Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

Speaking Amazonian: Communities of Practice in Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford

Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

Speaking Amazonian: Communities of Practice in Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford

Article excerpt

'O what a lazy woman you are!' Charles Dickens wrote Elizabeth Gaskell in a letter dated 25 February 1852.1 His condemnation of her slowness in delivering the next chapters of Cranford (1851-53) was meant, and no doubt received, in jest. He had just spent the better part of the winter praising Gaskell's work for his miscellany Household Words.2 Yet, it is tempting to see (as critics have done) something in this little joke that reflects their later fractured professional relationship. A fascination with Cranford's origins and editorial-authorial relationship has led to many compelling treatments of this early Gaskell novel.3 Scholars tread over Dickens and Gaskell's correspondence so frequently that the critical panting for her potentially burned letters and his discarded ones is nearly audible. The pair came to literary blows later over the editing of North and South, as is evidenced in the charged language he used in writing to his subeditor, William Henry Wills. In a letter dated 11 September 1855, sent after North and South completed serialisation in Household Words, Dickens writes, 'Mrs Gaskell, fearful - fearful. If I were Mr G[askell] O Heaven how I would beat her!.4 Because of the open and sexist hostility Dickens exhibits in these later remarks about Gaskell, Cranford has become a site of inspection for early tensions between the editor and novelist.

One such tension occurs two months before Dickens's playful missive about Gaskell's laziness. Dickens had replaced all reference to himself and his Pickwick Papers (1836-37) in the first number of Cranford with allusions to Thomas Hood. His explanation to Gaskell includes his hope 'that the substitution will not be any serious drawback in any eyes but [hers]', making it plain that he feels it would be vulgar to leave in the references to Pickwick given the number was running in his own periodical.5 But there is ample evidence to suggest that Gaskell preferred her original text of Cranford to Dickens's edited version, not the least of which is her subsequent reversion to the original. Thomas Recchio has delineated the differences between these two versions and demonstrated the effects on the work and its contemporaneous readers. Critics often turn to evidence like Gaskell's note to Harriet Martineau, dated 13 September 1861, where she explains, 'I do not like writing a long story to be broken up into bits in a serial publication'.6 There are many such letters explaining Gaskell's antipathy for serial publication and for 'cutting up [...] one vol. stor[ies] into pieces'.7 Yet, as critics also like to emphasise, Cranford, like Pickwick, was not begun as a novel. In the early 1850s, whatever Gaskell's reservations about serial publication, she willingly took up Dickens's request to publish serially. At this point in her career, without our having the benefit of her 1855 words 'I will never write for H[ousehold] W[ords] again!', the author agrees to publish in parts (Further Letters, p.xix).8 In 1851, when Cranford's Miss Jenkyns declares, 'I consider it vulgar, and below the dignity of literature, to publish in numbers, we are supposed to laugh at her.9 The humour relies on the reader's understanding that not only was the character's favourite writer serialised, but so, too, was the work in which Miss Jenkyns says this. Thus, despite the fact that much criticism dwells on Gaskell's antipathy to serialisation and Dickens's controlling edits, there is evidence to suggest that her eventual disinclination to publish with him might be attributable to other factors.10

Whatever Gaskell's reasons for disliking Dickens or his journal, what she directly took issue with in 1851 is the omission of the references to Pickwick. With the first number of Cranford out for publication in late 1851, as Annette Hopkins puts it, Gaskell 'in a fright over the proposed change, had asked that the opening chapters of her immortal story be withdrawn altogether'.11 Recchio sees Gaskell's consternation as having more to do with Dickens's editorial heavy-handedness than the substitution of 'Hood' for 'Boz. …

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