Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

Elizabeth Gaskell and the Short Story

Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

Elizabeth Gaskell and the Short Story

Article excerpt

The Short Story, Modernists, Victorians It is a commonplace in short story criticism that the short story in Britain reached its heyday through the literary movement of Modernism. It is only in recent years that literary critics have begun to give serious attention to Victorian short fiction, and Elizabeth Gaskell's writings have played a central role in this revisionary project. Roger Luckhurst records 1884 as the first time the term 'short story' is used as a noun phrase, while the OED gave it formal admittance into the vocabulary of English as late as 1933.1 Most surveys of the short story regard 1880-1920 as its heyday, when practitioners theorised it as a form particularly suited to a modern sensibility in reaction against verbose Victorian novels, 'loose baggy monsters' in Henry James's famous phrase.2 Modernists distrusted the kind of realism that the Victorian novel attempted, a panoramic representation of reality interpreted by an omniscient (or sympathetic first-person) narrator. They preferred 'the rigour of brevity' and suggestive ellipsis over extensive plotting and fulsome exposition, centring the story on the single moment of crisis or 'epiphany'.3 They valued psychological subtlety over moralistic sentiment and a narrative viewpoint which displayed its own subjective limitations: the form was embraced as the perfect embodiment of an individual's experience of modernity - alienated, fragmentary, elusive. Surveying turn-of-the-century literary culture in 1906, G.K. Chesterton summed this up when he claimed: 'Our modern attraction to short stories is not an accident of form; it is the sign of a real sense of fleetingness and fragility; it means that existence is only an impression, and, perhaps, only an illusion'.4 To Elizabeth Bowen, surveying the form in 1937, the short story had no earlier tradition: it was 'a young art', a 'child' of the twentieth century.5

This definition of the short story - based on a binary opposition of artful, self-conscious brevity versus the panoramic, expository Victorian novel - has been sustained by a number of critics in a bid to elevate the status of the short story form from its long marginalisation in the literary canon. For example, Clare Hanson argues that 'the short story provides or makes for a kind of experience for the reader which is quite different from that which she or he gains from the novel'; it is a difference in quality, not just quantity.6 The story relies more on suggestion, ambiguity and ellipsis, demanding more interpretive work from the reader, its effects being sometimes compared to poetry, drama or paintings.7 In this definition, plotlessness virtually becomes the marker of literariness. Its best practitioners included Henry James, James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen; fin de siècle writers of more action-focused narratives, such as Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson, are admitted to the tradition because they deployed the traditional adventure tale and ghost story in experimental ways (the meaning of the epiphany is ambiguous), although there is often the sense that these are transitional forms en route to the full achievement of the modernist short story.8

Such definitions do few favours for short fiction of the mid-Victorian era, although it proliferated in periodical literature during the 1850s and 60s. These earlier narratives are generally more plot-focused, eschewing the single 'moment of crisis' for multiple incidents spanning sometimes many years. They could not always be read at one sitting, being often spread over a few instalments of a periodical: multi-part fictions were common, and indeed Dickens's definition of a short story was one which was fewer than four instalments.9 Length was not consistent: Gaskell produced one-part tales (e.g. 'The Heart of John Middleton' and 'Curious if True'), two-part (e.g. 'The Well of Pen Morfa' and 'My French Master'), three-part (e.g. 'Lizzie Leigh' and 'Half a Life-Time Ago') and four-part (e. …

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