Elizabeth Gaskell & Jane Austen: Comparisons are Inevitable

A comparison (of Elizabeth Gaskell) to Jane Austen for its combination of humor and moral judgment in the observation of character and conduct is often made, not unjustly, though Mrs. Gaskell’s canvas is larger than Austen’s bit of ivory.” Edgar Wright

Victorian-era author Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) has been said to have a “wit to challenge Jane Austen’s, a conscience of social struggle unrivalled by Dickens, and charm and values to enrapture George Eliot’s fans.” This is high praise indeed to be mentioned with such exalted literary company, and we are fortune that several of her novels have been recently adapted into movies by the BBC/WGBH: Wives and Daughter (1999), North and South (2004) Cranford (2007) and now Return to Cranford (2009), which will be presented on Masterpiece Classic on the next two Sundays (January 10th & 17th) on PBS. You can read a preview of the series here.

Like Jane Austen, Mrs. Gaskell wrote six major novels, her last novel Wives and Daughters was published posthumously in 1865. Her characters are so engaging and finely drawn that comparisons to Miss Austen are inevitable. We see a bit of the garrulous Miss Bates (Emma), the melodramatic Mrs. Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) and indolent Lady Bertram (Mansfield Park) in Mrs. Gaskell’s characterizations. Life in the village of Cranford has it’s similarities to Meryton (Pride and Prejudice) and Highbury (Emma) with its small close community, shops and market. However, Gaskell’s narrative is much more expansive than Austen’s, introducing a wider social and economic sphere into her characters lives. We also feel the influence of her contemporaries such as author Charles Dickens’ deeper social commentary and moral sensibility throughout her stories.

Return to Cranford aired in the UK in December, 2009 and was warmly received. This new series has been highly anticipated by many Masterpiece fans, and a fitting opener to the Masterpiece Classic season which also includes a four part adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma premiering on January 24th, 2010 staring Romola Garai as the clever, handsome but clueless Miss Woodhouse and Jonny Lee Miller as her disapproving neighbor Mr. Knightley. You can prime yourself for the premiere at these fine sites.

6 thoughts on “Elizabeth Gaskell & Jane Austen: Comparisons are Inevitable

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  1. As most writers, both Austen and Gaskell wrote from their life experiences and since their life experiences are so different, their writing styles are so different.

    I think being a single woman, Austen often favored the female point of view and was more limited in her circle and travels. Which makes it more surprising that her character portraits are so astute and have a universal appeal. And to say nothing of her wit!

    Gaskell, being a married woman (to a minister at that!), could be more sympathetic to the male point of view and in the case of N&S, allowed us into the mind of the hero. Being married also allowed her more freedom in meeting new people and traveling to new places which I think informed the social commentary in her writing.

    They are both such wonderful writers! =)


  2. >We also feel the influence of her contemporaries such as author Charles Dickens’ deeper social commentary and moral sensibility throughout her stories.

    Time to quibble…I must protest the usual assumption that Dickens influenced Gaskell to include social commentary and moral sensibility in her stories. Her desire to try to better the world through her writing sprang from her upbringing and her husband encouraged her. I will grant you that her social consciousness and storytelling gifts brought her to the attention of Dickens, though :)


  3. For those who enjoy Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford stories, I recommend the Old Chester stories of Margaret Deland. Set in the fictional town of Old Chester, Pennsylvania, the stories are peopled with wonderful characters, most notably Dr. Lavendar, the minister. Deland’s stories were compared to Gaskell’s Cranford in reviews of the day, and I can attest to the comparison being right on. I heartily recommend the tales of Old Chester


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