This Week In My Classes: Mercy and Tenderness in “Lizzie Leigh”

gif-eg-lizzieOur reading for today in The Victorian ‘Woman Question’ was Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1850 short story “Lizzie Leigh.” We’re reading it at the end of a cluster of other works that deal with ‘fallen women,’ including Aurora Leigh, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny,” Augusta Webster’s “A Castaway,” and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” (which, we agreed, is certainly about women and sexual temptation in some way, even though it is as frustrating as it is fun to try to figure out exactly which way).

“Lizzie Leigh” is certainly the most heavy-handed of these texts. Gaskell wants you to forgive poor Lizzie, who was “led astray” then dismissed by her hard-hearted employer “as soon as he had heard of her condition — and she not seventeen!” as her grieving mother Anne laments. Driven to the streets (“whatten kind o’ work would be open to her … and her baby to keep?”), Lizzie has abandoned her child, dropping her into the arms of kind, virtuous young Susan, who raises her with all the loving tenderness her mother could wish for. Despite her own desperate straits, Lizzie still provides what she can for her daughter: “Every now and then,” Susan tells Anne, “a little packet is thrust in under our door . . . I’ve often thought the poor mother feels near to God when she brings this money.” The story is built around Anne’s search for her lost daughter, but her courage and love is not enough to save Lizzie from one final tragedy.

marybartonGaskell’s most obvious literary device in the story is pathos. Oscar Wilde not withstanding, the Victorians knew the potential social and political power of a tearjerker, and Gaskell had already used heartfelt emotion and personal tragedy to effect reconciliation across the classes in her first novel, Mary Barton:

He was my sunshine, and now it is night! Oh, my God! comfort me, comfort me!” cried the old man aloud.

The eyes of John Barton grew dim with tears.

Rich and poor, masters and men, were then brothers in the deep suffering of the heart; for was not this the very anguish he had felt for little Tom, in years so long gone by, that they seemed like another life!

The mourner before him was no longer the employer; a being of another race, eternally placed in antagonistic attitude; going through the world glittering like gold, with a stony heart within, which knew no sorrow but through the accidents of Trade; no longer the enemy, the oppressor, but a very poor and desolate old man.

I understand why a jaded modern reader (never mind a superior Modernist one) might snicker at a moment like this — and there’s no doubt, either, that Gaskell’s analysis of class conflict, not to mention her solution to it, could be accused of a certain naivete. There’s still something very humanly touching, though, about this picture of two old men brought low by loss and then brought together by hard-won mutual recognition and sympathy. There are moments in “Lizzie Leigh” that work this way too, particularly when Lizzie is once more in her mother’s arms, finding long-denied comfort:

“Oh woe! Oh woe!” She shook with exceeding sorrow.

In her earnestness of speech she had uncovered her face, and tried to read Mrs Leigh’s thoughts through her looks. And when she saw those aged eyes brimming full of tears, and marked the quivering lips, she threw her arms round the faithful mother’s neck, and wept there as she had done in many a childish sorrow; but with a deeper, a more wretched grief.

Her mother hushed her on her breast; and lulled her as if she were a baby; and she grew still and quiet.

Their embrace reminds me of the reflections on mortality in Chapter 42 of Middlemarch:

When the commonplace ‘We must die’ transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness ‘I must die–and soon,’ then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel; afterwards, he may come to fold us in his arms as our mother did, and our last moment of dim earthly discerning may be like the first.

Lizzie does not die (one way in which Gaskell breaks with the literary rules for fallen women), but she has been “as one dead” to her family, and now her mother’s tenderness restores her to life once again.

gaskellGaskell was a minister’s wife and “Lizzie Leigh” casts its story of forgiveness in explicitly Christian terms. Susan “is not one to judge and scorn the sinner,” Anne insists to her son Will, for instance (soothing his horror that she has shared Lizzie’s story with one he sees as “downright holy”); “She’s too deep read in her New Testament for that.” What I think is so powerful about the story is the way Gaskell pits Anne’s (and Susan’s) definition of Christian virtue against the “hard, stern, and inflexible” judgments, first of Anne’s husband James (who had forbidden her to seek out “her poor, sinning child”) and then of Will, who has inherited his father’s patriarchal role and with it his rigid righteousness. Anne grows into her own authority as the story progresses, eventually confronting Will directly:

“I’m not afeard of you now, and I must speak, and you must listen. I am your mother, and I dare to command you, because I know I am in the right, and that God is on my side. . . .

She stood, no longer, as the meek, imploring, gentle mother, but firm and dignified, as if the interpreter of God’s will.

Susan, in turn, criticizes Will for saying that Lizzie “deserved” her sufferings, “every jot”:

Will Leigh! I have thought so well of you; don’t go and make me think you cruel and hard. Goodness is not goodness unless there is mercy and tenderness with it.

Between them, Anne and Susan (and, eventually, Lizzie) create a community of women united in their service to others, whose definition of virtue does not depend on righteous indignation or stern judgment but on the practice of that “mercy and tenderness.” Their power arises, as Gaskell tells it, not so much in defiance of masculine authority (not at first, anyway) but through the gradual assertion of their female authority — through their maternal roles and the moral authority this brings — as well as through their independent claim to interpret God’s laws.

wivesanddaughtersoxfordThere are definitely things about “Lizzie Leigh” that are hard to take, including the fate of “the little, unconscious sacrifice, whose early calling-home had reclaimed her poor, wandering mother” as well as the extreme seclusion that is Lizzie’s fate after her reclamation. She’s not (like Hetty, or Little Emily) sent entirely out of her world, but Gaskell can’t quite imagine a place for her fully in it either. What I love about “Lizzie Leigh,” though, is the same thing I love about Mary BartonNorth and South, and Wives and Daughters: there’s just something so humane about Gaskell’s vision of the good. She wants us all to be kinder to each other, to understand each other better, to define virtue as something we have to practice, not just a quality we can passively exhibit. For her, these are religious imperatives, but they needn’t be; George Eliot’s Silas Marner urges us to much the same conclusions, as does Middlemarch. I think for both writers, it matters much less why you make sympathy a guiding principle than that you do it: ultimately, for both of them, it’s small human acts of grace that give us all a chance at redemption.

1 Comment to This Week In My Classes: Mercy and Tenderness in “Lizzie Leigh”

  1. October 29, 2016 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful description of this story. Again, lucky students.

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