Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 23 (1992)
The title suggested for this talk was 'two literary ladies' - they were certainly literary, but at various times their contemporaries would have denied that either of them were ladies. George Eliot was 'the strong minded woman' in Carlyle's words, who ran off with G.H. Lewes. Mrs. Gaskell was the author of Ruth, burned by two members of her husband's Unitarian congregation at Cross Street Chapel, Manchester because its heroine was a fallen woman. And if George Eliot was strong minded, so was Mrs. G. Her stubbornness drove Dickens, for example, to distraction: 'Oh, Mrs. Gaskell, fearful, fearful! If I were Mr. G., oh how I would beat her!' It was their independence of mind, combined with passion - the way they were prepared to accept the world's criticism - whether of their private lives or their fiction that made them great writers.
They were very different in temperament: George Eliot was undoubtedly an intellectual, while Elizabeth Gaskell, though extremely clever, shied away from abstract argument: she dramatised, rather than theorised. Eliot was austere, though witty and tender to those close to her: Gaskell was excitable, loving company and gossip. Eliot, living with Lewes, was very much out of the world: Gaskell was very much in it, teaching in Sunday Schools, working herself almost to death, for example, in the 'Cotton Famine' caused by the American Civil War in 1862-3. The most fundamental difference, of course, was that Gaskell kept her religious faith, whereas George Eliot painfully rejected hers. But in their writing they come close together in their approach to the novel, and in their concern with character and consequence, truth and morality.
They lived quite differently: Eliot in the 'mental greenhouse' of her fruitful relationship with Lewes, Gaskell in a perpetual scramble of domestic, social and parish life. The journals they wrote for in the early 1850s - Eliot in John Chapman's avante-garde, intellectual Westminster, Gaskell in Dickens' family-orientated Household Words - also suggest the difference between them. Gaskell, who was a modest woman, admired Eliot's greater power. She was always curious about unknown authors and she found the greatest talent of all in the pages of Blackwoods in 1857, in Scenes o/Clerical Life. By 1859 she had become embroiled in the morass of the Joseph Liggins claims, which became an almost obsessive refrain in her letters. Her open delight in the writing, her distress at finding that the pseudonym masked the notorious Marian Evans, her ultimate willingness to set aside judgement for the sake of the books - all these, which look like gossip and prudishness, tell us much about the unstated principles of her art.