Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

'In the Language of the Bible': Scripture as Subtext in Elizabeth Gaskell's Letters

Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

'In the Language of the Bible': Scripture as Subtext in Elizabeth Gaskell's Letters

Article excerpt

The Bible figures prominently in the works of Elizabeth Gaskell. It serves as Lady Cumnor's 'handsome present' for the bride, as Margaret Hale's parting gift to Higgins, and as a conciliatory gift to a young 'wench' whom Lady Ludlow deems ill fit for service in her home.1 The Bible is the book that rests on Miss Matty Jenkyns's bedside table, the book where the crippled lad Franky Hall presses his 'flower friends', and it is the book that both Ruth Hilton and Bell Robson take to the window seat to read.2 The Bible inspires a distraught Anne Leigh to go and seek' her 'prodigal' daughter Lizzie, and a grieving minister Benson, when 'sermon and all was forgotten', to console Ruth's mourners.3 The Bible is Gilbert Dawson's 'poor used up thing' with 'many a text in the Gospel, marked broad', and it is Mr Carson's book whose 'leaves adhere together from the bookbinder's press, so little had it been used'.4 Not only does the Bible figure prominently in the novels and short stories of Elizabeth Gaskell, but it does so in her personal correspondence as well, through the presence of biblical rhetoric and scriptural subtext and under- tones. Gaskell's practice of weaving, consciously or subconsciously, the language and sentiment of the Bible into her personal communication reveals an individual well versed in biblical rhetoric; it demonstrates that she was thinking in scriptural terms, even when references are less than absolutely explicit. Elizabeth Gaskell viewed all of life and relationships through the lens of the Bible, and as she drew on Scripture, she could be as playful and lighthearted as she could be profound and poignant.

That the Bible played a significant role in the works of a nineteenth-century author is not surprising: those familiar with the literature of Gaskell's age recognise this reliance on Scripture in the works of other writers of her day. Timothy Larsen, in A People of One Book, reminds us of the centrality of the Bible in the lives of the Victorians - how it marked the rhythm of life, and how it provided an 'irreplace- able linguistic register for not only novelists and poets, but for the Victorians in general'.5 The Bible, according to Larsen, shaped the thought and expression of Victorians of all persuasions, from the devout to the sceptical, and in his work, he explores the diverse ways in which Victorians thought about and interpreted the Scriptures. Thus, that Elizabeth Gaskell was immersed in the language of the Bible was not uncommon for her day. Distinctive to Gaskell, however, was her creative, apt, and at times prophetic engagement with Scripture.

Elizabeth Gaskell's use of Scripture as subtext in her personal communica- tion is evidenced in J.A.V. Chapple and Arthur Pollard's 1966 collected volume, The Letters of Mrs Gaskell, which manifests how Scripture occupied her mind and informed her thinking. Writing in a letter to American friend, Charles Eliot Norton, Gaskell's phrasing and sentiment closely resemble the language of Jesus. Requesting 'introductions' for her young cousin, Thurstan Holland, during his forthcoming stay in America, Gaskell writes in the following manner: 'Any kind- ness my distant unknown friends may show him I shall consider as done to me'.6 Gaskell's language mirrors Matthew's rhetoric: 'Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me' (Matthew 25:40).7 Not only is the rhetoric similar, but the sentiment, too, is reflective of Scripture. Gaskell's gratitude for any kindness, for any care of one's 'brethren', corresponds with the same generosity of spirit implied in the Gospel passage; it also acknowl- edges Gaskell's conviction that God dwells within all human beings. Another example of Gaskell's phrasing with biblical undertones is found in an 1865 letter to Norton upon the assassination of American President Abraham Lincoln. Gaskell, expressing great shock, fury, and sadness upon the death of Lincoln, writes: 'My heart burnt within me with indignation & grief' (Letters, p. …

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