In 1897, an anthology of essays celebrating “women novelists of Queen Victoria’s reign” declared Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot to be “pre-eminent,” possessing a “genius which time, fashion or progress cannot dim or take from.” Today, Charlotte Brontë and Eliot, along with Jane Austen and Emily Brontë, have far eclipsed Gaskell in popularity. Gaskell’s house in Manchester, recently restored and running a lively program of talks, workshops, and book groups, receives less than a tenth of the visitors that come from all over the world to marvel at the miniature books and open moors of the Brontë Parsonage, which is a little more than an hour’s drive away. Gaskell’s bicentenary, in 2010, received nothing like the avalanche of articles, books, and adaptations that have accompanied the recent bicentenaries of Charlotte and Emily Brontë, and of each of Austen’s novels. And, although the BBC has made beloved adaptations of Gaskell’s “North and South” and “Cranford,” we have yet to see “Wives and Daughters and Zombies,” “Lost in Gaskell” or “Mary Barton: The series.”
Certainly, Gaskell’s fiction lacks some of the qualities admired in these other writers. Though a number of her novels turn on Austen-style courtship plots, they do not share Austen’s wit and economy. Her style can seem stodgily Victorian, her tone overly earnest, melodramatic, or sentimental. (A couple of years ago, I taught for a professor who asked students to rewrite a scene from “Pride and Prejudice” in the style of “North and South,” or vice versa. Nothing could have been crueller to the latter than seeing, in the hands of sharp-eyed undergraduate Gaskell-impersonators, Austen’s subtext become text and her sentences grow cluttered with details of personal appearance and domestic interior.) George Eliot is more intellectual and more ambitious than Gaskell, her narrators more penetrating and empathetic. The Brontës are more intense and more intensely weird.
But I suspect that the comparative lack of generosity with which time, fashion, and progress have treated Gaskell has as least as much to do with her stuffy image as with her work, which has its own admirable qualities. She was more versatile than many of her casual readers realize: alongside her better-known realist novels, she wrote ghost stories, historical fiction, and the first biography of Charlotte Brontë. “Cranford,” a collection of stories set in the titular village, and the novella “My Lady Ludlow” both imagine a world almost entirely inhabited by women. Unlike Eliot and the Brontë sisters, who often set their novels in the past, Gaskell was, in her early works, at least, fiercely and explicitly concerned with the present and its problems. Her first three novels sit alongside those by Charles Dickens and Charles Kingsley as “Condition of England” novels: works written in the mid-nineteenth-century that portrayed relations between rich and poor in a country transformed by industrialization. Though this transformation had begun several decades earlier, it attracted renewed attention because of a severe economic depression in the eighteen-forties and a resulting increase in the spread and depth of urban poverty.
Gaskell’s first novel, “Mary Barton” (1848), and much of her third, “North and South” (1855), take place in Manchester (renamed “Milton” in the latter), where she spent her adult life. More than any other city, Manchester was made by industrialization, its population more than quadrupling during the first half of the nineteenth-century as would-be workers sought jobs in rapidly multiplying cotton mills and factories. By the time that Gaskell was writing, it was the second biggest city in England. It was in Manchester, shortly after he first met Karl Marx, that Friedrich Engels wrote “The Condition of the Working Class in England” (1845), based on his observations of the city’s industrial poor. “The art of modern Manufacture has reached its perfection in Manchester,” he writes, before describing conditions that strike a twenty-first-century reader as depressingly familiar: “hand-labor” replaced by machinery, the city arranged to keep the working class out of sight of the bourgeoisie, and a shortage of living space that meant that “no hole is so bad but that some poor creature must take it who can pay for nothing better.”
This is the environment of “Mary Barton,” perhaps the first work by a canonical novelist to take place almost entirely among the very poor. Like Engels, Gaskell knows that the consequences of unfettered capitalism are misery for the majority and antagonism between rich and poor. Her novels show those consequences, and investigate what might best do the fettering: charity, government intervention, unionization. Like today, changing labor-market and employment practices were raising new questions about what employers owe workers and what workers owe one another. To read “Mary Barton” and “North and South” today is to encounter these questions as they were first asked in a recognizably modern capitalist framework, when such a framework felt new and strange. The recent film “Sorry to Bother You,” created by the musician and community organizer Boots Riley, makes this framework strange again. Released only a few weeks after the Supreme Court’s Janus ruling, and a few days before the strikes and protests that accompanied Amazon’s Prime Day, it depicts labor organizing in a hyper-capitalist world that is simultaneously horrifying and only a step or two more extreme than our own. Though separated by a century and a half, as well as by their creators’ politics, Gaskell’s novels and “Sorry to Bother You” both ask the price of individual success in a capitalist order, and explore the potential of organizing, and striking, to undermine that order.
Gaskell’s purpose is not to inspire revolution. As she writes in the preface to “Mary Barton,” she wishes primarily to raise awareness of the “agony of suffering” of Manchester’s poor. At times, she describes unions as if they are simply, and marvellously, a formalized version of community: a way for workers to take better care of one another. But she also worries about the power of unions to stir up class hatred and to become, in the words of one of her union-skeptical workers, “a worser tyrant than e’er th’masters were.” In “Mary Barton,” we see events from the perspective of the working class, and most of the capitalists are arrogant and callous. Gaskell’s readers (who were, after all, more likely to be or to associate with factory owners than factory workers) criticized the novel for being one-sided; “North and South,” published seven years later, is determinedly evenhanded. The heroine of “Mary Barton” is the daughter of an out-of-work union member. The heroine of “North and South” is, like Gaskell herself, the daughter of a clergyman who moves to Manchester as a young woman. Used to the lingering feudalism of rural southern England, she asks both capitalists and workers to explain their values and actions to her. Why do workers strike? Why do factory owners not involve the workers in the decisions they make?
Despite their different perspectives, however, both novels argue for communication and mutual respect more than they do for collective action or concrete change. Gaskell’s workers are angry not simply because their wages have been lowered, but because the factory owners have neither listened to their complaints nor explained why the wages have been lowered. The owners should try to find a remedy for the workers’ suffering, but if they can’t find one, the knowledge that they have tried will help the workers to endure those times when business is bad, trusting that their employers will reward them when business improves. “God has made us so that we must be mutually dependent,” the heroine of “North and South” tells a mill owner. If masters and men can recognize one another as fully human, and their interests as bound up with one another, a factory can express, not affront, Gaskell’s Christian worldview.
Gaskell brings about the state of affairs she wishes to see. In both novels, the inflexible capitalist realizes the error of his ways. He begins to value his workers as more than just instruments of profit and, as a result, makes changes that benefit both their lives and his own. But, in both cases, the capitalist’s transformation is highly circumstantial: one is caused by the murder of his son, the other by the Christian values of his future wife. What happens to those workers whose employer has no sons, or whose wife is as focussed on profit as he? The politics of “Sorry to Bother You” are entirely different from Gaskell’s but, as in “Mary Barton” and “North and South,” its mostly optimistic ending is produced by events unlikely to exist outside of fiction. If we wait around for the solutions that Gaskell and Riley offer, we’ll be waiting a long time. The implausible, hopeful endings of these works send their audiences back to their bleak middles, and tell us to find our own way out.