Analysis of Elizabeth Gaskell’s My Lady Ludlow

First published in Charles Dickens’s magazine Household Words from June 19 until September 25, 1858 and reprinted in Round the Sofa in 1859, “My Lady Ludlow” is presented as one of a “chain” of stories connected by a prologue. As Jenny Uglow argues, “My Lady Ludlow” has been the “least regarded” of Elizabeth Gaskell’s longer stories and deserves more critical attention (468). The novella, or long story, is one of Gaskell’s historical fictions; a tale within its main story is set during the French Revolution—as in “My French Master”—a time that influences all of the history that is related thereafter. “My Lady Ludlow” focuses in part on the bygone era of its aged aristocratic heroine, who is indelibly influenced by the terrors of the French Revolution, which occurred in her middle age. In many senses, however, the story centers more on the inevitability of change, on the transformations of the present moment—reforms in English culture that perhaps have staved off the revolutions that ignited France both in 1789 and in 1848. As Terence Wright has argued, “For Mrs. Gaskell a far more fundamental characteristic of the natural in history than attachment to the past . . . is the tendency to change” (74).

The theme of social change inheres not only in the story of Lady Ludlow herself but in that of the story’s narrator. “My Lady Ludlow” is narrated by an old woman, Margaret Dawson, a distant kinswoman who was taken on as a kind of ward to Lady Ludlow at age 16, when Margaret’s clergyman father dies. Margaret is crippled during the course of the story, and her resultant intimacy with kindly Lady Ludlow is intensified because of Margaret’s infirmity. (In Round the Sofa, Margaret Dawson is the infirm old woman on the sofa, and “My Lady Ludlow” is her contribution to the stories the group round the sofa tells.) Like Gaskell’s other physically disabled characters, Margaret is treated sympathetically, and her crooked body—like the Reverend Thurston Benson’s in Ruth—is allied to quick perception and memory. Thetone of the narrative is in part elegiac, as Margaret tells the story long after her own departure from Hanbury Court and Lady Ludlow’s subsequent death. Margaret is recalling not only a past historical period and a figure who represents that past—her beloved Lady Ludlow— but also Margaret’s own hopeful youth, her own personal history, now rendered idyllic with the passage of time and life in more ordinary circumstances: “Like a piece of seawreck, I have drifted away from those days: quiet, happy, eventless days, very happy to remember!”

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Margaret tells the story of the aristocratic, wellmeaning Lady Ludlow’s losing battles against the insurgence of the lower and middle classes and her acquisition thereby of a fuller Christian outlook of true goodwill toward all. Margaret details the kindly but reactionary countess’s slowly altering views on issues ranging from the education of the lower classes to the social acceptance of an illegitimate girl who becomes a respected schoolteacher. Occasionally, Margaret’s tone is darker, more critical of the status quo, as when she deeply resents the formalities of mourning offered for the unknown Lord Ludlow when he dies far away in Vienna, while her own hardworking, poor clergyman father was not so honored by the parishioners among whom he labored:

It might arise from my being so far from well at the time, which produced a diseased mind in a diseased body; but I was absolutely jealous for my father’s memory, when I saw how many signs of grief there were for my lord’s death. . . . My father had spent the best years of his manhood in labouring hard, body and soul, for the people amongst whom he lived. . . . And yet when he died . . . the sounds of every-day life still went on, close pressing around us. (161)

“My Lady Ludlow” focuses on central Gaskellian themes: the nurturance of children, female bonds of friendship, the knowledge of character over time, and the democratizing influence of education and Christianity. In particular, it is concerned with honoring those who nurture others’ inherently good qualities with no regard to class origin. While Lady Ludlow’s generosity in taking in orphaned gentlewomen is admired, there are others in the story who raise up those who are marginalized by society. Mr. Horner, Lady Ludlow’s solicitor, takes on the poacher’s son, Harry Gregson, as his protégé and heir when Horner sees that the boy is bright and devoted. His mentorship is all the more significant because the countess is deeply opposed to teaching the lower classes to read, since she has witnessed what she thinks of as the results of educating the masses in the bloodletting of the French Revolution. Eventually, Lady Ludlow does see Harry’s promise, and she is instrumental in getting Mr. Horner’s inheritance to the boy, so that he can go on to university with “Mr. Horner’s money—or my lady’s money, or Harry Gregson’s money, call it which you will” (207). Mr. Gray, the intensely devout, consumptive young minister, encourages Harry’s father Job Gregson, the hapless poacher, who ultimately becomes Lady Ludlow’s gamekeeper. The idiosyncratic spinster Miss Galindo, who as a young girl was befriended by Lady Ludlow, many years later takes in Bessy, the orphaned illegitimate daughter of her girlhood lover.

The end of the story takes the measure of Lady Ludlow’s social and moral progress and of the reformist tendencies in English culture that have prevented the countess’s feared revolution. In a letter from Miss Galindo to Margaret Dawson, who has been away from Hanbury Court for a year, we learn that Lady Ludlow has a party to which she invites those she would not formerly have allowed within her doors as guests: Mrs. Brooke, the rich grocer’s wife, and the illegitimate Miss Bessy—whose name was unmentionable when she first arrived in Hanbury, but who is now engaged to Mr. Gray, the evangelical, reformist vicar. Mr. Gray himself is invited, despite his former dispute with Lady Ludlow over building a school for the poor, which the noblewoman now supports. At the party Lady Ludlow looks “like a splendid fairy queen of mature age, in black velvet, and the old lace, which I have never seen her wear before since my lord’s death” (208). Lady Ludlow graciously rescues Mrs. Brooke from a social faux pas: “What does my lady do? Ay! There’s my own dear Lady Ludlow, God bless her! She takes out her own pocket-handkerchief, all snowy cambric, and lays it softly down on her velvet lap, for all the world as ifshe did it every day of her life, just like Mrs. Brooke, the baker’s wife” (210).

Lady Ludlow’s kind gesture takes on a sacred resonance, as she saves Mrs. Brooke from ridicule. She is a “fairy queen” who experiences a resurrection into the true significance of Christian good works, and as she performs her social ritual with the “snowy cambric,” she quietly enacts a reformation of consciousness in her audience. Those who have mocked Mrs. Brooke’s social ineptness are silenced, while the purest Christian soul in the room, Mr. Gray, is “made so happy by this pretty action of my lady’s, that he talked away all the rest of the evening, and was the life of the company.”

The story closes with the sad news of the deaths of Lady Ludlow and Mr. Gray. But the reformist and Christian work they have accomplished in their different spheres is indicated by the final line of the narrative: “As I dare say you know, the Reverend Henry Gregson is now vicar of Hanbury, and his wife is the daughter of Mr. Gray and Miss Bessy.”

Gaskell, Elizabeth. My Lady Ludlow and Other Stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. Uglow, Jenny. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories. London: Faber, 1999. Wright, Terence. Elizabeth Gaskell: “We Are Not Angels:” Realism, Gender, Values. London: Macmillan, 1995.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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