Worlds are Colliding: Authorship, Gender, and Self-Formation in the lives of Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell


In their articles dealing with self-hood and the authorial voice of the Victorian woman writer, Iain Crawford and Alexis Easley tie the role of the author and the way they are perceived by society directly to gender. Such a connection holds particularly true in the nineteenth century, as gender itself was a large determinant for individual agency. A commonly held belief of the period concerned “the two spheres”, in which the sphere of vocation was gendered as male, while the sphere of the domestic was gendered as female. In their articles, Crawford and Easley show how both Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell complicate the separation inherent to the ‘two spheres’ by attempting to move from one to the other through authorship. Though the move is successful, how does it impact the selfhood of the two women and the way they are perceived by their society?

Crawford’s article on Martineau and authorship contextualizes the selfhood of the author in relation to a very heated disagreement Martineau herself had with Charles Dickens. At the time, Martineau was writing for Household Words, a periodical conducted by Dickens. After a difference of opinion regarding government legislation of factories, the two began a heated disagreement, resulting in Martineau’s decision to cease contribution to Household Words. Interestingly, Crawford positions the two authors in their ‘very public spat’ not in terms of ideology (the progressive Dickens vs. the conservative Martineau), but in terms of gender: “Dickens’s reliance upon his male friends and colleagues, together with his creation of an alternative home in the bachelor domestic space of the Household Words office, suggests powerfully the ways in which the lines between the professional and the personal blurred” (462). Crawford suggests that because the authorial space is gendered as male, a type of ‘boys club’, Martineau had no place in it once her opinion clashed with Dickens the conductor. Crawford may be suggesting that if Martineau had not been a woman, a disagreement with Dickens may not have met with rejection from the male sphere of authorship.

It is also interesting to note that in this debate, both Martineau and Dickens seem to take on stereotypes belonging to the opposite gender. Martineau is the voice of logic divorced from emotion, arguing in favor of free enterprise and the necessity to keep government out of market regulation – a typically ‘male view’. On the other hand, Dickens is full of pathos, and writes pieces for Household Words (‘Ground in the Mill’) that describe the horrors of factory conditions – a perspective filled with ‘feminine emotion’. Crawford even states that Martineau regarded Dickens as “someone whose brilliant emotional range she could admire in his work as a novelist while simultaneously suggesting that this very emotionality rendered him quite incapable of the dispassionate objectivity essential in an editor who claimed to shape the public sphere” (478). Moving from the vocation to the domestic, Martineau must also sacrifice the public perception of what her gender should be.

However, the same does not seem to hold true for Gaskell. Though a vocal champion of social causes also attempting to break into the vocational sphere as an author, Gaskell seems able to bring her sense of selfhood as a woman and wife into her role as author. Gaskell beautifully ‘marries’ her vocation and domestic identity together, and the society of her time seems to accept this more willingly. As Easley tells us: “Gaskell’s image of sympathetic middle-class femininity was reinforced by her public appearances in London … she came to be seen as a model of the useful middle-class woman author – the charming ‘Mrs. Gaskell’, whose domestic moralism could be converted into new forms of gendered literary activism” (98). Rather than hiding or subverting her gendered identity, Gaskell used it to give a greater voice to her cause. Incidentally, Gaskell also wrote for Household Words, and in a letter date Nov 25th of1851 Dickens addresses her as ‘My Dear Scheherazade’ – perhaps Dickens does not ‘feel threatened’ by an author who has ‘embraced her female identity’ .

Gaskell’s bringing together of her identity as author and woman makes even more sense when considering her biography of Charlotte Bronte. It is easy to believe that the traits she admired in the author she so loved were attempted by her in emulation. As she says of Bronte, “… nor can she drop the domestic charges devolving on her as an individual, for the exercise of the most splendid talents that were ever bestowed. And yet she must not shrink from the extra responsibility implied by the very fact of her possessing such talents” (272). For Gaskell, both ‘gendered’ forms of identity must be at work.

Both Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell attempt to cross from one sphere to the other. In Martineau’s case, this move leads to collision of the two spheres, along with a collision of selfhood and identity; for Gaskell, the two spheres and identities cohabit with one another.

2 thoughts on “Worlds are Colliding: Authorship, Gender, and Self-Formation in the lives of Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell

  1. “Mrs. Martineau” — Harriet took the name for herself — headed her own household, created there a model for all to follow, she felt, where every member had full standing. She was 100% a professional woman, consciously and carefully created at great cost, a pioneer leader and forward-leaning Unitarian (in contrast to her brother James).

    Mrs.Gaskell, whose daughter went to Harriet’s sister’s school in Manchester, had resources available to her far beyond Martineau’s, and what she did was maintain the family household in which she raised her children. Her writing was adventurous but her “Mrs.” was quite conventional, cautiously Unitarian.

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