"A Great Engine for Good": The Industry of Fiction in Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton and North and South

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Written in an age that evaded mundane representations of both women's and literary work, Elizabeth Gaskell's social-problem novels express discomfort with commercial and competitive enterprises. By the end of Mary Barton, the novel's most public and commercial woman--the prostitute Esther--lies buried in an unmarked grave with the hapless John Barton; in the middle-class home of the Hales in North and South, work and payment for services rendered often go unmentioned. Yet Gaskell's fiction also embraces commerce and conflict. As factory workers confront their employers and would-be lovers argue and debate, Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1855) place narrators, heroines, and authors firmly at the center of urban industry and social struggle. (1) Despite the novels' frequent maneuvers and omissions--and in some respects through them--Mary Barton and North and South insistently write fiction onto the industrial landscape. Most notably, by refusing to contain fiction-writing within the figure of the fallen woman or the (albeit unconventional) middle-class ingenue, Gaskell's novels demonstrate an effort to present authorship as a legitimate part of the often aggressive, contentious world of public streets and factories.

Recognizing Gaskell's efforts to find a place for her fictional work in the midst of urban commerce and industry is one way in which contemporary readers can make sense of this writer's struggle to negotiate her public persona and her private integrity. As her novels embody fiction in the social world, they enable Gaskell to make sense of her own incorporation within a literary profession. The significance of reading Gaskell's social-problem novels in this light, then, is two-fold: while the novels suggest that fiction can materially intervene in the conflicts they represent, changing public life and commercial relations because they figure themselves as part of this world, they also require readers and critics to reconsider popular conceptions of a reassuringly domestic, self-effacing, and properly maternal Elizabeth Gaskell. As her correspondence attests, for Gaskell, authorship was both rewarding and discomfiting work. Relishing her first major literary accomplishment after the publication of Mary Barton, Gaskell issues an authorial missive to her publisher:

 
   I find every one here has most convincing proofs that the 
   authorship of Mary Barton should be attributed to a Mrs Wheeler, 
   nee Miss Stone, and authoress of some book called the `Cotton Lord'. 
   I am only afraid lest you also should be convinced and transact 
   that part of the business which yet remains unaccomplished with 
   her. I do assure you that I am the author, and so remain 
 
   Yours very truly, 
   E. C. Gaskell (2) 

In this letter, Gaskell enthusiastically engages in the "business" of literature. Teasing out the relationship between authorship and commerce, Gaskell assures John Chapman of her willingness to "transact."

Yet as Gaskell was emphatically aware, at the time she was putting her name into print, publicity was largely incommensurate with Victorian womanhood. Gaskell recoiled from the threat such publicity posed to her privacy and integrity as speculation over the initially anonymous Mary Barton increased:

 
   Hitherto the whole affair of publication has been one of extreme 
   Annoyance to me, from the impertinent and unjustifiable curiosity 
   of people, who have tried to force me either into an absolute 
   denial, or an acknowledgment of what they must have seen the 
   writer wished to keep concealed. (Elizabeth Gaskell to Edward 
   Chapman, 5 December 1848, letter 33, 64) 

While these two excerpts can hardly do justice to the complex range of Gaskell's response to authorship as expressed in letters to friends, publishers, admirers and detractors, they distinctly illustrate the conflicted feelings that accompanied her ascension to public notice. …

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