Elizabeth Gaskell: The Moorland Cottage (1850)

Growing up in Yorkshire, the daughter of a deceased clergyman, Maggie Browne is encouraged to devote herself to her brother, Edward, upon whom their widowed mother dotes. Through the example and guidance of her mentor, Mrs Buxton, Maggie learns that self-sacrifice is the key to living a fulfilled life. How much personal happiness will she forgo in the name of duty and devotion to her brother? This novella depicts the struggle of a strong-minded Victorian woman, torn between her dreams and her duty towards her family. Maggie’s love story, Edward’s perfidy and the dramatic conclusion at sea, make The Moorland Cottage a timeless tale.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel The Moorland Cottage is said to be the precursor and the template for George Elliot’s The Mill on the Floss as we can read on the inner sleeve of this very nice Hesperus edition. As a matter of fact this and the blurb sounded so interesting and the book looked so appealing that I bought it and only realized later that this was the very same novel I had seen reviewed on Violet’s blog and sworn to stay away from. It wasn’t a positive review at all. I trust Violet’s taste and felt quite silly that I bought it. I must add that the cover of her edition looked very different. Tacky is the word for it. I have never read anything by Elizabeth Gaskell and this was short enough (140 pages) so I thought I give it a try anyway. Halfway into the book I discovered that Katherine from the Gaskell Blog, who is hosting a group read of The Moorland Cottage, dedicated one of the first posts to a stunning photo tour of the first chapter of the book.

The descriptions are easily one of the best things in this novel. For very personal reasons I also liked the character portraits. The mother does, in some instances, sound so much like my own mother used to be that it felt spooky to read how she reprimanded little Maggie the whole time, trying to crush her joy and preferring the brother over the girl for no particular other apparent reason than that he is a boy.

The Moorland Cottage tells Maggie Browne’s story. She is the daughter of a clergy man who has died a few years ago and leaves little Maggie, her brother Edward and a cold-hearted wife, who has adopted a theatrical, ostentatious way of mourning him. In the little cottage also lives a housemaid, Nancy, an old woman who is very fond of little Maggie and loves her dearly. This is lucky as her own mother only cares for the boy who is an obnoxious, selfish and reckless child. He suppresses and exploits his sister whenever he can.

One day the family is invited to the estate of the Buxton family. The Buxton family consists of the invalid Mrs Buxton, Mr Buxton, their son Frank and the niece Erminia. In the Buxton family Maggie encounters acceptance and love. Mrs Buxton as well as the girl Erminia like her a great deal and in the absence of her mother Maggie shows her true nature. She isn’t only a subdued little girl but very intelligent and truly kind.

After the death of Mrs Buxton the novel fastforwards a few years. Maggie and Frank have fallen in love, Edward has become a lawyer and handles some affairs for Mr Buxton The two lovers want to marry but Frank’s father is opposed to the idea. Chapter 7 is by far the most interesting. It displays all the themes that are recurring in Gaskell’s novels, one of them is the situation of the poor.

I found it particularly interesting because Frank asks Maggie to go away with him, to Australia or Canada.

I would go off to Australia at once. Indeed, Maggie, I think it would be the best thing we could do. My heart aches about the mysterious corruptions and evils of an old state of society such as we have in England.

Frank has lost all faith in the European society. He longs for a clean start in an uncorrupted environment. Where would Frank want to go nowadays, I wondered. To the Moon?

Frank has a huge problem with the way the rich treat the poor and the lovers discuss this at length. Maggie says she would be glad if there really was such a thing as “Transmigration”, something she has read about in an Indian tale. She would like to be transmigrated into a slave owner to see his side of things.

I quite enjoyed the first 8 chapters. I have to agree with Violet, the tone of the novel is mawkish throughout and there is a lot of crying but up to chapter 9 I could forgive it. From then on the novel unfortunately takes a turn. Maggie commits a huge act of self-sacrifice and the story’s plausibility is stretched a lot.

Still I enjoyed it overall because I cannot compare it to any of her other novels yet and because I could see what a truly good Elizabeth Gaskell novel would have to offer. Her descriptions are nuanced and beautiful, the changing of the seasons is rendered masterfully. Depending on the season her descriptions are either light and cheerful or dark and gloomy. Some character descriptions are interesting. Mrs Buxton, despite her insufferable moral teachings, is an interesting character. Why is she ailing and why does she love little Maggie so much?  The awareness of social injustices and the social criticism are themes Elizabeth Gaskell is known for and there is already quite a lot of it in this early novel.

Although the end dampened the overall impression, I will always remember the beautiful descriptions of the English countryside and feel like reading either North and South or Cranford very soon.

Do you have any other suggestions? Did someone else read The Moorland Cottage?

35 thoughts on “Elizabeth Gaskell: The Moorland Cottage (1850)

  1. Hello Caroline: I’ve read Cranford and My Lady Ludlow. Cranford has a very cosy feel but of the two, I think I prefer My Lady Ludlow. I overlooked this author for years, and I have some of her other stuff on the shelves.

    • I guess that’s what I did too, overlooked her. My Lady Ludlow must be linked to Cranford, I guess. Isn’t she one of the main characters in Cranford (she was in the TV series. I’ll have to have a look. Thanks.

        • I see, thanks for the clarification. So lady Ludlow isn’t all that important in the book Cranford. I wonder if there are different versions of the book. I bought the one with the picture of the series on it. Maybe also a mashed version.

          • Not enough of a clarification! Lady Ludlow is not in Cranford at all. There’s no Trollope-like shared world thing going on here. The stories have nothing to do with Cranford. That’s all the invention of a screenwriter.

            The edition I have seen that is tied to the TV series contains Cranford, the real text, plus two other stories, “My Lady Ludlow” and, I think, “Doctor Harrison’s Confession,” also the actual texts. Presumably, one hopes, an introduction explains all of this to puzzled readers wondering what the heck is going on.

            • Thanks for the clarifications. If I had checkd my copy I would have seen that it does indeed contain Cranford, My Lady Ludlow, The Cage at Craford and Mr. Harrison’s Confession (not in that order) + introduction. Interpreting what you say, I can probably read them in any order I want. All of a sudden a chunky book has turned into four smaller ones. A pleasant surprise.

  2. The funny thing is that Cranford, a masterpiece (cosy!), has no descriptions of nature, nor anything else that is particularly beautiful, and has virtually nothing to do with social injustices.

    I’m actually just starting North and South which I assume is filled with earnestness and injustice and self-sacrifice, but I could well be wrong.

  3. I’ve never read E. Gaskell and this one isn’t tempting. The reference to the Mill on the Floss (I couldn’t finish it) is rather a put off for me. And you used the word “mawkish”, rather strong for you.When I read one of her books, I’ll be sure not to pick this one. (Should I keep a list of negative book reviews from book bloggers with similar tastes as a reminder not to buy these books? I wonder now.)

    PS : “Where would Frank want to go nowadays, I wondered. To the Moon?” As there’s nowhere to flee to, he’d stay home in an all-recycling house with solar pannels on the roof, no TV and do as Voltaire said “grow his own garden”, literally, to avoid industrial food, and figuratively, to concentrate on literature. 🙂

    • I have no idea how I forgot the title and didn’t realize that was the book Violet reviewed. Violet’s review was so negative and she uses the word mawkish, rightly so. Trite and sentimental was used as well. It’s in parts good but the end could be taken from any cheap romance novel…
      I haven’t read The Mill on the Floss.
      Your PS made me laugh. Lokoing at it closely it was already a wrong conception at the time. There was certainly already corruption in Australia and Canada. Funny that he doesn’t want to go to America. That’s where they send Edward after his “misbehavior”.

  4. Is this one of her earlier works? I’ve only read Wives and Daughters, which I liked very much though it was unfinished at her death. I’d like to read North and South and it is on my list of books to read this year–hopefully I’ll get to it.

    • I think this was her second novel or novella. I think it is safe to say that North and South is nothing like it. I still look forward to reading something else. The edition is pretty though…

      • It is a gorgeous cover–I do like Hesperus Books–and with that description I might have been tempted to read it, but it seems like a lesser work and maybe one to read when you’ve exhausted reading the rest of her books!

        • The Hesperus books are very nice, also to the touch. I think their aim is to publish lesser know classics and that’s what The Moorland Cottage is. Still when you read the comments on The Gaskell Blog, some people enjoyed it a lot.

  5. Gaskell is one of many writers loved by English-language bloggers that I have very little interest in trying out for myself. Your post doesn’t do much to change my mind, but Amateur Reader has me curious about Cranford for the moment at least. Will wait till you try that or North and South out first, I’m sure!

    • Stay away from this one, Richard! I think that would probably lead you to the wrong conclusions and spoil your interest once and for all. I am very curious to read Cranford. I think I saw it reviewed on Nymeth’s Things mean a lot and she wrote that it was also very funny. The Moorland Cottage is NOT funny.

  6. I’ve never read Gaskell – the British 19th century is about the biggest gap in my reading. But I really do want to read The Mill on the Floss later on this year. Elizabeth Gaskell hasn’t quite made it onto my radar- and after reading your post, I do think perhaps I can safely leave her to one side and try other authors first.

    • You can safely leave this one out but I think from all I hear about Cranford it must be worth reading and so do one or two others. I’ll be interested to read waht you think of The Mill on the Floss. I have a feeling Middlemarch would be worth reading.

  7. wow! it’s such an old book.
    what captured my attention the most is your unwillingness to read the book after reading violet review, and yet now you find yourself reading it.
    sounds interesting but I think it’s not my cup of tea.

    • It’s odd, really because the book shop to which I went has only a tiny collection of English books and that they had this of all of her books was surprising. I have no idea how I did miss that it was the same book. I guess because the cover stuck in my mind and this one looked so different. I am sure this is not your cup of tea.

  8. Unfortunately, I can relate to the main character too, so would have mixed feelings about reading this. I’m interested in how she copes, but almost don’t want to relive the experience.

    Middlemarch is on my bookshelf waiting for me where it’s been for several years. One day….

    • About the mother or the brother? It was a bit of a shocker to discover such a description… It sounded so much like my mother. I’m OK now but feel sort of sad for the girl I was. It wasn’t funny, I can tell you. I’m really sorry if that sounds familiar to you as well. I was surpised to read such a description in a 19th century novel.

  9. I read Moorland Cottage as well but I couldn’t really enjoy the book. Maggie came across as subdued and always eager to sacrifice her happiness for her brother. That put me off the book so much. I do agree with you on the point that her true nature does shine through in the later chapters as she gets to meet Erminia and Frank.

    I recommend North and South any day over these books because – a)the protagonists are strong and have an opinion/backbone b)its a story that seems to sit well in a period that marks the end of victorian era and the beginning of the industrial revolution.

    • It was a bit disappointing to read it but not to the extent that I will not read another one. I found it infuriating how she just let her brother get away with everything and was ready to sacrifice herself for him. I really want to read North and South. I’m always tempted to watch the BBC miniseries but will not do it before I read it.

      • The BBC series are a stickler for the book plots 🙂 I agree reading before watching the series is recommended. Margaret Hale’s personality is one of the best I’ve seen in the victorian era novels the other best one being Eliza Bennett.

  10. Pingback: Monthly Elizabeth Gaskell Chronicle – May 2011 Edition « Gaskell Blog

  11. I’m a few years too late for this thread I know but I’ve just read Moorland Cottage with my Reading Group and I love it! Did Patrick Bronte know she’d written this book when he asked her to write about Charlotte?

    • It’s always nice to get a comment on an older post.
      I wouldn’t know about Patrick Bronte.
      I had to reread my own review to refresh my memory. I remember now his much I like many aspects. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it. I have still nit read anything else by her although I know she’s written many great novels.

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