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Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 21.djvu/59

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beginners in the art in which she had achieved fame. She possessed, too, a peculiar tact for training her servants. At one time she was much influenced by the example of the well-known prison philanthropist, Thomas Wright. During the cotton famine of 1862–3 she was a personal friend to many of the poor, and took a conspicuous part in organising and superintending for six or seven hours a day a method of relief—sewing-rooms—which had occurred to her before it came to be largely adopted (Mme. Belloc, pp. 18–20).

After the stress of the cotton famine she set her hand to a new story. The plot of ‘Sylvia's Lovers,’ published early in 1863, turns on the doings of the press-gang towards the close of last century. She stayed at Whitby (here called Monkshaven) to study the character of the place, and personally consulted such authorities as Sir Charles Napier and General Perronet Thompson on the history of impressment. In its earlier portions the story maintains itself at the writer's highest level; the local colouring is true and vivid; the pathetic charm of the innocent Sylvia is admirably contrasted by the free humour of the figures of her father and his man Kester, although the effect is rather marred by the coincidences introduced to insure a symmetrical conclusion. In 1863–4 followed, in the first instance as a contribution to the ‘Cornhill Magazine,’ the prose idyll of ‘Cousin Phillis.’ The little book, which was not published as a complete story till November 1865, is beyond dispute in execution the most perfect of Mrs. Gaskell's works, and has scarcely been surpassed for combination of the sunniest humour with the tenderest pathos.

Mrs. Gaskell's last story, ‘Wives and Daughters,’ also appeared in the ‘Cornhill Magazine’ from August 1864 to January 1866. It was reprinted as an unfinished work in the following February. It appeared at first in the magazine without her name. In it her later and more genial manner asserts itself with graceful ease. There is a certain weakness in the construction of the story; but its truthfulness of characterisation and its beautiful humanity of tone and feeling, ranging from the most charming playfulness to the most subduing pathos, stamp it as a masterpiece in its branch of imaginative literature.

A collected edition of Mrs. Gaskell's works was first published in seven volumes in 1873. The ‘Knutsford’ collected edition, edited by the present writer, came out in eight volumes in 1906. Neither includes the ‘Life of Charlotte Brontë,’ which was re-edited in 1900 by Mr. Clement K. Shorter. The collection of tales now included in ‘Round the Sofa’ was first brought out under the title of ‘My Lady Ludlow.’ Of her chief writings French translations have been published. ‘Mary Barton’ and ‘Cranford’ have also been translated into Hungarian. A Spanish version of ‘Mary Barton’ appeared in 1879.

Her strength began to fail when nearing the end of ‘Wives and Daughters,’ though her exertions never relaxed. On Sunday, 12 Nov. 1865, she was carried away by disease of the heart, ‘without a moment's warning,’ according to her epitaph. She was at the time conversing with (not reading to) her daughters, three of whom were around her, in the country house at Holybourne, near Alton in Hampshire, which she had purchased with the proceeds of her last book, and which she intended to present as a surprise to her husband. She was buried in the little sloping graveyard of the ancient unitarian chapel at Knutsford, where her husband was in 1884 laid by her side. A cross, with the dates of their births and deaths, marks their resting-place; but in the Cross Street Unitarian Chapel at Manchester they are commemorated by mural inscriptions, of which that to Mrs. Gaskell is from her husband's hand.

An interesting letter, dated 11 Nov. 1859, from ‘George Eliot’ to Mrs. Gaskell, gratefully acknowledging her ‘sweet encouraging words,’ has been printed in the ‘British Weekly.’ George Sand, only a few months before Mrs. Gaskell's death, observed to Lord Houghton: ‘Mrs. Gaskell has done what neither I nor other female writers in France can accomplish; she has written novels which excite the deepest interest in men of the world, and yet which every girl will be the better for reading.’ None of our novelists has shown a more extraordinary power of self-development. She might have excelled in a different field. During the last months of her life, inspired perhaps by the example of Mme. Mohl's ‘Essay on Mme. Récamier,’ she had thoughts of writing a life of Mme. de Sévigné, and pursued some preliminary researches on the subject both at Paris and in Brittany. She had long taken a warm interest in French history and literature (cf. her papers Traits and Stories of the Huguenots, An Accursed Race, Curious if True, My French Master, &c.) Mrs. Gaskell had at one time been very beautiful; her head is a remarkably fine one in the portraits preserved of her, and her hand was always thought perfect. She had great conversational gifts, and the letters in her ‘Life of Charlotte Brontë’ show her to have been a charming correspondent. The singular refinement of her manners was noticed by all who became acquainted with her. Perhaps her natural vivacity caused her now and then to chafe a little at the rather tranquil conditions