Mrs. Gaskell's North and South: Austen's Early Legacy

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AN ACCOUNT OF JANE AUSTEN'S earliest literary legacy--one that would track the influence she exerted upon writers nearest to her own time--might productively consider the Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell. Mrs. Gaskell's North and South (1854-55) has all the makings of a deftly refashioned Pride and Prejudice. 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 (19). 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" (57). 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, North and South may be the first full-length reworking of Pride and Prejudice. If this novel proves the Victorian ancestor of the cornucopia of modern adaptations that have deliciously reset Austen's original in contemporary environs, Gaskell's Milton (a thinly disguised Manchester) may have paved the way for Cohen's Boca Raton. (1) In sharp contrast, however, to those adaptations that proudly flaunt their Janeite lineage, North and South 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. In an argument such as this, authorial intention must remain speculative, but perhaps Gaskell's close relationship to Charlotte Bronte, who is known to have disapproved of Austen, explains this peculiar omission.

By 1854, Gaskell could not have been ignorant of Austen's work and its increasing hold over popular taste. True, after the posthumous double publication of Northanger Abbey with Persuasion in December of 1817, no English reissue of her novels took place until Richard Bentley included them in his series of Standard Novels in 1883 (Gilson 211). Judging by the book market's apparent lack of interest, fifteen years of" relative obscurity followed Austen upon her death, as her legacy lay dormant. But in the wake of Bentley's republication of Austen's six novels in his relatively inexpensive series, her work saw a sudden surge of popularity. Many further reprintings, by Bentley as well as others, followed in the late 1830s, the 40s and early '50s--before Gaskell composed her adaptation. Pride and Prejudice alone--quick to become the darling of Austen's oeuvre--continued to be reprinted by Bentley in 1886, 1846, 1853, and 1854. Further printings of this same novel by other publishing houses occurred in 1838, 1844, 1845, 1848, 1849, and 1851 (Gilson 211-45). In October 1845, the high-profile reviewer George Henry Lewes mentioned Austen in the same breath with Shakespeare, Cervantes, Moliere, Goethe, Fielding, and Scott. In an unsigned review in Fraser's Magazine in December of 1847, Lewes praised Austen's "marvellous dramatic power" and her "truth in the delineation of life and character," declaring that "Fielding and Miss Austen are the greatest novelists in our language" (Southam 137-88). Lewes held up Pride and Prejudice, in particular, as the model for contemporary novelists.

By 1859, David Masson, a prominent Victorian scholar, would sum up Austen's position in the literary landscape in British Novelists and Their Styles:

All in all ... the best judges unanimously prefer Miss Austen to any of her contemporaries of the same order. They reckon her ['works, since a list of her six novels follows'] as not only better than anything else of the kind written in her day, but also among the most perfect and charming fictions in the language. I have known the most hard-headed men in ecstasies with them. …

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