I first heard of Elizabeth Gaskell when I was writing a term paper for Barry Weller's 19th Century British Literature course here at the University of Utah. I wrote about Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, and several critics I consulted referenced Gaskell's biography of Charlotte Bronte. One critic quoted this biography to tell the story of how the Brontes were once given a dog named Keeper, who came with this warning: Don't raise a hand against him, or he'll go for your throat. Emily, however, lost her temper one day when she found Keeper, again, sleeping on her bed. She grabbed him, dragged him down the stairs by the scruff, and in the time it took for her to let him go and reach for a stick, he lunged at her throat. She punched him in the face, first with one fist in one eye, then with her other fist in his other eye. Repeatedly, until he gave up. As the story goes, Emily then nursed him back to health for however long it took for his busted face to heal, and he became her loyal companion/guard until the end of her life, even appearing at her funeral and whining at her door after she was gone. Anyway, I wrote that paper several years ago. But Elizabeth Gaskell's account of Emily and Keeper has been rattling around in my brain ever since. In the meantime, I had to read twenty billion books for my exams, and while consulting about twenty trillion secondary sources about those books, Gaskell's name would pop up again and again. So, now that exams are behind me, I decided to read one of her own novels. This past winter break, I started with Wives and Daughters.
Here's what I said on Goodreads: Arguably, the male-driven storylines are secondary to the women's. Even the squire, who receives a lot of page-time, ultimately seems to have been given those pages in order to make a larger point at the end about how a foreign female relative who shows up changes his literal worldview, which serves her (mostly untold) story and not so much his (more-told) story. Mr. Preston, the novel's villain, is a minor character, but his role looms large as he once "gave" one of the heroines a friendly loan when she was a child away at school and thereafter manipulated her into an engagement she didn't want, blackmailed her to keep her "promise," and threatened her for years until finally she thinks her only option is to leave the country. Gaskell's end for him is perfect; he's handled by the heroine of the novel, dealt with by "society," and unceremoniously forgotten by all. Unfortunately, any character who cannot avoid conversation of Africa or "the colonies" with the doctor does nothing to challenge his views or his language. He seemingly invokes the "Hottentot" to reposition his own and others' esteem for his own "dark" daughter's complexion (she is Scottish, has unmanageable black curly hair, is described as "darker" than other girls in the area, and frequently referred to as not nearly as beautiful as her much paler stepsister). I suppose we can if nothing else discuss how and why these representations are racist and what this might teach us about the kind of readers and writers we want to be today.
In any case, now, I'm reading Ruth. Hopefully I'll post something about it soon-ish.