individual Works pages for other credits.
The author portrait is a chalk drawing done by George Richmond in 1851. (Source: Kate Flint. Elizabeth Gaskell. Plymouth: Northcote House, 1995. page ii. PR 4711 F45 1995 ROBA.)
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