Martineau and Gaskell at the Morgan Library

By: Elissa Myers

This semester I have been helping Caroline Reitz with a project on female contributors to a periodical Dickens edited called Household Words. Caroline has encouraged me to follow my own interests in the work I do for her, so I have focused to a large extent on Harriet Martineau, whom I am interested in partially from a disability studies standpoint, and partially because she was just a tremendously sassy, eccentric woman who even had the guts to get into quite a public argument with Dickens in the periodical press. In looking at the letters at the Morgan Library, I was pursuing a path already taken by Iain Crawford, one of the foremost scholars on Dickens, who recently wrote an article on the two previously unpublished letters I looked at, in which he argues that the way in which many scholars focus on the argument between Dickens and Martineau obscures the fact that up until that time, they had had a very productive working relationship and a sincere friendship. As Crawford doesn’t publish these letters in full in his article, I wanted to see them for myself, to ascertain whether or not I agree with him. Both letters did seem to me to be open and friendly, exactly as Crawford represented them.

                I had also ordered a few letters written by Elizabeth Gaskell, another contributor to the magazine whose relationship with Dickens was complicated, to Martineau. Because the file on Elizabeth Gaskell was not terribly well-organized, they brought me the whole thing and let me look through it to find what I wanted. The letters extended my sense of the relative amity between Dickens and Martineau, as Gaskell’s mention of receiving “a very liberal proposal” from Dickens to write for All the Year Round suggests that there were no hard feelings between Martineau and Dickens at that time. In a private letter, Gaskell would have had no reason to sugarcoat the feeling of dislike toward Dickens that she and Martineau allegedly shared. However, her mention of him is perfectly cordial, asserting his liberality, and citing the only reason she did not want to work for him to be her dislike of writing in weekly installments.

On my way to finding the two letters, however, I stumbled across something even more interesting—a picture of Elizabeth Gaskell with a “ghost,” an apparition that was created by a photographic overlay, then a new procedure. My first guess is that this picture could have something to do with Gaskell’s renown as a writer of ghost stories. I have not been able to find it in a google image search, or any other information about it, though, so I suspect that the picture might not be generally known in the world of Victorian studies.. I am thinking of sending around a query on Victoria-list, a listserv of which I am a part to inquire. They told me I am not supposed to publish the pictures I took in any way, but I have it for show and tell in class if you guys are interested. At any rate, my trip to the archive yielded both sound progress on my task for Caroline, and exciting, unexpected surprises. Archives make me feel like Indiana Jones!