Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell: 1832 miniature by William John Thomson
Born Elizabeth Stevenson
(1810-09-29)29 September 1810
Chelsea, London, England
Died 12 November 1865(1865-11-12) (aged 55)
Holybourne, Hampshire, England
Occupation Novelist
Nationality English
Period 1848–65
Spouse William Gaskell
Children Marianne
Margaret Emily (Meta)
Florence Elizabeth
Julia Bradford

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, (née Stevenson, 29 September 1810 – 12 November 1865), often referred to as Mrs Gaskell, was an English novelist and short story writer. Her novels offer a detailed portrait of the lives of many strata of Victorian society, including the very poor, and are of interest to social historians as well as lovers of literature. Her first novel, Mary Barton, was published in 1848. Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Brontë, published in 1857, was the first biography about Brontë. Some of Gaskell's best known novels are Cranford (1851–53), North and South (1854-55), and Wives and Daughters (1865).

Early life

Gaskell was born Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson on 29 September 1810 at 93 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. She was the youngest of eight children; only she and her brother John survived infancy. Her father, William Stevenson, was a Scottish Unitarian minister at Failsworth, Lancashire, but resigned his orders on conscientious grounds and moved to London in 1806 with the intention of going to India after he was appointed private secretary to the Earl of Lauderdale, who was to become Governor General of India. That position did not materialise, however, and instead Stevenson was nominated Keeper of the Treasury Records. His wife, Elizabeth Holland, came from a family from the English Midlands that was connected with other prominent Unitarian families, including the Wedgwoods, the Martineaus, the Turners and the Darwins. When she died 13 months after giving birth to her youngest daughter,[1] she left a bewildered husband who saw no alternative for Elizabeth but to be sent to live with her mother's sister, Hannah Lumb, in Knutsford, Cheshire.[2]

While she was growing up Elizabeth's future was uncertain, as she had no personal wealth and no firm home, though she was a permanent guest at her aunt and grandparents' house. Her father married Catherine Thomson in 1814 and they had a son, William (born 1815), and a daughter, Catherine (born 1816). Although Elizabeth spent several years without seeing her father and his new family, her older brother John often visited her in Knutsford. John was destined for the Royal Navy from an early age, like his grandfathers and uncles, but he had no entry and had to join the Merchant Navy with the East India Company's fleet.[3] John went missing in 1827 during an expedition to India.

Much of Elizabeth's childhood was spent in Cheshire, where she lived with her aunt Hannah Lumb in Knutsford, a town she immortalised as Cranford. They lived in a large red-brick house called Heathwaite, on Heathside (now Gaskell Avenue), which faces the large open area of Knutsford Heath. From 1821 to 1826 she attended a school run by the Miss Byerlys at Barford House, and after that Avonbank in Stratford-on-Avon[1] where she received the traditional education in arts, the classics, decorum and propriety given to young ladies at the time. Her aunts gave her the classics to read, and she was encouraged by her father in her studies and writing. Her brother John sent her modern books, and descriptions of his life at sea and his experiences abroad.[4]

After leaving school at the age of 16, Elizabeth travelled to London to spend time with her Holland cousins.[4] She also spent some time in Newcastle upon Tyne (with the Rev William Turner's family) and in Edinburgh. Her stepmother's brother was the miniature artist, William John Thomson, who in 1832 painted a portrait of Elizabeth Gaskell in Manchester. A bust was sculpted by David Dunbar at the same time.[4]

Married life and writing career

Elizabeth Gaskell: 1851 portrait by George Richmond

On 30 August 1832 Elizabeth married a Unitarian minister, William Gaskell, in Knutsford. They spent their honeymoon in North Wales, staying with Elizabeth's uncle, Samuel Holland, near Porthmadog. The Gaskells then settled in Manchester, where William was the minister at Cross Street Unitarian Chapel. Manchester's industrial surroundings influenced Elizabeth's writing in the industrial genre. Their first child, a daughter, was stillborn in 1833. A son, William, (1844–45), died in infancy, and this tragedy was the catalyst for Gaskell's first novel, Mary Barton. Their other children were Marianne (1834), Margaret Emily, known as Meta (1837), Florence Elizabeth (1842), and Julia Bradford (1846). Florence married Charles Crompton, a barrister and Liberal politician, in 1863.[1]

In March 1835 Gaskell began a diary, documenting the development of her daughter Marianne, her views of herself and William as parents, the value she gave to her role as a mother, her religious faith, and, later, the relationship between Marianne and her sister, Meta. In 1836 she co-authored with her husband a cycle of poems, Sketches among the Poor, which was published in Blackwood's Magazine in January 1837. In 1840 William Howitt published Visits to Remarkable Places containing a contribution entitled Clopton Hall by "A Lady", the first work written and published solely by Gaskell. In April 1840 Howitt published The Rural Life of England, which included her second work, Notes on Cheshire Customs.[1]

In July 1841 the Gaskells travelled to Belgium and Germany, and German literature came to have a strong influence on her short stories. In 1847 she published her first work of fiction, Libbie Marsh's Three Eras, in Howitt's Journal, using the pseudonym "Cotton Mather Mills". Her next work, The Sexton's Hero, was published under the same pseudonym. She made her last use of the pseudonym in 1848, with the publication of her story Christmas Storms and Sunshine. Her first novel, Mary Barton, was published in October 1848.[1]

In 1850 the Gaskells moved to a villa at 84 Plymouth Grove,[5] where Elizabeth wrote her remaining literary works, while her husband held welfare committees and tutored the poor in his study. The Gaskells' social circle included writers, religious dissenters and social reformers such as William and Mary Howitt. Charles Dickens and John Ruskin visited Plymouth Grove, as did the American writers Harriet Beecher Stowe and Charles Eliot Norton, while the conductor Charles Hallé, who lived close by, taught piano to one of their daughters. Her close friend Charlotte Brontë stayed there three times, and on one occasion hid behind the drawing room curtains as she was too shy to meet the Gaskells' other visitors.[6]

Gaskell House, Plymouth Grove, Manchester

In early 1850 Gaskell wrote to Charles Dickens asking for advice about assisting a girl named Pasley whom she had visited in prison. Pasley provided her with a model for the title character of Ruth in 1853. Lizzie Leigh was published in March and April 1850, in the first numbers of Dickens's journal Household Words, in which many of her works were to be published, including Cranford and North and South, her novella My Lady Ludlow, and short stories.

In June 1855 Patrick Brontë asked Gaskell to write a biography of his daughter Charlotte, and The Life of Charlotte Brontë was published in 1857. This played a significant role in developing Gaskell's own literary career.[1] In the biography, Gaskell chose to focus more on Bronte as a woman than as a writer of Romantic fiction.[7]

In 1859 Gaskell travelled to Whitby to gather material for Sylvia's Lovers, which was published in 1863. Her novella Cousin Phyllis was serialised in The Cornhill Magazine from November 1863 to February 1864. The serialisation of her last novel, Wives and Daughters, began in August 1864 in The Cornhill.[1] She died of a heart attack in 1865, while visiting a house she had purchased in Holybourne, Hampshire. Wives and Daughters was published in book form in early 1866, first in the United States and then, ten days later, in Britain.[1]

The house on Plymouth Grove remained in the Gaskell family until 1913, after which it stood empty and fell into disrepair. The University of Manchester acquired it in 1969 and in 2004 it was acquired by the Manchester Historic Buildings Trust, which then raised money to restore it. Exterior renovations were completed in 2011 and the house is now open to the public.[8][9]

On 25 September 2010 a memorial to Elizabeth Gaskell was dedicated in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. It takes the form of a panel in the Hubbard memorial window, above the tomb of Geoffrey Chaucer. The panel was dedicated by her great-great-great-granddaughter Sarah Prince and a wreath was laid.[10]

Literary style and themes

A scene from Cranford

Gaskell's first novel, Mary Barton, was published anonymously in 1848. The best-known of her remaining novels are Cranford (1853), North and South (1854), and Wives and Daughters (1865). She became popular for her writing, especially her ghost stories, aided by Charles Dickens, who published her work in his magazine Household Words. Her ghost stories are in the "Gothic" vein, making them quite distinct from her "industrial" fiction.

Even though her writing conforms to Victorian conventions, including the use of the name "Mrs Gaskell", she usually framed her stories as critiques of contemporary attitudes. Her early works focused on factory work in the Midlands. She usually emphasised the role of women, with complex narratives and realistic female characters.[11] Gaskell said she was influenced by the writings of Jane Austen.[12] Her treatment of class continues to interest social historians as well as fiction lovers.[13]


Unitarianism urges comprehension and tolerance toward all religions and even though Gaskell tried to keep her own beliefs hidden, she felt strongly about these values which permeated her works; in North and South, "Margaret the Churchwoman, her father the Dissenter, Higgins the Infidel, knelt down together. It did them no harm."[14][15]

Dialect usage

Gaskell's style is notable for putting local dialect words into the mouths of middle-class characters and the narrator. In North and South Margaret Hale suggests redding up (tidying) the Bouchers' house and even offers jokingly to teach her mother words such as knobstick (strike-breaker).[16] In 1854 she defended her use of dialect to express otherwise inexpressible concepts in a letter to Walter Savage Landor:

... you will remember the country people's use of the word "unked". I can't find any other word to express the exact feeling of strange unusual desolate discomfort, and I sometimes "potter" and "mither" people by using it.[16][17]

She also used the dialect word "nesh" (soft), which goes back to Old English, in Mary Barton:

Sit you down here: the grass is well nigh dry by this time; and you're neither of you nesh folk about taking cold.[18]

and later in 'The Manchester Marriage' [1858]:

Now, I'm not above being nesh for other folks myself. I can stand a good blow, and never change colour; but, set me in the operating-room in the Infirmary, and I turn as sick as a girl.
At Mrs Wilson's death Norah came back to them, as nurse to the newly-born little Edwin; into which post she was not installed without a pretty strong oration on the part of the proud and happy father; who declared that if he found out that Norah ever tried to screen the boy by a falsehood, or to make him nesh either in body or mind, she should go that very day.[19]


Elizabeth Gaskell, c. 1860


Novellas and collections

Short stories


See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Weyant, Nancy S. (2007). The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Gaskell; Chronology. Cambridge University Press. pp. xi–xx. ISBN 0-521-60926-7.
  2. Pollard, Arthur (1965). Mrs. Gaskell: Novelist and Biographer. Manchester University Press. p. 12. ISBN 0-674-57750-7.
  3. Gérin, Winifred (1976). Elizabeth Gaskell. Oxford University Press. pp. 10–17. ISBN 0-19-281296-3.
  4. 1 2 3 Michell, Sheila (1985). Introduction to The Manchester Marriage. UK: Alan Sutton. pp. iv–viii. ISBN 0-86299-247-8.
  5. Uglow J. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories (Faber and Faber; 1993) (ISBN 0-571-20359-0)
  6. Nurden, Robert (26 March 2006), "An ending Dickens would have liked", The Independent, London.
  7. Stone, Donald D. The Romantic Impulse in Victorian Fiction. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980, p. 141.
  8. elizabethgaskellhouse.org
  9. "Elizabeth Gaskell's house damaged after lead theft". BBC News. 11 May 2011.
  10. "Elizabeth Gaskell" at westminster-abbey.org
  11. Excluding Reference to Gaskell's Ghost Stories, Abrams, M. H., et al. (Eds.) "Elizabeth Gaskell, 1810–1865". The Norton Anthology of English Literature, The Major Authors: The Romantic Period through the Twentieth Century, 7th ed., Vol. B. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. ISBN 0-393-97304-2. DDC 820.8—dc21. LC PR1109.N6.
  12. Teacher, Janet Bukovinsky (1994). Women of Words. Frankfort, Germany: Courage Books. p. 24. ISBN 9781561387694.
  13. "Children in Early Victorian England: Infant Feeding in Literature and Society 1837–1857." Tropical Pediatrics and Environmental Child Health August 1978
  14. Gaskell, Elizabeth (1854–55). North and South. Penguin Popular Classics. p. 277. ISBN 978-0-14-062019-1.
  15. Easson, Angus (1979). Elizabeth Gaskell. Routledge & Kegan Paul. pp. 12–17. ISBN 0-7100-0099-5.
  16. 1 2 Ingham P. (1995) Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of North and South
  17. Chapple JAV, Pollard A, eds. The Letters of Mrs Gaskell. Mandolin (Manchester University Press), 1997
  18. Gaskell, E (1848), "1", Mary Barton.
  19. Stories of Successful Marriages, Victorian Short Stories, The Project Gutenberg.
  20. A chapter of A House to Let, co-written with Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Adelaide Anne Procter
  21. Co-written with Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Adelaide Proctor, George Sala and Hesba Stretton.
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