Biography of Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865)
About the Author
Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, one of Victorian literature's most beloved and critically acclaimed novelists, was born on September 29th, 1810 to William Stevenson, a Unitarian minister, and Elizabeth Stevenson. Her father would later leave the faith after doubts of conscience. She lived with her aunt, Hannah Lumb, in Knutsford, Chelsea (on what is now "Gaskell Avenue") after her mother's death in 1811. Knutsford would be the model of a small country town that she used for Cranford from 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.
In 1832 she married William Gaskell, also a Unitarian minister, and the couple moved to Manchester. Gaskell was the assistant minister at Cross Street Unitarian Chapel at the time of their marriage, and the newlywed Gaskell helped her husband distribute food and clothes to the poor at the 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 four daughters and a son, but young William died in childhood from scarlet fever. Elizabeth tried to assuage her grief by taking up writing. Her first published work was the short essay "Clopton Hall," appearing in William Howitt's Visits to Remarkable Places (1840). She completed her first novel, Mary Barton, in 1848 and published it anonymously. It concerned 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 its open sympathy with workers. Some critics compared the work to the writing of Friedrich Engels. Charles Dickens in particular took notice, and thenceforth most of Gaskells work was published in Dickens's Household Words and All the Year Round.
The Gaskells moved to a villa in Plymouth Grove in 1850; this location 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 elements of the Gothic.
Gaskell also occupied her time in reform and humanitarian efforts. Most of her work contained themes that addressed the suffering of the poor, the relations between master and laborer, religion, and the social responsibilities of women.
Elizabeth Gaskell died suddenly of a heart attack in 1865, leaving Wives and Daughters unfinished at the time of her death. It was published in book form in 1866. A memorial was dedicated to Gaskell in 2010 at Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey.