Women’s Voices in the Fiction of Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865)

Author: Camus, Marianne
This study reinstates Gaskell as one of the significant novelists of the mid-Victorian period by looking at her work as a whole, avoiding the usual dividing line between her condition-of-England novels and her more intimate fiction. The feminist aspect of Gaskell’s writing is uncovered here in all its determination but also in its hesitations. The different influences on this feminism (mainly Christian and radical) are explored.


"Scholars have blamed Gaskell for being feminine, a unitarian, and a socialist. Both Edgar Wright (Mrs. Gaskell, CH, Apr'66) and W.A. Craik (Elizabeth Gaskell and the English Provincial Novel, CH, Jun'75) focus on Gaskell's treatment of everyday Victorian life, religious morality, and regional setting. Like Jennifer Uglow's more balanced biography, Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories (1993), the present title examines the broader cultural contexts of Gaskell's writing, warning readers of the need for an adequate reading strategy. Contemporaneous critics considered Gaskell provocative because she approached the feminine gender as a social construction. Camus argues that Gaskell used a variety of discourses, e.g., female voices demonstrate passive resistance and the refusal of stereotypes. Gaskell's women are subjects, not objects. Her use of conventional "classic realism" thus subverts the restrictive sphere of women's lives. Camus calls this "pre-conscious feminism" because it quietly deconstructs male authority, including notions about women's sexuality. Intelligent, accessible, and comprehensive, this examination complements Uglow's biography and provides needed reassessment of this notable Victorian intellectual. Summing Up: Recommended. All collections of Victorian culture and fiction." - CHOICE

“… a pleasing revelation of distinctive critical powers particularly well-suited to the subject in hand. Camus is not the first modern critic to make a case for re-assessing Gaskell as of major stature and significance among nineteenth-century women writers of fiction, but no predecessor has done so with greater authority. This is a Gaskell study for our time…. most earlier criticism is informed, in Camus’ tellingly ironic observation, by the ‘belief that Gaskell suffered from the handicap of a feminine mind.’ Her own study, through a careful marshalling of evidence from across some thirty novels and shorter fictional works (some of them virtually unknown even among literary specialists in the period) convincingly presents the feminine mind as a positive asset…. The subject of women’s voices announced in the title of this study is explored in multifaceted and imaginative ways, so that its centrality with regard to Gaskell’s overall achievement emerges very strongly…. She recognizes that Gaskell has limitations and avoids the mistake of making anachronistic claims on behalf of her incipient feminism. The study is altogether free from ideological narrowness or rigidity: gendered language and behaviour, it is pointed out, are not restricted to those of one sex, and Gaskell knew it.” – Dr. Rick Allen, Anglia Polytechnic University

“… her study is thoroughly individual, based on a close and sensitive reading of Gaskell’s fiction: particularly sensitive to the delicate processes of persuasion employed in defence of feminine values….It is the ‘whisper of female voice’ counterpointing the voice of ‘normality’ which influences us in the act of reading, even if we are not aware of it, and persuades us to sympathize, not only with the heroines themselves, or even the narrative voice, with an author of such obviously generous understanding.” – Marie-Claire Hamard, Emeritus Professor, University of Franche-Comté

Table of Contents

Table of contents:
Preface; Introduction
Part I: Gaskell and the Early Victorian Period
· Social Change
· The Status of Women
Part II: Gendering the Narrator
· The Limits of Space
· A Different Perception of Time
· Characterisation: Undermining Stereotypes
Part III: The Gender of Voice and Discourse
· Social Hierarchy
· Politics and Business
· Education and Culture
· The Law of the Father
· Women on their Own
Part IV: Speaking Differently
· The Ambiguities of Silence
· The Alternative Languages Elaborated by Women
· Conclusion
Bibliography; Index