Sunday, 23 March 2008

Books by Elizabeth Gaskell

I finished reading North and South back in February and I completed Wives and Daughters last week. I thoroughly enjoyed both of these books, and I would heartily recommend them to others.

North and South is a discussion of employer-employee relations embedded in the story of a young woman (Margaret Hale) whose middle-class family suddenly moves to the industrial town of Milton, where her father finds a job as classics tutor to the local mill-owner Mr John Thornton. Margaret befriends a working family and her views on the situation of the working poor and their employers change as she finds herself witnessing both sides of a strike.

Initially, Margaret held some pretty low views of working class people. But then, she hadn't ever really encountered any. She was just repeating what she had heard others in her social sphere saying. It was only when Margaret came to know Bessy, and through Bessy, her father Nicholas, that Margaret realised that those who work in trade are people just like those who worked the fields in Hampshire. As a consequence, she developed fresh but passionate views on the ideal relationship between employee and employer, which she argued over with increasing heat with Mr Thornton. The discussions of employee-employer relations in this book are fascinating despite having been written 150 years ago. There is much in this book to inspire discussion of today's workplace relations.

The novel also portrays the vast communication gulf between different circles of society - in particular the misunderstandings generated at almost every meeting between the Hale family and that of Mr Thornton. What one deems genteel, the other deems coarse, what one deems requisite, the other deems frivolous. This lack of understanding between the well-bred poor and the newly-rich traders extends also to the employees where it is exemplified in the standoff over the strike. In essence, this book is thus a tale of three vantagepoints on truth. As Nicholas Higgins explains to Mr Hale,
"There's two opinions go to settling that point. But suppose it was truth double strong, it were no truth to me if I couldna take it in. I daresay there's truth in yon Latin book on your shelves, but it's all gibberish and not truth to me, unless I know the meaning o' the words. If yo', sir, or any other knowledgeable, patient man come to me, and says he'll larn me what the words mean, and not blow me up if I'm a bit stupid, or forget how one thing hangs on another - why, in time I may get to see the truth of it; or I may not. I'll not be bound to say I shall end in thinking the same as any man. And I'm not one who think truth can be shaped out in words, all neat and clean, as th' men at th' foundry cut out sheet-iron. Same bones won't go down wi' every one. It'll stick here i' this man's throat, and there i' t'other's. Let alone that, when down, it may be too strong for this one, too weak for that. Folk who sets up to doctor th' world wi' their truth, mun suit different for different minds; and be a bit tender in th' way of giving it too, or th' poor sick fools may spit it out i' their faces."
Now there's advice for all those who seek to expose others to the truth: whether church preachers or home educators or any other teacher at all.

There is a romance in this book, although it hardly fulfils todays criteria for such. Feminist critics would have us understand that Gaskell was making a pro-feminist point in allowing Margaret to agree to marry her suitor only after she was able to gain monetary power over him. I disagree. Gaskell was at pains to describe the anguish Margaret felt when she thought that this man believed her to be a liar, and it was this anguish which at first prevented the relationship flourishing. Lying might be seen as a small sin by today's feminist critics, yet in the context of a novel which examines the nature of truth and its communication, the telling of lies is the perfect sin upon which to build a tension which echoes the misunderstandings of the far more prosaic industrial realm.

Wives and Daughters is also a tale about truth, but this time Gaskell set her story in a rural village, where a long-widowed doctor marries again for the sake of his almost-adult daughter, Molly Gibson, a paragon of honesty. The new Mrs Gibson is a master of appearances, and her daughter Cynthia is also hiding secrets.

In Wives and Daughters Gaskell takes a closer look at the ways we attempt to deceive others, describing in detail the machinations and manipulations of Mrs Gibson, who was attempting to marry her daughter Cynthia to the most eligible bachelor available. Cynthia was exposed as supremely selfish; she blamed her self-described inability to love on the lack of care from her mother during her childhood but was unwilling to show care for anyone else before herself.

Molly, by contrast, continually strove for the good of others, even to her own detriment. She kept others's secrets better than they did and was unwilling to expose others to shame even when it was clear they had acted improperly. Yet it was Molly who became fodder for the town's gossip-mongers when she tried to help her stepsister Cynthia out of an unwise romantic entanglement.

Wives and Daughters has less intense dialogue than North and South, yet it is no less powerful. In turning to a gentler setting, Gaskell has been able to make a powerful argument for the value of truth, by way of a tale of the dangers and folly of deceit.

3 comments:

mom24 said...

Hmmm...they both sound good! I think I'd like to read Wives & Daughters first though. I often find myslf trying to make myself look to others as I want them to see me instead of being how God wants me to be. Would I be like Molly or not? Hmmm..
Thanks for the book reviews! I'll put them on my list!
Andrea

P.S. Jefferson likes his email from Josh and was surprised to see how far away we live! This week we will be learning about sharks too!

Sharon said...

I'm glad my reviews encouraged you to read the books, Andrea. I think I'll be reading some more by Elizabeth Gaskell just as soon as I can read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte and Villette by Charlotte Bronte, which I had to order in to my local bookstore.
~ Sharon

Mrs. Edwards said...

Thanks for directing me to this review. I found it quite timely since this week in Oct/08 over at my blog I'm ranting a bit about standing up for Truth and seeking to persuade others of The Truth (Jesus Christ is LORD). Quite a humbling coincidence.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges we all face is getting outside ourselves enough to see the world as someone else sees it. Some make the mistake of concluding that everyone's perspective must be right. God's perspective is the only true one--if only we can get our minds fixed on it.