Faithful Realism: Elizabeth Gaskell and Leo Tolstoy: A Comparative Study

Faithful Realism: Elizabeth Gaskell and Leo Tolstoy: A Comparative Study

Faithful Realism: Elizabeth Gaskell and Leo Tolstoy: A Comparative Study

Faithful Realism: Elizabeth Gaskell and Leo Tolstoy: A Comparative Study

Synopsis

"Criticism of Elizabeth Gaskell of the last half century has tended to concentrate upon her contribution to the Victorian "social-problem" novel or upon her achievements as a female novelist writing about women. This book offers a reading of Elizabeth Gaskell's work which runs counter to the established view of her as a sociopolitical and/or provincial writer whose work is principally of interest to social historians or to those interested in women's studies. Josie Billington seeks to resituate Gaskell's work within the wider tradition of nineteenth-century realism and argues that Gaskell deserves to be read not as a poor second to George Eliot but as offering an English Victorian equivalent of the religious realism of Leo Tolstoy. By bringing together for comparison two writers whose realist mode and vision rests upon a form of religious belief, and by setting these against the more skeptical forms of realism offered by George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, the book also offers a strong challenge to the accepted view of the nineteenth-century realist novel as an essentially secular form - the epic, as Lukacs put it, of a world abandoned by God. This book makes a highly original contribution to Gaskell scholarship not only in the fresh emphasis it gives to Gaskell's work, but in the subtle close reading it applies to original manuscript material and the consequent teasing out of Gaskell's characteristic habits of mind and composition. In addition, the book makes a valuable contribution to the study of nineteenth-century realist fiction in relation to belief and secularization in the Victorian period." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

This book began life as a comparative study whose principal aim was to establish the similarities between the realist visions of Elizabeth Gaskell and Leo Tolstoy. For it was in the acknowledged greatness of Tolstoy's form of realism—his capacity for “being the great world he writes about” as John Bayley puts it —that I found the neglected hallmarks of Gaskell's own genius: a capacity for being as slow as the life she pictures; for sheerly inhabiting the multitudinous forms within life; and for faithfully rendering the dense complexity of life's matter and its amorphous resistance to category or formal solution. By putting the case that Wives and Daughters is the nearest equivalent we have in England to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, I hoped to demonstrate that Gaskell's own talent for reproducing, as it seems, the very texture of life itself, was not merely the happy gift of a minor or provincial writer but the outcome of a vision far closer than has been acknowledged to the grand Tolstoyan scale.

In addition to teasing out these similarities, however, it was part of my original design to use the contrasts between the two writers to help to elicit the basis of Gaskell's apparently easy acceptance of life's relative form. For there is, of course, no equivalent in Gaskell to Tolstoy's Levin or the religious-seeking element which he stands for in Tolstoy's work. Yet I hoped to show that the absence of a Levin does not amount to a different weighing of the importance of religious matters on Gaskell's part, but to a difference of theology. By setting the increasingly troubled explicitness of Tolstoy against the implicitness of Gaskell, I intended to show not only that a form of religious faith lies behind Gaskell's apparent immersion in the ordinary, but that her novels are the supreme embodiment of that faith.

I have not abandoned these original intentions. the nature of Gaskell's subtly relaxed worldview is established in chapter 1, in contrast with Maria Edgeworth, and demonstrated in relation to the manuscript of Wives and Daughters in chapter 2. Moreover, my findings repeatedly confirm my original intuition that one needs the example of Tolstoy to begin to recognize and to value the subtle achievements of Gaskell's writings. Yet as my work progressed it became increasingly clear that Tolstoy is a crucial figure not only in relation to Gaskell herself, but in relation to the English . . .

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