One of Us: Constructions of Englishness in the Writing of Elizabeth Gaskell
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
Existing criticism that addresses the concept of Englishness in Elizabeth Gaskell’s writing is sparse and confined to a small part of her oeuvre, and, furthermore, has, in the main, placed Englishness (and England) in Gaskell’s fiction either within a Derridian paradigm of endless signifiers or in the realm of metaphor. I place Gaskell’s Englishness within its socio-historical milieu, and argue that, for Gaskell, England is primarily literal, her green and pleasant land, and that, in her writing, she envisages a slowly evolving and flatter English social system incorporating a wider selection of the English population than was the norm in the mid-nineteenth century. She wrestles with the place of the ‘other’ within English society. Indeed, as a female and as a Unitarian, Gaskell is herself ‘other,’ outside of hegemonic Englishness, and her outsider status had a marked influence on her Englishness.
I argue that there are ambiguities in Gaskell’s vision for a more egalitarian Englishness. Her Englishness is couched in middle-class terms, in which, for Gaskell, the entry requirement into the ‘in group’ of Englishness (by, for example, the working classes) is middle-class acculturation, and she presents both the benefits and limitations of her liberal, middle-class perspective.
Contemporary topics that inform Gaskell’s fiction include industrial change, economic liberalism, colonial expansion, political reform, and scientific debate, each of which brought issues of nationhood and identity into focus. Gaskell’s primary vehicle for producing Englishness in this historical context was through short stories and novels, although her essays and letters are also significant. I focus on four key areas which provide entry points into her constructions of Englishness: race, empire, imperial trade (especially tea, opium, and cotton), and gender/masculinity.