Analysis of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Lizzie Leigh

“Lizzie Leigh” is a story of a fallen woman that was probably begun in the late 1830s (Uglow, 125) but was published in Charles Dicken’s Household Words from March 30 to April 13, 1850. The story has received a good deal of critical attention from feminist scholars, including Margaret Homans, Christine Krueger, and Deborah Denenholz Morse, who have emphasized the subversive elements in the story. As Coral Lansbury suggests, this tale of a country girl who is seduced and abandoned in the city, where she is forced into prostitution, can be viewed as a reimagining of the prostitute Esther’s narrative in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Mary Barton (1848). In this reinscription of Esther’s tale, the prostitute’s loving mother and surrogate sister are heroes who identify with the fallen woman and who believe in her redemption from sin despite the father’s condemnation and the brother’s angry shame.

“Lizzie Leigh” opens with the death of Lizzie’s father, James Leigh. He has sent Lizzie to Manchester, where, at age 16, she is seduced, impregnated, and cast out by the owner of the factory where she finds work. Both Lizzie’s father and the factory owner, her surrogate father/protector, have cast her off. However, as he is dying on Christmas Day, James Leigh at long last forgives his daughter with his final breath: “I forgive her, Annie! May God forgive me!” His death frees his wife to act independently, prompted by her love for her daughter and the New Testament message of forgiveness for all. On the evening of her husband’s death, Christmas night, Anne asks her mild, sweet younger son Tom to read the parable of the Prodigal Son. Her stern older son Will understands the reference to his fallen sister and listens sullenly, as “to him it recalled the family’s disgrace.” As the story progresses, Will—the son most like his dead father—is enlightened as to the real meaning of Christian love and forgiveness. This new father then gives promise of a transformed masculinity imbued with the love of the Son.

The story might have been called “Anne Leigh,” because the story’s overt focus is the heroic mother, who moves to Manchester to seek her prodigal daughter. She wanders the streets in a red cloak, a marker with which Gaskell identifies the loving mother with her fallen daughter, the “scarlet woman.” Anne does not find Lizzie but instead meets the tolerant, self-sacrificing Susan Palmer, who has taken in Lizzie’s child, thrust upon her in the street. This assumption of maternal duties by a young unmarried woman defines Susan’s goodness; as Patsy Stoneman states, “the care of children is Elizabeth Gaskell’s crucial test of moral values” (49). Gaskell’s characteristic narrative strategy crosses the boundaries of Victorian womanhood in identifying the pilgrim-named Susan Palmer—who lives on the symbolic Crown Street—with the fallen woman Lizzie, as well as with the courageous mother Anne and with Lizzie’s child, Anne’s namesake Nanny. When the rigid, angry Will Leigh, now in love with Susan Palmer, fears that she will scorn Lizzie, Anne Leigh argues that Susan is a Christian who will love her fallen sister: “She’s not one to harden her heart against a mother’s sorrow. . . . She’s not one to judge and scorn the sinner. She’s too deep read in her New Testament for that.” The silent wife Anne ultimately becomes the powerfully voiced mother, commanding her son to forgive his sister and her illegitimate child: “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.” Will quietly submits. As Christine Krueger has argued, Anne’s words are a preachment, a legacy from the evangelical tradition, giving Anne a “prophetic role” that “enables [her] to appropriate privileged language on behalf of a fallen woman” (169).

Despite this pact of tolerance and forgiveness, the tale culminates in the death of Lizzie’s child Nanny. James Leigh’s judgments and the factory owner’s callous abandonment of the pregnant young girl are coupled with Susan Palmer’s drunken father’s irresponsibility, which causes the accident in which little Nanny dies. Through her sacrificial death—symbolically, by falling—all of the women of the tale are united in Susan’s house, and they are identified with one another and with the dead child. As Margaret Homans argues, “In this part of the story, there is general but not disturbing uncertainty as to who is daughter, who is mother, and of whom. Three mothers contemplate, in grief, the faces of two daughters, one who is dead, one who is ‘like one dead’ ” (231).

The story’s ending is poignant but somewhat contradictory. Gaskell calls for forgiveness for the fallen woman Lizzie but suggests the need for her continual purification and the expiation of her sin through celibacy, sorrow, and good works—but not through death, as with Esther in Mary Barton or the saintly heroine of Ruth. Lizzie lives with her mother in a secluded cottage near the old Leigh farm, where the now-married Susan and Will are raising a large family. While Lizzie becomes nearly beatified through her service to others—“ many hearts bless Lizzie Leigh”—Susan is “the bright one who brings sunshine to all. Children grow around her and call her blessed.” Again the pure mother and the prostitute are aligned, both “blessed” by others. They are also identified when Susan’s daughter Nanny, named for Lizzie’s dead child, becomes Lizzie’s surrogate daughter and companion. The final scene of the story shows this second Nanny and Lizzie together in the lonely moorland churchyard where Lizzie’s child is buried, and “while the little creature gathers daisies, and makes chains, Lizzie sits by a little grave, and weeps bitterly.”

Gaskell, Elizabeth. “Lizzie Leigh.” In Nineteenth Century Short Stories by Women, edited by Glennis Stephenson, 249–283. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1993.
Humans, Margaret. Bearing the Word. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1986.
Krueger, Christine. The Reader’s Repentance. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1992.
Stoneman, Patsy. Elizabeth Gaskell. Brighton: Harvester, 1987. Uglow, Jenny. Elizabeth Gaskell. London: Faber, 1999.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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