The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 15. North and South
It is impossible to go back here upon the controversy to which the publication of Mary Barton gave rise; it did not weaken the force of her appeal for sympathy with those who needed it; but, if unjust to the main motive, it was almost inevitably provoked by the actual effect, of her book. That her own sense of justice and the magnanimity inspired by it became aware of this is shown by the novel which, six years later, she published under the title North and South, and apart from which, in justice to the writer, Mary Barton ought never to be judged. In 1854, the great remedial legislation of the abolition of the corn laws had borne its full fruits; the agitation for the charter, though not extinct, had cooled down, and working men in the manufacturing districts had begun to appreciate the value of association and the uses of combination. On the other hand, the more intelligent of the masters, too, could not but better discern the necessity, and the more conscientious of them the duty, of establishing with their men relations which no longer ignored their necessary dependence upon one another. This, so far as the question of factory labour came to be treated in it, was the general conception of North and South, the story which, curiously enough, appeared in Household Words immediately after Dickens’s Hard Times, though written in absolute independence of it. The critic who had condemned, while admiring Mary Barton blessed North and South altogether. But Mrs. Gaskell had neither wished to receive, nor intended to make, an amende honorable. The social teaching of the two novels is perfectly self-consistent; and, though it did not solve the difficulties of the problem to which it addressed itself, in no later phase of that problem has the spirit of Mrs. Gaskell’s message been left aside with impunity.
Mary Barton, which, besides, as was inevitable, surpassing all later works of its author in the spread of its popularity at home, has been translated into many foreign tongues, reveals more of her distinctive literary qualities than is common with first works. But it was written in conditions and with thoughts of its own. The working men and women who appear in it (including both hero and heroine) are not only true Lancashire, but living human beings. The plot is admirably clear, and rises to a climax of dramatic power rare, but not unparalleled, in Mrs. Gaskell’s later stories. Curiously enough, it is here that her humour, more or less repressed in the earlier part of the novel, for the first time comes freely to the front, in the old boatman and the gamin Charley. But the story was not conceived in cheerfulness, and, as its scene lies in humble homes, repeated appeal to the impressiveness of deathbeds (on which Maria Edgeworth remarked) seems not unfitting. On the other hand, it is full of strong passion, and of the tenderest of pathos, and is steeped in that feeling of neighbourly love which we are almost induced to deem the best privilege of the poor.
The success of Mary Barton speedily brought Mrs. Gaskell into near relations with the grand masters of the branch of literature in which she had herself taken a leading place, and more especially with Dickens, who showed her, as a writer in Household Words and All the Year Round, and in many other ways, the highest consideration and regard. She wrote much for him during the greater part of her literary life, but hardly ever, either in her contributions to his Christmas numbers or in her occasional papers, anything unworthy of preservation, as illustrating her freshness of thought, power of observation and delicacy of sympathy. Unlike many of her fellow-contributors, she cannot be said to have fallen, except quite occasionally, under the spell of his manner or mannerism. Her own English style was always of singular purity; neither north nor south had marred it by “provincialisms”; and it is not by chance that one of her favourite writers was Mme. de Sévigné, whose style was wholly natural and perfectly pure. Whatever Mrs. Gaskell’s theme—a page of homely life, a tale of adventure or even of crime, or one of those mysterious supernatural experiences which had an irresistible fascination for her—the lucidity and delicacy of the style never fail the teller of the story.