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On Today’s Menu:
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** Share some shortbread cookies for the birthday of a novelist & biographer.
** Linger to consider her rich and wonderful final book.
** Savor a last ½ cup on a trip to Italy, circa 2018.
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Shall we truly see Rome?
…It is a dream! I shall never believe it,
and shall have to keep pinching myself.
– Elizabeth Gaskell
in a letter to Emelyn Story, Summer 1857
Slice of Cake:
I want just, if I can,
to leave England on the
day of publication of my book.
– Elizabeth Gaskell
in a letter to Emelyn Story, Spring 1857
Why did it take me so long to discover Elizabeth Gaskell??
Her best friend was Charlotte Brontë.
Her publisher was Charles Dickens.
Her cousin was Charles Darwin.
Elizabeth Gaskell wrote 5 novels. My favorite is Wives and Daughters.
(More about that below.)
In her novels, Gaskell often explored themes of poverty, inequality, and the harmful working conditions of her city of Manchester, England in the wake of industrialization.
In her earlier novels, Mary Barton, North and South, and Sylvia’s Lovers, these themes were explicit. Her last novel, Wives and Daughters, also touched on some of these ideas, but a bit more subtly.
Money matters are at the root of it all. Horrid poverty…
I wish I’d never borrowed that
unlucky money, it was the beginning of it all…
I have saved and scrimped to repay it!
– from Wives and Daughters
by Elizabeth Gaskell
Gaskell also wrote a biography of Charlotte Brontë ,
at the request of Brontë’s father in the months after Charlotte died.
Nell Stevens** tells the story of how lovingly Gaskell started her book about
the life of her dear friend, Charlotte.
Yet the closer Gaskell got to finishing her biography,
the more anxiety, frustration, and pain she felt:
So many people had to be consulted!
So many with opinions about Charlotte.
So many disagreeing on essential details of Charlotte’s life.
So many blaming her for getting Charlotte’s biography all, all wrong!
You hurled your biography of Charlotte
into the world like a grenade
and ran away just as fast as you could.
– Nell Stevens1
In an 1857 exchange of letters with
her friend Emelyn Story (an American ex-pat living in Rome),
Gaskell hatched a two-step plan of escape.
First: Send the book to the publisher.
Then: Escape to Italy!
It turned out that Elizabeth Gaskell had reason to feel worried.
Two separate parties threatened libel suits
after her biography of Charlotte Brontë was published back in England.1
Yet, from all accounts, Gaskell and her daughters had a wonderful time in Rome.
And, 160 years later,
Elizabeth Gaskell’s book ‘The Life of Charlotte Brontë’
was named one the 100 Best Nonfiction Books.2
Happy 209th Birthday
** Elizabeth Gaskell **
– born September 29, 1810
in Chelsea, London,
I’ve been thinking this week about what makes a character memorable.
I believe it is the artist’s responsibility
to lead people into hell. But I also believe
it is important to lead the way out.
– filmaker Ken Burns
In Wives and Daughters, the three people that
Molly loves best all lead her into hell:
Her father, by distancing her without explanation. Her step-sister, by requesting a series of favors that are risky and unnerving for Molly. Then, when Molly falls in love, she feels conflicted loyalties in four or five different directions.
Molly Gibson is a strong, complex character when we meet her as a child on page one. She only grows stronger and more richly drawn as she grows into adulthood. It’s a joy to spend 650 pages with her. I only wish there were more.
To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood.
In a country there was a shire,
and in that shire…there was a house,
and in that house there was a room,
and in that room… there lay a little girl;
wide awake and longing to get up,
but not daring to do so.
– from Wives and Daughters
by Elizabeth Gaskell
The novel Wives and Daughters is set in 1866 —
a time that’s parked half-way between Downton Abbey and Pride and Prejudice.
(Imagine an era where Lizzy Bennett had grown to be an old woman
and Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess was still a young girl.)
If you haven’t yet read
Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
or seen the excellent 1999 BBC tv series,4
be warned that there are spoilers ahead.
(You can skip down to “Half Cup More”)
Molly, the Clueless
Wives and Daughters is a coming of age story about Molly Gibson. Her father is the village doctor. Her mother died when Molly was very young. The opening crisis of the novel is when a young man (the doctor’s live-in apprentice) falls in love with Molly. Her father is shocked and alarmed. Molly is clueless. And her father wants her to stay that way. He hurriedly sends her off and then sets about finding a wife for himself—completely disregarding Molly’s feelings about the people she’s sent to live with (whom she’s never even met) and about the woman her father is suddenly engaged to marry (whom she has met, and doesn’t trust).
A Father & Daughter
Her father’s actions are especially painful to Molly because, up until now, all she’s known from her father is love and camaraderie.
In fact, one of the best things about Wives and Daughters is how fresh and unique the father-daughter relationship is. There are plenty of things about the doctor to both admire and be exasperated by. The woman he chooses is very flawed as a stepmother to Molly, she’s slightly evil, but not unrelentingly horrid. She gives Molly practical guidance in important ways that her father never could have.
Most importantly for Molly, she brings her own daughter into the family, giving Molly an older sister who teaches her things about the world and women’s choices that no one else in Molly’s world ever hinted at.
The Marriage Market
An entertaining side-story involves a neighbor, a blustery old squire. Adamant that his family needs money, he decides the best way to get it is to marry off one of his children—as long as they marry someone both well-born and wealthy. “You’re the only marriageable one left,” he says, “and I want to hoist the old family up again.”
Not surprisingly, this does not go well.
What is a surprise, is that he’s not talking to a daughter; he’s talking to his eldest son. After reading so many books of this era about young women on the ‘marriage market,’ it is fascinating to me to see it turned around.
Which Friend Was That Again?
My one real criticism of the novel is that Molly’s two friendships are too similar. She only has two young, female friends: Lady Harriet and her stepsister Cynthia. Both are great characters, and their lives and backgrounds are not at all similar. Yet the way they interact with Molly—how they treat her, how they talk to her and about her—seem identical.
This book’s ending truly shocked me. I had no idea. Perhaps you already know the ending?
Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell is a surprisingly rich novel, with insights on class, privilege, snobbery, family inclusion, and women’s self-determination.
If you’ve never read it, you’re in for a treat.
If you have, and you can re-read it, that’s even better.
“Half Cup More”
Elizabeth Gaskell loved to travel and was
always keen to escape the smoky atmosphere of Manchester.
An independent spirit,
she ventured abroad most years…
usually accompanied by at least one of her daughters,
rather than her husband, as William preferred
to holiday alone.
– Gaskell Society3
Like Elizabeth Gaskell, I was lucky enough to go to Rome with my daughter.
Unlike Elizabeth Gaskell, my husband was happy to join us.
Airport Hotel, Istanbul
Monday 1 Oct 2018
We were only supposed to be in Istanbul for two hours. But…
Our overnight flight from San Francisco made an emergency landing.
The announcement came on in the middle of the night.
My 1st thought: It’s surely not breakfast time yet.
2nd thought: Whatever it is, this can’t be good.
(I had plenty of time to wonder, because the first announcement took a while. And it was in Turkish.)
(Not a language I know.)
Then, in English, they asked any medical doctors on board to please identify themselves.
3rd thought: This really can’t be good.
Me to B: Hey, something’s happening.
B to me: Why are you waking me up?
Me: We’re landing. Somebody on board is having a medical emergency.
The sun was just coming up as we descended over beautiful wooded islands; green fingers of land stretching into a jigsaw-pattern of waterways.
B: Where are we?
Me: They said we’re landing in Bergen, Norway.
Even before we touched down, I saw the ambulance driving toward us. A team of EMTs quickly boarded and headed down the aisle past us, rolling what looked like a stretcher/wheelchair combination. It was probably 20 minutes later when they started back up the aisle. The woman on the stretcher looked maybe ten years younger than me. She was wearing a headscarf. Behind her came another EMT, then came a girl of about 10 or 11 years old.
Given that the flight was from California to Istanbul, I’m going to guess that their family and friends were all a long, long way from Bergen, Norway. (I wish I knew the end of this story.)
For us, it was an hour wait for re-fueling and ‘procedures,’ plus extra flight time to get to Turkey, then another frustrating hour circling, waiting for a runway. When we finally landed, there was applause.
B and I missed our connection to Italy, of course.
But I was so grateful to find an on-site hotel in the Istanbul airport.
Dinner and a bed sounded just about perfect.
Polignano a Mare
Wed 3 Oct
Our second day in Italy. Feeling better after a couple of nice meals out, good naps in, and gelato!
The week before meeting up with our daughter, B and I stayed in a small town in Puglia, called Polignano a Mare.
Polignano a Mare is stunning. Our B&B dates from the 18th century, but it felt medieval.
There’s a small piazza just outside our door. A busker with a guitar was singing Hey Jude. B & I sat down to listen. There wasn’t much audience; we were the only ones who applauded. ‘Do you like Beatles?’ the busker asked me. ‘Will you come sing with me?’ Why not? He played All My Loving and I sang harmony. Then B and I went to find some dinner.
Sat 6 October
One day, B and I took the train down to Monopoli.
This is a town that was first settled in 500 BC.
I was charmed by the narrow streets and gorgeous vistas.
Monday 8 October
The guidebook described Naples as “gritty but worth exploring for many hidden gems.”
Prof B was looking forward to Neapolitan pizza, his first taste in almost 40 years. He was not disappointed.
My favorite food was something else…
If I woke early enough, I’d hear the bread truck arriving under the open window. Soon the scent of warm, right-out-of-the-oven croissants would float up into our room. Heavenly smell.
We seemed to be staying in the ‘Charing Cross Road’ section of Naples: So many bookstores! It was also the neighborhood of Naples Conservatory of Music, which we discovered while walking through a crowded street and hearing student practice sessions from open windows over our heads:
cello sometimes, or piano, even opera singing.
Rome & Venice
October 11 – 17
Then we met up with our daughter in Rome!
My birthday on the Spanish steps. A wander through the Colosseum.
A full afternoon at the Vatican.
Elle’s favorite part of Italy was our 3-day trip to Venice.
My favorite was getting to have this adventure together.
Thinking has, many a time, made me sad, darling
but doing never did in all my life…
My precept is, ‘Do something, my sister, do good if you can;
but, at any rate, do something.’
– from North and South (1854)
by Elizabeth Gaskell
“We call it dolce far niente. It means
the sweetness of doing nothing.
Italians are masters at it.”
– from Eat, Pray, Love (2006)
by Elizabeth Gilbert
Thank you for reading!
— Kelly J Hardesty
Scroll down to the end—and you can leave me note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.
You Can Read More…
Thank you to Project Gutenburg for their wonderful, complete, and seachable texts.
Project Gutenberg is powered totally by volunteers.
A fun story about Venice is this podcast
by Emma John on The Moth.
The Victorian and the Romantic
by Nell Stevens (2018)
Doubleday, New York
(UK title: Mrs Gaskell & Me)
I have to admit. I liked the chapters about Gaskell
a lot more than the ‘modern day’ sections.
100 Best Nonfiction Books
in The Guardian
article by Robert McCrum
April 17, 2017
Guardian News and Media Limited
The Gaskell Society
I very much enjoyed the BBC four-part adaption
of Wives and Daughters (1999).
The cast includes Isobel Crawley, Sir Richard Carlisle,
Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and Dumbledore!
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© Kelly J Hardesty 2022