22 NOVEMBER 1930, Page 51

Dear Mrs. Gaskell !

Mrs. Gaskell and her Friends. By Elizabeth Haldane. (Hodder and Stoughton. 12s. 6d.)

MRS. GASICELL'S place in English literature is, of course, somewhat uncertain ; she is not wholly out of reach of the storms of literary fashion, not safe on a pinnacle with Jane Austen and the Brontes. But, on the other hand, as Miss Haldane points out, as history her books are immortal. Even in the very far future the scholar who takes the nineteenth century for his period cannot study it in all its complexity unless he will go with Mrs. Gaskell both to Cranford and Haworth Rectory. He must spend an hour or two in the sunny streets of that sheltered corner of the past which was really Knutsford in Cheshire ; he must watch with the novelist its gentle inhabitants who found so much pleasure in pretending and yet met sorrow and death with the simple frankness of children. Again, he cannot know the Brontes without Mrs. Gaskell. It is with her that he must breathe the bitter wind that whistles round their bleak home. She will take him across the grim garden where the stark grave- stones show white through the " death gap " in the hedge and introduce him to the wild spirits within the drear con- ventual walls. After he has seen these English scenes belonging to one century, and one country, yet different worlds, will he not want to know his guide ? If so, he may perhaps turn to look at Miss Haldane's charming portrait.

Elizabeth Gaskell—born Stevenson—was an exceptionally gracious woman, partly perhaps because she was an exception- ally happy one. Her childhood (spent chiefly at Knutsford in the society we know of) was a pleasant one. Losing her mother before she was a year old, her father sent her to live with an aunt, " darling Aunt Lumb," most loving protector, dear and intimate friend. At twenty-one she married a lecturer at Manchester University who was also a Unitarian minister. He was a good and handsome man, very thoughtful but somewhat aloof. They seem to have been a friendly rather than a fond pair:- lie must- have been a typical product of that intellectual theism whose more sectarian professors, having torn the heart out of Christianity, stuff up the vacuum with a Marcus-Aurelian mixture very unfavourable to emotion. But if Mr. Gaskell was cold lie was benevolent ; if the two were not lovers, they were companions. They were both devoted to their home and their children. She helped him with his work and lie put nothing in the way of hers. With regard to the disgraceful conditions under which the poor lived in Manchester they saw eye to eye. Mrs. Gaskell's first book described these conditions and brought upon her a chorus of condemnation loud enough to drown a few distinguished voices of praise. What sort of woman, asked the Press, could thus vilify respectable employers and enlist sympathy for the errant poor ? The author, who had in her a strong vein of conventionality, was not a little distressed by her critics' suggestion of impropriety. From a literary point of view their hostility did good. Philanthropy was not her true genre.

Miss Haldane describes her biography as an effort to study Mrs. Gaskell in relation to her friends who were intertwined with her life." We can think of no woman writer of whom it could so truly be said that her friendships were inextricably intertwined with her literary gift. Her Life of Charlotte Bronte was the fruit of friendship. The social observation which is the only interest of her best fiction is the observation of a friend in a small circle. The delightful letters which throw such a clear light upon Miss Nightingale and Mute. Mohl arc inspired by clear-sighted friendship. Her writing was not the first interest in her life, and that, perhaps, is the secret of its peculiar charm. Unlike almost all English authoresses, she was a mother, hence perhaps the fact that her humour is entirely different from that of most of the spinsters of the pen. It is the humour of indulgence and excuse, the smile of love, not derision, which we trace in her books. There is a sense in which Cranford is a satire, a more sustained satire that Jane or George Eliot ever produced. The writer is laughing at her characters throughout the story, even when they are most serious, laughing as women laugh when they tell stories about their children, sometimes with tears in their eyes. No other writer of whatever rank could have written Cranford. It is probably true also that no first-class artist could have produced the little second-rate pot-boilers which Mrs. Gaskell sold to the magazines. She was never poor, but she always wanted more than was necessary. She set great store by a nice house, a good table, elegant clothes. She knew that she liked these comforts, " or one of the Me's does," as she said. She liked company, plain and distinguished, she was frankly pleased when the Bishop and his lady came to call on " us units." All her friendships were among women, as became the time, "though I wish I did not like men best," she reflects.

What a pleasure it must have been to get her letters, especially those from abroad ! Life in the Mohls' house in Paris delights her. The house is so beautiful. The front in Paris, the back in the country. The talk is so amusing, the company so fine—but not the eating. The Mohls appar- ently kept " a Tom-cook," but they lived largely on cold meat and weak tea ! Their English visitor goes to bed " as hungry as a hound."

One way and another Mrs. Gaskell made a good bit of money. When last we hear of her she is planning to buy a house unbeknownst to her husband, let it for a bit, and give it to him as a present when he retires. As she sat by her tea- table in her new drawing-room gleefully considering the prospect with her married daughter and son-in-law, she died instantaneously. She was only fifty-five. Dear Mrs.

Gaskell I What a suitable end CECILIA TOWNSEND.