Many of the authors I’m reading in my advent calendar of short stories are largely unknown to me, but that cannot be said of Elizabeth Gaskell as I’ve read three of her five her novels, (Mary Barton, North and South and Sylvia’s Lovers). Half a Life-time Ago was published in 1855, around the same time as her most famous novel North and South. The story’s title refers to the gap between its telling and its taking place, but also the period it will cover in its central character, Susan Dixon’s, life:
“Yes; the time had been when that tall, gaunt, hard-featured, angular woman – who never smiled and hardly ever spoke an unnecessary word – had been a fine-looking girl, bright-spirited and rosy.”
How does one become the other, the story asks, as we meet Susan at eighteen at the centre of a happy family: her father, mother and her younger brother, William. The only disharmony is created by the tension between William, who is presented as rather weak and sensitive, and Michael, a young man from a neighbouring family who has been sent to work on the farm for a year and fallen for Susan. When Susan’s mother is dying of a “neglected cold” (it is Victorian literature, after all – we were lucky to make it to page eight without fatality) she makes Susan promise to look after William:
“He vexes Michael at times, and Michael has struck him before now. I did not want to make a stir; but he’s not strong, and a word from thee Susan, will go a long way with Michael.”
Susan is further inconvenienced by illness when, now engaged to Michael, her father is killed, she is put into a coma, and her brother’s weakness is turned to idiocy by fever. When Susan recovers it seems even more urgent she should marry but Michael’s antipathy to William has increased. Will she have to choose between them?
In its central concern – the tension between Susan’s roles as lover and as carer – the story remains relevant. Gaskell convinces us that Susan loves both William and Michael, and though Michael is not perfect, neither is he the cartoon cad that we sometimes see at this time. It is, however, rather weakened (much like William, to idiocy) by its conclusion. The rather melodramatic final scene between Susan and Michael might be forgiven, but the series of implausibilities which follow cannot. (In retrospect the ending of The Sandman seems restrained) This is an enjoyable slice of Victorian social drama – but leave the final two pages alone.