Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

What the Gaskells Did Next: Life after Mother

Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

What the Gaskells Did Next: Life after Mother

Article excerpt

Abstract: This essay extends the biographical knowledge of the lives of Elizabeth Gaskell's daughters and their father following Gaskell's death in 1865, in particular by making use of the recent publication of many of the daughters' letters. Consideration is given to both continuity and change as expressed through the women's friendships, their leisure activities and the public duties they undertook. Comparisons are made between Gaskell's own assessments of her children as they were growing up, and the ways in which they matured and reacted to the demands of adult life. The daughters' part in the stewardship of Gaskell's literary legacy, especially during the run-up to the Gaskell centenary in 1910, is considered, as are the demands made on the two older daughters by biographers seeking information on their mother's life. A comparative reflection is offered also on the different tone and function of letters in Gaskell's life and in the lives of her daughters.

Readers of this journal know that when Elizabeth Gaskell died in 1865 she left a grieving husband and four daughters, two of whom married and moved to London, while the other two remained in Manchester. These facts are well known because they have been published in biographies of Elizabeth Gaskell herself. At the time of her death Julia, the youngest daughter, was only nineteen years of age, and even Marianne, the oldest, was only thirty-one, with another fifty-five years of life in front of her. William Gaskell also had a long way to go, with nineteen years of active life in front of him. There is, therefore, ample scope for research into, and recording of, the lives of this distinguished family following the death of its most famous member. Increased availability of manuscript letters in public libraries and other repositories makes such research possible.1 Restoration work on the Gaskells' house in Manchester has promoted an interest in the lives of Meta and Julia Gaskell2 but nothing substantial has been published to date on the lives of all four daughters following their mother's death. The standard biography of William Gaskell continues to be Barbara Brill's William Gaskell 1805-84, published in 1984.3

The lives of the Gaskell daughters as adults are of interest to us, partly from the natural curiosity that arises when considering the progeny of a famous person, but also because the way in which these women lived their lives may reflect the values and ideals of their parents. Since letters are the main source of information on the lives of the deceased, this essay will draw on Letters of Mrs Gaskell's Daughters,4 published in 2012, in addition to previously published material, including Elizabeth Gaskell's own letters. The main purpose of the essay is to see to what extent Gaskell's assessment of her daughters, as expressed in her own letters, proved to be accurate and to what extent their lives matched the high ideals of Gaskell herself, often expressed through her fictional female characters - women who tend to be strong minded and capable of spiritual and emotional growth. One may recall, for example, Mary Barton's refusal to buckle under adversity; Margaret Hale's emotional growth from country lass to mature Manchester woman; or, in 'The Well of Pen-Morfa' Nest Gwynn's courage in the face of physical suffering ;5 though these ideals may need to be tempered by Gaskell's own admission, to Lady Kay-Shuttleworth in 1853, that she put all her goodness into her writing and often felt hypocritical as a consequence.6 I would like to start here with the two daughters who married and moved to London, Florence and Marianne, and then turn to Manchester for the lives of the Rev William Gaskell and his two unmarried daughters, Meta and Julia.

At the time of her mother's death, Florence Elizabeth Gaskell (1842-1881) was already married and settled in her first marital home. Married in 1863, at a time when the American Civil War still had nineteen months to run before it reached its conclusion in April 1865, she had witnessed the social distress in Manchester associated with the disruption of cotton supplies. …

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