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Controversy and Attack
Gaskell Tower KnutsfordThe next novel, 'North and South' is the second to deal with an industrial theme, and in many ways is Mrs. Gaskell's most interesting book, though it is not her most successful. Her heroine, Margaret Hale, is a girl from the South of England who finds herself unwillingly transplanted to an industrial city, identifiable as Manchester. The theme is the clash between the rough, vigorous Northern way of life and the gentler, more 'civilised' Southern.
Right: Gaskell Tower, Knutsford

This is a contrast which we have already seen to exist in Mrs. Gaskell's own life - she too had a Northern and Southern aspect. In 'North and South' the conflict is resolved; the two are seen to be complementary, and their union is symbolised by Margaret's marriage to a Northern manufacturer.

The novel unfortunately has faults of structure and proportion, which make it impossible to place it in the highest class. Had it avoided these faults, the strength of its theme and the feeling and imagination behind it would have made it one of the greatest of English novels. It is interesting to note Mrs. Gaskell's method of work. She did not cut herself off in a quiet study. She wrote in a corner of the dining room table, or in any other spot that happened to be unoccupied, in the intervals of a busy family life.  

Here is her own account of a mornings activity:

In the hour since breakfast, I have had to decide on the following variety of important questions: boiled beef - how long to boil? What perennials will do in Manchester smoke? Length of skirt for a gown? Salary of a nursery governess?... Read letters on the state of the Indian Army lent me by a very agreeable neighbour, and return then with a proper note and as many wise remarks as will come in a hurry. Settle 20 questions of dress for the girls...See a lady about a MS story of hers, and give her disheartening but very good advice. Arrange about selling two poor cows for one good one. See purchasers and show myself up to cattle questions, keep and prices - and it's not half past ten yet!


The Life of Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte BronteMrs. Gaskell had for some time been a friend of Charlotte Bronte, the author of 'Jane "Eyre'. Charlotte died in 1855 and her father, The Rev Patrick Bronte, asked Elizabeth to write her biography. This was a brave choice on Mr. Bronte's part, for Mrs. Gaskell at that time was looked on as a highly dangerous writer.
Left: Charlotte Bronte

She threw herself into this task with impressive professionalism, chasing every scrap of information and following in Charlotte's footsteps where she had been. The result ranks second only to Boswell's 'Johnson' among the English biographies, and which, like 'Cranford' has run through edition after edition for more than a century.

In the short run, however, the result was still more trouble for Mrs. Gaskell, who was altogether too frank about Branwell Bronte's unhappy love affair with Mrs. Robinson, and also about Cowan Bridge School, the original of the appalling 'Lowood' of 'Jane Eyre'.

The Life of Charlotte BronteAn edition of 'The Life of Charlotte Bronte' had to be scrapped, and a public apology made in 'The Times'. This was apparently done without Mrs. Gaskell's knowledge - she was in Italy at the time, having taken care to be abroad on publication day - and her own dry observation was that the next edition ought to contain an apology 'for having offered so expensive an article as truth to the public'.