The Mrs. Project, # 1: Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell

I love Elizabeth Gaskell.

It began in 2010 as part of my desultory “Mrs. Project.” In the nineteenth century, Gaskell’s work was published under the name “Mrs Gaskell,” not Elizabeth.  The Mrs. title was also de rigueur  for Victorian writers Mrs. Oliphant, Mrs. Humphry Ward, Mrs. Browning, and Mrs. Campbell Praed.

I have been considering Gaskell’s work because I am reading Nell Stevens’ new book, The Victorian and the Romantic, which is part fictional biography of Gaskell, part memoir of Stevens’s studies of Gaskell for her Ph.D.

I recently reread Ruth, Gaskell’s second novel, in which she treats the subject of pregnancy out of wedlock with sympathy and intelligence. Though much has changed since the nineteenth century, unintentional pregnancy remains a social problem, especially as states slash funding for Planned Parenthood clinics, which provide health care for low-income women.

The first hundred pages of this intriguing but uneven novel are pitch-perfect.  Gaskell’s style is simple and serviceable:  the plot races along, the characters are vivid, and there is much pathos. The unmarried heroine, Ruth Hilton, is a teenage orphan with no future. After her parents die, her guardian sends her away to be a seamstress in a sweatshop.  The girls work impossibly long hours–they sometimes work till 2 a.m. and then get up at dawn.  One night Ruth is chosen to go to a ball to work in the cloakroom sewing rips and repairing ladies’ gowns. And then a wealthy young man, Mr. Bellingham, falls for her beauty.

An illustration by Debra McFarlane from the Folio Society edition of Ruth

Poor Ruth!  Her boss, Mrs. Mason, fires her after seeing Mr Bellingham holding Ruth’s arm as they walk around town.  And so Ruth becomes homeless.  Mr. Bellingham, whom she loves and regards as her saviour, whirls her away to London.  Then they travel to Wales, where Ruth admries the countryside and takes long walks.

Naturally, this idyll cannot last forever.  Mr. Bellingham falls ill, and his mother takes him away.  He never returns to Ruth, because she was just a passing phase.  After he deserts her, she becomes very ill, and she learns she is pregnant.  Mr. Benson, an upstanding minister, and his sister,  Faith, take her into their home. After a discussion of the relative morality of telling the truth about  Ruth’s pregnancy (and ruining her life),  or  passing her off as a widow and a relative, they do the latter.  And it works out very well:  Ruth blooms under their care, and they love her son Leonard.  She even gets a day job as governess for a wealthy family.  That is, until…  Yes, the Mrs. title can serve her only so long.

There is a draggy patch in the middle, but the pace picks up again and I really loved this little book.  It is a predecessor of Thomas Hardy’s classic, Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

The Rise of the Bibliomemoir: Readers Love to Read About Reading

In the 1990s, we saw the rise of the memoir.  “Couldn’t you add a couple of paragraphs about how memoirs glut the market?” an editor asked.

“But what’s the evidence?” There may have been evidence, but I hadn’t found it. Nobody had any numbers. They just had feelings that memoirists were whiners.  If I had to say the market was glutted on the basis of a few people’s feelings, it would have been a deal-breaker for me. Quite a few memoirists write about marginalized lives, which may be why so many  were eager to shut them down.  Fortunately this kind editor let me be the literal-minded nerd I was.

In the twenty-first century, there are still plenty of memoirs, but we have also seen a rise in popularity of the bibliomemoir, a word I’m quite sure I didn’t invent but which isn’t in the dictionary.  Some memoirs about reading are classics; others are quite pedestrian little books; but I look at all of them, because I like to know what people are reading. And since I enjoy these books, here are links to posts I’ve written about two of my favorites:   Robert Dessaix’s Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev and Ann Hood’s Morningstar:  Growing up with Books.

But there are more, more, and more being published all the time. Here are four new bibliomemoirs, three recently published and one to be published in January. I have divided them into two categories, “Intellectual” and “Common Readers.”

INTELLECTUAL BOOK  MEMOIRS

Elizabeth Gaskell fans will  want to run to the bookstore to find their copy of Nell Stevens’ new book,  The Victorian and the Romantic: A Memoir, a Love Story, and a Friendship Across Time.  Why?  it will complete your Gaskell mania. Hannah Rosefield has published a fascinating essay in The New Yorker about Stevens’ book and her own thoughts on Gaskell,  “The Unjustly Overlooked Victorian Novelist Elizabeth Gaskell.”  I do recommend it.

Here is the first paragraph of Rosefield’s review:

“I have always imagined [Gaskell] as somehow asexual,” Nell Stevens admits at the beginning of “The Victorian and the Romantic,” a hybrid of memoir and fictional biography that invites us to update our view of the writer. Around a third of “The Victorian and the Romantic” is a novelistic portrayal, in the second person, of Gaskell in Rome, falling in love with Norton (“You never felt lost for words, and yet for a second, now, you truly were. Your heart was beating quickly, disturbed”) and her subsequent frustrated years in Manchester, longing to see him again. The other two thirds of the book describe Stevens’s own tortured long-distance love affair with a handsome, literary Bostonian (Stevens is British), her lifelong relationship with Elizabeth Gaskell and the two-steps-forward, one-step-back progress of her Ph.D. dissertation on the transatlantic literary community in mid-nineteenth-century Rome. Along the way, Stevens volunteers for several medical trials, wins a honeymoon to India (she is single at the time), and spends several months living in a Texas tree house.

And so I have my copy of The Victorian and the Romantic and am ready to begin.

2.  All the Lives We Ever Lived:  Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf by Katharine Smyth will be published in January, 2019.  I look forward to an intriguing book about the multi-talented, charming, vulnerable, and sometimes infuriating Woolf and Smyth’s interpretation of her best book, To the Lighthouse.

Here is the jacket copy:

Katharine Smyth was a student at Oxford when she first read Virginia Woolf’s modernist masterpiece To the Lighthouse in the comfort of an English sitting room, and in the companionable silence she shared with her father. After his death—a calamity that claimed her favorite person—she returned to that beloved novel as a way of wrestling with his memory and understanding her own grief.

Smyth’s story moves between the New England of her childhood and Woolf’s Cornish shores and Bloomsbury squares, exploring universal questions about family, loss, and homecoming. Through her inventive, highly personal reading of To the Lighthouse, and her artful adaptation of its groundbreaking structure, Smyth guides us toward a new vision of Woolf’s most demanding and rewarding novel—and crafts an elegant reminder of literature’s ability to clarify and console.

Braiding memoir, literary criticism, and biography, All the Lives We Ever Lived is a wholly original debut: a love letter from a daughter to her father, and from a reader to her most cherished author

COMMON READERS’ MEMOIRS

1  I know little about Sarah Clarkson’s new book, Book Girl: A Journey through the Treasures and Transforming Power of a Reading Life, but I do like the cover and the concept. It seems to be part reading memoir, part self-help book, complete with annotated book lists and a section on “what you can do to cultivate a love of reading in the growing readers around you.”

From the jacket copy:

Books were always Sarah Clarkson’s delight. Raised in the company of the lively Anne of Green Gables, the brave Pevensie children of Narnia, and the wise Austen heroines, she discovered reading early on as a daily gift, a way of encountering the world in all its wonder. But what she came to realize as an adult was just how powerfully books had shaped her as a woman to live a story within that world, to be a lifelong learner, to grasp hope in struggle, and to create and act with courage.

 2.  Then there’s I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life by Anne Bogel, a lifestyle and book blogger at the site Modern Mrs. Darcy.

Here’s the jacket copy:

For so many people, reading isn’t just a hobby or a way to pass the time–it’s a lifestyle. Our books shape us, define us, enchant us, and even sometimes infuriate us. Our books are a part of who we are as people, and we can’t imagine life without them.

I’d Rather Be Reading is the perfect literary companion for everyone who feels that way. In this collection of charming and relatable reflections on the reading life, beloved blogger and author Anne Bogel leads readers to remember the book that first hooked them, the place where they first fell in love with reading, and all of the moments afterward that helped make them the reader they are today. Known as a reading tastemaker through her popular podcast What Should I Read Next?, Bogel invites book lovers into a community of like-minded people to discover new ways to approach literature, learn fascinating new things about books and publishing, and reflect on the role reading plays in their lives.

I read the sample and it is quite well-written.  It’s on my TBR list.

What bibliomemoirs do you admire and do you know of any new ones?

Love in the Cotton Mills: Elizabeth Gaskell’s “North and South”

After you’ve read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, whom do you read?   Well, the obvious answer is Anne Brontë, and there has been an Anne boom in recent years.  May I admit I’ve never admired Anne?

I prefer Elizabeth Gaskell, who is as earnest and intelligent as Charlotte if not as exotic as Emily. I recently reread her North and South, one of the great industrial novels of the 19th century; it is clearly influenced by Charlotte’s industrial novel, Shirley (which I posted about here).  Both novels are page-turners, written by women of conscience.  Earnest industrial politics, plus everybody falls in love with a mill owner!

Before I make a few comments about the romantic relationship in North and South, here’s the plot summary  via the book description:

North and South tells the story of Margaret Hale, a southerner newly settled in the northern industrial town of Milton, whose ready sympathy with the discontented millworkers sits uneasily with her growing attraction to the charismatic mill owner, John Thornton. The novel poses fundamental questions about the nature of social authority and obedience, ranging from religious crises of conscience to the ethics of naval mutiny and industrial action. Margaret’s internal conflicts mirror the turbulence that she sees all around her. This revised and expanded edition sets the novel in the context of Victorian social and medical debate and explores Gaskell’s subtle representations of sexual passion and communal strife.

Here’s why fans of Charlotte Bronte should read North and South.   It’s not just the industrial politics: it’s the relationship between beautiful, earnest Margaret Hale, the daughter of a minister who has lost his faith, resigned from the church, and moved his family to the industrial town of Milton, and earnest, sexy Mr. Thornton, the owner of a cotton mill. The tension between reluctant Margaret and wary Mr. Thornton recalls the sparring between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, with a dash of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  And the name Mr. Thornton alone evokes Mr. Rochester, who lived at Thornfield Hall.

Adjustment to life in smoky Milton is arduous for the Hales. But Margaret befriends and is charitable to some of the workers, as a basket-bearing former minister’s daughter should.  She is, however, contemptuous of “men in trade,” as she characterizes Mr. Thornton, a mill owner who is a classics student of her father’s.  Neither she nor Mr. Thornton sees the other’s point of view: she insists (rightly) on the workers’ need for higher wages, but he explains (also rightly) that new economic demands make it impossible to raise wages now.  Then during a strike, when Margaret throws herself in front of him to prevent his being hit by a rock and is hit instead,  Mr. Thornton falls in love with her.  When he proposes the next day, she is furious and says his way of speaking shocks her, and “is blasphemous.”  Granted, she has already turned down one unwelcome marriage proposal, but her treatment of Mr. Thornton is outrageous.

“And the gentleman thus rescued is forbidden the relief of thanks!” he broke in contemptuously. “I am a man. I claim the right of expressing my feelings.”

“And I yielded to the right; simply saying that you gave me pain by insisting upon it,” she replied, proudly. “But you seem to have imagined, that I was not merely guided by womanly instinct, but”—and here the passionate tears (kept down for long—struggled with vehemently) came up into her eyes, and choked her voice—“ but that I was prompted by some particular feeling for you—you! Why, there was not a man—not a poor desperate man in all that crowd—for whom I had not more sympathy—for whom I should not have done what little I could more heartily.”

What a couple!  But North meets South, and eventually each educates and alters the thinking of the other.  And Gaskell also provides a fascinating look at Victorian factories and of communication between workers and owners.

A great book!