MRS. GASKELL AND HER WORK.*
"IN the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons." This, the first sentence of Cranford, might very well stand as a criticism of contemporary English fiction. It is at this moment, more than ever before, in possession of the Amazons. So much so, that for the last year or two not only have more than half the novels published been written by women, but even the heroines of these novels are represented as being in a large number of cases also writers of fiction. It is, of course, easy enough to point to a great many novel-writers who are men; and taking European fiction as a whole, as distinct from English, it would be easy to prove that the greatest novels of the world were all written by men. But ever since the beginning of the nineteenth century the woman novelist has gradually extended her domain. If we put Miss Burney and Evelina on one side, we may fairly take this feminine movement to have begun with the immortal works of Jane Austen. And from her time onwards there has almost always been at least one woman writer whose works bid fair to be numbered among the classics. Susan Ferrier, Maria Edgeworth, Charlotte Bronte, Mrs. Gaskell, George Eliot, Mrs. Oliphant, these names present themselves in an almost unbroken sequence. Many people would, no doubt, at first deny the right of Mrs. Oliphant to be included in this honourable list ; but such sceptics should re-read the whole of that admirable series of stories to which she gave the general name of The Chronicles of Carling- ford. They would then acknowledge that in these stories, at any rate, Mrs. Oliphant touched a very high level. Not least in this list is the author whose works Messrs. Smith and Elder have determined to give the world an opportunity of re-reading. It is curious to reflect bow difficult it has been hitherto to read Mrs. Gaskell's work as a whole. There certainly bas been at least one illustrated edition of Cranford, and Wives and Daughters has also been republished; but those readers who are not fortunate enough to possess Mrs. Gaskell in original editions have been driven to delving into old magazines, and even, in many instances, to the crime of smuggling. The present writer is guiltily conscious that the edition which the world owes to Baron Tauchnitz is the only one in the house in which the complete works of Mrs. Gaskell are available. The "Knutsford" Edition, well printed and in convenient-shaped volumes, will prove a real godsend both to those who have not read their Mrs. Gaskell, and to the older generation who are anxious to revive their memories of her pure and admirable style.
It will come as a surprise to younger readers who have always had Mrs. Gaskell's work before them as a whole to hear of the immense sensation created by Mary Barton. Good as this book is as a story, Mrs. Gaskell does not seem in it to have found her real medium, and one cannot help suspecting that some of the success which it attained was due to the intense political interest which centred in Lancashire in the "hungry forties." The student of Mrs. Gaskell should cer- tainly read it first, and Sylvia's Lovers, Ruth, and North and South should immediately follow. We may weep for and with poor Ruth, and suffer from a slight suspicion that Margaret • The Works of Mrs. Goshen. With Introduction", by A. W. Ward. The "Knoteford" Edition in 8 Tole. London; Smith, Elder, and Co. Lee. 6d. net each.] in North and South was a prig; but these novels duly finished, words will not express the delight with which the reader will pass on to Cranford and Cousin Phyllis. Even in the latter, however, exquisite idyll though it may be, there is still left a little sense of that brevity and jerkiness of writing which are never quite absent from Mrs. Gaskell, except in Cranford and in her masterpiece, Wives and Daughters. No one should forget to read her shorter sketches, Mr. Harrison's Confessions, Morton Hall, Company Manners, and a host of others; and persons under twenty are highly recommended to peruse the Old Nurse's Story, from which they have quite a good chance of obtaining a delightful night of insomnia. But the earlier novels and sketches are merely, as it were, the trimmings and ornaments of Mrs. Gaskell's genius. In Wives and Daughters
she made a new departure. She "found herself," and produced a work which is within its own limits perfect.
It is very difficult to remember any such gallery of portraits as we have in this "everyday" story. The men as well as the women are admirably drawn, and Mr. Gibson, the apotheosis of the country doctor, Squire Hamley and his two sons, Osborne and Roger, Mr. Preston, and even Mr. Hender- son, the fair Cynthia's final choice, all stand distinctly before us. But perhaps the greatest triumph of the book is Mrs.
Kirkpatrick, afterwards Mrs. Gibson, the former governess at "The Towers," the great house in the neighbourhood of Hollingford, whom Mr. Gibson marries to provide a lady as a companion to his only daughter Molly. This is the lady who Las "such a deep feeling about duty that she thinks it ought only to be talked about in church, and in such sacred places as that"; and a thousand little touches give with admirable restraint the portrait of the vain, self-indulgent, weak, but, on the whole, good-hearted woman. What can make us understand her so well as her reflections before her second marriage, when Lady Cumnor (the gruff Countess vho reigns over Hollingford) proposes that Molly Gibson should go and stay with her at her school until the wedding-day ?—
" If Molly came to be an inmate of her house, farewell to many little background economies, and a still more serious farewell to many little indulgences, that were innocent enough in themselves, but which Mrs. Kirkpatrick's former life had caused her to look upon as sins to be concealed; the dirty dog's-eared delightful novel from the Ashcombe circulating library, the leaves of which she turned over with a pair of scissors ; the lounging chair which she had for use at her own home, straight and upright as she sate now in Lady Cumnor's presence ; the dainty morsel, savoury and small, to which she treated herself for her own solitary supper— all these and many other similarly pleasant things would have to be foregone if Molly came to be her pupil, parlour-boarder, or visitor, as Lady Cumnor was planning."
Cynthia Kirkpatrick, too, Mrs. Gibson's own daughter, what an admirable picture we have of her ! Mrs. Gaskell has succeeded through the cold medium of ink and paper in convincing the reader of Cynthia's extraordinary beauty and charm, weak and selfish as she really is in character. But it is to Molly Gibson we must turn if we want to find the perfection of an English heroine. Her sweet seriousness, her steadfastness of mind and character, are wonderfully rendered. What knowledge of human nature, too, Mrs. Gaskell shows when of the two brothers,. Osborne and Roger Hamby, she makes the clever, sensible Roger, and not the fastidious Osborne, succumb to Cynthia's rather meretricious charms, and fail to perceive that Molly in looks and everything else is worth six of her. Mrs. Gaskell's delicate humour is displayed to per- fection in the chapter called "The Charity Ball," and the reader feels some of the disappointment of the old ladies of Hollingford when "the Duchess," who is to come with the Cumnor party, arrives and proves to be "a fat middle-aged woman dressed almost like a girl—in a sprigged muslin with natural flowers in her hair but not a vestige of a jewel or a diamond. Yes, it must be the duchess ; but what was a duchess without diamonds?" Mrs. Gibson's comments on the ball are also delightful. She is very angry with Cynthia for being so tired afterwards, but considers it the natural consequence of dancing with everybody who asked her. "Partners whose names were in the 'Red Book' would not have produced half the amount of fatigue." It would be
easy to go on for many pages selecting delightful episodes and inimitable passages of word-painting from Wives and Daughters. Enough has perhaps been said to induce sub-
scribers to the "Knutsford" Edition to await with great impatience the appearance of this book in what, alas! must be the last volumes of the series, volumes marked, as is said in
the " Concluding Remarks," generally attributed to Mn Green- wood, with "what would have been a triumphal column, crowned with a capital of festal leaves and flowers ; now it is another sort of column—one of those sad white pillars which stand broken in the ohurohyard." As to how these "Con- cluding Remarks" came to be written, a characteristic story is recorded of the late Mr. George Smith, who contrived to be the intimate friend as well as the publisher of a whole group of novelists. When Mrs. Gaskell died with her novel unfinished, Mr. George Smith appeared on horseback at the door of Mr. Greenwood's house at Hampstead, and asked that distinguished publicist's aid in regard to Wives and Daughters. as be had asked it when Denis Duval was left unfinished by Thackeray. In both eases the work of making the story's end intelligible was performed with admirable discretion, and amply justified Mr. George Smith's reliance upon Mr. Green- wood's instinct and sympathy.
It is impossible for lovers of English fiction not to lament bitterly that Mrs. Gaskell did not live to write more stories in this her last and most successful vein; but the master- piece was destined to remain unfinished, and her first great triumph in depicting the quiet home life of the professional and middle classes in England was unhappily her last.