Elizabeth Gaskell and John Forster: Unitarians, friends and correspondents
London 1849. It is the evening of Saturday, 12 May, and after a visit packed full with social engagements, Elizabeth Gaskell accompanied by her cousin Mary Holland, will dress and go to dine with Charles Dickens at Devonshire Terrace. He is hosting a grand dinner to celebrate the opening issue of David Copperfield. Amongst the guests are his friends: the historian Thomas Carlyle and his wife Jane; Hablot K. Browne (Phiz) who illustrated Dickens’s novels, Douglas Jerrold, the editor of Punch, William Makepeace Thackeray and John Forster. He has lately become a trusted friend and confidant of Elizabeth and has happily escorted her around London to meet his famous friends and acquaintances, one of whom is Eliza ‘Tottie’ Fox, a promising artist – she is charmed by Elizabeth’s ‘radiant smile and clear blue eyes’ and the two women form an affectionate and lasting attachment.
Elizabeth’s novel Mary Barton published in 1848 had caused quite a stir in literary circles. In 1847 the manuscript had reached the desk of John Forster who, as the influential reader of the publishers Chapman and Hall, had recommended it to them, and it was he who most likely changed the original title from John Barton to Mary Barton. He had also sent a copy to his friend Charles Dickens. For Elizabeth it was the beginning of a fruitful – yet at times – fractious relationship with Dickens who was keen for her to write for his weekly literary periodical Household Words.
But who was John Forster -a man who was to play such a pivotal role in Elizabeth’s career? He was born on 2 April 1812 in Newcastle into a Unitarian family. His classical education led him to Cambridge but as a Unitarian would have been unable to gain a degree. He eventually graduated as a lawyer from the University College of London later abandoning the legal profession to become the drama and literature critic of the radical weekly magazine The True Sun. By the end of 1833 Forster is establishing himself as an influential reviewer but more importantly begins to negotiate contracts for, and act as editorial adviser to older eminent Victorian writers including Leigh Hunt and Bulwer Lytton. And in 1836 through ‘their common friend’ William Harrison Ainsworth, Forster is introduced to the ‘inimitable’ novelist Charles Dickens. Forster regarded Dickens as a genius, and Dickens began to rely on Forster for practical advice on literary and business matters as well as for more personal concerns.
Elizabeth and Forster regularly corresponded for several years – he proof-reads, and is full of admiration for her later novel Ruth and writes: “It is a true book” and later upon reading Cranford, declares: “I have read your Cranford papers with delight”. But by 1856 their friendship, developed from earlier critical approval, had drawn to a close; he had stepped down from his literary duties, and taken a post with the Lunacy Commission.
Forster’s last task for Dickens when the novelist died in 1870 was to write his biography. He hadn’t forgotten Elizabeth, and wrote movingly: “The first number [of Household Words] appeared on Saturday, 30 March 1850, and contained among other things the beginning of a story by a very original writer, Mrs Gaskell, for whose powers he had a high admiration, and with whom he had friendly intercourse during many years.”
John Forster died in 1876 more or less forgotten now but once described as an ‘altruistic, honest man, devoted to literature, who cultivated his literary superiors but also loved them.’
Diana Ashcroft, Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House