"Taught by Death What Life Should Be": Elizabeth Gaskell's Representation of Death in North and South

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Literature in the nineteenth century was a discourse in which the representation of death was enormously popular. One need only remember that Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841), in which we read about little Nell's death, sold 100,000 copies on its first appearance.(1) Elizabeth Gaskell also wrote about death just at the moment when the burial reform debate reached its height in mid-nineteenth-century England.(2) In North and South (1854-1855),(3) Gaskell assuages the threat of death proposed by contemporary burial reform discourse-especially as Edwin Chadwick, Secretary to the New Poor Law Commission from 1834-1842 and Commissioner for the Board of Health from 1848-1852, framed and articulated the debate.(4) Gaskell advocated a very different sort of interaction among labor relations, death and domesticity that she believed would transform mid-Victorian society, especially when effected through the agency of women.

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To better understand how Gaskell negotiates this relationship between classes and individuals within them and how exactly this relationship intersects with her representation of death in North and South, we first need to consider her relationship to Manchester Unitarianism and to Chadwick's proposals for burial reform legislation. In particular, Gaskell's belief in the Christian impulse to ameliorate social evil not only underwrites her novel but differs significantly from Edwin Chadwick's idea that only national mechanisms can solve social problems. The version of Unitarianism Elizabeth Gaskell and her husband, William, espoused was essentially optimistic.(5) They believed in a God who is merciful and trusted in the innate goodness of human nature, even though human actions might become warped by material, emotional or spiritual deprivation. According to Jenny Uglow, "it was against social evil, not original sin or the works of the devil, that the Gaskells took their stand. If such evil was humanly created, it must, they felt, be open to human remedy through practical measures and through the power of the Word to awaken conscience and modify behavior."(6) Given this belief in the merciful nature of God and the power of human beings to counteract evil in the world, Unitarians rejected the concept of everlasting punishment in favor of a future afterlife where there is discipline for the soul, where even the guiltiest may be redeemed and the stained spirit may be cleansed by fire. Reconciliation with God occurs through Christ, who offers a system of ethics on which everyday morality should be based. Charity toward others becomes the outward mark of the true Christian. Within the world of North and South, then, as Michael Wheeler suggests, "images of hell on earth are consistent with a Unitarian theology that denies everlasting punishment, and with a Unitarian tradition of visiting the poor, getting to know them individually, trying to improve their appalling lot in the slums of industrial cities."(7)

The Unitarian espousal of freedom, reason, tolerance and an essentially optimistic outlook on life and the afterlife motivated small Unitarian communities like the Cross Street Chapel congregation in Manchester to contribute to social progress.(8) For example, Unitarians advocated parliamentary reform from the turn of the century. The Anti-Corn Law League was initiated and supported by Manchester Unitarians like Robert Hyde Greg, elected MP for Manchester in 1839, and the most aggressive agitator against the Corn Laws. Further, the Municipal Reform Act enabled Unitarians to participate more fully in local government. Thomas Potter, a warehouse owner and member of the Cross Street Chapel, headed the movement for Manchester to become a corporation, which occurred in 1838.(9)

In addition to parliamentary reform, Manchester Unitarians became involved in sanitary reform as well, since they discounted a belief in divine retribution which absolved society of any responsibilities in times of epidemics. …