Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

The Afterlife of Elizabeth Gaskell's 'Disappearances': 'Right at Last' and 'The Manchester Marriage' as Experiments in Detective Fiction

Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

The Afterlife of Elizabeth Gaskell's 'Disappearances': 'Right at Last' and 'The Manchester Marriage' as Experiments in Detective Fiction

Article excerpt

First published in Charles Dickens's journal Household Words in June 1851, Elizabeth Gaskell's essay 'Disappearances' consists primarily of her imaginative retellings of six stories of men who vanished under mysterious circumstances in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Interspersed with these tales are periodic outbursts by Gaskell in which she offers praise for the London Detective Police, the professional, plain-clothed, investigative branch of the London Metropolitan Police that had been officially created nine years previously in 1842. Although this new force engendered suspicions in many circles because of the secretive surveillance methodologies employed by its members, Gaskell seems in 'Disappearances' - at least at first glance - to be squarely on their side. She repeatedly asserts that if the group had been formed earlier, the missing individuals of the six tales and their families might have experienced better fates: 'If our Detective Police had only been in existence!'1

In her editorial notes to 'Disappearances' in Pickering and Chatto's edition of The Complete Works of Elizabeth Gaskell, Joanne Shattock observes that the piece stands out from the author's other non-fiction works because it enjoyed an 'extensive afterlife' that stretched all the way to 1896. She locates this prolonged existence primarily in a series of accusatory public comments that were published in Household Words about the lack of vigour in Gaskell's reporting for the first and fifth stories in 'Disappearances'. Those complaints ultimately placed further strain on her relationship with Dickens and his staff to the point that she contemplated ceasing to write for the journal.2 While Shattock's analysis is both correct and insightful, it can be taken further. Her definition of a textual 'afterlife' focuses on public responses to the original work that were presented by other individuals. If, however, that frame of reference is expanded, it can be said that 'Disappearances' enjoys a different kind of afterlife that continues to this very day because the essay exerted a significant influence on three of Gaskell's shorter fictional works: the novella A Dark Night's Work and two short stories that appeared in Household Words within two weeks of each other in 1858, 'Right at Last' and 'The Manchester Marriage'. In essence, 'Disappearances' lives on through those other texts.

The impact that 'Disappearances' had upon A Dark Night's Work has been recognised since at least 1979 when Angus Easson called attention to it in his monograph, Elizabeth Gaskell. He suggests that the second story in 'Disappearances', which tells of a squire's lawyer who is murdered after collecting rents for his master, 'may have been recalled' for A Dark Night's Work.3 The similarity between the two texts is indeed striking. In both, a rural attorney who focuses primarily on landrelated matters is involved in a mugging whose roots ultimately lay in financial concerns; that assault leads to an inadvertent murder; a body is buried and lies undiscovered for decades; the victim, now a missing person, becomes the subject of local gossip and is assumed to have fled overseas with the stolen money; the shame associated with the event prevents a young woman from marrying; and the mystery is resolved only when the corpse is finally discovered many years later. It should be noted, however, that by saying 'may have been recalled', Easson is only willing to go so far as assert the possibility of a linkage. Given the preponderance of textual evidence at hand, such qualification seems unnecessary. The story was recalled in part for the novella. The central crisis of the latter text is a recycling, albeit with some modifications, of the former.

In contrast, the shadow that 'Disappearances' casts upon 'The Manchester Marriage' and 'Right at Last' has never before been explored in a published study. At its most basic level, the linkage is a question of diction, for the three works are bound together by a single word: detective. …

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