A feminist critique of Elizabeth Gaskell (Pt 1)

In 1987 – that is to say, at the end of the second decade of the new feminism – literary critic Patsy Stoneman wrote an important re-evaluation of Elizabeth Gaskell that helped raise “Mrs. G’s” reputation out of the ranks of charming women novelists to a position of more respect and appreciation.  Interestingly, Stoneman’s book was aimed as much at the first generation of feminist critics as at the wider academy, and in her forward to the second edition of Elizabeth Gaskell, she discusses the changing attitudes towards the writer.  I find her account most interesting and post some excerpts below.

(Stoneman’s concluding chapter focuses on Wives and Daughters and in the next post, I’ll include a link to a PDF of the passage.   — Tom).


 Elizabeth Gaskell, by Patsy Stoneman
Preface to the First Edition (1987)

One aim of the Key Women Writers series is to examine whether women writers have been accepted into the canon of Eng. Lit. at the expense of their being misread as women. Few of the women dealt with can have been misread as systematically as ‘Mrs Gaskell,’. Seen either as a ‘lady novelist,’ author of Cranford, or as a ‘social-problem novelist,’ author of Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell has never been read in a way which makes sense of her whole output. I shall argue that a feminist approach focusing on the interaction of class and gender can provide such a reading. . . .

Preface to the Second Edition (2007)

When I wrote this book in the mid-nineteen-eighties, it was in a pioneering spirit. True, ‘Mrs’ Gaskell had been revived to some extent by the Marxist critics of the nineteen-fifties, who had put Mary Barton and North and South on university syllabuses along with other ‘minor’ works such as Disraeli’s Sybil and Kingsley’s Alton Locke. The nineteen-seventies feminist revival, however, which lauded the works of the Brontës and George Eliot, had largely ignored Gaskell. Apart from her ‘social-problem’ novels, Gaskell’s image in 1987 was still much what it had been in 1934, when Lord David Cecil compared her with those other Victorians. ‘In the placid dovecotes of Victorian womanhood’, he wrote, ‘they were eagles. But we only have to look at a portrait of Mrs. Gaskell, soft-eyed, beneath her charming veil, to see that she was a dove’ (Cecil 1934: 198).  In the millennial year [2000], however, an article on Gaskell could be entitled ‘The Dove Ascending’: ‘it is now possible’, its author claimed, ‘to argue that Elizabeth Gaskell is pre-eminent among Victorian women novelists’ (Pittock 2000: 531)…

…Clearly much has happened in Gaskell studies since 1987: in the same year as my book, the Gaskell Society was founded, which, with its scholarly Journal, has done much to encourage and disseminate serious work; biographies drawing on greatly enlarged data have helped to dispel Gaskell’s purely domestic image; new approaches to narrative strategy have revealed her skill as a story-teller; and a subtler kind of feminism has recognised innovation where earlier readers saw only conformity….

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