Gaskell, Elizabeth (1810–1865)

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Gaskell, Elizabeth (1810–1865)

Popular and critically acclaimed English writer of the Victorian period who wrote six novels, the authorized biography of Charlotte Brontë, several nouvelles, some 30 short stories, and numerous sketches. Name variations: Mrs. Gaskell; Lily; Cotton Mather Mills (early pseudonym). Pronunciation: GAS-kull. Born Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson on September 29, 1810, at Chelsea, London, England; died on November 16, 1865, at Alton in Hampshire; daughter of William Stevenson (a Unitarian minister, farmer, writer, teacher, keeper of the records of the Treasury) and Elizabeth (Holland) Stevenson; attended school at Barford and Stratford-upon-Avon; married William Gaskell (a Unitarian minister), in 1832; children: daughter (stillborn, 1833); Marianne Gaskell (b. 1834); Margaret Emily Gaskell (b. 1837); Florence Elizabeth Gaskell (b. 1842); William (1844–1845); Julia Bradford Gaskell (b. 1846).

Spent her childhood among deceased mother's family in Knutsford, Cheshire; spent five years at boarding school in her teens, then visited family and friends in London, Newcastle, Edinburgh, and Manchester until marrying at age 22 and settling permanently in Manchester; worked with her husband on philanthropic and educational projects among Manchester's working class in the early years of marriage, during which she gave birth to six children; began writing for publication (1845) after the death of her son; published Mary Barton, her first novel (1848); met Charlotte Brontë, subject of her biography (1850); was a popular and successful writer (1850s–60s) while maintaining a strong family life, cultivating extensive social and professional relationships, enjoying foreign travel, and continuing her philanthropic activities among the poor; died at a new country retreat she had purchased for her and her husband's retirement (1865).

Selected writings:

(novel) Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (1848); (novel) Cranford (1853); (novel) Ruth (1853); (novel) North and South (1855); (biography) The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857); (novel) Sylvia's Lovers (1863); (nouvelle) Cousin Phillis: A Tale (1864); (novel) Wives and Daughters: An Every-day Story (serialized in the Cornhill Magazine, 1864–66).

Family relationships are at the center of Elizabeth Gaskell's writing; their permutations—for better or worse—shape the comedy, tragedy, pathos, and romance of her novels and stories, just as they inform the sympathetic reading she gives her subject in her distinguished biography of Charlotte Brontë . Gaskell's preoccupation with the intricate and delicate nature of family ties—or the lack of them—can be traced to her own childhood.

Her father William Stevenson, from a naval family, became a Unitarian preacher. He left the ministry shortly before his marriage because he developed scruples about receiving payment for preaching the word of God. Her mother Elizabeth Holland Stevenson , whose family had its roots in rural Cheshire, was also Unitarian, a sect regarded at the time as the most unorthodox, and in some quarters, the most radical and dangerous of dissenting religious groups. The sense of community among Unitarians whenever and wherever they met, and the value they placed on education, tolerance, rationality, and humanitarianism, would have a lasting influence on Elizabeth's life.

After abandoning the ministry, William Stevenson was by turns a teacher, farmer, editor, and writer until he gained an appointment as keeper of the records of the Treasury, a post that finally guaranteed him the income to support a family. While he was finding his bearings, his wife gave birth to eight children, of whom only the first-born, John, and the last, Elizabeth, survived. Elizabeth Holland Stevenson died 13 months after her daughter's birth.

After the death of her mother, Elizabeth was sent, in what seemed at the time the best arrangement for the year-old child, to live with her maternal aunt, Hannah Holland Lumb , whom she later described as her "more than mother," in the small country town of Knutsford in Cheshire. Although her father married again when she was four, Elizabeth was not invited to return to his home in London, and she described her infrequent visits with her father, stepmother, and their two children as "very, very unhappy." Among her mother's relatives, however, she enjoyed a childhood in which the love of an extended family—Aunt Lumb and her daughter, her uncle Peter Holland, aunts, cousins, and maternal grandparents who lived not far from town—nourished a warm and impressionable nature. From the 12 years she spent in Knutsford, Gaskell gained a deep and lasting love of nature that finds expression even in those works of hers dealing almost entirely with urban themes and settings.

While it does not seem that her father, occupied by his second family, visited her in Knutsford, her brother John, 12 years her senior, did. Following the naval tradition of his father's family, John hoped for a career in the Royal Navy but, gaining no entree there, joined the Merchant Navy with the East India Company's fleet. Through letters and his visits, the brother and sister developed strong bonds of affection, and John was the first to encourage Elizabeth's gift for writing. He asked her to keep a journal so that she would have plenty to report to him in her letters. This warm and intimate relationship ended tragically when he was lost on a voyage to India around 1828. Elizabeth felt this loss deeply; she later transformed it imaginatively in several of her works that involve the return of a character who has been lost and presumed dead.

In 1822, Gaskell was sent to the Miss Byerleys' school, located at Barford and later at Stratford-upon-Avon, a boarding school where she received a good education for a woman of her day, in keeping with the liberal Unitarian tradition that offered women educational opportunities comparable in quality to those given men. At a time when most boarding schools prepared middle-class young women for marriage by emphasizing domestic and ornamental arts, Miss Byerleys' Avonbank School encouraged the development of Elizabeth's intellectual abilities and imagination with its emphasis on modern subjects: literature, history, and modern languages. She left school in 1827, shortly before her 17th birthday, and went with her Holland relatives for a six-week holiday in Wales, where the romantic wildness and grandeur of the Welsh mountains and sea provided a complementary dimension to the love of nature she had developed in the quiet and gently rolling rural landscapes of Knutsford and Stratford. Gaskell went to London at the end of 1828 or early 1829 to comfort her father when she learned of her brother's loss and was with him when he suffered a stroke and died in March 1829. Now motherless, fatherless, brotherless, she felt her lack of immediate family keenly, even though she knew she would always have a home at Knutsford. To her father's second family, she felt no strong connections; she did not see her stepmother and stepsister again for 25 years.

Elizabeth spent the winter of 1829–30 in Newcastle with Anne Turner and her father Reverend William Turner, a widowed Unitarian minister and schoolmaster related by his first marriage to Elizabeth's mother. In 1831, with Anne, Elizabeth visited Edinburgh and Manchester, where Anne's sister lived with her husband, the Unitarian minister of the Cross Street chapel, to whom William Gaskell was assistant minister. The dedicated and scholarly Mr. Gaskell, the city of Manchester, and the Unitarian tradition would shape the next 33 years of maturity for the motherless child of Knutsford and the bereaved young woman of London by giving her the three things that meant most to her: a family of her own, a sense of useful work in service to others, and a vocation as a writer.

When she married William Gaskell in 1832, Elizabeth Stevenson committed herself to the religious and philanthropic principles of the Unitarian community of family and friends she had known all her life. But these principles were to find their practice in Manchester of the 1830s, a prototypical north of England city created by the Industrial Revolution. In 1832, Manchester was a city with an economy based on cotton mills and calico-printers' works. Attracted by the work and wages offered by the rapidly growing cotton industry, the population had grown in 40 years from approximately 40,000 to over a quarter of a million. The cotton workers were housed in the center of the city in cheap, quickly constructed, back-to-back terrace houses and courts, which, because of lack of planning, overcrowding, and unsanitary conditions, rapidly degenerated into the worst urban slums in England. Although like most of the middle-class inhabitants of Manchester, the Gaskells lived on the edge of the city in a relatively rural setting, the social work they engaged in through the Cross Street Chapel brought both—unlike others of their class who never crossed the smoke barrier that separated the factories, warehouses, and working-class districts from their homes—into close contact with the conditions of physical, spiritual, and moral decay that were by-products of the "progress" of the Industrial Revolution. In her fourth novel, North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell describes from the perspective of her heroine Margaret Hale what may very well have been her own first impression of Manchester:

They saw a deep lead-coloured cloud hanging over the horizon in the direction in which [the city] lay. It was all the darker from the contrast with the pale grey-blue of the wintry sky…. Nearer to the town, the air had a faint taste and smell of smoke…. Quickly they were hurled over long, straight, hopeless streets of regularly-built houses, all small and of brick. Here and there a great oblong many-windowed factory stood up, like a hen among her chickens, puffing out black "unparliamentary" smoke, and sufficiently accounting for the cloud.

Into this paradoxical city of new wealth and poverty, the promise of progress and the evidence of deterioration, Elizabeth brought the sympathy that had been nourished by her Knutsford years and the conscience and egalitarianism instilled by the Unitarian values with which she grew up. In the early years of her marriage, she joined her husband in his work with Sunday schools and evening classes. In a letter written in 1836 she reports completing "compositions" on Wordsworth, Byron, Crabbe, Dryden, and Pope for a series of lectures William delivered at the evening school of the Mechanics' Institute for Working-Class Men. Throughout her life in Manchester, she engaged in social work, visiting prisons and factories; helping young women who had been seduced and abandoned to find new lives abroad; and teaching classes for the poor in her home. Coral Lansbury reports, "For her the slums were never a strange and alien world to be seen from afar, but familiar places of dismal wretchedness where she could see and smell poverty."

While her sympathy and energy were engaged in efforts to ameliorate the harsh conditions of working-class life in Manchester, she also suffered personally when her first child was stillborn in 1833. Her loss and subsequent depression caused anxiety about her next child, Marianne Gaskell , born in 1834, and she dealt with her feelings by keeping a journal, ostensibly to record her daughter's development, but apparently also to alleviate her fear and give expression to her own inner life. A second daughter, Margaret Emily Gaskell , called Meta, was born in 1837. Elizabeth had hardly recovered her strength after this birth when she went to Knutsford with her month-old infant to nurse her Aunt Lumb through her final illness. In the period of depression that followed her aunt's death, Gaskell found solace and distraction in writing to her growing circle of correspondents and in helping William research and write another series of lectures on "The Poets and Poetry of Humble Life."

One of her correspondents was Mary Howitt , an established writer who wrote articles for literary journals with her husband William Howitt. In 1838, the Howitts announced plans to publish a work on Visits to Remarkable Places, and Elizabeth wrote suggesting they do a piece on Clopton Hall at Stratford-upon-Avon and describing her own visit there as a schoolgirl. William Howitt included her description in his volume and urged her to consider writing for publication. But at this point in her life, Gaskell wrote for the personal satisfaction she received from keeping up her lively correspondence and her daughter's journal, or from her conviction that the writing she and William were doing for his lectures would have a salutary effect on the lives of the working class. Winifred Gérin suggests, however, that:

though as yet unconsciously, Elizabeth was finding the subject of her own future work—work that would be distinct from her husband's educational programme for introducing beauty and poetry into the lives of the working poor. What Elizabeth was discovering in her as yet early contacts with the sad lives of the operatives… was that beauty and poetry were already there in their lives; this revelation stirred her profoundly.

The Gaskells' third daughter, Florence Elizabeth Gaskell , was born in 1842, and in 1844, they were delighted by the birth of their first son, William. Elizabeth doted on her son and was shocked and grieved by his sudden death of scarlet fever ten months after his birth. Fearing a depression similar to the one she had suffered following the death of her Aunt Lumb, and knowing that writing had the capacity to absorb her fully, William suggested that Elizabeth write a full-length book to distract her from her grief. And so, in 1845, she began writing Mary Barton, the novel that would make her famous.

A good writer of fiction must have lived an active and sympathetic life if she wishes her books to have strength and vitality in them.

—Elizabeth Gaskell

Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life, which Elizabeth described as a "tragic poem," grew out of both her personal sorrow and the sympathy she felt for the sorrows of Manchester's working poor. Set during the commercial crisis that ushered in the depression of the "hungry forties" and the Chartist and Trade Union movements, the novel develops a theme that would occupy the best minds of England for the next decades—the theme of the "two nations": the separate worlds of the rich and the poor, of "masters and men," explored in the writings of Benjamin Disraeli, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Kingsley, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, and Matthew Arnold. The novel aroused controversy because Gaskell's sympathies were clearly with her hero, John Barton, a worker driven by hunger, injustice, and despair to murder a factory owner's son. She does not condone what Barton has done any more than he can forgive himself for his crime; nonetheless, through her skillful plotting of the events leading to the murder, her insightful development of Barton's character, and her vivid descriptions of life among the working poor, Gaskell shows how a decent, intelligent man can be led to commit desperate acts when forced to live under intolerable conditions.

The novel, published anonymously in 1848, was a great success, not only because of the timeliness of its theme, but because of the power of its story, its characters, and its vivid evocation of urban life. In a short time, it became widely known that "Mrs. Gaskell" was the author of Mary Barton, and, when she visited London in the spring of 1849, she was greeted by the literary establishment as a celebrity and entertained at social events where she met such writers as Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Rogers, and Charles Dickens, with whom she would have a long if somewhat stressful professional relationship.

For the rest of her life, writing was a vocation to Elizabeth Gaskell; she loved her work, and she was more than pleased with the payment she received for her writing. Although by law she was obliged to turn over her earnings to her husband (the Married Women's Property Act, which gave married women a right to retain their earnings, was not passed until 1870), William Gaskell apparently was not strict about insisting upon his legal rights, and Elizabeth was able to save enough of her income to purchase a retirement home for them both. Unlike Charlotte Brontë or George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans ), Gaskell did not depend on writing for a livelihood, and so her sense of professionalism developed gradually. Ever mindful of the gap in her life she felt as a child for want of the love of a mother, she took up her writing only after she took care of family responsibilities. According to Angus Easson, after her last child, Julia Bradford Gaskell , was born in 1846, Elizabeth wrote in the evenings, when all household and family duties were done, or on holiday, or during family absences—whenever she found the chance.

Nor did she lose interest in the social work that had become part of her life in Manchester. In fact, she made use of her introduction to Dickens by writing to him in 1850 to ask his advice in arranging for the emigration of a young dressmaker's apprentice who had been seduced, sent to the penitentiary, lured into prostitution, and seemed destined for the short, hopeless life of an urban Victorian prostitute unless she had an opportunity to begin her life anew. Knowing that Dickens was interested in helping such young women gain a start abroad, she applied for and received his assistance. The story of the young woman inspired the plot of her next novel, Ruth, published in 1853, which again stirred controversy because of the sympathy and understanding the author creates for the plight of the all-too-common "fallen woman" of the Victorian age. Clearly, some of Gaskell's Manchester neighbors who burned the book did not share her perspective. However, literary and religious leaders who came to the defense of the novel turned the tide in its favor by praising Gaskell's courage in her choice and treatment of a largely unacknowledged social problem.

In 1850, Dickens had invited Gaskell to contribute to his new weekly, Household Words. She accepted his invitation and sent "Lizzie Leigh," a story based on Manchester life, for the first issue. Dickens was pleased with the piece, and thereafter pressed her to continue her contributions to his journal. Because of her other obligations, the pieces did not come as quickly and as often as Dickens would have liked; nonetheless, both he and his readers were delighted by the series of sketches she sent him from 1851 to 1853, the series that would become perhaps her most loved book, Cranford.

Cranford strikes an entirely different note than Mary Barton and Ruth. In place of the urban settings and pressing social problems of the earlier novels, Cranford reverts to the rural setting and slower pace of life in an early 19th-century village based on Gaskell's memories of Knutsford. The tragic tone of Mary Barton and the pathos of Ruth are replaced by quiet humor and gentle satire as Gaskell lovingly describes her "society of Amazons," the eccentric aging women who govern the village. They practice "elegant economy" and "friendly sociability" as they band together to protect one another and their way of life against all that threatens to invade their fragile world of declining fortunes and powers.

Because of Cranford's great success in Household Words, Dickens was eager to secure a commitment from Gaskell for another work, and she agreed, with some hesitation, to the serialization of a novel still in the conceptual stage, a novel that was to contrast the landscapes, values, and social customs of the agricultural south of England with the industrial north. In North and South, Gaskell returns to the "masters and men" theme of Mary Barton in the central issue of the strike that pits workers against factory owners, but she sets this conflict in the larger social context developed through the two families who constitute her cast of major characters: the Hales, who move to Milton-Northern (Manchester) from the southern village of Helstone in search of a livelihood after Mr. Hale leaves his ministry because of "scruples"; and the Thorntons, a family made newly wealthy by the expanding industrial economy of the north. As Margaret Hale and John Thornton overcome their pride and prejudice in the love plot of the novel, Gaskell suggests that a similar honest attempt at understanding and communication between masters and men can lead to a reconciliation of class conflicts. In a letter to Dickens, Gaskell conceded after its completion that North and South was not the book she had hoped it would be; as she told him, "I meant it to have been so much better." Both her disappointment and Dickens' impatience with her during the serialization can be attributed to the fact that the pressures and conventions of weekly serial publication were not congenial to her temperament or talent.

The stress she experienced in writing the installments of North and South did not make her eager to take on another major writing project until 1855, when she was shocked to learn of the death of Charlotte Brontë as a result of complications of pregnancy less than a year after her marriage to Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls. Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Brontë had become fast friends and professional colleagues since their first meeting in 1850. Anticipating that Reverend Patrick Brontë, Charlotte's father, would object to a biography, Gaskell considered writing a memoir, not to be published for some time, in which she would record personal recollections of her friend still fresh in her memory. She was therefore surprised when Patrick Brontë proposed, with Nicholls' consent, that she write the authorized biography. Her motive in writing the Life of Charlotte Brontë was "to make the world… honour the woman as much as they have admired the writer," and she undertook her task in a spirit of friendship and professionalism that made it both an intimate portrait of an enigmatic woman and a compelling psychological study of the sources of Brontë's creative power. Gaskell's interpretation of Brontë in the context of the desolate Yorkshire landscape and her tragic family situation came naturally to a novelist whose works had always emphasized environment and family as the shaping forces of character. Although new information has come to light since it was written, the Life remains a standard work on Brontë. According to Lansbury, it "has been acclaimed as the best biography of the nineteenth century and one of the finest in the English language."

Following the publication of the Life in 1857, Gaskell was occupied with the concerns of her maturing daughters and with relief work associated with the Manchester Cotton Famine of 1862–63. She published pieces from time to time in Household Words and in the new Cornhill Magazine while she worked on Sylvia's Lovers, a historical novel set in a Yorkshire fishing village during the Napoleonic wars, when men from English coastal villages had been kidnapped and pressed into service in the navy. In the tale of a harpooner who disappears and returns years later to find his love married to a rival, Gaskell develops a tragic plot set among the humble classes of the harsh Yorkshire coast. As in Mary Barton and North and South, she interweaves a public theme, in this case the tyranny of impressment and the evil it generates, with a love story. But whereas love served the theme of reconciliation in the earlier novels, Sylvia's Lovers explores the tragic aspects of passionate love, jealousy, and enthrallment. Through the vividly realized setting, the historical distancing, and the depiction of characters caught in conflict between love and morality, the novel becomes mythic in its evocation of powers beyond human control shaping human destiny.

Most critics agree that the works of Gaskell's final years, Cousin Phillis in 1864 and the unfinished Wives and Daughters, published in the Cornhill Magazine from 1864 to 1866, mark Gaskell's greatest achievement as an artist. Both works return to the village settings of her childhood, and each in its way is a perfect representation of a mood or tone over which she had gained mastery. Cousin Phillis, an idyllic nouvelle, captures a young woman and a family at a moment of transition between an agrarian way of life with its sense of rootedness in time and tradition and an industrial age in which people move optimistically toward a future with little time for backward glances. Through the story of Phillis, left behind in her old-world village by the young railroad engineer who seeks his fortunes in the new world, Gaskell creates a subtle mood that verges on both tragedy and nostalgia but avoids either as she brings her readers to full awareness of the irrevocable loss of the past and its innocence.

Wives and Daughters, Gaskell's novel of "everyday" life, reflects the full range of Gaskell's experiences and reflections on the nature of family relationships in the story of Molly Gibson's development through her motherless childhood, her beloved father's remarriage to a frivolous widow, her relationship with a stepsister whose vanity and thoughtlessness are faults of her upbringing, to her realization of the value of personal worth, love, and tolerance. Reminiscent of Jane Austen in its treatment of three or four families in a country village, the open and leisurely plot of a young woman's coming of age allows for the full display of Gaskell's mature talents.

Elizabeth Gaskell died in 1865, while staying with three of her daughters at the country home she had recently purchased with earnings from her writing as a surprise for her husband for their retirement. Her sudden death came at a moment of fullness. She had lived to see her daughters grown and happy and her husband busy but content with his work; she had traveled throughout Europe and made enduring friendships with people she loved and admired; she was loved and respected by the working people of Manchester, whose lives she had touched personally and chronicled sympathetically; and she was esteemed as a writer who belonged in the distinguished company of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Charlotte Brontë in making the 19th century the great period of the English novel.


Easson, Angus. Elizabeth Gaskell. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980.

Gérin, Winifred. Elizabeth Gaskell. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.

Hopkins, A.B. Elizabeth Gaskell: Her Life and Work. London: John Lehman, 1952.

Lansbury, Coral. Elizabeth Gaskell. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1984.

The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell. Ed. by J.A.V. Chapple and A. Pollard. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1966.

suggested reading:

The Complete Works of Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell. Knutsford Edition. Ed. by A.W. Ward. 8 vols. London: Smith, Elder, 1906.

Stoneman, Patsy. Elizabeth Gaskell. IN: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Uglow, Jenny. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories. NY: Farrar, Straus, 1993.

Patricia B. Heaman , Professor of English, Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania