Open main menu

Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 21.djvu/58

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
 

Gaskell's ablest and most interesting books. It exhibits, at least till near the close, a notable advance in constructive power; the characters are drawn with unprecedented firmness, and in some cases tinged with true humour, and though there is no loss of sympathy for the artisan the judgment of social problems shows greater impartiality and riper reflection. Her experience was widened and her interest in politics had grown deeper. She had made acquaintance with many able philanthropists, and in the company of Susanna Winkworth [q. v.] had moved about a good deal among the working classes, listened to discussions at workmen's clubs, and made herself the confidante of many a poor girl. Dickens was warm in his congratulations to Mrs. Gaskell ‘on the vigorous and powerful accomplishment of an anxious labour’ (Letters, i. 381). But for some defects of construction, due perhaps in part to the piecemeal method of weekly publication which the authoress heartily disliked, ‘North and South’ might safely be described as her most effective narrative fiction.

In August 1850 Mrs. Gaskell had, during a visit to Sir James Kay Shuttleworth in the Lakes, made the acquaintance of Charlotte Brontë (Life of Charlotte Brontë, ii. ch. vii.) The marked contrasts of temperament and literary idiosyncrasy between them had only strengthened a friendship as warm and as free from the faintest shade of jealousy as any that is recorded in literary biography. Miss Brontë visited Mrs. Gaskell at Manchester in 1851, and again in 1853 (ib. ii. chaps. ix. xii.), and Mrs. Gaskell became truly fond of, and ‘very sorry for,’ her guest. In the autumn of 1853 she returned Miss Brontë's visit at Haworth, and she was present with her husband at the wedding of Mr. and Mrs. Nicholls in June 1854. Some time after Miss Brontë's death (31 March 1855) Mrs. Gaskell consented, at Mr. Brontë's urgent request, to undertake his daughter's life. All through 1856 she was employed upon the biography, giving herself up to the work with the utmost assiduity, and sparing no pains to insure accuracy in her statements and descriptions. She spent a fortnight at Brussels in careful investigations. When in the spring of 1857 the book was at last ready for publication, Mrs. Gaskell made a journey with two of her daughters to Rome, where they were the guests of Mr. W. W. Story.

In a passage of the original edition of the ‘Life’ Mrs. Gaskell reproduced a supposed statement of facts, which had been explicitly made to her by Miss Brontë, and on the authenticity of which she of course placed absolute reliance. The truth of the statement was denied by the persons implicated, and the result was a retractation in the ‘Times,’ and the withdrawal from circulation of all the unsold copies of the first edition of the biography. Concerning certain other statements the authoress was much harassed by disclaimers and corrections, to which she sought to do justice in the later editions, and in the end she was obliged, as other biographers have been before her, to decline further personal correspondence concerning the book. The substantial accuracy of the picture drawn by Mrs. Gaskell of her heroine's life and character, and of the influences exercised upon them by her personal and local surroundings, has not been successfully impugned. As to her literary skill and power and absolute uprightness of intention as a biographer there cannot be two opinions. She expressly disclaimed having made any attempt at psychological analysis (ib. ii. ch. xiv.); but she was exceptionally successful in her endeavour to bring before her readers the picture of a very peculiar character and altogether original mind.

There seems no doubt that the strictures, just or unjust, passed upon her ‘Life of Charlotte Brontë’ gave rise in Mrs. Gaskell to a temporary distaste for writing. But her life nevertheless continued its usual course of active intellectual exertion, social kindliness, and domestic happiness. She had a great power of making friends, and of keeping them, and the extent of her circle took away the breath of a solitary like Charlotte Brontë (ib. ii. ch. xiii.). The Miss Winkworths and other intimates at Manchester, Lord Houghton—in whose judgment Mrs. Gaskell's house made that city a possible place of residence for people of literary tastes—and many other country and London friends, together with a never ebbing flow of American and continental admirers of her genius, diversified her home life and her excursions to London; and about the autumn of 1855 she began an intimacy with Mme. Mohl, in whose house she repeatedly stayed at Paris, and in whose historic salon, ‘standing up before the mantelpiece, which she used as a desk,’ she afterwards wrote part of her last story (M. E. Simpson, Letters and Recollections of Julius and Mary Mohl, 1887, p. 126, cf. ib. 163–7, 182–184, 201–2, 217–19, 232; see also K. O'Meara, ‘Mme. Mohl: her Salon and her Friends,’ 4th paper, Atlantic Monthly, vol. lv. No. 330, April 1885; Mrs. Gaskell refers to Mr. and Mme. Mohl in My French Master, and pretty evidently to the lady and her power of ‘sabléing’ in the very sprightly paper, ‘Company Manners,’ contributed to Household Words in May 1854). But she never forgot old friends, and was always ready with useful advice to