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Gaskell's Welsh Excursion RSS
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Posted by Linda K. Hughes on Jan 11, 2011 04:31AM

William Baker did an important service in editing the Gaskell letters found in the Crompton family papers at the British Library and publishing them in VIJ (Baker). Because these letters have previously been available only in the print edition of VIJ it is especially useful that they are now available online to readers everywhere thanks to the new Digital Annex implemented by Editor Ellen Rosenman and NINES. These Gaskell letters provide further exempla of Gaskell’s marvelous persona in her letters: chatty, humorous, warm, winning, yet able to veer in a moment from playful chaffing or gossip to pithy shrewdness, angry flare-ups, or profound insight. The first letter William Baker presents showcases Gaskell’s humor when she teases the ailing Henry Crompton that one of the surest ways to her heart (as her daughter claims) is for someone to fall sick while on her hands so that she can have the pleasure of nursing him or her. Gaskell brackets this raillery, interestingly, with another role that often fell to women, teaching—which Gaskell declares that she loathes. Why she would welcome the intimate physical act and lowly service of nursing but despise teaching others in a school is a question worth pondering. Her early fiction, after all, aimed to intervene in social problems; she had willingly taken on the teaching of Sunday school (especially in the 1840s) while resisting other customary obligations of ministers’ wives (Uglow 82, 90); and, as Thomas Recchio has recently documented, Cranford became a staple of school curricula in the early twentieth century. Gaskell’s comment serves to remind us how rarely she places her female protagonists in schools—neither Mary Barton, nor Ruth, nor even Molly Gibson goes to school, though Molly is given a temporary governess. Instead it is Molly’s future stepmother Hyacinth Kirkpatrick who teaches school and exiles her beautiful but largely ignored daughter Cynthia to a foreign boarding school. Possibly Gaskell simply took pains to avoid in her fiction what Brontë had done so brilliantly in Jane Eyre and Villette, or firmly distinguishes herself in this letter from what her husband William did as part of his career. I hope others will contribute alternative views to this digital annex about what Gaskell’s stated disrelish for teaching in this letter might signify. The most important new Gaskell letter that William Baker edits is the one of 30 September 1863 to Henry Crompton, clearly another younger man (then 27) whom she found charming, as she had delighted in the younger Charles Eliot Norton in Italy in 1857. On the surface the letter is merely a report of the difficulties she has had in getting Compton’s address and her quick excursion into Wales with her daughter Meta, which had begun on 24 September at husband William’s suggestion when the house seemed a bit too empty and quiet. William Baker notes in his introduction the intriguing echoes of Gaskell’s 1832 honeymoon trip into North Wales in the 1863 itinerary that mother and daughter followed. I see additional significant contexts for the letter. Biographically the letter suggests William’s kind wisdom in response to a current cause of grief for Gaskell. The 30 September letter reports that Florence was in Wales, at Llanstwan. She had married Henry Crompton’s older brother Charles on 8 September 1830, and the “young couple” were still honeymooning in Wales. As Jenny Uglow notes (531-34), Gaskell found it very hard to part with Florence (or Flossy), her next-to-youngest daughter and the first to marry and leave home. Did William suggest that excursion to Wales to help Gaskell stop ruminating on the palpable, now permanent absence of her daughter and regain a vicarious sense of proximity by traveling to the same area where Florence and her new husband were honeymooning? The letter’s report of a trip into Wales is also significant because by then Gaskell had begun to write Cousin Phillis. By 20 September she had already written twenty manuscript pages of the story, and she would continue writing the story into January 1864 (Hughes 367). Travelling into Wales took her into a landscape intimately associated with awakened female desire and sexual experience—the site of her and her daughter’s honeymoons, and also of Ruth’s brief sojourn as the lover of young Henry Bellingham in Gaskell’s 1853 novel. But Gaskell’s traveling companion was Meta, who had endured heartbreak after her broken engagement in 1858 to an army engineer—the profession, notably, of Phillis Holman’s erstwhile lover who goes to Canada on business and marries another. The Wales trip, then, had associations of both sexual awakening and desolation (a fiancée’s as well as a mother’s), a rich matrix for the author who would soon complete Cousin Phillis. Linda K. Hughes ( Bibliography Baker, William. “‘What a certainty of instinctive faith I have in heaven, and in the Mama’s living on’: Unpublished letters of Mrs. Gaskell and unpublished Gaskell family letters.” Victorians Institute Journal 29 (2001): 185-206. Hughes, Linda K., ed. Novellas and Shorter Fiction: Cousin Phillis and other Tales from All the Year Round and the Cornhill Magazine 1859–64. Volume 4. Works of Elizabeth Gaskell. General Editor Joanne Shattock. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2006. Recchio, Thomas. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford: A Publishing History. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2009. Uglow, Jenny. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1993.
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