By Jane Spencer (auth.)
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Extra resources for Elizabeth Gaskell
20 One of the important cultural functions of the Victorian woman was that of novelist. The female authority Armstrong ascribes to the Victorian woman novelist was granted and used by the middle class in a bid to naturalise its own political power. Victorian novels, presenting love and marriage as central issues, allowed political resistance to be displaced onto a sexual conflict, which was then resolved through romantic love. Thus class conflict was made to appear ultimately unimportant. One example of what Armstrong means might be in North and South, where, it could be argued, the struggle between capitalist and workers is ultimately seen as less important than the sexual struggle between Margaret Hale and John Thornton, a struggle that is resolved on the last page in an affirmation of romantic love and marriage.
Even if you had been a very anxious father of a family? yet two men have: and a third has forbidden his wife to read it; they sit next to us in Chapel and you can't think how 'improper' I feel under their eyes. (L 223) Her anxious remark reveals a lot about the treatment of female sexuality and female knowledge in patriarchal culture. Men as fathers and husbands try to control what women may know, keeping from wives and from daughters the forbidden knowledge that might threaten their proper sexual behaviour and thus their status as men's property.
Sally, the Benson's dear-headed if narrowminded servant, is often employed to show events in a different perspective: she immediately sees through the story of Ruth's widowhood, and years later when Mr Benson decides to whip Leonard for lying, she reminds him in no uncertain terms that he has no right to punish the boy for that particular offence. Ruth's real rehabilitation into the community comes only after she has been exposed and vilified, and has proved her goodness by nursing many of the town's inhabitants through an epidemic.