Allison Masters, The University of Montana


In this thesis, I examine Elizabeth Gaskell's development as a middle-class author, which is a position that most scholars take for granted. Moving away from traditional Marxist readings and drawing on revisionist class studies, I reconsider Gaskell as the typical bourgeois woman of her era by looking at her relationship with the middle class and its ideals over the course of her career. Overall, her large body of work reveals an increasing awareness of, and willingness to engage with the divisions within the middle class. In turn, as Gaskell explores such tensions and negotiates middle-class boundaries and values in her writing, she becomes more confident as a class spokeswoman. To illustrate this progression, in this study I focus primarily on three of Gaskell's works: the social-problem novel Mary Barton (1848), the short Christmas book The Moorland Cottage (1850), and the biography of her fellow novelist The Life of Charlotte Bronte (1857). In the introduction, I contextualize Gaskell as what modern critics deem "middle class" and provide a brief overview of the class issues that arise in Gaskell studies. In chapter one, I consider the notable absence of the middle class in the author's first novel, Mary Barton, which separates society into the rich and the poor and thereby ignores the complex range of incomes and social positions in Victorian England. Within a few years however, Gaskell begins exploring the diverse population between rich and poor, and my reading of The Moorland Cottage in chapter two evaluates this Christmas novel in light of its middle-class characters, concerns, and genre. I then skip over several years in Gaskell's career to address in the final chapter the author's most famous piece of non-fiction, The Life of Charlotte Bronte. In this biography, Gaskell names the middle class outright and presents herself as an authority on its shared values in her effort to save the reputation of Bronte in both gender and class terms. Together, these three works represent a general trend in Gaskell's writing towards increasing confidence, and they serve to remind how writers contribute to the making of class identity.


© Copyright 2009 Allison Masters