Some Appointed Work to Do: Women and Vocation in the Fiction of Elizabeth Gaskell

Some Appointed Work to Do: Women and Vocation in the Fiction of Elizabeth Gaskell

Some Appointed Work to Do: Women and Vocation in the Fiction of Elizabeth Gaskell

Some Appointed Work to Do: Women and Vocation in the Fiction of Elizabeth Gaskell

Synopsis

Elizabeth Gaskell's work and life are being rediscovered against a backdrop of Victorian middle-class women's experience by many feminist scholars. Viewed in this century as conventional and conservative, Gaskell may instead be regarded as a radical for her time, because she challenged widely-held assumptions about the nature of women, their proper sphere, and their participation in the public realm. Examining the theme of work in Gaskell's novels, Colby presents this Victorian novelist as an effective advocate of change as she tried to create space for women within the world of work.

Excerpt

In a much-quoted essay, Jane Tompkins has defended Harriet Beecher Stowe against charges of sentimentality and conservatism by arguing that Stowe attempted in her fiction to "reorganize culture from the woman's point of view" and to offer a "critique of American society." In her analysis of Uncle Tom's Cabin,Tompkins convincingly demonstrates how Stowe's seemingly conventional vision, which affirms motherhood, home, family, and religion, is in fact revolutionary because it attempts to shift the center of power in American life, "placing it not in the government, nor in the courts of law, nor in the factories, nor in the marketplace, but in the kitchen." In the kitchen "mothers and grandmothers do the world's primary work," while men, whose actions Carlyle believed constituted human history, are removed to the periphery. This shift, Tompkins claims, is the most radical feature of Stowe's "millenarian scheme."

A similar case could be made for Elizabeth Gaskell. Like Stowe, Gaskell has been long underestimated. Perceived by David Cecil as the "typical Victorian lady," "all a woman was expected to be," Gaskell has not always been taken as seriously as she deserves. Almost as well received in her day as Charles Dickens, Gaskell has not maintained the reputation that Dickens has. Indeed, she has been misrepresented as docile and submissive by critics like Cecil, who believe that "so far from chafing at the limits imposed on her activities, she accepted them with serene satisfaction." Even recent critics see Gaskell as limited by conventionality and by a religious orientation. She has been represented as a conservative writer who unquestioningly embraces received ideas about the dominant ideology of gender. Yet, given the constraints of Victorian culture, Gaskell's novels may in fact be seen as radical because they challenge widely held assumptions about the nature of women, their proper sphere, and their participation in labor. Gaskell's treatment of work, in particular, is revealing, for it can serve as a testing ground for her . . .

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