The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

XI. The Political and Social Novel

§ 16. Cranford

After, in The Moorland Cottage (1850), which is full of simple charm, and has additional interest as containing the germ of not a few characters and situations in her later works, she had produced her second separately published story, Mrs. Gaskell contributed to Household Words (1851–3), in a series of papers republished (1853) under the collective title Cranford, what (all questions of preference or predilection apart) must be described as the most original of all her works. The literary derivation of this inimitable prose idyll, that grew out of itself into a whole from which nothing is to be taken away and to which (as it proved) nothing could safely be added, is a question admitting of discussion: but this discussion may easily be carried too far. Crabbe and Mary Russell Mitford, Galt and Maria Edgeworth, and even Jane Austen, influenced the choice and limitation of theme to some extent, and Dickens was not wholly a stranger to the method of treatment. But the interweaving of truth and fiction, and the proportioning of the elements of pathos and tenderness to those of humour and even of fun, were wholly the author’s own. “Crantford,” says lady Ritchie, “proves the value of little things, of the grain of mustard-seed,” and “reveals the mighty secret of kindness allied to gentle force.” Thus, the intimate record of the human lives and souls sheltered by a sequestered little Cheshire home became a favourite of the English-speaking world; and the gentle and shrinking Miss Matty takes her place among the true heroines of our domestic fiction.

In the same year as the collected, Crantford, appeared a novel of a very different type—Ruth. This book caused a controversy versy in its way almost as violent as that excited by Mary Barton —W.R. Greg, more in sorrow than in anger, censuring its “false morality,” and F.D. Maurice, Charles Kingsley (after a more or less a priori fashion), Florence Nightingale and others ranging themselves on the side of the defence. Ruth treats a wholly ethical problem, or, rather, two problems which the course of the story almost tempts the reader to confound. The plea for Christian forgiveness of sin following on repentance is unanswerable; but the incident on which everything is made to turn in the progress of the plot cannot be pronounced a happy conception. The value of the virtue of truthfulness was always present to Mrs. Gaskell’s mind, and there are few of her stories but, in one way or another, help to illustrate it. But, in Ruth, though the lie is told for the wronged woman rather than by her, the trouble which it brings forth fails to strike the reader as inevitable, and the compassion evoked by a story of the deepest pathos is, therefore, not without reservation. Other exceptions might be taken to the working-out of the plot (especially as to the part played in it by a very unattractive Lothario); but the beauty of the central figure remains, and the pity of her fate, tenderly softened by the ministering love of those around her.

Of North and South (first published as a complete work in 1855) we have already spoken, and can only note further that, to its picture of the differences between masters and men, it adds, with great constructive skill, the contrast indicated in its title, and another contrast of wider sway and deeper import. If Margaret’s prejudice against manufacturers is, perhaps, a little stubborn for her time of day, her virgin pride is not less true to nature than Thornton’s tenacity; and the true crisis of the story —Margaret’s farewell to her brother—is not less dramatic than the earlier scene of her defence of Thornton against the mob. After the crisis, the story begins to drag—it was, like Hard Times, the first brought out by its writer in weekly instalments. That it should remain one of the finest, if not the finest, of her achievements, must, therefore, be allowed to show an extraordinary mastery of the art in which she had rapidly come to excel.