Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

On Not Concluding: Realist Prose as Practical Reason in Gaskell's Wives and Daughters

Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

On Not Concluding: Realist Prose as Practical Reason in Gaskell's Wives and Daughters

Article excerpt

When, on 12 November 1865, Elizabeth Gaskell's life sadly ended, the novel she was writing did not, and still does not, end. 'Here the story is broken off, and it can never be finished', wrote the Cornhill Magazine editor, Frederick Greenwood, who provided the end-piece to the unfinished final instalment.1 Arguably, the larger contours of the story, Molly's marriage to Roger Hamley in particular, were already predictable and substantially foreshadowed.2 But that is not the principal reason why the reader does not feel cheated. For breaking off in the middle of life's ongoingness - as indeed Gaskell's own life was broken off when she was mid-sentence3 - is utterly consonant with the mode of the novel itself. This is realism, that is to say, that is pitched in the middle of life, perhaps more than any English novel of the nineteenth-century. Beginnings and endings were entirely arbitrary to Gaskell, as the original manuscript for the novel shows. There are no chapter breaks, except rarely;4 all divisions and titles were imposed either by the author herself or, more probably, by editors and compositors at printing and proofing stage.5 Instead, there are lengthy fluent paragraphs proceeding from this writer's immersion in life's dense midst. The prose, like the life, just keeps going.6 It is not simply the case that formally this novel does not 'do' conclusions. Rather, there are manifold ways in which this novel is not conclusive.

Novelistic irresolution or inconclusiveness of the kind I will be describing in what follows has been recognised in literary criticism and theory more as a phenomenon of late Victorian realism than of the period of high realism to which Gaskell's work belongs. The habit of George Gissing's novels, for example, to be 'finished without being final'7 has been regarded as a symptom of the fin de siècle turn toward sceptical or satiric realism.8 In Thomas Hardy's fiction especially, a deep distrust of the value and viability of human goals, meanings and purposes has its literary concomitant in an abandonment of the mid-Victorian novel's allencompassing purchase on an envisioned 'reality' or 'truth', in favour of troubled indeterminacy in relation to final causes or teleology.9 When such proto-modernist tendencies have been traced within mid-Victorian realism, they have been confined to the mature work of George Eliot - Middlemarch, in particular - and have been regarded as an unintended by-product of the author's positivist worldview. For Terry Eagleton and J. Hillis Miller, Middlemarch is a 'totalizing enterprise' - most demonstrably in its famous controlling image of the web - which, nonetheless, in its myriad incompatible and heterogeneous narratives, inadvertently discloses the inevitable failure of conclusive totalisation and witnesses the deeper truth of radical incoherence. 'The presence of [unsynthesisable] incompatible models brings into the open the arbitrary and partial character of each and so ruins the claim of the narrator to have a total, unified and impartial vision.'10 The fact that the rich multiplicity of Gaskell's own greatest work has not been subjected to this kind of rigorous deconstruction is in part an outcome of the disregard and critical neglect into which the novel fell until the end of the last century. But it is also a result of the book's not seeming to offer itself to critical-theoretical exegesis of this kind and even of its not appearing to have a 'worldview'. There are no dominant metaphors or guiding ideas, no identifiable formal structure and no narrator magisterially in possession of the life depicted: there is simply, as the subtitle announces, 'an everyday story'.

I have argued elsewhere, to the contrary, that what lies hidden inside Gaskell's apparently transparent and informal realist prose, and what pre-empts scepticism, is scepticism's opposite: belief.11 Behind Gaskell's undiscriminating reproduction of incompatibly multitudinous forms and modes, there is an implicit Christian faith in immanent coherence or systemic order that is unavailable to limited human vision. …

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