The new Pickering and Chatto edition of the complete works of Elizabeth Gaskell arrived just in time to mark a century since the publication of the previous standard text, A.W. Ward's Knutsford Edition of 1906. In the meantime, Gaskell has been transformed from a charming woman who wrote wry nostalgic sketches to a major figure in Victorian studies.
Raymond Williams jump-started this re-evaluation in 1958, when he described her first novel, Mary Barton, as 'the most moving response in literature to the industrial suffering of the 1840s'. Although Williams went on to complain about the book's shift of focus from factory politics to romance, his work assured Gaskell's place in critical discussions of industrialism, or at least the place of her two Manchester novels, Mary Barton and North and South. Others remained more attached to the Knutsford Gaskell who wrote Cranford, Wives and Daughters and Cousin Phillis. Those tenderly detailed studies of provincial life, they argued, contained Gaskell's best and wittiest voice. There was puzzlement about the problematic outliers: Ruth, which took the side of a seduced girl and her illegitimate child, and Sylvia's Lovers, a historical novel dealing with the press gangs of the Napoleonic Wars. No one paid much attention to Gaskell's steady production of sketches, tales and novellas for such periodicals as Dickens's weekly journals Household Words and All the Year Round, and later for the more prestigious Cornhill Magazine.
LRB 16 August 2007 | PDF Download