THE purpose of novels, George Eliot tells us, is the extension of human sympathies. Elizabeth Gaskell would have agreed.
On one level, it is easy to describe the part played by religion in her novels. Through skilful manipulation of the reader’s sympathy, masterly characterisation, increasingly shapely plots, and a humane narrative persona, the classic Christian virtues of “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness”, plus the signature Unitarian virtue of tolerance, form the values that underlie all her most important works.
They appear clearly in her first novel, Mary Barton: A tale of Manchester life (1848). Encouraged by her husband, William, she had begun to write as therapy after the devastating death of her only son, William, aged nine months, from scarlet fever.
Eschewing the passion for the supernatural which made her a famous teller and writer of ghost stories, she found that she was drawing inspiration instead from the ordinary lives around her, especially those of the poor, who had flocked in their thousands to the Manchester cotton mills, decades before there was any infrastructure to support them.
To her, the drunkenness, the deathbed scenes on wet cellar floors, the violence — especially against women — and the industrial diseases that characterised the so-called “factory novels” were not melodrama, but well-known realities, and she demanded a Christian sympathy for them from her readers.
Mary Barton was an instant success, although not among the Manchester mill-owners, who were angry at what they saw as her special pleading for the workers. But she was undeterred, and, six years later, after Cranford, she brought the same Christian principles to bear on a second social theme, the plight of unmarried mothers in a society with no safety nets.
The eponymous heroine of Ruth (1855) is 15, and, through no fault of her own, is seduced and abandoned by her upper-class lover. As so often with Gaskell, the story is one of redemption through suffering, this time more explicitly Christian in exposition.
LIKE Dickens, Gaskell forces the reader to confront the implications of his or her allegiance to the Christ of the New Testament — the Christ who refused to condemn the woman taken in adultery. Ruth is redeemed by her love for her child in Gaskell’s most memorable treatment of the central theme of all her fiction: the sacredness of the bond between mother and child.
In contrast, the novel also contains her most damning portrait of religious narrowness and hypocrisy in the bullying figure of Mr Bradshaw, although, in the end, even he moves, through suffering, a little closer to the publican than the Pharisee.
The subject of Ruth brought her all the opprobrium she expected. “An unfit subject for fiction is the thing to say about it; I knew all this before; but I determined notwithstanding to speak my mind out about it; only how I shrink with more pain than I can tell you from what people are saying [but] I would do every jot of it over again tomorrow!’’, she wrote in a letter.
Her second “factory” novel, North and South (1855), has echoes of today’s religious controversies. Mr Hale resigns his living because he can no longer believe in the authority of an Established Church.
Overall, there is a strong religious interest in the book, not least because, like many other Victorian novels, North and South bears witness to the transforming hope that Evangelicalism, especially Methodism, brought to the lives of the poor.
Through the character of Bessie Higgins, a 19-year-old factory girl dying from the cotton fluff winding around her lungs, Gaskell shows how the promise of personal salvation could challenge despair.
Characteristically, she allows another point of view to have a voice, in Bessie’s father, who sees his daughter’s “visions of cities with golden gates and precious stones” as a distraction from the workers’ need to challenge the status quo.
BY THE early 1860s, Gaskell’s thoughts were turning more and more to the true home of her inner life, her country childhood in Knutsford and at nearby Sandlebridge Farm. She had just published Sylvia’s Lovers (1863) — “the saddest story I ever wrote” —where the influence of Darwin’s Origin of Species is apparent as she struggles to assert the value of the individual life against the random indifference of history.
The novella Cousin Phillis (1864) is little known, but it recreates the gentle life of the farm at Sandlebridge, and is perhaps the most serene of all her works. Like Cranford, it records the effects of the railway age on rural living. It contains a poignant scene that links that age directly with the religious life of the 17th century, when the farmer and Independent minster Ebenezer Holman ends the day’s labour in the fields by singing a psalm with his labourers.
The Unitarian values remain in her final masterpiece, Wives and Daughters (1866), but the theme now is predominantly secular, a challenge to the Victorian feminine ideal of women as “the angel in the house”.
On the surface, then, it appears that the religious world of the Gaskell novels is largely a world of practical Unitarian values, sometimes explicitly Christian, where divine justice in the guise of Providence is ceaselessly at work.
In this world, Christ’s true incarnation is in the fallible human beings who are engaged in the struggle to become the people that God intends them to be. For those human beings, Christ provides both pattern and example.
To read the books is to identify with this struggle in the company of an apparently wise and deeply religious guide. But, in fact, Gaskell herself struggled with the feelings of hypocrisy that this persona engendered.
“My books”, she wrote, “are so much better than I am.” And, again: “Miss Brontë puts all her naughtiness into her books; I put all my goodness into mine.”
HER unease was part of a much bigger disjunction in the mind of this most complex of writers. On the one side, she was quick-witted, ruthlessly single-minded, intensely impatient, desperately indiscreet, and utterly charming. On the other, she was a fully paid-up member of the chattering classes of Victorian society, who knew everyone, went everywhere, and had a weakness for titles.
She was also a passionately committed mother and minister’s wife, who worked tirelessly at the centre of the exhausting relief-work necessitated by the epidemics, cotton crashes, and political struggles of industrial Manchester.
These conflicting personae gave little away, and perhaps were even designed to deflect attention from the vivid and intensely private life of the person inside, haunted by loss, intensely alive to beauty, and more richly spiritual than a list of Christian values could encompass.
Jackie Wilkin is a retired university lecturer in literature.