I used to go past your house on the bus, just after the museum where behind the old brick walls the mummies lay blackened and flaking in their glass sarcophagi. Men were building the museum when you lived here, and the university and the art gallery and the library, the edifices of Victorian municipality, culture to encourage upward mobility and high-thinking but not revolution or the questioning of authority. Your house was a bit grotty then, thirty years ago, probably better now because they’ve cleaned up Manchester a lot since I were a lass. It was probably a bit grotty when you lived there too, at least on the outside, because Manchester was choking on coal smoke and cotton fluff and the run-off from chemical dyes. There were small children, six-year-olds, working in those factories and they were the lucky ones, infant mortality in some areas – areas around your big white house – at 50% and more. The cotton – well, we know where the cotton came from, who picked it, and you knew too and unlike most you tried to do something about it, in your writerly way.
That’s a fashionable question again now: must the writer be an activist? Is all writing political, and if so, are all writers responsible for the politics of their writing? You were sure: yes, though my favourite of your books is the least political, or the least activist. Sylvia’s Lovers, old-fashioned title and I think liable to misinterpretation even then. Sylvia seems very young to me now, headstrong teenager, won’t be told, won’t see that the world and her neighbours’ prejudices will hurt her if she won’t compromise. Myself teenaged, I read a love story, but now I read it for the landscape, North Yorkshire, where you and I both liked to go on holiday. Grey cliffs, white sands, fishing villages watching for the boats coming in, eyes on the horizon, hopes and fears far away, North, icebergs, sunlit midnights and East where women hope and fear in older languages and also gather to watch for the boats coming in. Like me, you liked to travel; not easy in those days, train to Dover, steamer to France, trains and horse-drawn carriages all the way to Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and like me you preferred to travel alone even – especially – after you were married and a mother.
You were Charlotte Brontë’s best friend. You met her at school, shy and proud, knew herself a cut above which she indisputably was. Jane Eyre was my best friend, the bad bullied years, nine and ten and eleven for both of us. (Never mind Rochester, I wasn’t interested and nor were you, had the luck and sense to marry a nice man who wanted you to write and to travel and to succeed at your own thing. Brought up your daughters, your four daughters, to disdain the Byronic hero.) You and Charlotte wrote letters every few days from being little girls until she died – morning sickness – and then you wrote her biography and, in your usual fashion, pissed off the patriarchy. Easily done, the fragile egos a perpetual surprise to those of us who see only power. I think you were surprised though you’d fought those battles before, written about young single mothers and sex work and sexual violence in a time and place when nice women weren’t even supposed to know the words, went to their marriage beds with no idea what might happen. Your daughters knew. Your readers learnt to ask awkward questions, ones we’re still asking, such as why is it always the woman’s fault, and why do the people who work hardest earn least, and who will support the one who speaks truth to power?
Dickens said that if he were your husband he would beat you. There were no accolades for you, no prizes. Your books sold well. People knew your name, though you weren’t always welcome in polite society. There’s been a TV series, North and South; I’m not sure you’d have liked it, but I’d like to think you know we’re still reading you a hundred and fifty years later.
Sarah Moss is the author of eight novels and a memoir. Her most recent books are Ghost Wall, Summerwater and The Fell. She teaches Creative Writing at University College Dublin.
Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) was a novelist whose books centred on the industrialisation of Manchester, where she lived most of her life. Gaskell’s writing was admired by Charles Dickens, who was the first to publish her work in serial form.