Friday, May 6, 2011

Elizabeth Gaskell's German Idyll

Given the constraints, North and South is a stunning artistic achievement.  The constraint is that authorial nightmare, weekly serialization.  Charles Dickens wrote, I think, four of them – The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge, Hard Times, and A Tale of Two Cities, and I would pick the middle two as his two weakest novels, and as fond as I am of The Old Curiosity Shop, it’s not so far from the bottom, either.  I mean, weak Dickens is pretty dang strong!

How difficult it must be to maintain any coherent sense of anything but the main thread, and how impossible it must be to set the delightful little traps that will only be sprung a hundred pages later, to develop the harmonies when you are scrambling to keep the melody intact.  Gaskell actually suffered from an additional constraint, perhaps as bad, continual interference from her annoying know-it-all editor.*  Given all this, I am surprised the novel is as good as it is, but not at all surprised that my favorite chapter is one Gaskell added later, when North and South was published as a book.**

In Book II, Chapter 21, “Once and Now,” our heroine Margaret returns to the childhood home, the village of Helstone, that she was forced to abandon three hundred pages earlier.  If it does nothing else, the chapter reinforces the “South” half of the title’s division, but it does much more, and is finely written, or about half of it is.  The second half is used to tinker with some plotty stuff that Gaskell must have thought was insufficiently explained in the serial.  She knew that train station recognition-manslaughter scene I complained about was a mistake and kept fussing with it, trying to fix it.***

The Helstone chapter is filled with flowers.  Roses, myrtle, lavender, honeysuckle.  It reminded me of German Idylls.  Margaret, too: “[The scenery] reminded Margaret of German Idylls – of Hermann and Dorothea – of Evangeline.”  Evangeline is not German, but it also once reminded me of a German idyll, so I see why it is here.  Hermann and Dorothea is Goethe’s 1797 domestic epic.  Gaskell, moving her characters to a different scene, has also gently slipped them into a German novella, with continual echoes of Goethe.  This is the “renunciation” chapter, the Bildungsroman chapter, where Margaret, having suffered any number of setbacks, begins to accept the loss of her past.  Margaret even includes a truly German uncanny element – sensitive readers, avert thy gaze! – the roast cat, which Margaret actually tries, unsuccessfully, to expel from the novel through reason.

Characters multiply, characters who obviously cannot be used again.  An entire vicar’s family, a crowded schoolroom, the staff of an inn.  Who are these people:   “a spectator or two stood lounging at nearly every station, with his hands in his pockets, so absorbed in the simple act of watching, that it made the travelers wonder what he could find to do when the train whirled away” – we know that once the train is gone, these marionettes are wrapped in paper and returned to their imaginary boxes.

Another anonymous gentleman, though, does return later.  Gaskell is able to set a retrospective trap, which she springs on the last page of the novel, a page she had already published.  Please note the association of the gentleman with roses, a “real” connection on the last page, a novelistic one in this chapter.  The innkeeper, speaking of roses, is for some reason reminded of the gentleman.  Only on the last page do we discover why.

One character is inanimate: “a straw-hat forced down upon a rose-tree as on a peg, to the destruction of a long beautiful tender branch laden with flowers, which in former days would have been trained up tenderly, as if beloved.”  I suspect Gaskell of employing symbolism, and look, there are the roses again.

The things a great novelist can do under maddening constraints!  The greater things a great novelist can do with time and reflection!

* Although Dickens had the same editor.

** See Dorothy W. Collin, “The Composition of Mrs. Gaskell’s North and South” in the Norton Critical Edition.

***  Actually, hang on.  So the hapless dead man is named Leonards, and Margaret and her godfather hash over his death in the dining room of the Lennard Arms, a name and place Gaskell invented in this new section, a little tribute to the martyr to her plot.


  1. 'How difficult it must be to maintain any coherent sense of anything but the main thread, and how impossible it must be to set the delightful little traps that will only be sprung a hundred pages later, to develop the harmonies when you are scrambling to keep the melody intact.'

    Just the words I need to read, today. Thank you.

  2. Will be (re)reading this soon. I agree that 'Hard Times' was a weak Dickens, but I think that had just as much to do with abandoning his usual stomping ground as with serialisation...

  3. Tony - not serialization, no. A year earlier, Dickens had conclusively proved that he was the greatest master of serialization in literary history. It's the weekly serialization that makes me suspicious.

    Not sure about that "stomping ground" either. London, maybe? Dickens' industrial fantasy town is one of the best parts of Hard Times. Let me be precise - the third best part. Bleak House, Great Expectations, etc. also have lots of fine non-London scenes.

  4. I read North and South on the plane. You've got to admire Gaskell's determination to get real working-class life and even unionism into literature.

    That's where it belongs.

  5. Raymond Williams, a Marxist critic, ranks Mary Barton significantly higher than North and South on just those grounds. Mary Barton spends all of its time with the working class characters, while in North and South, we see them through genteel Margaret. She functions as a cultural anthropologist, interpreting the customs of these exotic people for the edification of the reader.

    As for me ("you"), I have to admire Gaskell for writing well. I am indifferent to the subject, and am wary of the word "real."

    Your closer, Shelley, can be taken a couple of different ways!