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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Friday, December 30, 2016

Delvings in and beneath Gaskell’s North & South

I’m so glad Tracy Marks recently began an interesting thread in Austen-L about the striking, very thinly veiled allusion by Elizabeth Gaskell in North and South to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. 

The more I read about it, and also read in North and South itself, the more significant I find it.

First here are a few highlights from Janine Barchas’s 2008 article setting out the broad strokes of Gaskell’s allusion:

“Mrs. Gaskell's North and South (1854-55) has all the makings of a deftly refashioned P&P. Here the relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy is replayed when Margaret Hale's prejudice against the North and so-called "shoppy people" prompts her hasty misjudgment of John Thornton, the Milton manufacturer . Like all clever adaptations, Gaskell's has a twist, as it inverts our gendered expectations of the main protagonists: it is the "queenly" Margaret, not Thornton, who intimidates with a proud bearing and a "straight, fearless, dignified presence habitual to her". In Gaskell, Margaret plays the proud Darcy, as it were. Originally published as a serial in Household Words in 1854 with Charles Dickens's editorial assistance, N&S may be the first full-length reworking of P&P… N&S masked any debt to Austen. That is to say, Gaskell never acknowledged an influence outright, and, as a result, historians of the novel have never observed more than a vague family resemblance between her fictions and Austen's…
Gaskell's heroine navigates a pattern of marriage proposals strikingly similar to that traced in P&P. The first "wrong" proposal comes at the novel's start: Gaskell's version of the sexless Mr. Collins is a respectable, albeit dull, London barrister named Henry Lennox. The second proposal, ill-worded and ill-timed, comes from the opinionated Thornton for whom the heroine has already declared her utter disregard. Yet even after his rejection, Thornton proves his virtue and devotion with actions
intent upon saving the heroine's reputation (Margaret is in jeopardy of being associated with a nighttime brawl at a train station). As if on cue the novel closes with the expected proposal do-over in which dislike, it proves, has turned to love. Throughout it all, Margaret's false romanticization of life in the South, and her extreme prejudice against manufacturing people of the North are adjusted--just like Darcy's
‘fastidious’ dislike of rustic entertainments and his snobbery that uncles in Cheapside will "'very materially lessen'" a girl's chance "'of marrying men of any consideration'"--during the course of the story.

Just from my own brief delvings the past 24 hours, I can already see that Gaskell was a very sly, playful literary elf who learned much from JA’s subtle, subversive art of fiction. How so?  I’ll give you one beautiful example, which is exactly in the vein of Austen’s witty, allusively sophisticated wordplay.

First, read this passage from Chapter 50 of N&S, only a few chapters before the romantic climax at the end. Mr. Thornton, the “Mr. Darcy” of the novel, reflects on his career as a self-made industrialist, and his “pride” therein:

“But the truth was, Mr. Thornton was hard pressed. He felt it acutely in his vulnerable point—his pride in the commercial character which he had established for himself. Architect of his own fortunes, he attributed this to no special merit or qualities of his own, but to the power, which he believed that commerce gave to every brave, honest, and persevering man, to raise himself to a level from which he might see and read the great game of worldly success, and honestly, by such far-sightedness, command more power and influence than in any other mode of life. Far away, in the East and in the West, where his person would never be known, his name was to be regarded, and his wishes to be fulfilled, and his word pass like gold. That was the idea of merchant-life with which Mr. Thornton had started. 'Her merchants be like princes,' said his mother, reading the text aloud, as if it were a trumpet-call to invite her boy to the struggle. He was but like many others-men, women, and children-alive to distant, and dead to near things. He sought to possess the influence of a name in foreign countries and far-away seas,—to become the head of a firm that should be known for generations; and it had taken him long silent years to come even to a glimmering of what he might be now, to-day, here in his own town, his own factory, among his own people. He and they had led parallel lives—very close, but never touching—till the accident (or so it seemed) of his acquaintance with Higgins. Once brought face to face, man to man, with an individual of the masses around him, and (take notice) out of the character of master and workman, in the first instance, they had each begun to recognise that 'we have all of us one human heart.' [quote from Wordsworth’s “The Cumberland Beggar”] It was the fine point of the wedge; and until now, when the apprehension of losing his connection with two or three of the workmen whom he had so lately begun to know as men,—of having a plan or two, which were EXPERIMENTS lying very close to his heart, roughly nipped off without trial,—gave a new poignancy to the subtle fear that came over him from time to time; until now, he had never recognised how much and how deep was the interest he had grown of late to feel in his position as manufacturer, simply because it led him into such close contact, and gave him the opportunity of so much power, among a race of people strange, shrewd, ignorant; but, above all, full of character and strong human feeling.”

So, where’s the sly game played by Gaskell? I suggest to you that in this passage, Gaskell was paying an homage to one particular self-made English manufacturer, who did indeed “become the head of a firm that should be known for generations” via “experiments lying very close to his heart”. Indeed, his firm is still as well known today as it was to Gaskell’s generation. Who? Josiah Wedgwood, that’s who! ---as you read here:

“Wedgwood was an innovative designer, a manufacturer of high-quality pottery and a campaigner for social reform. Josiah Wedgwood was born into a family of potters on 12 July 1730, at Burslem, Staffordshire. His father's death in 1739 led him to an early start working as a 'thrower' in the pottery of his eldest brother, Thomas, to whom he was later apprenticed. An attack of smallpox seriously weakened Josiah, and in 1768 he had to have his right leg amputated. This meant he was forced to abandon throwing but he subsequently gained a wider insight into the potter's craft - for example the work of the 'modeller' - and this encouraged his love of experimentation.
Thomas refused Josiah a partnership in the business, so the younger man moved first to a small pottery run by John Harrison, then more happily to the firm of Thomas Wheildon of Fenton. From there, he opened works of his own, first at his cousin's Ivy House and later at the Brick House factory. At these works, Wedgwood made many models himself, and also prepared clay mixes. In June 1769, he opened a new factory at Etruria, near Stoke-on-Trent, in partnership with Thomas Bentley. Attached to the factory was a village where Wedgwood's workmen and their families could live in decent surroundings.
Wedgwood greatly improved the clumsy ordinary crockery of the day, introducing durable, simple and regular wares. His cream coloured earthenware was christened 'Queen's Ware' after Queen Charlotte, who appointed him queen's potter in 1762. Other eminent patrons included Empress Catherine II of Russia, who ordered 952 such pieces in 1774.
Wedgwood experimented with barium sulphate (caulk), and from it produced jasper, in 1773. Jasperware, which is used for a whole host of ornaments, blends metallic oxides, often blue, with separately moulded reliefs, generally white. Some such reliefs were designed for Wedgwood by John Flaxman. Other wares included black basaltes, frequently enhanced by 'encaustic' colours like red, to imitate Greek vases.
Wedgwood was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1783, primarily for inventing the pyrometer to measure oven temperatures. He took a keen interest, too, in efficient factory organisation, and in improving the transport of raw materials and finished wares by canals, such as the Grand Trunk Canal, and by road.
In 1780, when Wedgwood's long-term business partner died, he asked his friend Erasmus Darwin for help. Darwin's son would later marry Wedgwood's daughter, and they were the parents of Charles Darwin, the naturalist who formulated the theory of evolution. Charles would himself, in turn, marry a Wedgwood. When Wedgwood died on 3rd January 1795 he left a thriving business and a fortune to his children.”

Now, some of you will no doubt reasonably respond that while it sounds possible that I am correct about Gaskell’s homage, why should it be Wedgwood in particular, from among several English manufacturers whose careers also fit those same general parameters Thornton listed in his speech? Well, how about this for starters (and finishers): Elizabeth Gaskell was herself the niece of Josiah Wedgwood’s niece!:

Mrs. Gaskell: Haunts Homes and Stories by Esther Alice Chadwick (1913):  “Mrs. Gaskell’s aunt…was a niece of Josiah Wedgwood, her mother being sister to the famous inventor of the pottery which bears his name. Another sister of Josiah Wedgwood was the mother of the well known naturalist, Charles Darwin”

And that brings me to one other, very specific hint that Gaskell hid in plain sight in the above quoted passage from N&S, which I say was deliberately pointed by her like a laser beam at her collateral ancestor Josiah Wedgwood:

“It was the fine point of the wedge”

“wedge”, as in Wedgwood!! That’s exactly the sort of significant name-game that Jane Austen played a hundred times in her fiction, and here we see Gaskell playing it in a big way! As far as I can tell, nobody else has previously spotted this, but that’s only a reflection, I suggest, that nobody ever took the time to look at the speech and think about it in relation to Gaskell’s biography, which is all it took on my part.

So, this tells me that it would be profitable to spend some more time delving into the text of North and South, to see what fresh Austenian allusions, beyond those already identified by other scholars, might pop up under the lens of my Austenian “shadow story” spectacles. In particular, I am intrigued by the parallel circumstances which lead to Margaret Hale achieving a shocking elevation in financial status at the end of the story, just as Elizabeth Bennet does.

Before I close, let me also draw your attention to another detail with Austenian significance-- about Gaskell being a Wedgwood cousin of both Charles Darwin and his wife Emma. Gaskell was 2 years younger than Charles, who was 1/2 Wedgwood (on his mother’s side), while his wife Emma’s paternal grandfather was Josiah himself. So both Charles and his wife Emma were cousins of Elizabeth Gaskell of about the same age.

This suggests to me the strong possibility that when they were all young, Elizabeth Gaskell spent time around the Darwin family matriarch, Mrs. Pole (that very same lady I’ve recently written about again, who rendered the very favorable opinion about Jane Austen having been “experimentally acquainted” with the snobbish class of people she skewered in Mansfield Park). If so, perhaps her first taste of Jane Austen came at the suggestion of her great-cousin Mrs. Pole? In that regard, I’ve just been reading a very interesting article about the possible allusion to Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution in North and South:  “Gaskell, Darwin, and North and South by Carol A. Martin in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 15, No. 2 (summer 1983), pp. 91-107.

And finally, Gaskell’s apparent strong Janeism in 1855 when she wrote N&S also opens up very interesting questions about her communications with the supposed Austen-depreciator (as to which I violently disagree) Charlotte Bronte. Despite achieving fame sooner, Bronte was 6 years younger than Gaskell, and we know that after publication of Jane Eyre, Gaskell reached out to Charlotte. And of course Gaskell eventually wrote the first biography of Charlotte Bronte.

In that regard, then, is it relevant that the benefactor of the heroine in N&S is named “Mr. Bell” as in Currer Bell!)? I believe so, and I also suspect that the back and forth between Gaskell and Bronte  included some discussion of Jane Austen’s fiction!

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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