University of Leicester
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Elizabeth Gaskell, Citizen of the World: Civic Lessons

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posted on 2017-03-14, 15:56 authored by Margriet Schippers
This thesis examines in what ways and to what extent Elizabeth Gaskell, with her Unitarian ‘citizen of the world’ perspective, used her knowledge about social aspects of life in England, Europe and America to teach her readers moral and social citizenship skills. Gaskell’s writing career encompassed major upheavals such as the revolutionary year 1848, the Crimean War, the American Civil War, the Lancashire Cotton Famine, and rapid industrial and social change, and her works are seen to interact with current events. Her wide variety of genres and themes are explained by the fact that she, like her forbears the eighteenth-century rational Dissenters, aimed to bring about a more just and inclusive society. The thesis explores how Gaskell evokes earlier social critics’ work through quotes and allusions, and transforms it into a civic message for her own time. Whereas much critical attention has been focussed on her ‘industrial’ novels, this thesis demonstrates that Gaskell’s short fiction and non-fiction similarly aims to influence her readers’ perception of the state of the nation and encourages them to engage with society. Gaskell’s fiction and non-fiction, essays, short stories and novels work together and develop themes across time. She uses historic examples of injustice and social problems from a wide range of countries to provide lessons in citizenship. As the rational Dissenters had encouraged the American and French revolutions as harbingers of a freer and more just society, so Gaskell repeatedly refers to revolutions, and illustrates ideas of transatlantic and European citizenship. The thesis shows how Gaskell’s philanthropic, social and literary works inform one another, and how interaction with other social critics and reformers such as William and Mary Howitt, Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Florence Nightingale, F.D. Maurice and the Christian Socialists, Mme Mohl and her French acquaintances, Charles Eliot Norton, Maria Susanna Cummins and J.S. Mill influenced her. The periodicals in which her stories appeared affected the way they were read – in England but also in America. Some of Gaskell’s works were edited to appeal to another audience, following which their original civic message changed. Gaskell is shown to be a conscientious chronicler of injustice, while providing lessons in good citizenship to help eradicate evils and transform the nation.



James, Felicity; Shattock, Joanne

Date of award


Author affiliation

Department of English

Awarding institution

University of Leicester

Qualification level

  • Doctoral

Qualification name

  • PhD



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