The Gypsy-Bachelor of Manchester: The Life of Mrs. Gaskell's Demon.
This book offers a well-written, well-constructed argument that adds an intriguing element to the reading of Mrs. Gaskell's fiction. Its one great weakness is that the evidence does not support that argument. Borrowing a design promoted by Nina Auerbach, Bonaparte describes a Mrs. Gaskell who is divided between the superficially admirable Victorian wife, "Mrs. Gaskell," and the suppressed and hidden rebel, her demon. "Mrs. Gaskell" is a satisfied minister's wife, content with her social role; the demon craves the love and romance lacking in her childhood. Losing her mother, a surrogate mother, and siblings to death, and being virtually abandoned by her father, the young Elizabeth Stevenson was left with a need for love and a craving for freedom. Unwilling or unable to express this hidden character in her "Mrs. Gaskell" career, she released the demon in her writing, which constitutes a network of repeated metaphorical structures that satisfy the demon's needs. The same imagistic vocabulary is found in her letters, life, and novels. "That is why it is important to ~read' the whole of Elizabeth Gaskell--her life, her letters, and her fiction--as one continuous metaphoric text" (p. 10). Gaskell succeeded in keeping her demon a secret from everyone, including herself. "And while it was her inner identity that shaped the choices of her life, Gaskell herself was not aware there was a secret self within her" (p. 7). Since she is presumably unaware of this secret self, we must excavate it for her. We will unearth the "real self" that she has hidden (p. 6).
This, then, is the "plot" of Bonaparte's book. But to make it work, there must be many distortions of the standard biographical account as told, for example, by someone as conventional and conservative as Winifred Gerin. Gerin describes Elizabeth Stevenson's youth in a chapter entitled "A Provincial Childhood" that depicts what must have been a familiar pattern in early Victorian years. It somewhat diminishes the alternate melodramatic picture that Bonaparte paints to realize clearly that Elizabeth was barely two years old when her mother died, and, since she was the last of her parents' children, she did not, in her childhood, experience the loss of a sibling. About the separation from her father and the hostility toward her stepmother there is no doubt; but this, too, was hardly an unusual experience. The plot, then, has been intensified dubious emphases concerning the emotional trials of the young Elizabeth. More dubious in a scholar of the twentieth century is the assumption that under our daily role-playing there is a real, unknown self to be disclosed. Even psychoanalysts are prepared to face a confusing multiplicity of identities coexisting in one "self." If Matthew Arnold could yearn to catch a glimpse of his buried life, not all Victorians had so naive an expectation, Mrs. Gaskell among them. In fact, Bonaparte quotes Gaskell's recognition that she was no one self, but a complex assemblage. She says she has a great number of "mes." "One of my mes is, I do believe, a true Christian...and another of my mes is a wife and mother...Then again I've another self with a full taste for beauty and convenience...How am I to reconcile all these warring members?" (p. 85).
However, even if we accept this picture of Mrs. Gaskell as a superficially disciplined and virtuous woman unconsciously liberating her demon through her fiction, it is dangerous to resort to the fiction to prove the case. This comes very close to begging the question and permits the reading of the life backward from the fiction. Thus a very interesting observation about Gaskell's creation of character becomes dangerously tendentious when applied to Bonaparte's master argument. "She does not, however, imagine her characters as having an external existence. All her characters are within her. They are projections of herself" (p. 10). Similarly, we are told that there are many aunts and surrogate mothers in Gaskell's fiction and often they are harsh, unkind, and even wicked. This does not, as one might expect, lead to the conclusion that aunts may, like other persons, have a variety of differing traits. Instead it leads Bonaparte to conclude that these figures are not meant to criticize Aunt Lumb, who was her mother surrogate, but rather reveal what Gaskell could never acknowledge openly, that she was utterly miserable while living with Aunt Lumb. Such a conclusion requires a complete ignoring of Mrs. Gaskell's "My Diary," which records her adult memories of a happy childhood. Bonaparte's approach is more than an old-fashioned biographical interpretation by way of an artist's fiction. This is obliging fiction first to meet a constructed biographical plot which is then reimposed upon the life story. To make this scheme work, it is necessary to have the characters function as very fluid surrogates. In Cranford, therefore, Matty is the ideal woman and Deborah a surrogate for maleness, while the male Holbrook is actually a surrogate for Matty. Captain Brown, too, is really a female because he likes Dickens, a taste for fantasy that is allied with the demonic and which is expunged by a "phallic" locomotive. Never mind that he dies in the very male-associated act of trying to save a child's life. Not only does the argument require a great deal of surrogacy and gender confusion, it requires some editing of crucial scenes. If this review is not to run on to inordinate length, I must limit myself to one symptomatic example.
When the eponymous heroine of Ruth is dying, Bonaparte claims that she lapses from her very proper "Mrs. Gaskell" role back to the demonic self that loved Bellingham in Wales. In her illness, Ruth withdraws to "a sweet...insanity within," not recognizing anyone, even her son, Leonard. This proves that she has returned to the romantic episode in Wales. Gaskell goes on to let Ruth die in this state, "not to punish her, but to free her" (p. 129). What Mrs. Gaskell's unedited next tells us is something very different; indeed, almost directly opposite to what Bonaparte represents. It is to "a sweet, child-like insanity within," that Ruth withdraws, her only utterances some old childish ditties that she sings. She has not returned to the passion of Bellingham and Wales but to the innocence of childhood. And she does not die in possession of her demon, but in anticipation of salvation. "Suddenly she opened wide her eyes, and gazed intently forwards, as if she saw some happy vision, which called out a lovely, rapturous, breathless smile. They held their very breaths. "I see the Light coming,'" said she. ~The Light is coming,' she said."
This example shows how violently the whole passage in Gaskell has to be distorted to make it fit the purposes of Bonaparte's master argument. There are other similar examples. Another feature of this scene is its utter conventionality. The merest familiarity with Victorian literature indicates that deathbed scenes like this are commonplace. Many other conventions, such as sibling rivalry or the use of France as the site of passion and immorality, are taken by Bonaparte to be indicative of Gaskell's need to project her secret emotions. But the repeated use of situations. antagonisms, and story-lines in her fiction argues more for a pattern of swift, conventional writing than for the release of a demonic self.
There is much that is valuable in this book and I believe that it should be read by Gaskell and other scholars, but I think it must be read with great caution because the various insights that it offers are in the service of Bonaparte's own demon that insists on a story line for Gaskell's life that is not convincingly proven. In an approving statement quoted on the dust jacket of the book, Jerome Buckley says "The result is an intricate and highly provocative interpretation as ingeniously unified as a well-knit detective story, mindful always of its multiple clues and strategies." I read the words provocative and ingenious in what may now be an old-fashioned critical discourse of clues to mean improbable and cleverly incorrect. The story is well-knit so many threads have been ignored or forced into a confining pattern; and many of the clues and strategies discovered in the unveiling of the mystery are planted by the detective herself.
JOHN R. REED, Wayne State University
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|Author:||Reed, John R.|
|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1993|
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