"Some appointed work to do" : gender and agency in the works of Elizabeth Gaskell
Morris, Emily Jane
In this dissertation, I examine relationships between gender and agency in the works of Victorian author Elizabeth Gaskell. Gaskell’s position within discussions of nineteenth-century feminisms has long been a subject of debate, and her celebration of and focus on femininity, women’s lives, and the domestic sphere of nineteenth-century womanhood is inevitably crucial in critical analyses of her work. I argue that Gaskell’s take on gender is a more sophisticated one than has been recognised. In her fictional depictions of the agency and power of women and men, as well as in commentary from her correspondence and her biography of her friend and contemporary woman author Charlotte Brontë, Gaskell conceives of the traditionally feminine sphere of influence as more conducive to action than the masculine realm, where notions of authority and responsibility paradoxically place limits on individual ability and agency. These ideas are further complicated in Gaskell’s work by an awareness of the constructed or unfixed nature of gender, a conscious recognition of gender roles as not essentially tied to sex difference but rather as fluid, mutable, and primarily utilitarian. My argument situates Gaskell’s position contextually, with reference to contemporary nineteenth-century discussions of the roles and expectations of men and women. It is organised in terms of the thematic focus of her novels, with chapters on industry and class relations, fallen women, religion and marriage, and home and family. Within this framework I suggest a progression in the complexity of Gaskell’s thinking both chronologically and in the shift of focus from topics that are centered in masculine spheres of power, such as the economic, political, and religious, to those that are firmly ensconced in the feminine domestic realm of the personal home and local community. I end with a discussion of The Life of Charlotte Brontë and Gaskell’s thoughts on female authorship, concluding that Gaskell’s locating of agency in the feminine is a means by which she can promote alternative ways of being and recognize that diverse ways of seeing the world and one’s own identity or position within it are essential in order to create and maintain effective societies.
DegreeDoctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
Copyright DateApril 2010