Serialized in Charles Dickens’s magazine All the Year Round (January–February 1863), Elizabeth Gaskell’s A Dark Night’s Work details the devastating effects of a tragic secret shared by Edward Wilkins, a widowed lawyer in the rural town of Hamley, his daughter Ellinor, and his coachman Dixon. One night, during a heated, drunken argument, Wilkins accidentally kills his law partner, Mr. Dunster. Dixon is summoned by his master for assistance, while Ellinor accidentally stumbles onto the scene. Fearful of what the authorities will do to Wilkins, the trio decides that the crime must be covered up. The two men then set out for a “dark night’s work” of digging a grave for Dunster. They succeed at diverting suspicion from Wilkins. The local community assumes that Dunster has run off to America and taken his partner’s fortune with him. The three cannot, however, escape the guilt they feel. Ellinor falls ill for an extended period of time, while Wilkins descends into alcoholism. Although by tacit agreement, the trio never discuss the matter, Ellinor never again feels close to her father and has little contact with her old friend Dixon. Wilkins eventually dies a pathetic man, having squandered his fortune and alienated his daughter. Ellinor retires to a cathedral in East Chester with her governess, Miss Monro. Dixon, the ever-dutiful servant, stays behind to keep watch over the garden where Dunster lies. Eventually, the remains are discovered when workmen building a railroad excavate the ground. Ellinor, who is touring Italy at the time, learns that Dixon has been charged with the murder, and by the time she can return to England, he has been convicted of the crime. Fortunately, Ellinor’s former fiancé, Ralph Corbet, is the judge for the case. Once she reveals that her father was the killer, Corbet has Dixon released. Finally free from guilt, Ellinor marries Reverend Livingstone, an old suitor. In the story’s final scene, Dixon is seen keeping watch over the couple’s two children, and it is said that Miss Monro visits them often.
Consisting of 16 chapters, more than 160 pages, and an extensive narrative that features several interwoven plot lines, A Dark Night’s Work is more properly called a novella than a short story. Indeed, some sources, such as the Gaskell Web Project, consider it a full-length novel. Disputes over length strained the long-standing professional relationship between Gaskell and Dickens. Ironically for the contemporary reader, A Dark Night’s Work is of interest primarily for what it lacks. Its title and its focus on the haunting effects of a grisly crime of the kind favored by sensation writers Wilkie Collins and Ellen Wood suggest that this would be a gothic tale, but the story contains little that is shocking or scary. The only two disturbing events, Dunster’s death and the burial of his body, are only spoken of, not narrated directly.
Gaskell’s aim here is not to frighten but rather to instruct. The plot, which is built around a series of improbable coincidences, conveys the simple moral lesson that one cannot escape the past. For years after the murder, the humble life of devotion and charity work that Ellinor leads offers her no solace from the guilt she feels. But after confessing her part in the crime in order to clear Dixon’s name, she finally achieves atonement. More important, she also earns the reward of marriage, the life’s goal of Victorian women and the end to which 19th-century realist narratives overwhelmingly aspire. Although Ellinor’s union with Reverend Livingstone seems inevitable from the moment he enters the text, it can occur only after she becomes worthy of marriage by laying bare the deceit on which her life has rested.
Foster, Shirley. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Literary Life. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
Gaskell, Elizabeth. A Dark Night’s Work and Other Stories. Edited by Suzanne Lewis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.