Elizabeth Gaskell

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Elizabeth Gaskell

The English author Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) wrote sociological novels that explored the ills of industrial England and novels of small-town life that are penetrating studies of character.

Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson was born on Sept. 29, 1810. Her mother died shortly thereafter, and she was sent to live with an aunt in Knutsford, a village in Cheshire. At the age of 15 she went to school at Stratford-on-Avon, where she remained for 2 years. She married the Reverend William Gaskell on Aug. 30, 1832.

The couple settled in industrial Manchester. There Elizabeth observed the extreme hardship of the workers and their struggles with the owners for a greater share in the profits of the mills. Her observations provided much of the background for Mary Barton (1848), her first novel. It was begun in 1845 to relieve her grief at the death of William, her fifth child and only son, and completed during intervals in a busy family life. It centers on a sensational murder but was written with the serious purpose of pointing out what John Barton, Mary's father, called the "right way" to remedy the ills of the workers. This is essentially a change of heart in worker and owner alike. The novel was both praised and damned, but it was an immediate success.

Because of Mary Barton Gaskell was asked to contribute stories to Charles Dickens's magazine Household Words. "Lizzie Leigh," which dealt with illicit love and illegitimacy, appeared in the first issue. Its themes were developed in Ruth (1853), in which Gaskell again called for a change of heart in the public.

Then Gaskell turned from the sociological novel to the novel of village life. Sketches which had appeared in Household Words were published as Cranford (1853). Drawn from the people and scenes known during her childhood in Knutsford, Cranford was far less sensational than her earlier books but no less interesting. The humorously depicted incidents and sharply observed characters capture the attention today as in the 19th century.

In North and South (1855) Gaskell returned to the sociological novel. Then, because of her friendship with Charlotte Brontë, Gaskell wrote The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857). She was quite unlike the intensely introspective Charlotte but extremely sympathetic to her. Though the book did not tell the whole truth about Brontë's life, it was a remarkably revealing biography.

After the biography came Sylvia's Lovers (1863), a historical novel, and Wives and Daughters (1866), a novel of life in a quiet country town. Unfinished at her death, Wives and Daughters is Gaskell's most mature treatment of character. She died on Nov. 12, 1865.

Further Reading

The major biographical study of Mrs. Gaskell is Annette B. Hopkins, Elizabeth Gaskell: Her Life and Works (1952). Additional information appears in The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell (1966), edited by Arthur Pollard and J. A. V. Chapple. Sound criticism and a biographical sketch are in Pollard's Mrs. Gaskell, Novelist and Biographer (1966).

Additional Sources

Bonaparte, Felicia, The gypsy-bachelor of Manchester: the life of Mrs. Gaskell's demon, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992.

Brodetsky, Tessa, Elizabeth Gaskell, Leamington, Spa: Berg, 1986.

Gerin, Winifred, Elizabeth Gaskell: a biography, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.

Payne, George Andrew, Mrs. Gaskell: a brief biography, Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1976.

Uglow, Jennifer S., Elizabeth Gaskell: a habit of stories, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1993.

Whitfield, Archie Stanton, Mrs. Gaskell, her life and work, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978. □

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Elizabeth Gaskell