From the publication of her first novel, Mary Barton, in 1848, Elizabeth Gaskell's work has been the subject of critical debate and, often, critical misappropriation. With its raw depiction of urban poverty in the early 1840s, the novel troubled critics and commentators who found such matters unsuitable for treatment by a woman novelist. North and South, published in 1855, saw Gaskell again dealing with social unrest, in the conflicts between the rural south and industrialised north of England. In a society ill-at-ease with women who engaged in social criticism and observation, Gaskell's reputation as a novelist came to rest largely on her other, less contentious, writings. Only in recent decades has the range and depth of her talent begun to be explored in ways that allow these two works to stand among the great novels of the nineteenth century. In this Readers' Guide, Alison Chapman introduces and discusses the patterns of critical attention that Gaskell's work has attracted across the past hundred and fifty years.
Beginning with contemporary press and critical reviews, and treatments by the Victorian and early twentieth-century literary establishment, the Guide sets out a background for the most recent and challenging reassessments of these novels, bringing the reader fully up to date on current critical approaches.