Nationality: English. Born: Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson in Chelsea, London, 29 September 1810. Brought up in Knutsford, Cheshire, by her aunt. Education: Byerley sisters' school, Barford, later Stratford on Avon, 1822-27. Family: Married the Unitarian minister William Gaskell in 1832, four daughters and one son. Career: Lived in Manchester from 1832; contributor, Dickens's Household Words, 1850-58; met and became a friend of Charlotte Brontë, whom she visited on numerous occasions at Haworth, 1850-53; organized sewing-rooms during the cotton famine, 1862-63; contributor, Cornhill Magazine, 1860-65. Died: 12 November 1865.
Works (Knutsford Edition), edited by A.W. Ward. 8 vols., 1906-11.
Novels and Tales, edited by C.K. Shorter. 11 vols., 1906-19.
Tales of Mystery and Horror, edited by Michael Ashley. 1978.
Lizzie Leigh and Other Tales. 1855.
Round the Sofa. 1859; as My Lady Ludlow and Other Tales, 1861; edited by Edgar Wright, 1989.
Right at Last and Other Tales. 1860.
Lois the Witch and Other Tales. 1861.
Cousin Phillis (novella). 1864.
Cousin Phillis and Other Tales. 1865; edited by Angus Easson, 1981.
The Grey Woman and Other Tales. 1865.
Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life. 1848; edited by EdgarWright, 1987.
The Moorland Cottage. 1850; as The Moorland Cottage and Other Stories, edited by Suzanne Lewis, 1995.
Ruth. 1853; edited by Alan Shelston, 1985.
Cranford. 1853; edited by Elizabeth Porges Watson, 1972.
North and South. 1855; edited by Angus Easson, 1973.
A Dark Night's Work. 1863.
Sylvia's Lovers. 1863; edited by Arthur Pollard, 1964; edited by Shirley Foster, 1996.
Wives and Daughters. 1866; edited by Angus Easson, 1987.
The Life of Charlotte Brontë. 2 vols., 1857; revised edition, 1857; edited by Alan Shelston, 1975; edited by Angus Easson, 1996.
My Diary: The Early Years of My Daughter Marianne. 1923.
Letters, edited by J.A.V. Chapple and Arthur Pollard. 1966.
Editor, Mabel Vaughan, by Maria S. Cummins. 1857.*
By Clark S. Northrup in Gaskell by Gerald DeWitt Sanders, 1929; Gaskell: An Annotated Bibliography 1929-1975 by Jeffrey Welch, 1977; Gaskell: A Reference Guide by R. L. Selig, 1977; Elizabeth Gaskell: An Annotated Bibliography of English-Language Sources, 1976-1991 by Nancy S. Weyant, 1994.
Gaskell: Her Life and Work by Annette B. Hopkins, 1952; Gaskell, Novelist and Biographer by Arthur Pollard, 1965; Gaskell: The Basis for Reassessment by Edgar Wright, 1965; Gaskell, The Artist in Conflict by Margaret L. Ganz, 1969; Gaskell's Observation and Invention by John G. Sharps, 1970; Gaskell by John McVeagh, 1970; Gaskell and the English Provincial Novel by Wendy A. Craik, 1975; Gaskell: The Novel of Social Crisis, 1975, and Gaskell, 1984, both by Coral Lansbury; Gaskell: A Biography by Winifred Gérin, 1976; Gaskell by Angus Easson, 1979; Gaskell: A Portrait in Letters by J.A.V. Chapple and John G. Sharps, 1980; The Themes of Gaskell by Enid L. Duthie, 1980; Gaskell's Mary Barton and Ruth: A Challenge to Christian England by Monica Fryckstedt, 1982; Gaskell by Tessa Brodetsky, 1986; Gaskell by Patsy Stoneman, 1987; Elizabeth Gaskell by Jane Spencer, 1993; Elizabeth Gaskell, "We Are Not Angels": Realism, Gender, Values by T. R. Wright, 1995.* * *
Elizabeth Gaskell is the Victorian novelist par excellence, establishing her characters against a background drawn with care and attention to detail, and relating the events in her novels with the same detailed care. Yet there is much to reward the reader in her short fiction. It should be said that she betrays some unease, an absence of a sure touch in setting the framework of her tales, especially in the longer ones ("Mr. Harrison's Confessions," "My Lady Ludlow," and Cousin Phillis). "Mr. Harrison's Confessions" can be seen as simply a dry run for Cranford (the first installment of which appeared later in the same year, 1851). While it lacks the subtlety of loving characterization of the Cranford ladies with their elegant economics, it has the advantage of a clearly defined chronological structure, from the arrival of the young physician at Duncombe to his marriage and full acceptance into the local society.
"My Lady Ludlow" is an affectionate portrait of an autocratic, self-willed yet essentially noble (in both senses) old lady, written in a straightforward chronological form. It is marred, however, by the clumsy insertion of the tragic story of the Marquise de Créquy and her son, guillotined during the French Revolution. The purpose is plain enough: to explain Lady Ludlow's fierce aversion to education for the lower classes by showing the disastrous effects of educating the mind but not the heart. Yet the argument is so palpably spurious and the de Créquy story so intrusive that "My Lady Ludlow" fails as a construction of plot around characters. It is redeemed by Gaskell's skillful portrayal of Lady Ludlow and especially of the excellent Miss Galindo (the very excellence of whose portrayal threatens the balance of the tale further). Even in this idyllic tale we may observe the author's sympathy with, and knowledge of, the appalling conditions of the rural poor. Later Gaskell attempted to incorporate "My Lady Ludlow" along with several other pieces in a volume entitled Round the Sofa, but the attempt, clumsily done, was unsuccessful, and later editions abandon the unsatisfactory linking narrative.
Cousin Phillis is the most successful of these three novellas. The story flows naturally: the idyll of the Holmans' farm is destroyed by the dashing Mr. Holdsworth who breaks Phillis's heart. Yet the abruptness of the ending, all the more grating in contrast to the leisurely, exquisite descriptions of the farm and its inhabitants, is clumsy, as if the author, suddenly aware of the restrictions on the length of a short story, despaired of rounding it off satisfactorily. It comes as no surprise to the reader to learn of a letter from Gaskell to her publisher in which she puts forward a much longer alternative ending to the tale.
In contrast to these three longer stories, Gaskell's other short stories, relying less on characterization and more on conventional plot development, are more satisfactory samples of the writer's craft even if they lack some of the qualities of her longer pieces—the subtlety of characterization, the detailed observation.
In her most successful stories she returns to the North Country background of her novels Mary Barton and North and South: Rochdale and Manchester in "Lizzie Leigh," Westmoreland in "Half a Life-Time Ago" and "The Old Nurse's Tale," Yorkshire in "The Crooked Branch," Cumberland in "The Half-Brothers." The life of the small North Country farmer was hard, and she describes it compassionately. Even in these shorter stories her eye for vivid detail is remarkable, as evidenced, for example, by the identification of Lizzie Leigh's illegitimate baby that her mother is able to make because the baby's little frocks were "made out of its mother's gowns, for they were large patterns to buy for a baby."
A significant aspect of Gaskell's short fiction is the quality of her heroines, who are capable of truly heroic actions of self-denial and self-sacrifice. They are strong, loving, and patient, women of unflinching moral courage and rectitude: Mrs. Leigh searches for her lost daughter once her dying husband has sanctioned her search, Susan Dixon in "Half a Life-Time Ago" sacrifices her happiness to look after her weak-minded brother, Bessy in "The Crooked Branch" serves and shields her old uncle and aunt.
There is a moral undercurrent even in Gaskell's ghost stories and Gothic fiction. Bridget Fitzgerald's curse in "The Poor Clare" can only be lifted when there is a true change in her heart. In "The Doom of the Griffiths," described by Gaskell herself as "rubbishy," the old curse is fulfilled through the pride and bitterness of the Griffiths. In "Lois the Witch" the harsh faith of the New England Puritans is roundly condemned while the gentle forgiving spirit of true Christianity is upheld.
Though the reader may find these genre stories interesting, the stories they will remember, and to which they will surely return with pleasure, are those that reveal the talents, sympathies, and powers of observation found in her novels.
See the essay on "The Old Nurse's Story."