Authors: Elizabeth Gaskell

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English novelist and short-story writer.

September 29, 1810

Chelsea, London, England

November 12, 1865

Holybourne, England


Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson Gaskell was the eighth child of a Unitarian minister who became a farmer and, eventually, keeper of the records at the National Treasury in London. Her mother died while Elizabeth was still an infant, and the baby was put in the care of an aunt. According to Gaskell’s own account, her childhood was a happy one, spent mostly at Knutsford (the Cranford of her later fiction) in rural Cheshire. In 1825, at the age of fifteen, Elizabeth began her first formal schooling at Stratford-upon-Avon, but she left boarding school in 1827 when her father became ill; in the same year a brother was lost at sea, and her father died two years later.

Elizabeth Gaskell

(Library of Congress)

After her father’s death, Elizabeth, who was a pretty and personable young woman, stayed with various relatives. On a visit to Manchester she met the young Unitarian minister William Gaskell, whom she married in August, 1832. The couple settled in Manchester, where William Gaskell served as a minister until his death; he also taught English history and literature at the New College and the Workingman’s College in Manchester. During the first decade of her marriage, Elizabeth Gaskell showed little inclination to a literary career, except for a descriptive piece published in 1840 in William Howitt’s Visits to Remarkable Places. During the early years of her marriage Gaskell had five children. The death of the fifth child, a son, from scarlet fever in 1844 spurred her to write as a means of alleviating her grief. Her first work was the novel Mary Barton, which was published anonymously and became an immediate success, bringing her the friendship of Charles Dickens and a congratulatory letter from Thomas Carlyle. The novel, subtitled A Tale of Manchester Life, realistically portrays the lives of the poor and shows the factory owners as callous and indifferent to their employees’ welfare. The success of Mary Barton encouraged Gaskell to write for the magazines.

Cranford, a volume of sketches rather loosely called a novel, appeared serially in Dickens’s Household Words before being published as a book in 1853. Gaskell’s second novel, Ruth, dealing, controversially, with an unmarried mother as a heroine, was a plea for a single standard of sexual morality for both men and women. North and South found Gaskell applying herself once again to a study of the relations between capital and labor. In 1855 she was asked by the Reverend Patrick Brontë to write a biography of Charlotte Brontë, which appeared in 1857. For a time Gaskell interrupted work on the book, and devoted herself to a social life in literary circles.

Although she returned to writing again in the early 1860s, Gaskell had ceased to write her best work. On November 12, 1865, she died suddenly of a heart attack at Alton, a country house near Holybourne, Hampshire, which she had bought a short time before.

Author Works Long Fiction: Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life, 1848 Cranford, 1851–1853 Mr. Harrison's Confessions, 1851 Ruth, 1853 North and South, 1854–1855 Sylvia’s Lovers, 1863 A Dark Night's Work, 1863 Cousin Phillis, 1863–1864 Wives and Daughters, 1864–1866 Short Fiction: The Moorland Cottage, 1850 Lizzie Leigh, and Other Tales, 1855 The Manchester Marriage, 1858 My Lady Ludlow, 1859 Round the Sofa, 1859 Right at Last, and Other Tales, 1860 Lois the Witch, and Other Tales, 1861 The Cage at Cranford, 1863 Cousin Phillis, and Other Tales, 1865 Nonfiction: Life in Manchester, 1847 (as Cotton Mather Mills, Esq.) The Life of Charlotte Brontë, 1857 The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell, 1966 (Arthur Pollard and J. A. V. Chapple, editors) Further Letters of Mrs. Gaskell, 2000 (John Chapple and Alan Shelston, editors) Bibliography Bonaparte, Felicia. The Gypsy-Bachelor of Manchester: The Life of Mrs. Gaskell’s Demon. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992. A sensitive reading of the life and fiction of Gaskell, and an innovative study treating a writer’s life, letters, and works as a single "poetic text." Chapple, J. A. V. Elizabeth Gaskell: The Early Years. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1997. A good biography of Gaskell, focusing on her beginning years as a writer. Craik, W. A. Elizabeth Gaskell and the English Provincial Novel. New York: Harper and Row, 1975. A major rehabilitation of Gaskell as an important novelist, comparing her with her contemporaries. Sets her five long fictions within the provincial novel tradition and demonstrates how she expanded the possibilities and universality of that tradition. Short bibliography and a chronology of major nineteenth century provincial novels. Duthie, Enid. The Themes of Elizabeth Gaskell. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1980. Gaskell’s work and letters are drawn upon to reconstruct her imaginative world and the themes central to it. Select bibliography and index. Easson, Angus. Elizabeth Gaskell. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979. Examines the relationship of all Gaskell’s writings to her life and times, tracing the source of her fiction to her culture. Select bibliography and index. Foster, Shirley. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Literary Life. Palgrave, 2002. Part of the "Literary Lives" series. This accessible introduction to the author relies on best available biographies. It offers interesting comparisons of Gaskell's novels with others of the period and emphasizes women's issues as addressed by Gaskell. Gaskell, Elizabeth. Further Letters of Mrs. Gaskell. Edited by John Chapple and Alan Shelston. New York: Manchester University Press, 2000. A very useful collection of letters corresponding chiefly with her most productive years. The editor supplies biographical information that illuminates the correspondence, and the reader will find the fine index a valuable tool. Gerin, Winifred. Elizabeth Gaskell. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. The first biography able to make use of the publication in 1966 of The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell, and still one of the best. Select bibliography and index. Hughes, Linda K., and Michael Lund. Victorian Publishing and Mrs. Gaskell’s Work. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999. Part of the Victorian Literature and Culture series, this volume puts Gaskell’s writing in the context of the Victorian era. Bibliographical references. Matus, Jill L., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Gaskell. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2007. This collection of essays covers Gaskell’s novels, short stories, letters, and biographical writing. Common themes in her writing are discussed, including those of religion, family, gender, and class conflict. Includes a chronology of her life, a brief bibliography, and a complete index. Spencer, Jane. Elizabeth Gaskell. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Chapters on Gaskell’s career, Mary Barton, her biography of Charlotte Brontë, Cranford and North and South, Sylvia’s Lovers, and Wives and Daughters. Notes and bibliography. Stoneman, Patsy. Elizabeth Gaskell. Brighton, England: Harvester Press, 1987. This feminist reading claims that previous accounts of Gaskell have seriously misread her and that the interaction of class and gender must be made central in any interpretation of her. Select bibliography and index. Uglow, Jenny. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993. A major critical biography, exploring in detail both Gaskell’s life and work. Paying close attention to primary source material, especially letters, Uglow has produced a definitive life. Includes illustrations and notes.

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