Round the Sofa, a two-volume collection of stories, short novels, and essays by Elizabeth Gaskell, was made up of earlier works published previously in magazines, notably Charles Dickens’s Household Words and, in America, in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. The disparate stories are held together by a framing device of a narrator who claims to be writing down other people’s stories. The storytelling begins when Miss Greatorix visits her friend Mrs. Dawson and asks to tell the first story, the novella “My Lady Ludlow.” When she has finished, Mr. Dawson then offers to tell another story, “An Accursed Race,” which he has prepared for his local philosophical society. Miss Greatorix politely agrees and finds that “I found it, on the whole, more interesting than I anticipated” (II, 2). He is followed by Miss Duncan, a governess who, “in a high-pitched, ill-assured voice,” reads “The Doom of the Griffiths.” Like many of the stories in the collection, this is about the history of a family, in this case about the extinction of an ancient line. In “The Poor Clare” a woman mistakenly curses her granddaughter.
The most striking of these family stories is “The Halfbrothers,” which focuses on a Cumberland farmer, William Preston, and the familial divisiveness he brings about by favoring his own son over his despised stepson, Gregory. Gaskell underpins the narrative with a succinct and unsentimental exposition of the social and economic pressures on women during the 19th century, of which the two boys’ mother’s second marriage, which she undertakes out of dutiful necessity, is the direct and inevitable result.
Through the first-person narration of the younger half brother, Gaskell creates complex temporal and emotional links between past causes and present effects that have their mimesis in the setting and the language. While the bleak and pitiless northern landscape is deployed to reflect Preston’s hardness of heart, that same environment nevertheless nurtures Gregory as a simple but loving shepherd, trained by “old Adam” and accompanied by faithful Lassie. Gregory embodies the Christlike qualities of humility and self-sacrifice— the “good parts” that he has inherited from his mother—through which he is able to rescue his seemingly privileged brother from a “desolate, helpless death” and redeem Preston from his role as “wicked step-parent.” Preston’s burial at the foot of the grave shared by Helen and Gregory may be interpreted as evidence of the humility he has finally achieved in accepting the dominion of spiritual over passionate love.
Elizabeth Gaskell. Round the Sofa. London: Sampson Low, 1859.
Watson, J. R. “Round the Sofa: Elizabeth Gaskell Tells Stories.” Yearbook of English Studies 26 (1996): 89–95.