Right now my primary duty as a doctoral student is reading: lots and lots of reading. With 32 novels, 74 individual poems, 3 poetry collections, 4 plays, 20 works of contemporaneous non-fiction, and 27 books of literary criticism to finish for December’s Comprehensive Area Exam in Victorian literature, I have to find useful ways of synthesizing my material.
Every grad student, of course, has a different method: Some swear by binders filled with notes; some proselytize about mind maps; others suggest spreadsheets, and lots of them. I put together a database Thursday, and it’s useful enough in its own way–but it’s not me. That’s when I realized I already have a way to synthesize material. I write essays: lots and lots of essays.
I’m sorry to say, then, that you might just see a lot of doctoral studies posts around these parts for the next seven months.
I promise to try to make them relevant, though! Because, honestly, what’s the point of working through Victorian literature if I can’t adequately defend its relevance to reading and writing practices today?
Without further ado, then, attempt the first:
What We Talk About When We Talk About Social Realism:
Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Cranford, and North and South as Case Studies in Narrative Cohesion
We in the 21st century tend to think we know what a novel is (the things that keep cropping up on “Heather’s Picks” and Oprah’s Book Club lists, right?)–and further, we look back at the 19th century as a place where, surely, people understood what a novel was. How else to explain the tremendous tomes that emerged in the Victorian period–your Dickensian behemoths; your sprawling works of Hardy and Eliot; yea, the colossus of Vanity Fair?
But reading the works of mid-19th-century writer Elizabeth Gaskell, for instance, should provide an immediate rebuke to any notion of the novel emerging as a literary form wholly distinct from precursor texts. This should in some sense be evident just from the publication record for these and other writers: Gaskell–like Dickens, Hardy, Eliot, and Thackeray–published her works first in serial form, with weekly and monthly publications the norm for the period. Two- or three-volume collections (or, less frequently, the single-volume novel) followed soon after, but they did–far more often than not–follow.
This distended publication schedule meant that Gaskell (like other such writers of what we now experience as singular texts) had the double-edged sword of reader response throughout the production of her narratives: able, if not outright compelled, to shift the focus of her plot to suit readership demands.
The very form of serial publication also meant that chapter breakdowns–already somewhat episodic by virtue of their size–were further enhanced (intentionally or otherwise) to suit weekly or monthly lulls in the content. While one would certainly hope for readers who had attended closely to prior issues of a given story, clear and repeated references to previous plot points still proved useful in ensuring that an overarching through-line endured from one week (or month) to the next.
Conversely, there was also more leave to launch into an entirely different note with the next chapter (introducing, say, a new perspective or new group of characters), because the kind of immediate narrative continuity we often expect from texts when read in full simply did not apply to the serial form; there was already ample temporal and spatial distance between one chapter and the next .
The aims of the magazine or newspaper as a whole also had to be taken into account when deciding a story’s direction–and for Gaskell, publishing in Dickens’ Household Words, that meant two things: 1) Some of her work was directly prompted by the demands of the journal, with its express engagement in “the raising up of those that are down, and the general improvement of our social condition” ; and 2) the length of her prose–somewhat ironically, given the source of such directives–was curtailed at times by Dickens’ editorial limitations to that end .
Experience also plays a not-inconsiderable role in the strength of a given tale. Mary Barton (1848) was Gaskell’s first novel, and though this story of impoverished Manchester workers during the 1830s and early 1840s launched her into considerable contemporaneous acclaim, as a writer with something meaningful to say about the difficult tension between (Christian) morality, labour politics, the forward march of industry, and the generally appalling plight of the urban poor, it is surely her later revisiting of such themes, in North and South (1855), that stands the more coherent, stable narrative.
To be sure, the former charts a linear enough course for its protagonist, Mary Barton, whose father (John) is so aggrieved by the mounting rates of starvation, disease, and brute death among Manchester’s working class that his part in Trade Union politics escalates to the most desperate and irreparable of acts. Mary, a young woman, undergoes a familiar, dramatic love plot–carelessly thinking she might rise to the status of a lady under the courtship of a man of high society (Harry Carson); spurning the abiding love of her hard-working, heart-o’-gold childhood friend (Jem Wilson); and so inadvertently playing a part in the ruination of both men. And, indeed, the story gains clear momentum once the consequences of this love-plot reach their crescendo in a murder mystery, a plot device that provides the story an obvious sense of urgency through the amount of time left before the accused will hang (if not saved).
The trouble with this story’s stability, though, lies in how very much else the novel struggles to convey, with the first half of the text pitching forward at an inconsistent rate–sometimes hours, sometimes days, sometimes months, sometimes years at a time between narrative episodes. The topics of these sections also cant uneasily between attempts at direct commentary about the story’s surrounding historical circumstances; moral defence and pre-emptive caution (on the narrator’s part for upper class readers, clearly) about the nature and cause of working class behaviours; groundwork for the story’s central love plot; and various fixations on secondary characters, who sometimes fall away (particularly through death) in lone, off-hand lines.
One gets the impression, really, that Gaskell finds the cadence of episodic long-form writing as she progresses through this piece–although the path she takes makes it difficult to integrate all her earlier themes. All the socioeconomic and political discourse negotiated in narratorial asides throughout early chapters, for instance, all but falls away once the murder plot arises; only after that whole messy business has been settled does the narrator return to broader social causes. However, even then, the way these topics are returned to in the novel’s closing chapters suggests increased authorial restraint. Unlike the heavy-handed narratorial asides in the first half of Mary Barton, the characters themselves debate these issues, with the narrator providing little more than examples of enacted policies. (Readers of North and South will no doubt recognize this style of social commentary–the characters themselves forwarding various positions in debate–as more consistently present within that later text.)
The narrator of Mary Barton is also peculiar in other ways. I’m tempted to call her an “extremely limited third-person narrator”, because at times she narrates stories of working-class lives with often unworldly omniscience, but at other times she openly has the same knowledge (and no more) as Elizabeth Gaskell . The narrator writes, for instance, as evidence for a given claim: “If you will refer to the preface to Sir J. E. Smith’s Life (I have it not by me, or I would copy you the exact passage), you will find that he names a little circumstance corroborative of what I have said” (p. 76). At another juncture, referencing the “Seed of the Soul”, the narrator further states that she forgets which (“The Jews or the Mohammedans”) believe in the indestructibility of a specific vertebra (p. 133). Gaskell/Gaskell’s narrator seems similarly interested in conveying how she might respond to a given situation, even if such a comment is not directly relevant to the narrative–for instance: “Many people have a dread of those mysterious pieces of parchment. I am one. Mary was another” (p. 313). What possible purpose might this alignment serve?
Gaskell’s next set of works for Household Words, a single story pressed by Dickens into a collection of linked stories that eventually get published as the episodic novella, Cranford, offers some insight. Here, too, we have a decidedly partial and limited narrator–albeit, in this case, a first-person construct named Mary Smith. Mary switches between direct accounts of goings-on in staid little Cranford, an isolated community of mostly spinster women living on precarious means while attempting (through eccentric social strictures) to retain the last shreds of class-based dignity, and descriptions of the various letters she receives detailing further aspects of daily life therein. This makes Gaskell’s narrator a slightly more empowered agent than those found in a popular form of Victorian narrative, the epistolary novel; Mary is at once approachable to female readers of the same class, and just authoritative enough to command their attention for an anecdote or two.
In the general pursuit of social realism enacted by great swaths of Victorian literature , this approach to narrative voice has its advantages–not just to the cohesion of various short stories within a single (eventual) collection, but also to the establishment of a given narrative’s function within the context of its medium. There is some sense in Cranford, even, that Gaskell anticipates cultural dismissals of serial fiction as a meaningful conveyor of social “truth”. Between the characters of Miss Jenkyns (the elder) and Captain Brown, for instance, we get express description of a possible form for such criticism, and a counterpoint that can no more be heard by the accuser than a solid exemplar of good serial writing will ever be read by the truly obstinate:
…by-and-by, Captain Brown sported a bit of literature.
‘Have you seen any numbers of “The Pickwick Papers?”‘ said he. (They were then publishing in parts.) ‘Capital thing!’
Now, Miss Jenkyns was daughter of a deceased rector of Cranford; and, on the strength of a number of manuscript sermons, and a pretty good library of divinity, considered herself literary, and looked upon any conversation about books as a challenge to her. So she answered and said, ‘Yes, she had seen them; indeed, she might say she had read them.’
‘And what do you think of them?’ exclaimed Captain Brown. ‘Aren’t they famously good?’
So urged, Miss Jenkyns could not but speak.
‘I must say I don’t think they are by any means equal to Dr. Johnson. Still, perhaps, the author is young. Let him persevere, and who knows what he may become if he will take the great Doctor for his model.’
She thought she would give a finishing blow or two.
‘I consider it vulgar, and below the dignity of literature, to publish in numbers.’
‘How was the “Rambler” published, Ma’am?’ asked Captain Brown, in a low voice; which I think Miss Jenkyns could not have hard. [p. 10-1]
In a subsequent narrative episode, Miss Jenkyns appears victorious when Captain Brown gets killed by a train after being “deeply engaged in the perusal of a number of Pickwick’” (leading Miss Jenkyns to “[shake] her head long and solemnly, and then [sigh] out, ‘Poor, dear, infatuated man!’ [p. 19]), but this is a rather sly misreading of the situation. Rather, as readers were already informed, Brown looked up from his reading, saw a child in the way of a train, and took immediate steps to save it. This alignment of reading practice with heroic moral action, while not expressly suggesting that a higher ethos necessarily follows from reading social criticism in serial form, certainly cannot be said to suggest that such reading dulls the moral senses.
If Gaskell once felt the need, though, to defend her use of such a medium to describe the lives of persons at the peripheries of English progress, by the publication of North and South a far surer tone (weighted, perhaps, by the greater extent of her own experiences among Manchester’s working poor) resounds in her work. A third-person narrative, North and South offers a more realistic excuse than Mary Barton for shifting attention from one class vantage point to another: the female protagonist, Margaret Hale, is raised among London’s gentry; hails from rural, middle-class comfort; and after her father’s decision to leave the clergy on moral grounds, is compelled to move to Manchester, where her rural work of comforting the downtrodden finds easy correlates among the ailing working class. (I myself am hard-pressed to imagine a more seamless invitation for female mid- to upper-class readers to step outside their shoes and consider the plight of England’s working poor.)
North and South is also not somehow exempt from the travails of sustaining a love plot, but here Gaskell finds a much more direct way of employing the text’s primary relationship–between young Margaret Hale (of genteel stock) and the somewhat older John Thornton (a ‘Milton manufacturer’ [p. 88] with a history of working in shops [the horror!])–to the book’s more central thematic concerns of what constitutes both sustainable and ethical socioeconomic policy in an era of disproportionate privations among England’s poor . Margaret and John are perceived, after all, to belong to different classes–and beyond this, they hold decidedly different views about a) how the other regards their class divide (much to the aggregation of misunderstandings requisite to prolonged romantic tension), and b) what role good “masters” of industry should naturally play in the lives of the working class.
In these conversations, then–as in many a surrounding argument with the story’s other main characters, who hold differently conflicting opinions about appropriate socioeconomic policy–Gaskell manages to shift the burden of social realist commentary away from both the providence of Mary Barton‘s unevenly declarative “omniscient” voice and Cranford‘s tentative female pseudo-presence, and into the more immediately relevant, plot-progressing debates between central characters in North and South.
In so doing, Gaskell creates a mid-19th-century Victorian novel that, despite the inevitable complications of serial publication , achieves and sustains a more consistent balance between stories of “the individual” and of English society as a whole. Any writer hoping to effectively address the social issues of his time would be wise, then, not just to study the success stories of social realism in the English literary tradition–but also those works that, while certainly not failures, invite serious reflection on the import of narrative voice and cohesion in telling any tale with chops enough to stand the test of time.
 More on these broad assertions about production and reception once I get into my lit crit readings. (I’m especially looking forward to Laurel Brake’s Print in Transition, 1850-1910: Studies in Media and Book History.) These are place-holder observations drawn from general reading practice for now.
 Letter to Gaskell from Dickens, 31 Jan 1850, as recorded on xxv of my 2011 Oxford World’s Classics edition of Cranford.
 As Gaskell writes in an introduction to the two-volume 1855 publication of North and South, “On its first appearance in ‘Household Words’, this tale was obliged to conform to the conditions imposed by the requirements of a weekly publication, and likewise to confine itself within certain advertised limits, in order that faith might be kept with the public.” (p.5, Penguin Classics 2003 ed.)
 This is much different than even the fluctuating presence of Dickensian narratives, for when Dickens launches into a decisive social critique within his sprawling plot structures, there are no such tentative notes on his part.
 A pretty foundational consideration and concern for 19th-century writing, which I will expound upon more after completing my Dickensian readings (fingers crossed) next weekend.
 More on this, and related broad allusions to domestic policy and crises from the 1830s on, after reading selections from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, as well as the related comments of Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin.
 Gaskell was compelled to compress components of this novel to fit Dickens’ demands at the time of first publication, and though “to remedy this obvious defect, various short passages have been inserted, and several new chapters added” to the two-volume 1855 publication (p. 5), the final text still bears some mark of the haste engendered by original production circumstances.