Pieces of a Life: Elizabeth Gaskell Wrote with a Rare Concern for the Poor and Outcast of Victorian Society, Even as Her Talent Propelled Her into the Literary Elite

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Over the next two months at the glorious John Rylands University Library in Manchester--built between 1890 and 1899 as a memorial to the greatest of the Victorian cotton magnates--visitors can see a small but beautifully formed exhibition about one of the city's best-known daughters. It has the unfortunate title "Elizabeth Gaskell: a Connected Life", which makes the novelist sound like a keen user of Twitter or Facebook, but you do see what the curators mean. It was not only that Gaskell had so many well-regarded literary friends (after the publication of her first novel, Mary Barton, in 1848 made her an overnight sensation, she joined a whole new social circle, one that included both Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte, whose biography she later wrote). Her Unitarian faith and social conscience also unfailingly tied her to those who were so often invisible to women of her class: the poor, the outcast, the criminal. The thought occurs that were David Cameron looking for ways to tighten up the flabby concept he calls "the big society"--and one sincerely hopes that he is--he could do worse than start by going straight back to the life of Gaskell, if not to her novels.

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Thanks largely to Cranford, a slight book about the redoubtable ladies of pre-Wag Knutsford, Gaskell has long been a popular novelist, if not exactly a fashionable one. Her Victorian peers, once they had discovered the sex of the author of Mary Barton (it was first published anonymously), praised her mostly for her diffidence, her modesty and her ability to move her readers to tears--in other words, her considerable intellectual achievements were always veiled by "feminine accomplishment". This was how she continued to be seen until the 1950s and, perhaps, beyond.

Even in the early 1990s-the peak of the passion among English departments in universities for literary theory--when Gaskell was reassessed by feminist critics, she was somehow found wanting. They were kind, and righteously indignant on her behalf. But they mostly preferred the weight of George Eliot or the weirdness of the Brontes, or to show off by competitively digging up ever more obscure "forgotten" women writers whose names were excitingly unfamiliar and whose novels would look good packaged as Virago paperbacks.

Happily, "Elizabeth Gaskell: a Connected Life" makes no mention of all this. It takes her place in the canon as read and concentrates instead on biographical matters. If you have read any of the excellent biographies--I can vouch for Jenny Uglow's Elizabeth Gaskell: a Habit of Stories--you will know the tale: the beloved aunt who brought Gaskell up after the death of her mother in 1811, when Elizabeth was just a year old; the adored brother, John, a sailor who travelled to India to begin a new life and was never seen again; the marriage in 1832 to Reverend William Gaskell, a minister at the Cross Street Unitarian Chapel in Manchester; the publication of Mary Barton, whose shockingly realistic portrayal of workers living eight-to-a-room in damp, windowless basements infuriated the city's mill owners; the subsequent fame and fan letters (her new admirers included George Eliot, Charles Kingsley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Dickens, who later serialised both Cranford and North and South in his magazine HouseholdWords). The John Rylands version of the tale, however, is punctuated with jewels from the library's remarkable collection of manuscripts and papers, as well as items borrowed from elsewhere.

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Why are these writerly relics so touching and tender? Partly, it's the miracle of their survival. There is a cross-written letter (sentences scribbled over sentences, the better to save paper) from John that particularly pierces the heart. Like Mrs Hale in North and South, who stores her son Frederick's "yellow, sea-stained letters, with the peculiar fragrance which ocean letters have", Gaskell must have treasured letters from her brother. …