Both Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens have each provided us with timeless pieces of literature, which are only gaining more and more in popularity as time goes on. Elizabeth and Charles have both become household names, and their works are embedded in British literary culture. Novels such as North and South (1854-55), or Great Expectations (1861), no longer just form part of a compulsory school reading list, but they are enjoyed and celebrated widely. Their adaptations into TV dramas and films made them accessible, and put these great novels back into the spotlight – Richard Armitage has a lot to answer for! The great work done by those at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House has also brought the life and career of Elizabeth back to life; it is clear the House is a true labour of love, and gives Elizabeth the recognition she well deserves.
Elizabeth and Charles have each been praised for their highlighting of important social issues of the Victorian period. The two were likeminded in this sense; they each sought to provoke social change through their novels – ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. They were likeminded in this way, yet this is where their similarities come to an end. However, this is not where their complicated relationship ends.
The two authors had what can only be described as a difficult working relationship, fuelled by two strong minded individuals. The truth of Elizabeth’s and Charles’s relationship is much more intriguing than it has been given credit. Admittedly, before my experience of volunteering at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, I did not know much about the connection between Elizabeth and Charles, but have since learnt a lot from the other volunteers at the House, and from my own research. When visiting the House, the Dining Room is the perfect place to find out more about Elizabeth and Charles, with the opportunity to read some of the real letters they sent to one another to help understand their complicated ‘friendship’.
It is easy to disregard their relationship, but it is very revealing of Elizabeth’s personality and her writing career. Elizabeth wrote for Charles’s weekly journal Household Words for a number of years, and it was this experience which shaped much of Elizabeth’s writing career throughout the 1850s. It was within this journal in which Elizabeth’s famous novels Cranford (1851-53) and North and South (1854-55) were serialised. The start of their association was positive, and Charles was exceedingly complimentary of Elizabeth’s work. Elizabeth’s success in writing her novel Mary Barton (1848) had gained her a literary following, and Charles was reportedly impressed by Elizabeth’s work. Charles wrote to Elizabeth asking her to contribute to his journal, commenting that ‘there is no English writer whose aid I would desire to enlist, in preference to the authoress of Mary Barton‘. (1)
Elizabeth initially wrote stories of Cranford for the journal. The constraint of periodical writing soon became clear for Elizabeth, and cracks in the relationship began to show. Elizabeth began to delay in submitting her work, and Charles began to urge her for work. He even wrote a letter to Elizabeth stating ‘O what a lazy woman you are, and where is that article?‘ (2) The serialisation of Cranford was a success, yet it highlights underlying problems, which would later result in a strained and stressful relationship for the two authors. Perhaps Elizabeth’s style of writing was not suited to the restrictive nature of Charles’s weekly journal.
The serialisation of North and South was what really brought Elizabeth and Charles’s underlying problems to a head. Elizabeth’s writing of North and South coincided with Charles’s writing of his novel Hard Times (1854). Both novels had similar themes of class struggle, and they were both socially conscious with similar approaches. Despite this, the simultaneous publication of their works, as well as the similar themes, caused tension. Charles continued to urge Elizabeth to compress her writing, and he insisted that she title her novel North and South, against Elizabeth’s wishes that the novel be named after its protagonist, ‘Margaret Hale’.
Charles’s attitude towards Elizabeth and her work had changed, it was no longer flattering and complimentary. He had blamed North and South for the fall in sales of his journal, describing her work as ‘wearisome‘. Elizabeth resisted Charles’s constant mithering for her to compress her work, and writing when she felt inspired to do so rather than when she was instructed to do so. As we know, Elizabeth was a strong-willed and independent woman. Her strong personality provoked Charles, and the two became ever more frustrated with one another.
For Elizabeth, it is clear that her frustration grew from her stories being constantly chopped into pieces and her freedom of writing being taken away. Reportedly, Elizabeth wrote to a correspondent with regards to North and South, stating that ‘at the very last I was compelled to desperate compression’. (3) The publication of North and South had soured the relationship between Elizabeth and Charles, Elizabeth no longer wished to write for Charles’s journal and instead began to provide stories for the Cornhill Magazine, founded by George Murray Smith and edited by William Makepeace Thackeray. She gained more literary freedom when writing for the Cornhill, and her novel Wives and Daughters (1864-1866) was serialised. Her decision no longer to provide Charles with her stories and move away from his editorship and publication displays her feelings towards Charles, as well as her independence and confidence. Her literary career would no longer be dictated by another.
Elizabeth and Charles’s relationship had a promising beginning, but as their personalities and their writing styles began to clash, it became fractious. Despite the negativity of their association, it is important to the understanding of the development of Elizabeth’s career, and her strong-willed nature. Charles presented Elizabeth with the opportunity to develop her writing skills and gain an even wider readership, which allowed her to publish her many novels which are still known and loved today.
Olivia Murray, Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House
- Andrew Sanders, ‘Serialising Gaskell: from Household Words to the Cornhill’, Gaskell Society Journal, Vol. 14 (2000) p. 45.
- Sanders, p. 48.
- J. Don Van, ‘Dickens, Charles Lever, and Mrs Gaskell’, Victorian Periodicals Review, Vol. 22, No. 2 (1989) p. 68.