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Saturday, October 2, 2010

Elizabeth Gaskell and Jane Austen

Gaskell JanePortrait2
          From:                         From:

Thanks to the recent flow of articles on Elizabeth Gaskell to mark her bicentenary, I was inspired to explore the links between Austen and Gaskell.

Although Elizabeth Gaskell lived and wrote some 40-50 years after Jane Austen, Austen’s influence can clearly be seen in her writing. In the 1860’s, Austen’s novels were being republished and were perhaps more popular than ever. It would not be surprising if Gaskell herself followed Austen’s style, or if her books were compared to those of Austen.

It is not difficult to find similarities between both writers. Both authors captured English country life proficiently. They both lead a quiet life in a country parish, surrounded by clergymen; Jane Austen’s father and two brothers were clergymen, while Gaskell was married to one. With their limited experiences, they both describe the milieu and society of small country towns and villages vividly with immense imagination.

NorthAndSouth Pride and Prej
                                                                           Girls blinded by pride and prejudice.   
           Margaret From:                                               Lizzie From:

Both authors manage to capture a wealth of characters and portray their personalities through lively dialogue. Gaskell’s Cranford with its country spinsters reminds you of Austen’s Highbury in Emma – in both novels, we meet the typical gossiping, conspiring, yet kind and charitable personalities. Like Austen, Gaskell has an array of lively female characters, who are brought to life through excellent dialogue and witty repartee. Margaret, Gaskell’s strong, dynamic female character in North and South, is not a far apart from Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth in attitude and intelligence – and in her prejudice of the Northern industrialist, John Thornton.

As noted by Janine Barchas in her article, both authors selected a very similar, limited array of first names for their heroes and heroines. Like Austen, Gaskell has chosen names very typical of the period: Fanny, Margaret, Frederick, Susan, Henry and John.

                                                                    Austen’s rural idyll.

While Austen chose places, imaginary and real, situated in Southern England, where she grew up, Gaskell’s stories take place in the North -compare Austen’s rural Devon, Hertfordshire and Surrey to Gaskell’s native Cheshire. This is where we come to the major differences between the writers. English country life, as Austen describes it, was still agricultural and idyllic. By Gaskell’s time, the emergence of railways and industrialism had changed the scenery, and people had had their taste of excessive realism, which entered the world of literature and the arts.

                                     Manchester as Gaskell knew it. From:

Compared to Gaskell, Jane Austen’s world view was still limited and narrow. Being a single woman, she always writes from a female point of view, and there is no scene in her books in which no woman is present. In comparison, Gaskell’s social sphere was larger, she was married with children, she had travelled more and seen more. Manchester, where she lived for a long time, was at the heart of the industrial revolution, and perhaps through her charitable work, she was aware of the disadvantages and grievances experienced by the laboured class of the time.

While Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters and Cranford remind you of Austen’s novels, North and South and Ruth are somewhat closer in style and content to fellow Victorian writers, such as Dickens, Bronte and Hardy. They describe hardships, illness and emotions with pathos, from a drastically different perspective. They are concerned with themes, such as feminism, social reform and workers’ rights well ahead of many other authors. 

Gaskell, as an author, had a social consciousness and, through her literature as well as through her charity, she wanted to make the world a better place. As opposed to Austen, who describes her immediate society from her personal experience, Gaskell deals with the society at large.

Jane Austen wrote from her limited experience and famously declared to the Prince Regent’s librarian, Rev. Clarke, to be “the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress.” Austen has been criticised for being too shallow in her approach, and writing from a tiny microcosm of society. However, the difference lies in focus; while Gaskell is clearly a social novelist, Austen goes deeper in her dealing with the human nature and its foibles. Through her sense of irony and witty dialogue, she explores the manners and morals of people and produces a wealth of timeless characters, who are still realistic and relevant in our society.

Whose literature you prefer, is clearly a matter of taste – do you prefer to read about the society at large, or about the human being as a member of a microcosm of the society?

In conclusion, I think that both the authors are brilliant and both deserve to be appreciated as classic authors of English literature. My choice would still be Austen – I can read her books again and again and still learn new things that I didn’t notice before.

This article is but a scratch on the surface of the link between Gaskell and Austen, but you can study this topic in more detail through the following fascinating articles on the life and works of Gaskell:  

Jane Austen in Vermont: Elizabeth Gaskell Bicentenary Blog Tour: Your Gaskell Library

Jane Austen’s World: Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (1810-1865): A Short Description of Her Life and Career

London Calling: 84, Plymouth Grove

Not to forget this detailed and interesting article:

The Free Library:  Mrs. Gaskell's North and South: Austen's early legacy.


  1. Thank you for the shout out, Anna. Great article and comparison. - Vic

  2. Very nice article and thanks for the link to my Gaskell blog post! The connections between Austen's P&P and Gaskell's North and South are very strong - I only read N&S for the first time last year and was very taken with it - Jenny Uglow's biography of Gaskell also focuses on the similarity between the two books, as does Barchas's article - so thank you for blogging about this - your thought provoking question as to which literature one prefers - for me, both - and why I love Austen but also Dickens, Gaskell and Bronte, etc. - love the broad strokes of the latter and the finer points of Austen..
    Thank you again!

  3. @Vic: Thank you :)

    @Deb: Thanks for your comment, I haven't read her biography, but now that you mention it I might as well. I like your way of putting it - broad strokes vs finer points :)

  4. Anna, Thank you for sharing our common adventures touring England! Out itineraries were surprisingly similar, weren't they?! I really do hope to do it again, and I would absolutely journal along the way . . . it adds such richness to the memories.
    Thanks you so very much for taking the time to read of our adventure and tell me about yours!


  5. I think you pinpointed their differences very clearly. I love Jane, I always will and as you say she focused more so on human nature. For me she can sum up the essence of a character in a line or two so that as the reader you know exactly what this person is like, you've met this kind of person in real life.
    I'm a latecomer to Gaskell but I have read North and South several times now and it is an incredible book. I really admire Gaskell for the very reasons she differs from Jane, her innate comprehension of what was going on in the world around her and her ability to shine a light on the inequalities of the day. Also, anyone who can write a character like John Thornton gets my vote any day. She also wrote these novels while raising a family and doing charitable work. There's serious multitasking for you.

  6. Thanks for visiting, Debbi! I can't wait to go back, either...

    Thank you for your comment, Helen. I have to agree with everything you say!

  7. Try Wives and daughters as the nearest to Austen. Mrs Gibson especially.

  8. I think you're right! Do you think that Mrs Gibson resembles a particular character of Jane Austen's?

  9. And, coincidentally despite a life largely spent in the north , Gaskell died just a few miles from Austen's home.


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