Elizabeth Gaskell : Contribution to Novel

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      Mrs Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (1810-1865), was the daughter of William Stevenson, who was, at one time, a Unitarian minister. She was born in London, but, her mother dying a month after her birth, she was adopted by an aunt who lived at Knutsford, near Manchester. In 1832 she married William Gaskell, a distinguished Unitarian minister working in Manchester. Her death took place in Hampshire.

It is convenient to consider Mrs Gaskell's writings in two groups rather than in the chronological order of their appearance. Her first novel was a sociological study based on her experience of the conditions of the labouring classes in the new cities of the industrial North.
Mrs Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

      It is convenient to consider Mrs Gaskell's writings in two groups rather than in the chronological order of their appearance. Her first novel was a sociological study based on her experience of the conditions of the labouring classes in the new cities of the industrial North. Mary Barton, A Tale of Manchester Life (1848) gives a realistic view of the hardships caused by the Industrial Revolution seen from the workers point of view. It is weak in plot, but nevertheless has some fine scenes, and it is carried forward by the strength of its passionate sympathy with the downtrodden. North and South (1855) is on a similar theme and its plot is better managed. Like its predecessor it has some fine dramatic incidents. Sylvia's Lovers (1863) is a moralistic love story in a domestic setting, with which scenes of wilder beauty and human violence are well blended, but the novel is spoilt by its unsatisfactory and rather melodramatic ending. Her last, and unfinished, novel, Wives and Daughters (1866), is by many considered her best. It is an ironical study of snobbishness, which is remarkable for its fine female characters such as Mrs Gibson, Molly Gibson, and Cynthia Kirkpatrick.

      Mrs Gaskell is, however, at her best in a different sphere - that of simple domesticity and everyday folk. Cranford (1855), her most celebrated work, is less a novel than a series of papers in the manner of The Spectator. Light, gently humorous in tone, the papers deal wth lite as, the author had known it in Knutsford, and the characters, among them the celebrated Miss Matty, are unforgettable. In a similar vein are her shorter stories, My Lady Ludlow (1858) and Cousin Phillips (1863-64). Her other work consisted largely of short stories and the well-known biography of her friend, Charlotte Brontë, which appeared in 1857.

      The writings of Mrs Gaskell combine something of the delicate humour of Jane Austen with a moralistic intention not unlike that of George Eliot, but she is far less in stature than either. Her workmanship is too often uncertain, and her plots are generally weak and not infrequently melodramatic. Often the pathos, which she can handle with great effect, deteriorates into sentimentality, while her aims as a moralist lead her into preaching. Her style is simple, lucid, and unaffected, and at her best she has a delicate grace and charm.

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