The heart of Elizabeth Gaskell: the unitarian spirit
Mrs. Gaskell's writing, particularly the novels, received renewed attention and appreciation after 1950 after a prolonged period of neglect following her death. Modern critical interest ranges from a focus on Mrs. Gaskell's women characters to assessments of her contributions as a social critic of her time. Two problems have plagued critics in evaluating her work: Mrs. Gaskell's moral stance, expressed particularly in the reconciliation theme; and the perceived lack of an overall unity or theme throughout her works. The object of this dissertation is to demonstrate that these two criticisms are in actuality the strengths in her work.
Mrs. Gaskell's moral stance, particularly the reconciliation theme, is based strongly on her Unitarian beliefs, and it is this consistent moral attitude that establishes a unifying theme throughout Mrs. Gaskell's major works.
To demonstrate a unity in Mrs. Gaskell's works based on her Unitarian beliefs, the background of the Unitarian religion in England is presented, especially as the Unitarian religion influenced Mrs. Gaskell's own life and consequently her writing.
The particular Unitarian beliefs of strict adherence to truth, use of one's intelligence to determine truth, and truthful self-assessment are integral parts of Mrs. Gaskell's works. The Unitarian concept of truth is important also in relationships, both social and personal. The reconciliation theme is an outgrowth of recognition of one's obligation to others, followed by the Unitarian precept of action based on recognition of need.
Brotherhood with one's fellow man is evidenced in this reconciliation theme which is an inevitable manifestation of a religion dedicated to the optimistic belief in the innate goodness of man and his ability to use his God-given intelligence to improve his world through his efforts.
Action and tolerance are the visible proofs of the Unitarian spirit. The Unitarian stress on conscience as the moral guide to action forbade Mrs. Gaskell's presentation of Unitarianism by name, as Unitarians felt there were people of worth in all religions, as is illustrated through character and plot in her novels. Each of the novels and short works of fiction illustrate all the precepts mentioned; Mary Barton, North and South, Ruth, Sylvia's Lovers, Wives and Daughters, Cranford, Cousin Phillis, and Lois the Witch are the selections treated. (Abstract shortened with permission of author.)