Saturday, February 03, 2007

Thereby Raising My Blood Pressure

Some twenty-odd years ago, Joanna Russ wrote a book, How To Suppress Women's Writing, that discussed the attitudes that had historically prevented the work of women writers from being taken seriously. It was in the early 'eighties when women's studies as a discipline were only just beginning to be being accepted at the upper levels of education. The mental attitudes tended to start with the phrase, "She wrote it, but..." She wrote it but she shouldn't have. She wrote it but look what she wrote about. She wrote it, but she only wrote one of it. The book has an extremely angry tone to it (as well it ought), but while I reading Elizabeth Gaskell's novel, Mary Barton, today, it struck me that this novel's relative obscurity was exactly an example of that which infuriated Russ.

Mary Barton is a novel of social injustice. Gaskell wrote it at the encouragement of her spouse who wanted to distract her from the death of a child. The fire of the book is fueled by her observations of the deprivations of daily life for the mill workers in Manchester and is critical of the mill owners' treatment of those in their employ. It was initially published anonymously but eventually her identity became known, an issue given that there were those within her husband's parish who felt themselves portrayed unfairly. Mary Barton isn't a polemic, but it does offer quite vivid descriptions of lower-class life in an urban environment during that period. Her descriptive passages are not so very extensive as to slow down the pace of the story but they are uncommonly clear in painting the scene. The novel was most well-received when it was published in 1848 and the work brought Gaskell to the notice of Charles Dickens who commissioned more of her work.

So why is it that nowadays no one is required to read Gaskell whereas Dickens' work considered to be so much a requirement? She's been restored to the nineteenth-century canon to a certain extent, but not to the level one might argue she deserves.

And that leaves me disgusted. And grumpy.