An Introduction to Elizabeth Gaskell's Journal

by Melissa J. Klamer

In a document entitled, “Precepts for the Guidance of a Daughter,” the second and third ‘precepts’ that Elizabeth Gaskell lays out are:

2) Wash your hands.
3) When you have washed them, hold a book in them.
As a novelist and a mother, Gaskell clearly deeply valued reading, and the knowledge that can be gleaned from books. Holding a book, however, is not as productive as reading it. The Elizabeth Gaskell Journal: Digital Edition makes the text of Gaskell's manuscript motherhood journal available, together with images of the original pages, to allow readers to appreciate another text by Gaskell, one which calls attention to her life before the novels, and her role as a mother throughout her writing career.

Elizabeth Gaskell's manuscript journal illuminates what she described as the dear & tender tie between Mother and Daughter (Journal, Dedication). Begun in 1835, Gaskell's journal was created to record her daughter Marianne’s character in it’s [sic] earliest form (Dedication). For Gaskell, however, who had lost her own mother at the age of 13 months, and her firstborn daughter to stillbirth, the journal also acts as a conscious act of preservation to record her memories of the mother-daughter bond that she treasured in the face of potential loss. The resulting document is a brief but poignant picture of Victorian motherhood, in which Gaskell writes candidly about her daughters' development and her own emotional response to motherhood. Within these pages, Gaskell ponders maternal dilemmas that are still highly relevant today, from whether to comfort crying infants or let them cry it out, to when to send her daughter to public school. Treasured and passed down through the family for five generations, Gaskell's journal stands as a testament to the timelessness of the mother-daughter bond, and to the historical significance of life writing texts.

The Journal and the Novels

Gaskell's journal predates her career as a highly successful novelist in the Victorian era. After the successful publication of her first novel, Mary Barton, in October of 1848, Gaskell rose to fame. Less than a year later she traveled to London, where she quickly became a part of the literary circle. A letter written to her daughters at home during this London excursion in May 1849 recounts dinner with the Dickens family, bidding goodbye to the Carlyles, dining with a Wedgwood and breakfasting with the Howitts (Letters 79). Prior to Mary Barton, Gaskell had published a few pieces of journalism, primarily in Howitts' Journal, but after her trip to London, her established relationship with Charles Dickens led to many of her later works appearing in serialized form in his own journal, Household Words. Some of her earliest publications appeared with the pseudonym "Cotton Mather Mills", but it quickly became known that Mary Barton had been written by a woman, and although Gaskell preferred anonymity, she later became known widely as "Mrs. Gaskell." The matronly title reinforces Gaskell's domestic status as mother.

Gaskell's roles as mother and writer have often been treated separately by scholarship, and Gaskell herself found it challenging to reconcile them. Gaskell wrote in an 1853 letter to Kay Shuttleworth, my books are so far better than I am that I often feel ashamed of having written them and as if I were a hypocrite (228). In writing thus, she suggests that she found her real life distanced from her novels, and that the latter are a version of what her idealized life might look like. On the other hand, Gaskell deeply valued her authorship, writing to another correspondent, Catherine Winkworth, I must go to my real writing now, but I hope I have earned a letter from you. In referring to her novels as her 'real' writing, Gaskell underscores her literary professionalism here; the journal had by the time of this letter been dormant for decades. The journal, however stands as the earliest written work that Gaskell explicitly intended to be read, and read by those dearest to her: her daughters. The challenge of reconciling the roles of mother and author that is revealed by Gaskell's comments demonstrates the same sort of doubtful self-analysis that carries through the journal, wherein Gaskell records, evaluates, and analyzes her motherhood.

Far from being easily separated, Gaskell's motherhood and her writing went hand in hand throughout her lifetime. The journal is the earliest instance of this. The journal focuses on the early lives of Gaskell's eldest two daughters: Marianne and Margaret Emily (known as Meta). Gaskell gave birth to seven children, of whom four daughters survived childhood; her responsibility and care of them was the central aspect of her life. In addition to a stillborn daughter, the Gaskells also had two sons who died in infancy. It was after the death of her second son, Willie, aged 9 months, that Gaskell’s husband William famously encouraged her to try her hand at writing. Gaskell began her career as an author while caring for her three, and later four daughters: Marianne (also called Polly or Minnie), born in 1834; Margaret Emily (Meta), born in 1837; Florence (Flossy), born in 1842; and Julia, born in 1846. Gaskell became a mother at the age of 22, and died at the age of 55. Her daughters were her central focus and close companions for over half her life, and the beginnings of this relationship are chronicled in the journal.

Gaskell's journal spans approximately eighty manuscript pages, and contains eleven entries, varying in length between two to twelve handwritten pages. Gaskell began writing about her daughters in her journal when Marianne was six months old. She continued the journal until 1838, when Marianne was four and Meta was a year old, after which it was discontinued. This early end of the journal might be accounted for by the birth and loss of Gaskell's first son. Although his precise birthdate is not known, the letter that first identified the existence of this earlier son states that his short life explains the six year age gap between Meta and Florence, placing his birth and subsequent death between 1838 and 1841 (Further Letters 156). The journal itself supports such a conclusion. Gaskell did not write in her journal for six months after Marianne's birth, and for eleven months after Meta's, so a brief absence of writing in the journal after the birth of a child is not out of character for her.

Motherhood, however, was not a barrier to Gaskell's writing, but generally encouraged it. The entries in the journal are extensive and deeply introspective. Gaskell poured her energy into these accounts, filling them with detail and self-reflection that is notably absent in many other maternal journals of the day, as for example in the case of Sophia Holland's diary, which was published together with Gaskell's in print form in 1996. Holland's diary appears as a bullet point list of short, clipped statements, which contrasts sharply with Gaskell's fluid prose. Gaskell's motherhood was well established before she became known as a writer, and throughout these early years with her children, she continued to write. In addition to her journal, she was a prolific correspondent. By the time Mary Barton was published, Gaskell's daughters were 14, 11, 6 and 2. During the time period covered by the journal, she had also begun a long career of periodical writing, publishing a poem co-authored with her husband, William in Blackwoods' Edinburgh Magazine, and two brief anecdotal accounts selected from her letters in publications by William Howitt. Gaskell wrote continually throughout her life, and kept up her relationship with her daughters through frequent letters when they were apart.

The same doubt and self-critique that marks Gaskell's letter to Shuttleworth, where she claims to be ashamed to have written the works that contain goodness she feels her life does not resonates throughout the journal as well. Gaskell’s relationship with her daughters is colored throughout by her convictions and religious belief, indicated by her simultaneous inclusion of prayers for her daughters’ safety and her self-counsel toward being resigned to their loss. Unsurprisingly given the frequency of loved ones’ deaths in Gaskell’s life, the journal portrays a marked preoccupation with loss, and a commitment to behavior consistent with religious tenets. Gaskell’s determination to accept her children’s deaths, should they occur, casts a dark shadow over the diary text. The cheerful joy Gaskell finds in her children often turns to a prayer for their safety at the ends of entries; these are, more often than not, coupled with a plea for resignation in the event of her daughters’ deaths.

Gaskell was raised surrounded by Unitarianism. Her father, for a short time, and her husband, William, were Unitarian ministers. Both Elizabeth’s and William’s families had been Dissenters. Through her mother’s family, Elizabeth was connected to other prominent families, including the Darwins and the Wedgwoods. As a Unitarian, Gaskell and her husband emphasized social work, at their home in Manchester, and she took social activism very seriously, both tending to and writing about the plight of factory workers and the poor. One particular exchange of letters with Charles Dickens focuses on her endeavors to find passage to Australia for a young seamstress who has been seduced. Throughout her lifetime, Gaskell maintained a commitment to assist the poor and struggling individuals she found around her.

Another insight offered by Gaskell’s journal is its clear descriptions of her views on education. As a Unitarian, Gaskell took her daughters’ education very seriously, but also sought to allow them to learn and develop at their own pace. Throughout the journal, she emphasizes rules for her daughters, and also for herself. Many of these emphasized allowing the girls to learn to walk, etc., without assistance, as Gaskell believed that children would naturally learn these skills when they were ready for them. She wrote in 1838, There is a new era in the little life of my dear little girl. Tomorrow she goes to an Infant School (Journal March 25, 1838). Gaskell herself read widely in family libraries, and attended a school run by the Byerlys. William Gaskell took on teaching commitments in addition to his work as a minister. Both took an active role in teaching their daughters within the home, but they also brought in teachers for additional subjects. Gaskell sent her daughters to school; the diary recounts her thoughts regarding Marianne beginning Infant School at the age of four.

Throughout the period of her motherhood, Gaskell treasured her relationships with her daughters, appreciating their unique characteristics, and viewing them as companions. Gaskell’s letters also mark her close relationships with her daughters. The vast majority of extant letters were written to them. Beginning in 1846/7, when Marianne was eleven or twelve years old, Gaskell wrote to her frequently. The letters continued throughout her lifetime. Of the extant letters, approximately one fifth are written to Marianne. Although Gaskell wrote often to each of her daughters—she often mentions these other letters in her epistles to Marianne—few letters to Meta, Florence or Julia survive. Gaskell requested of several correspondents that they burn her letters after receipt; it appears from the distribution of existing letters that Marianne was the only daughter to ignore her request. Gaskell often traveled, sometimes with one or more daughters, and while she was gone, she frequently wrote to the daughter(s) who were still at home. Yet the foundation of her relationship with her daughters begins in the journal, where Gaskell focuses on crafting both a memory and guide that will transcend time.

The picture she paints of her own motherhood in the journal itself is notably different from the mothers that populate Gaskell’s novels. Within the journal’s pages, Gaskell is an intent and focused mother, keenly aware of the nuances of each of her daughters’ personalities, recognizing and delighting in the qualities that make them unique. She meticulously records every detail, but in addition to merely tracking her daughters’ development, Gaskell is actively using her insights to guide her mothering practices to fit her daughters’ unique characters. She is performing the act of motherhood not as a single, prescribed set of actions, but rather as a thoughtfully individualized pattern of behavior that is designed to enhance each daughter’s morals, and to meet her needs where she is. The mothers in the novels are not so clearly engaged. Often sidelined early in the tales by death, illness, alienation or the will of a spouse, these women do not hold the same positions of close companionship with their daughters. In fact, they quite often are unable to guide or direct them, showing none of the intense care that Gaskell’s journal and later letters display toward her daughters. She writes infrequently — only ten entries over a 3 ½ year period that the journal covers — but the entries are nonetheless deeply thoughtful and extensive. Gaskell’s journal is richly introspective as well. Although outwardly a record of her daughters’ growth and development, the narrative frequently shifts to recount her own fears and hopes as a mother for her daughters, and especially for her own conduct and repeated diligence and patience in her role as mother. Gaskell uses the journal as not only a record, but as a sounding board for her own concerns and plans as mother.

Gaskell’s writing in the journal suggests at once a confident mother and a doubtful, anxious one and the text reads as a stream of consciousness narrative that flows freely. The manuscript has few alterations, which could suggest that it is a polished, complete text as a whole, and that Gaskell clearly planned or at least was quite sure of her writing. On the other hand, Gaskell’s prose here is very loosely structured and shows little evidence of thoughtful organization. Throughout the journal, Gaskell uses dashes frequently, stringing ideas together into lengthy sentences that occasionally fill up entire paragraphs. That is when there are paragraphs - some entries carry on for pages without any attempt at topical separation at all. The words flow onto the page virtually unchecked, and it is unclear whether the lack of alteration through much of the text suggests a confidence in the words as written or an absence of time in which to reread and revise. The entries she composed pushed her to the limits of her endurance: I feel weak & exhausted with writing, or I had meant to write more, she concludes in the fifth entry (58). This exhaustion, together with the relative infrequency of the entries suggests that Gaskell both deeply valued the journal and found it challenging to devote time for writing.

Yet Gaskell was committed to her both varieties of her books. When she began the journal in 1835, she wrote: To my dear little Marianne I shall dedicate this book, which I trust will be reserved for her,(Journal). At the very outset of her motherhood, Gaskell was preparing her daughter for the precept that would follow: Wash your hands. When you have washed them, hold a book in them. Perhaps as she began her journal, she envisioned that this would be the book that the grown Marianne held, offering her a memory of her young self, but more poignantly, offering her mother’s care, wrapped up in the marble covers of a book written explicitly for her, to pass on her mother’s knowledge, experience, and care. The journal, though brief, offers a compelling companion to Gaskell’s published novels. It offers a portrait of Victorian motherhood which appeals to scholars of the nineteenth century women’s life writing, as well as motherhood studies. Presented here digitally with annotations and a full TEI transcription, the digital edition offers readers the opportunity to explore the text without requiring travel to the archive, so that they too, can hold this little book, courtesy of a screen that allows the preservation of Gaskell’s manuscript, while yet allowing it to be more than held: it will be read.