Elizabeth ‘The Reaper’ Gaskell

Rather like the end of Jurassic Park, when the survivors are leaving the island in a helicopter, dirt-streaked and bruised but glad to be alive, or the end of Independence Day, or any Die Hard film, I presume the characters in all of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels take a head count after the final line, and congratulate themselves on surviving.

I used to think Dickens killed a lot of people, but the BrontΓ«s killed more than him, especially Emily. We only have one novel to go on, but I reckon if there had been more, she would never have stinted on the deaths. George Eliot was also not averse to bumping people off, and Hardy also has quite an impressive body count, but the more Gaskell I read, the more I’m amazed anyone gets out of one of her books alive.

As with a lot of writers, there was an element of therapy in it for her. She had two still born babies, and a son who died of Scarlet fever at nine months old. Prior to that, her mother had died when she was young, as did many of her siblings, and her father sent her away to be cared for by her aunt, Hannah Lumb. He didn’t her back when he remarried and had two further children, and although she was close to her brother, he went away to sea at twelve, and was later lost. Elizabeth was lucky in that Aunt Hannah was very good to her, and gave her a secure and loving home in Knutsford, surrounded by spinster ladies and gentle country distractions, all very similar to ‘Cranford’.

I am currently reading ‘Mary Barton’, her first book, I can’t help by think any time someone coughs, has a headache, or feels remotely weak, they are marked for death. If someone survives an accident or fever in a Gaskell novel, I feel like celebrating that they get to live another day. Which I’m guessing is pretty close to what it was like to be alive for many during Victorian times.

The mills of Mary Barton's Manchester. Don't drink the water.

The mills of Mary Barton’s dismal world. Don’t drink the water.

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