Wednesday, September 29, 2010

My dear little girl

Elizabeth Gaskell, a popular writer of socially realistic novels and ghostly short stories, was born 200 years today. For a while, before becoming a novelist, she tried keeping a diary. She wasn’t very good at it, managing only 11 entries in total, over five years. Nevertheless, the diary is an exceptional one, for it focuses exclusively on Gaskell’s observations, thoughts, uncertainties about, and love of, her baby daughter. In over two years of writing for The Diary Junction Blog, I do not recall any one of my 300 articles being about a diarist’s babies or his/her children’s development.

Elizabeth Stevenson was born on 29 September 1810, in Chelsea, the eighth and last of her parents’ children and only the second to survive infancy. Her mother died months after her birth, and baby Elizabeth moved to live with an aunt, Hannah Lumb, in Knutsford, Cheshire. She visited her father, who remarried, rarely, and was sent away to school for a few years, but Knutsford always remained her home.

After her father died in 1826, Elizabeth spent some time in Newcastle upon Tyne at the home of the Rev William Turner, a relation and a famous Unitarian minister who was a founder of the Literary and Philosophical Society. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says he was humane, generous and eccentric, and ‘undoubtedly influenced her moral, humanitarian, and political outlook’.

In 1830, Elizabeth married William Gaskell, another Unitarian minister, and they set up home in Manchester, then a very depressed town. Her husband’s work drew her into direct contact with the poor, whom she helped in many way. Her first surviving daughter, Marianne, was born in 1834 and she had three more daughters (a son born in 1844 died before he was a year old).

Gaskell may have taken up writing as a relief from the sorry of her son dying, but in any case she completed her first novel in 1847 - Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life - which was published anonymously the following year, to great acclaim. Charles Dickens was impressed with the novel, for its social realism and tight plot, and subsequently published Gaskell’s work - including her next novel, Cranford, and her famed ghost stories - in his magazines, Household Words and All the Year Round.

In 1850, the Gaskells moved to Plymouth Grove, also in Manchester, where their house became the hub of a busy social circle. Visitors included John Ruskin, Mary Howitt, and Charlotte Brontë with whom Gaskell developed a particular friendship. When Brontë died in 1855, her husband urged Gaskell to write her biography, and this was published in 1857. In the 1850s, too, Gaskell started travelling, taking tours to European countries, usually without her husband but accompanied by one of her daughters.

Mrs Gaskell’s last and longest work - Wives and Daughters - was unfinished when she died in 1865 but published the following year. Further biographical information is available on The Gaskell Society website, or at Wikipedia. A detailed entry on Gaskell from the Dictionary of Literary Biography is available online at Tim Clement-Jones’s website.

Long before her first novel, Gaskell was dabbling in writing of various forms, and had had some poetry published. In March 1835, six months after her daughter Marianne was born, she took up writing a diary to record the baby’s growth and development. Even though the last entry is dated more than five years later, there are only 11 dated entries totalling no more than 20 published pages. The diary - a small notebook bound in marbled boards with spine and corner in calf - is held in the Brotherton Library of the University of Leeds. It was first published with the title My Diary in a limited edition of 50 by Clement Shorter in 1923.

Much more recently, in 1996, Keele University Press issued Private Voices - The Diaries of Elizabeth Gaskell and Sophia Holland, edited by J A V Chapple and Anita Wilson. Gaskell’s diary is of interest, Anita Wilson says in her 30 page introduction, ‘as a document of Victorian social history and as a foreshadowing of her development as a novelist.’

Here are some short extracts from most of the 11 dates on which Gaskell sat down to write about her daughter, including the first, which is undated.

‘To my dear little Marianne I shall ‘dedicate’ this book, which, if I should not live to give it her myself, will I trust be reserved for her as a token of her mother’s love, and extreme anxiety in the formation of her little daughter’s character. If that little daughter should in time become a mother herself, she may take an interest in the experience of another; and at any rate she will perhaps like to become acquainted with her character in [its] earliest form. I wish that (if ever she sees this) I could give her the slightest idea of the love and the hope that is bound up in her.’

10 March 1835
‘The day after tomorrow Marianne will be six months old. I wish I had begun my little journal sooner, for (though I should have laughed at the idea twelve months ago) there have been many little indications of disposition &c already; which I can not now remember clearly. I will try and describe her mentally. I should call her remarkably good tempered; though at times she gives way to little bursts of passion or perhaps impatience would be the right name. She is also very firm in her own little way occasionally; what I suppose is obstinacy really, [though] that is so hard a word to apply to one so dear. But in general she is so good that I feel as if could hardly be sufficiently thankful, that the materials put into my hands are so excellent, and beautiful. [. . .]

Then as to her ‘bodily’ qualifications, she has two teeth cut with very little trouble; but I believe the worst are to come. She is very strong in her limbs, though because she is so fat, we do not let her use her ancles at all, and I hope she will be rather late in walking that her little legs may be very firm. I shall find it difficult to damp the energies of the servants in this respect, but I intend that she shall teach herself to walk, & receive no assistance from hands &c She lies down on the floor a good deal, and kicks about; a practice I began very early, and which has done her a great deal of good.

4 August 1835
‘It seems a very long time since I have written anything about my little darling, and I feel as if I had been negligent about it, only it so difficult to know when to begin or when to stop when talking thinking or writing about her. [. . .]

How all of a woman’s life, at least so it seems to me now, ought to have a reference to the period when she will be fulfilling one of her greatest & highest duties, those of a mother. I feel myself so unknowing, so doubtful about many things in her intellectual & moral treatment already, and what shall I be when she grows older, & asks those puzzling questions that children do? I hope I shall always preserve my present good intentions & sense of my holy trust, and then I must pray, to be forgiven for my errors, & led into a better course.’

4 October 1835
‘I see it is exactly two months since I last wrote in this book, and I hope my little girl is improved both in ‘body & mind’ since then. She suffered a good deal from the changes of weather we have had, and I have found it necessary to leave off milk as an article of diet at present. She lives on broth thickened with arrowroot, & I think this food strengthens her, but she is still a delicate child, and backward in walking.’

5 November 1836
‘There have been times when I have felt, oh! so cast down by her wrongdoing, and as I think I am very easily impressible, I have fancied there must have been some great mismanagement to produce such little obstinate fits, and whole hours of wilfulness. I do not however think that this has been often the case, and when it has, my cooler judgement has been aware of some little circumstance connected with her physical state that has in some measure accounted for it. For instance, she, (like her mother) requires a great deal of sleep.’

9 December 1837
‘I feel quite ashamed to see that more than a year has passed since I last wrote. There have been some sad excuses to be sure. I had very bad health period till my dear little Meta was born, February 5th 1837, and I had hardly recovered my strength when (March 10th) I received a summons to Knutsford. My dearest Aunt Lumb, my more than mother had had a paralytic stroke . . .’

25 March 1838
‘There is a new era in the little life of my dear little girl. Tomorrow she goes to an Infant School. I think I am naturally undecided, or rather perhaps apt to repent my decision when it is too late, but now I am beginning to wonder if I have done right about this darling. There is much to be said on each side . . .’

8 April 1838
‘Just a fortnight ago since I last wrote, and since that time I have had a sad fright about Marianne, on last Friday but one she had an attack of croup about 8 o’clock in the evening. We heard a cough like a dog’s bark. (She had had a cold in her head, and had seemed pale, and languid all day.) We gave her 24 drops of Ipec: wine, and Sam & Mr Partington both came. They said we had done quite rightly, and ordered some calomel powders.’

14 October 1838
‘I wish very much to make Marianne industrious; I am afraid I do not set her a good example. I try to employ her in making candlelighters, pricking pictures, counting out articles &c, but she is soon tired of any one employment. This must be struggled against for I can tell from experience how increasing an error this is.’

28 October 1838
‘She is a most sympathetic little thing. She tries to comfort me if she sees me looking sad, or thinks that anything has happened to discompose me. Her great faults are unaccountable fits of obstinacy; which are I hope diminishing and a want of perseverance and [dependence] upon others as to her occupations and amusements.’

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