restricted access A review of Letters of Mrs. Gaskell and Charles Eliot Norton, 1855-1865. Ed. with an introduction by Jane Whitehill
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[ 547 A review of Letters of Mrs. Gaskell and Charles Eliot Norton, 1855-1865. Ed. with an introduction by Jane Whitehill London: Oxford UP. 1932. Pp. xxxii + 131. New England Quarterly, 6 (Sept 1933) 627-28 This is not a book for admirers of Norton so much as for admirers of Mrs. Gaskell.1 In 1857 Mrs. Gaskell took a holiday from Manchester, and paid a visit to the Storys in Rome.2 Her daughters, Marianne and Meta, accompanied her; in a letter some years later Meta recalls the first meeting to Norton: I can see your face and smile now (as distinctly as if I were only just turning away from them) when you caught at some confetti that Mama was dangling on a long stick from the balcony − and Mama said ‘Oh look what a charming face!’ and Mr. Story (I think it was) said ‘Oh, that’s Charles Norton,’ and then there was a chorus of welcome and bidding you come up. [xix] And later in life Mrs. Gaskell wrote to the Storys: It was in those charming Roman days that my life at any rate, culminated . I shall never be so happy again. I don’t think I was ever so happy before. [xxvii] Neither Norton nor Mrs. Gaskell, seventeen years his senior, was a European. The lady, as her admirers know, came from a parsonage in Manchester. Mr. Gaskell was an earnest, conscientious, somewhat humorless Unitarian pastor, writing sermons, lectures, and hymns; he never absented himself voluntarily from Manchester; he took an annual holiday at Morecambe Bay, but even that was in the same county. Mrs. Gaskell, who bore him a number of children and who devoted herself, and in the end sacrificed herself, to her husband, was entitled to take a holiday with her daughters. She could not have made a more desirable acquaintance than Charles Norton. He was a young man of the highest principles, he was engaged in learning all he could in Italy, and was ready to impart his Essays, Reviews, and Commentaries: 1933 548 ] knowledge; furthermore, he was a Unitarian. In those days sectarian differences were social differences; and Mrs. Gaskell was acutely aware of living, in Manchester, in a social enclave. In her letters there is the solemn young Mr. Bosanquet, who, but for his family’s religious opinions, might possibly have proved eligible for one of her daughters; and she complains that “here (in Manchester) the Unitarian young men are either good and uncultivated , or else rich and regardless of those higher qualities the ‘spiritual’ qualities as it were, which those must appreciate who would think of my girls” [44]. She thinks of Norton as a brother, an elder brother, to her girls. But Norton was a Unitarian of a type unfamiliar to Mrs. Gaskell. He was rich, good, and cultivated; he had the best introductions everywhere and knew how to use them; and he had a French courier named François. There is nothing to suggest that Mrs. Gaskell had ever before met a Unitarian with a French courier named François. She had a sense of humor, timid and fluttering as it was; she had an unsatisfied love of beauty, gaiety, and civilization ; she profited by her visit to Italy and by Norton’s explanations of the art of Titian; her later correspondence with Norton must have been a relief from the labors of slaving to provide for the old age of Mr. Gaskell.3 This book, as I have said, is not an essential contribution to the biography of Norton. He seems, at thirty, rather a callow, if very estimable young man. The interesting Norton is in the later years, rising to a solitary grandeur at the time of the Spanish War.4 This is a book about Mrs. Gaskell. She was not George Sand;5 but the best of her writing is perhaps more permanently readable, for she is among those English (and American) writers who have known how to make a literary virtue out of provinciality – and, in her case, simple goodness. T. S. Eliot Notes 1. The novelist and short story writer Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-65) was already known for her MaryBarton(1848),Cranford (1853),andNorthandSouth(1854)whenshemetamuchyounger Charles Eliot Norton in Rome. Born of Unitarian ministers and raised in Unitarian households, they enjoyed a close friendship and correspondence until her sudden death. TSE refers to her Cranford in a 1918 review of Susan Miles’s Dunch (1. 716). 2. William Wetmore...