On Reading the Opening Pages of Wives and Daughters

Though one of the chapters of my thesis is to be on Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855), my reading of Mrs G. has not been very extensive. I have looked into her other industrial novel, Mary Barton (1848), but have yet to finish it – not that it’s a bad novel, but that since I’ve undertaken my PhD this has become a pattern: reading, say, half a novel and then moving on. [1] This is because it’s important to sample things, to have a wide knowledge of any potentially relevant fiction and critical writing. If the relevance doesn’t become clear early on, then it’s probably not there. Maybe a dangerous notion, but necessary when there’s so much to be read. And one can talk intelligently about a half-read book. [2] When one gets used to textual analysis, a single chapter can easily be mined for instances with discursive potential, and one can find ways into one’s favoured [3] themes in most texts (always a good shortcut to having something to say, though one also hopes to be able to respond in a more open-minded fashion).

But back to Gaskell. I happened to see a good-condition second-hand copy of the Penguin edition, with introduction by Pam Morris, of Wives and Daughters (1866) in a charity shop some time back, and bought it. It’s not a must-read for my thesis, but as a connoisseur of 19th-century fiction, it’s one I should know. The novel begins thuswise:

To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl; wide awake and longing to get up, but not daring to do so for fear of the unseen power in the next room—a certain Betty, whose slumbers must not be disturbed until six o’clock struck, when she wakened of herself “as sure as clockwork,” and left the household very little peace afterwards. It was a June morning, and early as it was, the room was full of sunny warmth and light.

The first lines have the ring of a children’s story about them. The repetitions in the second sentence seem to recall the folk song “The Rattlin Bog”, called an Irish song by Wikipedia, but probably used elsewhere as well, as I remember a lewd variation being used in the Scottish film The Wicker Man (1973). But the “unseen power” is not a witch or wizard or any other characteristic inhabitant of fairy-land, but a domestic servant. Domestic servant as tyrant was a feature of North and South as well. In this novel, Dixon subverts Margaret Hale’s authority, and criticizes Mr Hale’s decision to move to Helstone, until there is a striking scene in which Margaret upbraids her sternly, with immediate results:

[Dixon], who would have resented such words from anyone less haughty and determined in manner, was subdued enough to say, in a half-humble, half-injured tone-

‘Mayn’t I unfasten your gown, Miss, and undo your hair?’ […]

From henceforth Dixon obeyed and admired Margaret […] Dixon, as do many others, liked to feel herself ruled by a powerful and decided nature.

In the context of the worker’s disquiet and strikes that were a feature of 1850s England, this assumption of mastery by the upper-classes, and, more importantly, the suggestion that this was exactly what the lower-classes wanted – to be ruled by a powerful and decided nature – recalls the Carlylean analysis of class-relations in Chartism (1839). The recurrence of the Bad Servant who effectively tyrannizes her employers so early in Wives and Daughters seems to point towards some serious ideological baggage that Gaskell carries regarding the serving classes.

It only takes another page or two for Gaskell’s love of feudal-style social power relations to come into focus (again, this seems to me to confirm some of the things I’ve written about North and South in the chapter draft I finished). She focuses on the area’s landlords, the Cumnors:

This was no unusual instance of the influence of the great land-owners over humbler neighbours in those days before railways, and it was well for a place where the powerful family, who thus overshadowed it, were of so respectable a character as the Cumnors. They expected to be submitted to, and obeyed; the simple worship of the townspeople was accepted by the earl and countess as a right; and they would have stood still in amazement, and with a horrid memory of the French sansculottes who were the bugbears of their youth, had any inhabitant of Hollingford ventured to set his will or opinions in opposition to those of the earl. But, yielded all that obeisance, they did a good deal for the town, and were generally condescending, and often thoughtful and kind in their treatment of their vassals.

So, there’s a dynamic of obedience or obeisance leading to proper and responsible use of power; disobedience, presumbably, leading to the opposite. Gaskell seems to exult in this dynamic in her writing, and to deplore all claims to particular consideration on the part of servants. In this regard, it will be interesting to see how Mrs Kirkpatrick is treated in the novel: from a vague knowledge of the plot, I believe she is to be somewhat of a villain. She, too, is already signalled in the early chapters as a servant who doesn’t know her place, who tries by her demeanor to place herself among the aristocrats of the novel’s society.

Pam Morris’ introduction communicates a certain unease about Gaskell’s ideological position. Like most favourable commentators on 19th-century fiction, she wishes to perform a liberal and progressive reading. She admits that “[a]t first glance it might seem that Wives and Daughters is staunchly behind the dominant domestic narrative of Victorian society”, but ends by claiming that “no nineteenth-century novel contains a more devastating rejection that this of the Victorian male assumption of moral authority.” I haven’t read far enough to know if this is accurate, but the liberal reading of canonical novels is always the one performed for the purpose of modern popular(ish) culture . Morris is, in any case, more concerned with the gender politics of the novel than with the class politics I have mentioned here, perhaps because most of Gaskell’s readership is assumed to be female, and perhaps also because the progressive class reading is more difficult to sustain, though that’s not to say that because Gaskell doesn’t strike me as a progressive writer her analysis isn’t interesting. North and South has probably the most articulate and sympathetic voice of trade unionism in Victorian fiction in Nicholas Higgins. The Thornton-Higgins power-struggle at the mill is certainly dealt with with more consideration and seriousness of purpose than the Margaret-Dixon struggle, which does strike me as rather polarized.

As for myself, I don’t know whether Wives and Daughters is destined to be another barely-read book on my list or will come to be finished. It’s a long one, 650 pages in this edition. I may just let it languish in the pile for a while, and await a specific motivation, academic or otherwise, which will allow me to make a really engaged reading.  For the days of open readings, of really committing to a book for love of the activity, with no thought for practicalities, are probably gone for me. I often find it hard to concentrate on such readings, as if I should be doing something more, something that goes somewhere, aims towards something. It is only when reading can be definable as somehow related to Work that I can settle into it give it my full concentration.


[1] In fact, I may make this the subject of my next post: a list of the half-read or barely read books on my Kindle at the moment.

[2] On the subject of which I must have a look at Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, which sounds more interesting than the Literature-for-dummies style title implies.

[3] WordPress’s spell check tries to insist on “favored” here, but the OED disagrees