Monday, June 29, 2009

Do you ever read the moral concluding sentence of a story? I never do - some moralistic stories by Elizabeth Gaskell

It's not quite true that I'd never read Elizabeth Gaskell before reading Four Short Stories, Pandora Press, 1983. Pretty close, though. I assume that any of Gaskell's six novels are more typical starting places. In December, during the discussion of The Chimes, someone mentioned that if you wanted a better "fallen woman" story (a subplot of The Chimes), you should try Gaskell's Lizzie Leigh (1850). I didn't think I did want such a thing, yet here I am.

This collection is well chosen. The stories are of a piece. I assume that Pandora Press was a feminist publisher, because the stories all feature feminist themes and poor, kind heroines and sickly children. Three of the four - The Manchester Marriage (1858) is a little different.

All four are centrally about acts of kindness, though. In The Three Eras of Libbie Marsh (1847), a Manchester seamstress comes to care for the crippled child of an unfriendly neighbor. The mother of the prostitute Lizzie Leigh searches Manchester for her daughter, and finds her due to her own kindness, and that of a stranger. In The Well of Pen-Morfa (1850), a woman who has suffered various difficulties befriends a madwoman. The Manchester Marriage (1858)* is more about the consequences, tragic and otherwise, of a failure of kindness.

Humble women's fellow-feeling with other humble women and their children, that's much of what's here. These sorts of characters are not entirely absent from the fiction that precedes them, from Dickens or Balzac or Scott, say, but they are always minor characters, in the background, often little more than plot mechanisms. So Gaskell's focused attention was new to me, as was the Manchester setting (rural Wales in one case). Gaskell was expanding the reach of English fiction here.

The stories are moralistic, didactic, even, and explicitly Christian. The Three Eras of Libbie Marsh ends:

"Do you ever read the moral concluding sentence of a story? I never do; but I once (in the year 1811, I think) heard of a deaf old lady living by herself, who did; and as she may have left some descendants with the same amiable peculiarity, I will put in for their benefit what I believe to be the secret of Libbie's peace of mind, the real reason why she no longer feels oppressed at her own loneliness in the world.

She has a purpose in life, and that purpose is a holy one."

This is definitely to my tastes, but unfortunately it's the only evidence of a sense of humor in the story, or for that matter in Lizzie Leigh or The Well of Pen-Morfa, which are mostly subdued and solemn. More on that tomorrow, I think.

* The Manchester Marriage, published by Dickens in his Household Words magazine, was "written in Heidelberg in 1858 in order to finance a trip to Dresden" (Introduction, p. 7). Dresden is a marvellous place. This is perhaps the best reason to write a short story I've ever heard.


  1. Oh, yes, the moralizing. It's interesting to imagine readers loving that stuff at the time ... some of them at least.

  2. A feminist press? Now that's a new one to me... Would another publisher not have wanted to publish these stories?

  3. Dorothy - absolutely. I'm imagining the readers who were - who are - reading Gaskell or her descendants because of the moral.

    AnCh, may I direct your attention to The Feminist Press of CUNY? Or to Virago Press, almost venerable now.