Material evidence
: the significance of fabrics in the writings of Elizabeth Gaskell

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Within Elizabeth Gaskell’s writings there is a profusion of references to a cultural materiality that encompasses cloths and different types of fabric, stuffs, calicoes, chintzes and fine-point lace. Such fabrics, I argue are not merely the motifs of the Realist genre. Instead, Gaskell’s nuanced allusions of textile fabrics reveal a complex polysemy. A metonymic scrutiny of the tropes exposes the dramatic structural and socio-economic upheaval that was generated by industrialization, the urbanization diaspora and the widening sphere of imperial possession. With unprecedented population mobility and the evolution of Manchester as the first industrial city, the Cottonpolis that clothed the world in the mid-nineteenth century, not only does the material evidence testify to the technological and production innovations evolving diachronically for the period, but they also signify the means by which Gaskell responds to the sense of a larger epistemological crisis permeating society as contemporaries feared there had been a seismic rupture from the past. Gaskell’s manipulation of the materiality is very firmly rooted in the quotidian of women’s domestic and provincial life within the growing ranks of the middle classes. Small textile allusions, such as Hoyle’s purple print, reflect the vicissitudes of regional women’s lives, and particularly articulate the construction of status and female identity within the confines of the evolving domestic ideology. Small embellishments and dress modifications can depict social discernment, an interiority of display, pleasure and sexual awakening. They reveal a cultural sensibility and a layered ‘structure of feeling’, in Raymond William’s words. Indeed, Gaskell’s utilization of fabrics motifs reflects a haptic imagination, formed by the immanent skills bourgeois women possessed in their fabric and sewing experiences. I also assert that the tactility of fabric in its intimate relationship with the body from cradle to grave has affective agency; its ability to stimulate the senses and provoke an emotional response that stirs the feelings and is a catalyst to the revival of memory. Chapter one examines that most historic fabric wool, whereby technological developments and fabled élite fabrics from the periphery of empire coalesce into a quintessential English identity by the 1850s. Chapter two explores the cotton textile revolution and how affordable, colourful calico prints facilitated a democratisation of fashion. The fabrics of mourning and memory are the focus in chapter three, particularly examining the increasing commodification of funeral practices, and the gendered burden of mourning. Chapter four investigates the intriguing fabric, lace. Eighteenth century lace ruffles, and machine net curtains in the 1850s industrial heartland, trace the dissemination of an élite fabric into the domestic space. The final two chapters focus upon the iridescent materiality of silk, that becomes a pertinent metaphor for Gaskell’s narrative prose in her final novel. Chapter five traces women’s silk attire from such populux accessories, as handkerchiefs and ribbons in Sylvia’s Lovers to bolts of figured silk and satins in Cranford and Wives and Daughters, as silk becomes the fabric of social distinction. Chapter six places Wives and Daughters in the cosmopolitan context of Paris, and the influence of the French novel. Gaskell’s textile aesthetic is as pertinent for literary research and scrutiny as Honorè de Balzac’s development of a material cultural form in his opus, La Comedie humaine.
Date of Award1 Dec 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorClare Pettitt (Supervisor) & Janet Floyd (Supervisor)

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