Biography of Elizabeth Gaskell

About the Author:

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell is one of the most beloved and critically acclaimed novelists of Victorian literature. She was born on September 29th, 1810 to William Stevenson, a Unitarian minister, and Elizabeth Stevenson. Her father would later leave the faith after experiencing doubts of conscience, and eventually pursuing such varied professions as farming, journalism, and civil service. After her mother's death in 1811, Gaskell lived with her aunt, Hannah Lumb, in Knutsford, Cheshire (on what is now called "Gaskell Avenue"). Knutsford served as Gaskell's model for the small country town of Cranford in the eponymous novel and Hollingford in Wives and Daughters. Elizabeth was educated in the traditional disciplines for young women –the classics, arts, decorum and manners, and writing. Her brother provided her with travel literature and stories of the sea.

By 1832, Elizabeth was the assistant minister at Cross Street Unitarian Chapel and married William Gaskell, also a Unitarian minister. The newlywed couple moved to Manchester, where Gaskell helped her husband distribute food and clothes to the poor at his church. Manchester was a large, bustling city with a vibrant intellectual and cultural centre but was also an industrial hub. The rich and educated lived side by side with the impoverished and the ignorant.

Elizabeth bore seven children, out of which only four daughters survived to adulthood. After her son William died from scarlet fever during infancy, Elizabeth tried to assuage her grief by taking up writing. Her first published work was the short essay "Clopton Hall," which appeared in William Howitt's Visits to Remarkable Places (1840). She completed her first novel, Mary Barton, in 1848 and published it anonymously. Mary Barton dealt with the deleterious living conditions of the poor in the industrial towns in Northern England and earned a great deal of interest and praise, as well as some criticism for the author's open sympathy for the workers. Some critics compared Mary Barton to the work of Friedrich Engels. Charles Dickens in particular took notice, and thenceforth most of Gaskell's work was published in Dickens's Household Words and All the Year Round.

The Gaskells moved to a villa in Plymouth Grove in 1850; which is where Elizabeth wrote the rest of her literary works. She participated in a vibrant literary and social circle, which included at one time or another Dickens, Charles Eliot Norton, Charlotte Bronte, William and Mary Howitt, and John Ruskin.

Gaskell published Ruth in 1853, which was shocking in its subject matter of prostitution and seduction; North and South in two installments in 1854-55; Cranford in 1851-53; several short stories; the Life of Charlotte Bronte in 1857; Sylvia's Lovers in 1863; and began the serialization of Wives and Daughters in August of 1864. While she is considered a realist writer, her work also contains Gothic elements.

Gaskell was also heavily involved in reform and humanitarian efforts. Most of her work centered around the suffering of the poor, the relations between master and laborer, religion, and the social responsibilities of women.

In 1865, during a routine visit to Hampshire, Elizabeth Gaskell died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving Wives and Daughters unfinished. It was published in book form in 1866. A memorial was dedicated to Gaskell in 2010 at Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Gaskell left behind a rich literary legacy, including six novels, several short stories and non-fictional pieces, as well as the first biography of Charlotte Bronte. Her novels are beloved for their vivid characters and arresting portrayals of Victorian life. Gaskell was a vibrant new voice to the genre of industrial fiction. Her work helped reanimate Victorian society into aiding humanitarian causes.


Study Guides on Works by Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell wrote her first novel, Mary Barton, at the suggestion of her husband - in order to take her mind off of her infant son William's death from scarlet fever in 1845. The plot is based on the real-life murder of a progressive mill...

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South is often considered one of, if not the best, of her works, as well as a significant piece of Victorian literature. It features a strong female protagonist, a mature love story, and relevant social and political...