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[xmca] Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot

Perhaps it is not so amazing that Gaskell understands the pretenses of genteel poverty. She had four daughters, and a husband who was a Unitarian minister and not particularly good at making money. So it was her practice to buy cloth at an expensive store, have it professionally cut, and then teach her daughters to sew their own "store-bought" clothes.
But the really amazing thing is how she writes, from the inside, about real, working class poverty, hunger, starvation, disease, death...and violent revenge. In 1847 Gaskell lost her only son to typhoid fever while on holiday in Wales. Her husband advised her to take up novel-writing as a distraction. 
He probably regretted it. The novel she wrote, "Mary Barton", was so clearly sympathetic to Chartism and even communism that her husband's parishioners burned it publically and her best friends wrote withering reviews (Marx and Engels, on the other hand, said we learn more about the condition of the working class from her than from any number of works of political economy).
Sure enough although there are many, many deaths, mostly of working class children. But there is only one portrayal of a middle class character who has lost a son: a cruel, tight-fished mill owner called Mr. Carson. And it's John Barton, the heroine's father, who is the murderer on a mission from an illegal trade union, in revenge for the son's strike-breaking activities. John Barton is, as Gaskell said, "the character with whom all my sympathies went"; Gaskell originally wanted to call the novel "John Barton" and was persuaded not to by the publisher. 
Raymond Williams remarks on this miracle of empathy: 
"It is significant that the creator of John Barton, ‘The person with whom all our sympathies went’, drew back, under pressure from her publishers and in her own understandable uncertainties, from full imaginative identification with the act of conscious violence against an oppressor: the explicit and untypical expression of the power of a new working class organization. But that she can enter as far as she does into a world of necessary class consciousness, while never losing touch with the individual people who are forced by systematic exploitation to learn this new way of thinking, is profoundly impressive and is a true mark of radical change. (219) "
Raymond Williams, The Country and The City

Now, of course, neither John Barton nor Elizabeth Gaskell can be said to have "radically changed" the actual social conditions that "Mary Barton" describes. But Gaskell really did change the novel forever: she was the first person, LONG before Mark Twain, to do a systematic LINGUISTIC study of working class dialects and to try to write in them. And she was also the first to use the "conversations" of domestic fiction to write about non-domestic issues, a technique she perfects in her revisitation of the industrial themes, "North and South".
Shortly before she died, she was accused of writing another book under the pseudonym George Eliot. She a note to the real author joking that it was a shame to leave so much brilliance uncredited and so much credit unclaimed, so the next time the book was credited to her she would accept the credit with pride
Mysteriously, she signed the letter "Gilbert Eliot". I always assumed that Gilbert was the mischievous twin brother of George, but now I think the relationship was one of fairly direct paternity.
David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

--- On Thu, 11/25/10, mike cole <lchcmike@gmail.com> wrote:

From: mike cole <lchcmike@gmail.com>
Subject: [xmca] Reflexive, culturally mediated, sociality
To: "eXtended Mind, Culture,Activity" <xmca@weber.ucsd.edu>
Date: Thursday, November 25, 2010, 8:32 AM

Some time back Larry and others were focused on primal sociality in highty
interactions. Even longer ago, David Kel suggested that we read Elizabeth
Gaskell. Wow,
was he ever right! Amazing.

I recently read a scene set about, say, 1840's rural England. Gaskell
depicts poor folks maintaining
a traditional, ostensibly prosperous, life world in the face of the coming
pressures of industrialization. In this scene,
a woman is having a party. As befits her situation, at the high point of the
festivities she is
seated comfortably in a special spot of honor and attention, but in small
ways, the author
has told us about all the hard work she has done to make this accomplishment
"pass" as
an expression of her genteel accomplishments in life. The author ends the
description of this
event by writing that the hostess "who now sat in state, pretending not to
know what cakes were
sent up, though she knew, and she knew that we knew, and we knew that she
knew that we
knew, she had been busy all morning making tea-bread and sponge-cake."

There, I think we have a beautiful description of culturally mediated,
reflexive, community and
the degree of intertwining that deep reflexivity seems to promote. The
Gaskell novels I have read
all excel at providing an almost micro-ethnographic sense of the richness of
within small, mostly face to face, English, communities.
And consistent with the picture that Larry is seeking to fill out.

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