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Friday, September 14, 2012

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South
by Elizabeth Gaskell
published in 1855

     In Lord David Cecil's seminal Early Victorian Novelists: Essays in Re-Evaluation, published in 1934, the Author discusses seven Early Victorian Novelists:  Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell/Mrs Gaskell, Anthony Trollope & George Eliot.

  If you compare those names in terms of Popularity on an Ngram- you've got George Eliot, Charles Dickens & Charlotte Bronte as the clear 1, 2, 3 and then the rest as clear also-rans grouped together at the bottom as a "flat-line."  Perhaps the "George Eliot" statistics include other George Eliot's, but the chart seems rather clear about Dickens and Charlotte Bronte being on top and every other Early Victorian Novelist having lesser popularity.

    Cecil, writing in 1932- mind you- close to a hundred years ago, already knew that Dickens and Bronte were number 1-2, which follows the Chapter order.  He identifies George Eliot as being on the cusp of the Modern Novel, and thus partially not an "Early Victorian Novelist."

    If you then compare the top three Early Victorian Novelists: Dickens, C. Bronte & Eliot to three comparably popular but excluded Novelists: Herman Melville, Jane Austen and Nathaniel Hawthorne, you can see that Austen, Dickens and Eliot maintaining a long term advantage over the rest of the field, Austen being number one "pre-Victorian" and Dickens being number one "Early Victorian."

    Set against this back drop, Elizabeth Gaskell is notable for her own work and for her work popularizing one of the top three Early Victorian Novelists, Charlotte Bronte.  As I've noted here before, Elizabeth Gaskell wrote a laudatory biography of Charlotte Bronte that enjoyed it's own massive popularity.   North and South is basically Gaskell's attempt to write an "Uncle Tom's Cabin" type of book about the factory worker/owner relationship, except she is on the side of the factory owner/slave holder.   I think she obviously deserves credit for pulling the Early Victorian Novel into the "present" in terms of plot matter but at the same time her style lacks the smooth psychological realism that began with George Eliot.

   Gaskell's flaw, as diagnosed by Cecil, is her inability to describe large-scale action sequences- the example in North and South is the risible Strike scene where the heroine literally rushes out in front of an angry mob and has a rock thrown at her head by a striker. However, like Uncle Tom's Cabin the sheer novelty of taking a power relationship seriously is worthy of inclusion onto a list like 1001 Books To Read Before You Die.  Gaskell has multiple books on the list.

   In fact, I only learned of the Cecil book by the bibliography included with the Oxford World's Classics version of Mary Barton, which was her first Novel published in 1848.  Mary Barton is on the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die list, as is Cranford, published in 1853.  I had to read Cranford in it's Dover Thrift Edition, which is a clear sign of "minor classic" status today.

  I question whether you need three whole Gaskell title on the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die list, she was writing at the same time as Dickens, and while I understand why you want to include minor Authors- and one Gaskell book is great- three is over kill, especially because of the lack of contemporary interest.  Or perhaps that's a reason to include her.  I don't know.

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