Sylvia’s Lovers, Elizabeth Gaskell

Whitby

At the start of the novel young Sylvia Robson, a farmer’s daughter, is approaching the seaside whaling community of Monkshaven (Whitby) to buy cloth for a new cloak.

It was a pretty scene, though it was too familiar to the eyes of all who then saw it for them to notice its beauty. The sun was low enough in the west to turn the mist that filled the distant valley of the river into golden haze. Above, on either bank of the Dee, there lay the moorland heights swelling one behind the other; the nearer, russet brown with the tints of the fading bracken; the more distant, gray and dim against the rich autumnal sky. The red and fluted tiles of the gabled houses rose in crowded irregularity on one side of the river, while the newer suburb was built in more orderly and less picturesque fashion on the opposite cliff.

Sylvia’s Lovers (1863) was Elizabeth Gaskell’s last full length novel to be published before her death. Set against the background of the French Revolutionary wars (1792-1802) it is a tale of the conflicting claims of two lovers for the hand of the heroine, Sylvia. Elizabeth called it ‘the saddest book I ever wrote’.

Its core theme, social injustice, had been the province of Elizabeth’s full life. She had addressed injustice in a practical sense, as a volunteer working in the rapidly industrialising Manchester, a city that Friedrich Engels called ‘Hell upon earth’. She had also written gripping novels full of psychological complexity, that exposed the degradations of the working class. Her writing, like that of Dickens, sparked a debate about the ‘Condition of England’ which eventually led to legislative change.

Although Sylvia’s Lovers is an historical novel, she continued her interest in examining how big causes (industrialisation or in this case war) ripple outwards to destroy people and their communities. Her sense of injustice burns white hot in this early description of the violent incursion of the press-gang on a whaling community in Whitby.

The story opens as the townspeople are about to welcome home their sons and husbands who have been away for many months with the whaling fleet in the arctic. Their ship has just returned and is lying offshore. Sylvia is in Foster’s shop on Bridge Street, and in the midst of the excitement she chooses scarlet cloth for her new cloak instead of the more practical grey. But hidden behind a cliff, a press gang is lying in wait to abduct the town’s men to fight the French in the Napoleonic Wars. Sylvia’s playfulness turns to horror when the men are seized before even being able to set foot on land.

And now Molly Corney joined them, hastily bursting into the shop.

‘Hech!’ said she. ‘Hearken! how they’re crying and shouting down on t’ quay. T’ gang’s among ’em like t’ day of judgment. Hark!’

No one spoke, no one breathed, I had almost said no heart beat for listening. Not long; in an instant there rose the sharp simultaneous cry of many people in rage and despair. Inarticulate at that distance, it was yet an intelligible curse, and the roll, and the roar, and the irregular tramp came nearer and nearer……

By this time the vanguard of the crowd came pressing up Bridge Street, past the windows of Foster’s shop. It consisted of wild, half-amphibious boys, slowly moving backwards, as they were compelled by the pressure of the coming multitude to go on, and yet anxious to defy and annoy the gang by insults, and curses half choked with their indignant passion, doubling their fists in the very faces of the gang who came on with measured movement, armed to the teeth, their faces showing white with repressed and determined energy against the bronzed countenances of the half-dozen sailors, who were all they had thought it wise to pick out of the whaler’s crew, this being the first time an Admiralty warrant had been used in Monkshaven for many years…… pressing around this nucleus of cruel wrong, were women crying aloud, throwing up their arms in imprecation, showering down abuse as hearty and rapid as if they had been a Greek chorus. Their wild, famished eyes were strained on faces they might not kiss, their cheeks were flushed to purple with anger or else livid with impotent craving for revenge. Some of them looked scarce human; and yet an hour ago these lips, now tightly drawn back so as to show the teeth with the unconscious action of an enraged wild animal, had been soft and gracious with the smile of hope; eyes, that were fiery and bloodshot now, had been loving and bright; hearts, never to recover from the sense of injustice and cruelty, had been trustful and glad only one short hour ago.

This scene works as a blooding for the little working class community of Monkshaven (Whitby). Like many British coastal communities at the turn of the eighteenth century, its people led tough but simple lives on the land or at sea, and the only thing that changed was the seasons. But with the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars impressment was used to forcibly recruit men into the British Royal Navy to be used as cannon fodder. Impressment had a devastating impact on the lives of the men but also the women and children left behind who, without a main source of income, faced starvation or the poor house. Unsurprisingly then, the women, aided by the rest of the community, would often use their fists, brickbats or what ever came to hand in a bid to liberate their men. Gaskell shows that along this stretch of coastline the press gang inspired neither fear nor submission, but hatred and rage. ‘My county folk are all alike. Their first thought is how to resist.’ In fact the resistance shown in Whitby was so fierce that it eventually became a no-go area for the gang.

When we first meet her, Sylvia at seventeen is ‘a character as undeveloped as a child’s, affectionate, wilful, naughty, tiresome, charming, anything, in fact, at present that the chances of an hour called out.’ She has captured the heart of her cousin Philip Hepburn, a virtuous man, but her own heart is set on a flamboyant whaler, Charley Kinraid. She spurns Philip’s attempt to teach her reading and a little arithmetic, instead filling her head with flights of fancy. Sylvia and her whaler declare their love but soon afterwards Kinraid is nabbed by the press-gang. Philip witnesses the abduction but keeps this secret from Sylvia, as his love for her overpowers his conscience and judgement. Much of the novel’s action hangs on this deception and it leads to Philip’s moral downfall. ‘I ha’ made thee my idol’, he says to Sylvia at the end of the book.

Arising from this romantic triangle are themes of loss and betrayal, guilt and redemption, individual freedom versus the power of the state, played out against a carefully researched historical backdrop.

Beginnings

Elizabeth Gaskell lived in Manchester all her married life and had five children, raising four daughters to adulthood. The daughter of one Unitarian clergyman and the wife of another, the nonconformist religious outlook of this church shaped everything about her. Unitarians believed that freedom of thought and rationality, guided by scientific discovery could coexist with religious faith. They further believed that women should be educated and given the opportunity to be active in the world. Elizabeth was raised with the conviction that social evils and injustices were created not by the divine, but by humans, and she set out to expose oppression wherever she found it.

Her marriage to William was a happy one. As well as their faith, they shared a love of music and literature. He was tall, thin and austere but with a dry sense of humour; she was short, round and chatty with a weakness for cake. There was constant teasing, warmth and affection between them. William would correct her grammar and popped the first cheque she received for her writing in his pocket as a joke which, unusually for the times, it genuinely was. As a Unitarian, he supported her endeavours and accepted her desire for independence.

As a young bride from rural Cheshire Elizabeth was brought to the heart of life in Manchester which was then one of the largest industrialised cities in the world. Its population had exploded from 4,000 or so in 1800 to 400,000 by the time she arrived, thirty-two years later. It was a startling world, then in the grip of a cholera epidemic. She did what she could to help. Throughout her life she worked with the poor, disseminating the latest scientific knowledge (she was a friend of Florence Nightingale); offering comfort where needed, distributing food and clothing, and teaching at Sunday school. This work gave her an insight into the lives of some of the most deprived people in Britain. The deep seam of sorrowful life in which she witnessed unimaginable scenes of starvation and poverty made a lasting impression.

Elizabeth was effervescent in nature, a charming, thoughtful and perceptive woman who took great pleasure in communicating with people from all walks of life. Her easy intimacy put people at their ease and she drew out the best in them.

The friendships of other women had a profound influence on her life. She had been raised by an aunt in the bosom of an extended female family, in the Cheshire town of Knutsford (on which Cranford is based). As she later wrote in Cranford (1853) the town was ‘in possession of the Amazons’: a core of uniquely strong women whose ethos harked back to the eighteenth century, when women (in contrast to the Victorian era) could be funny, outspoken and very much part of the community. The novel portrays this early life, formed by a rebellious sense of female independence. Elizabeth became outspoken, and in turn lent the ability to speak out to some of the characters in her books. She believed that a great deal of the harshness of the world would be remedied if men could free the feminine aspect of their nature.

Elizabeth hungered for the stories of others. She wanted every nuance, every detail, right down to whether they ate tapioca for lunch. She wrote to her friend Lizzy, who had confided her own feelings, ‘you cannot weary me by so doing, for I take the greatest interest in every particular, and I heartily wish you were here, with your sweet comforting face, and I would listen, and talk, & talk, & listen.’

Writing

At essential points in Elizabeth’s life, her husband William helped her through difficult times. One of the darkest of these occurred after the death of their ten-month old son from scarlet fever. Losing her usual zest for life, Elizabeth had fallen into despair. William encouraged her to write a novel, attempting a wider scope than the short stories that she had already begun to write. He hoped it could provide relief from the relentlessness of her grief.

Mary Barton (subtitled A Tale of Manchester Life) was the result. It was published anonymously in 1848 and immediately became a bestseller. It gives voice to the poor labouring in the mills of the industrial north. In the preface she wrote that she was inspired to write the novel by wondering,

How deep might be the romance in the lives of some of those who elbowed me daily in the busy streets of the town in which I resided. I had always felt a deep sympathy with the careworn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and want.

The novel was confronting and pricked the conscience of much of the nation. Charles Kingsley said it was a book with the mission of explaining one class to another. Thomas Carlyle said it was ‘far above the ordinary garbage of novels’, and wrote to her that it rang with ‘honesty and truth’. Charles Dickens stood up and took notice. Elizabeth’s career as a political/social novelist was born.

Gaskell was deeply humanitarian and some of her work was ahead of its time in its sympathetic portrayal of unpopular causes. Her second novel Ruth (1853) explored the predicament of the ‘fallen’ woman. Ruth is a fifteen-year old milliner who is seduced and has an illegitimate child. Nobody had ever made such a girl the protagonist of a novel before. Elizabeth’s compassionate portrait of Ruth challenged Victorian views on sin and illegitimacy. She wanted to win her readers over. Like Dickens, she believed that if they could identify with a person in a particular situation, they would learn far more than thousands of dry parliamentary reports about workers’ lives and working conditions. With her acute observations and keen emotional nuance, she captured the whole strata of English society, and in the process she established a significant literary reputation.

Juggling

Elizabeth had to fit her writing around a busy household, a growing circle of literary friends, (Dickens, the Brontës and Carlyles, Charles Kingsley) and the charitable duties of a minister’s wife. She would write anywhere, in freezing or sun-filled rooms, at a desk, or in a field. She wrote a great deal in her dining room and, like Jane Austen, whom she much admired, she would hide her papers at the approach of visitors. It was a struggle to manage the many demands on her time. In a letter to her friend Eliza, she confessed to having conflicting parts to her personality, multiple ‘mes’:

and that’s the plague. One of my mes is, I do believe, a true Christian—(only people call her socialist and communist), another of my mes is a wife and mother, and highly delighted at the delight of everyone else in the house … Now that’s my ‘social’ self I suppose. Then again I’ve another self with a full taste for beauty and convenience which is pleased on its own account. How am I to reconcile all these warring members?

Enjoying nothing better than being on the move, she wrote to Mary Howitt in 1838: ‘I feel a stirring instinct and long to be off…just like a bird wakens up from its content at the change of the seasons’. And wherever she arrived, whether in the Lake District, the slums of Lancashire or the salons of Paris, she was avid for anecdotes from local people, collecting personal memories and accounts, histories, customs and folk tales.

Visit to Whitby

In November 1859 Elizabeth Gaskell spent a wet and windy fortnight in Whitby on the Yorkshire coast with two of her four daughters, Julia and Meta, ostensibly for the sake of Julia’s health. Her friendship with Charlotte Brontë had introduced her to the ‘great waving hills’ of the Yorkshire moors ‘which seemed to girdle the world like the great Norse serpent’. She was in the mood for a wild place.

They stayed at a guesthouse in Abbey Terrace on the West Cliff, run by a family who had lived in Whitby for generations. Elizabeth spent hours with the elderly matriarch of the guesthouse, listening to her girlhood memories of the press-gang of the 1790s. She met Perronet Thompson who told her more about the impressment system, and she interviewed the local bookseller, the Unitarian minister, and fat old ‘Fish Jane’ who lurked by the harbour wall. Their stories helped her to imagine the place as the isolated whaling port it would have been just sixty years before, reeking of blubber and bone.

Ignoring the rain, they walked the cobbled streets every day. They climbed the steep stairs to the old church on the hill, a low squat, building that seems to hunch itself against the gale force winds, in a churchyard ‘rich in the dead’. She described the contents of the graveyard vividly in Sylvia’s Lovers:

Masters, mariners, shipowners, seamen: it seemed strange how few other trades were represented in that great plain so full of upright gravestones. Here and there was a memorial stone, placed by some survivor of a large family, most of whom perished at sea: – “supposed to have perished in the Greenland seas”, “Shipwrecked in the Baltic”, “Drowned off the coast of Iceland”. There was a strange sensation, as if the cold sea-winds must bring with them the dim phantoms of those lost sailors.

Although she probably had never intended to write a novel set there, she returned to Manchester excited with new ideas. She immersed herself for months in further extensive research before she began.

Writing Sylvia’s Lovers

Sylvia’s Lovers took three years to complete, far longer than any of her other novels. It was written in three volumes and the different tone of each reflects Gaskell’s experiences at the time of writing. The first, begun in the spring of 1860, was full of a bright, energetic realism. The second was heavy with grief and loss, reflecting her own various family crises. The third volume was hopeful, almost spiritual in nature, written when Gaskell was desperately seeking a better world.

At the time Gaskell’s Manchester was afflicted by the shortages in the supply of cotton from America, leading to the Lancashire cotton famine. As workers in the mills were laid off, soup kitchens were springing up to feed a starving underclass. By April 1861, a Civil war in America had become inevitable and Britain was in dread of becoming involved. It was a time of unrest, tremendous hardship and civic debate. While she was engrossed in writing of the horrors of the earlier French conflict only sixty years prior, the looming threat of a new war was yet another terrible example to Gaskell of a world ‘where might is right and violence is law.’

The Role of Topography

A feature common to all Gaskell’s works, but particularly present in Sylvia’s Lovers, is the relationship between place and movement, and the balancing of a need to stay with the desire to escape. This was one of the central concerns of Gaskell’s life. She had never been deeply attached to Manchester in the way her husband was and found long sojourns in the city oppressive, needing to flee its industrial bleakness for a rural environment. In Sylvia’s Lovers, the first two chapters use camera-like shifts, juxtaposing close up details about the little town of Monkshaven (Whitby) and its surrounding countryside with the panoramic view of the sea.

The principal street of the town ran parallel to the stream, and smaller lanes branched out of this, and straggled up the sides of the steep hill, between which and the river the houses were pent in. There was a bridge across the Dee, and consequently a Bridge Street running at right angles to the High Street; and on the south side of the stream there were a few houses of more pretension, around which lay gardens and fields. It was on this side of the town that the local aristocracy lived. And who were the great people of this small town? Not the younger branches of the county families that held hereditary state in their manor-houses on the wild bleak moors, that shut in Monkshaven almost as effectually on the land side as ever the waters did on the sea-board. No; these old families kept aloof from the unsavoury yet adventurous trade which brought wealth to generation after generation of certain families in Monkshaven.

Of the sea she wrote:

a flat pavement of sapphire, scarcely a ripple varying its sunny surface, that stretched out leagues away till it blended with the softened azure of the sky. On this blue trackless water floated scores of white-sailed fishing boats, apparently motionless, unless you measured their progress by some land-mark; but still, and silent, and distant as they seemed, the consciousness that there were men on board, each going forth into the great deep, added unspeakably to the interest felt in watching them.

Encapsulated in these shifts are themes of stasis and movement; time and timelessness; present and future, entrapment and freedom. Gaskell was interested in the effect of geography and the environment on the human psyche and character. The earlier chapters with their contrasts of constriction versus freedom foreshadow Sylvia’s later existence: unhappily married to Philip Hepburn, she feels trapped in the town and longs for escape to the wide, open spaces of the clifftops where she can breathe freely and mourn her past.

Publication

Although it was overshadowed by her other novels, this was a work to which Elizabeth felt particularly committed. In a letter to her publishers in 1862 she wrote, ‘I cannot help liking it myself, but that may be because firstly I have taken great pains with it, and secondly I know the end’. Her biographer Jenny Uglow writes that this novel is full of ‘deep sadness and perplexity, where ‘despite her Unitarian optimism, Gaskell almost despairs in her attempt to fit the bewilderment of grief and the ravages of nature into the meliorist framework of history and a trust in divine providence.’

Elizabeth’s close friend, the American scholar and critic Eliot Norton, wrote to her in April 1863 after reading the novel:

Since I last wrote to you I have read Sylvia’s Lovers. Had I taken up the book by chance, not knowing who wrote it, I should have read it with deep interest, and with tender, respectful admiration. But having had the happiness of knowing & loving you, and you having given me the book in a way that makes it very dear to me, – I have read it with such feeling as few other books have ever called out in me.

Elizabeth managed to squeeze six novels, a major biography of her friend Charlotte Brontë, dozens of short stories and thousands of letters into her busy, active life before it was cut short by a heart attack when she was fifty-five.

Legacy

After her death Elizabeth Gaskell was hailed by the press as ‘one of the greatest female novelists of all time’, but her literary reputation quickly faded. She remains in the shadow of her contemporaries, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Charles Dickens. Her label as ‘Mrs Gaskell’ did her no favours, conjuring up the image of a conventional, middle-class Victorian mother, a do-gooder and something of a prude. To borrow a put down from Lord David Cecil, she was a dove among literary eagles, sweet and feminine, whereas Brontë and Eliot were allowed to soar.

Virginia Woolf joined the sneerers and called her a ‘modest, capable woman’. She objected to her ‘instinctive fluency, as if Mrs G sat down to write with the cat on her knee’. Elizabeth did write effortlessly and at speed. In parts of the manuscript for Sylvia’s Lovers, the writing runs to the edge of the pages and slips down in her eagerness to begin the next page. Her ability to picture scenes and transcribe them vividly, with filmic accuracy, lends the work an artless quality, and it is this quality that Virginia Woolf disliked.

But since the 1950s there has been a growing resurgence in Gaskell’s popularity. When the BBC’s adaptation of North and South (1854) aired in 2004, the BBC were taken by surprise. Hours after the first episode aired, their message board crashed and had to be shut down due to the large number of visitors. The BBC followed up with an adaptation of Cranford in 2007 which was also a huge success.

New readers are surprised by the richness, the depth of her passion and political convictions. These are works arising from a life that was brim full, where all those ‘mes’ came together.

Music

Here’s the Tender Coming, The Unthanks

This song about a press-gang comes from the North-East of England, a little farther up the coast from Whitby. It appears in the Northumbrian Minstrelsy (1882), a collection of old songs and ballads. The lyrics mention places along the coast of Northumberland including Druidge Bay and the Lawe, which was a high vantage point where the tender could be seen lying in wait beyond the harbour bar.

Here’s the Tender Coming (2009) was the title song on the third album by a folk group from Northumberland, The Unthanks. Read more about the song here, on Mainly Norfolk and about the sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank here.

Connection

During an impasse with Sylvia’s Lovers Gaskell eagerly read a copy of The Mill on The Floss (1860). Later she read Romola in the Cornhill, writing to a friend, ‘I am going to finish my book, 3 vols, very soon; although after seeing what Miss Evans (George Eliot) does I feel as if nothing of mine would be worth reading ever-more and that takes the pith out of one.’

Echoes of Mill on the Floss appear in Sylvia’s Lovers. As with Eliot’s novel, Gaskell opens with a description of a river rushing to meet the sea and proceeds to describe the ebb and flow of an old town and its inhabitants. And as with Eliot’s novel too, these are people with deep ties to their homes and surroundings; they have stubborn natures and provincial attitudes.

The writers shared a mutual admiration. In 1859, Eliot wrote to Gaskell to let her know that she had ‘some affinity with the feeling which…inspired Cranford’’, thrilling Gaskell in the process. And in 1856 George Eliot wrote an essay anonymously for the Westminster Review titled ‘Silly novels by Lady Novelists’, in which she criticised most of the books written by women for women of her day. She called them ‘mind-and-millinery’ novels that matched beautiful, virtuous heroines with the men of their dreams, using hackneyed plots, characters and language. Eliot was scathing.

‘To judge from their writings, there are certain ladies who think that an amazing ignorance, both of science and of life, is the best possible qualification for forming an opinion on the knottiest moral and speculative questions.  Apparently, their recipe for solving all such difficulties is something like this:

Take a woman’s head, stuff it with a smattering of philosophy and literature chopped small, and with false notions of society baked hard, let it hang over a desk a few hours every day, and serve up hot in feeble English when not required.’ 

Their writing mistook ‘vagueness for depth, bombast for eloquence, and affectation for originality.’ But Eliot reminded her readers that there were some truly great women writers such as Harriet Martineau, Currer Bell (Charlotte Brontë) and Mrs Gaskell.

The writers never met because the sexually liberated George Eliot, who was always more comfortable in the company of men than women, was ‘living in sin’ with the philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes. This meant the conservative and ‘respectable’ Mrs Gaskell could not go near her (although she was dying to). Writing to Eliot in praise of her novels, Gaskell added with regret: ‘I wish you were Mrs Lewes’.

Notes

To reach Whitby you need to drive through wild countryside. It is located in the North York Moors National Park, one of the largest areas of heather moorland in Britain, which covers 1,430 square kilometres of stunning countryside, town, village and coastal stretches.

It is a thrill to visit a place that is still so recognisable from its description more than a hundred and seventy years ago. I read that Elizabeth took care to accurately record details about the locations in the Sylvia’s Lovers, right down to the precise number of steps leading to the church. She uses such details to build a wonderful sense of atmosphere:

I have said that the country for miles all around was moorland; high above the level of the sea towered the purple crags, whose summits were crowned with greensward that stole down the sides of the scaur a little way in grassy veins. Here and there a brook forced its way from the heights down to the sea, making its channel into a valley more or less broad in long process of time. And in the moorland hollows, as in these valleys, trees and underwood grew and flourished; so that, while on the bare swells of the high land you shivered at the waste desolation of the scenery, when you dropped into these wooded ‘bottoms’ you were charmed with the nestling shelter which they gave. But above and around these rare and fertile vales there were moors for many a mile, here and there bleak enough, with the red freestone cropping out above the scanty herbage; then, perhaps, there was a brown tract of peat and bog, uncertain footing for the pedestrian who tried to make a short cut to his destination; then on the higher sandy soil there was the purple ling, or commonest species of heather growing in beautiful wild luxuriance. 

Beyond the moors lies the sea, and the beautiful old town of Whitby rises up a steep hill to meet you. It is riven by the River Esk with the old huddle of 18th century fisherman’s cottages, ‘gabled’, ‘irregular’ and ‘closely packed’ on the East Cliff and the posher Victorian buildings atop its West Cliff.

Different eras coexist happily here: the busy fishing port from which Captain Cook set out to explore new lands; the cobbled Georgian town on the east side, and an atmospheric Victorian seaside holiday resort, with teashops, amusement arcades and sandy beach to the west.

And of course there is the Goth element. We arrived at the tale end of Halloween, when goths from around the country congregate for a big Whitby Goth weekend. They were heading out of town as we were coming in, their cars winding in a solid traffic jam for miles. Some badly hung over specimens still in full regalia, lingered on in the town, lending it a wonderfully creepy air. And you cannot avoid seeing the ruined abbey that glowers over the town from its eastern flank, inspiring Bram Stoker’s Gothic horror book Dracula. But Dracula is another story for another day.

Weblinks

You can read Sylvia’s Lovers  at Project Gutenberg.

And Sylvia’s Lovers  is available as a public domain audiobook at LibriVox.

An excellent article written by Hannah Rosefield in the New Yorker: ‘The Unjustly Overlooked Victorian Novelist Elizabeth Gaskell‘.

The Gaskell Society is very active in London and Manchester, hosting a national conference and many events throughout the year.

A brief but interesting film about Elizabeth Gaskell’s life: Who the Dickens in Mrs Gaskell?

And a behind the scenes look at the making of Cranford.

Although there doesn’t appear to be anything about Elizabeth Gaskell’s visit at the Whitby Museum, there is plenty about its maritime and whaling history.

AL Lloyd and others sing an early whaling son, ‘The Weary Whaling Grounds’.

North York Moors: Magical Whatever the Weather, is a documentary by about the beautiful North York Moors. It follows the trail of a landscape photographer who reveals some of its secret corners.

The North York Moors National Park  website features details about the area and places to explore.

The Visit Whitby website has details about accommodation, and things to do in the area.

 

Sources:

Drabble, Margaret. A Writer’s Britain, Thames and Hudson, 2009

Great Lives: Elizabeth Gaskell’, Historian Amanda Vickery and biographer Jenny Uglow discuss the life of Elizabeth Gaskell with Francine Stock, BBC 4, 20 May, 2004

In Our Time’: North and South, featuring Professor Sally Shuttleworth, Dina Church and Jenny Uglow in discussion with Melvyn Bragg, BBC 4, 9 March, 2017

Foster, Shirley. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Literary Life, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002

Shattock, Joanne and Easson, Angus. The Works of Elizabeth Gaskell, Part II vol 9, Routledge, 2017

Uglow, Jenny. Elizabeth Gaskell: a Habit of Stories, Faber and Faber, 1993

Uglow, Jenny. Elizabeth Gaskell: Knutsford Cheshire, in Writers and their Houses: A guide to the Writers’ Houses of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, Essays by Modern Writers, Ed. Kate Marsh, Hamish Hamilton, 1993

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  1. Paula Ashworth on

    Jo,
    The phrase “unjustly overlooked Mrs. Gaskell” struck a chord. To my shame I didn’t even realise she was the author of “Cranford”, made into an excellent series here starring Judy Dench. Another email to the library is now in my wings! So saying… just finished re-reading a library copy of “Under the Greenwood Tree”, thanks to your piece on Hardy. Took a while to “get into” the ancient language but I soon found myself with clear mental pictures of the people and a long lost way of life… Loved the images of the choir:-)

    Your blog has had such a positive impact on my life…..

    Reply
  2. Jo Wing on

    I feel humbled by that comment, Paula. I knew nothing about Elizabeth Gaskell until I did the research and read ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’, and it’s such a deep pleasure to share what I learn. I’ve heard that the house in which she lived in Manchester, recently restored and open to the public, receives less than a tenth of the visitors that the Jane Austen house and museum in Chawton receives. But I know the Gaskell Society are working hard to change that, and judging by the amount of interest this story of mine has received, she certainly has lots of people in her corner. As for Hardy, ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ is at the top of my to be read list.

    Reply