Last reviewed: June 2018
English novelist and short-story writer.
September 29, 1810
Chelsea, London, England
November 12, 1865
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
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.