Getting to Know Elizabeth Gaskell


Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell         1810-1865

“But the future must be met, however stern and iron it be.”
―Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South

With my new job these days, I don’t have a lot of free time. But what little I do have, I’ve been spending with hot tea and very good company.

You see, I met this fascinating lady. She’s smart. She’s witty. She personally knows some of the most important inventors of her era. And she writes about the social effects of steam technology with a razor-sharp pen.

Fans of Victorian literature will recognize my “tea buddy” as Elizabeth Gaskell, the British novelist who came of age during the second Industrial Revolution. I’ve always considered my literature education to be decent. But somehow, amid my teenage obsession with Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, I missed Elizabeth Gaskell altogether.

Our party may have started a bit late, but you know what they say: better late than never!

I first fell in love with Gaskell’s work last year, after discovering a four-part BBC miniseries based on her Industrial romance North and South. Being a fan of all things steam, I loved this full immersion in the dual (opposing) worlds of a proud, self-made factory owner and a socialite of old aristocratic stock who despises his callous “mercantilism.” As you might guess, the hero John Thornton argues for the side of “glorious progress.” His not-so-willing lady love Margaret Hale argues for the side of compassion on those that progress leaves behind. And both are humbled by a string of blessings and tragedies that result from loving (or loathing) technology too much.

Immediately, I knew that I had found a keen eye and strong voice into a real past steam world. Who better to help me improve my own imagined ones?

It started with one Gaskell novel. One novel led to another. And now, over tea and crumpets, I’m chipping away at a complete compendium of her fiction. I couldn’t be happier.

So what have I found to love so much, and why is it nurturing my Inner Steampunk? Here are a few key takeaways of why you should get to know Elizabeth Gaskell if you (like me) yearn to write deeper, richer Industrial fantasy:

1) Science has social consequences.

Characters from the miniseries version of North & South.

Characters from the miniseries version of North & South.

Of course, Gaskell herself wasn’t writing steampunk in her novels. She was attempting to portray her era realistically. But the challenges of Industrialism, as she describes them, are just as interesting as its wonders. Steampunk (by contrast) naturally focuses more on a Victorian future as we wish it could have been. Social ills are often minimized in favor of whimsy and fun. All this is fine–but with the push toward darker, grittier visions of the genre, what might happen if your characters started facing the realistic consequences of a world (however fanciful) that’s powered by steam?

Consider it for a moment. Work hours. Work houses. Poor health induced by unprotected exposure to ash, grit, and milled fibers. Strange (and often detrimental) medical practices. Whole industries destroyed by the rise of machines. Class conflict aggravated by an increasing gap between techno-haves and techno-have nots. These are just a few of the challenges Gaskell’s characters face. How might they inspire richer, deeper challenges for yours?

2) Strong women don’t always wear battle corsets.

Because steampunk is fantasy, we all love to have our share of fun with a steamed-up version of the “warrior princess” trope . . . even though every steampunk convention includes at least one critique of the improbability of doing battle maneuvers under iron. Airship pirat(ess)es and mad inventor-ettes abound, as well. But what about strong women without magical powers or technological genius? Women who work within their societies to effect social change?

Such female characters can be as powerful in a fantastical setting like steampunk as in a legitimate historical novel. In fact, one of Gaskell’s scenes sold me on this idea. It takes place during a dramatic episode of mill owner-to-mill employee conflict. Two intelligent but sheltered girls find themselves tasked to keep watch with a gun, outside, and in the dark (three prepositional phrases that should never apply to any self-respecting Victorian woman). In addition to wratcheting up the drama of the story, the scene also serves a powerful symbol of awakening, as these two young women discover an experience of power that society has denied them.

Sometimes we forget that the awakening of that power (literally and figuratively) can be far more powerful than demonstrating brute force.

3) Omnipotent narration has its place.

If one literary device has fallen out of fashion since the Victorian Age, it’s the omnipotent narrator. Back then, the “voice” of a novel would often come from some entity outside the characters, hopping from head to head to serve the needs of the plot, or offering up humorous asides and observations about the characters and their doings. (J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is a great example.) These days, novels are more likely to present a plethora of conflicting perspectives, or one limited perspective–probably due to changing ideas and attitudes about absolute reality, or sometimes, due to craft-based concerns about poor writing technique.

But in reading Gaskell’s work, I’ve fallen in love all over again with the economy, fast pace, and sheer scope of the omnipotent narrator. Getting a glimpse outside the characters’ heads gives us a broad view of them, and allows us to tinker with how the audience thinks about the character based on how the narrator (as that unseen extra “personality”) thinks about them. Some steampunk authors have used this technique, but many more could elevate it to a whole new level. Why not start a movement back toward this time-tested narrative technique, and especially in our steampunk work that pays homage (at least in spirit) to the Victorian era?

My time with Elizabeth Gaskell is hardly over, and yet she’s given me more than enough to think about. I’m applying what I’ve learned from her experiences in a steam reality to how I build my own imaginings of steampunk fantasy. There will be more to come on this–and maybe even some fiction here on the blog, too.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s tea boiling and a plate of fresh crumpets. And if I’m not mistaken, Mrs. Gaskell has arrived . . .

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