Elizabeth Gaskell – Biography, Facts, Books, Life & Death

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell’s rise to public figure in Victorian society – as one of its most popular novelists and short stories, known as “Mrs. Gaskell” – grew out of an extremely personal in his life. In 1845 she lost her infant son to scarlet fever and, encouraged by her husband, turned to writing for nothing more than an outlet for her grief and a possible way out of depression. . The result was his first novel, and an instant hit: Mary Barton: A Story of Manchester Life.

About a desperate working-class family, it vividly depicts Manchester’s slums and the plight of the poor. “I had always felt a deep sympathy for care-worn men,” Gaskell said in the preface; a sympathy that had been nurtured throughout a childhood surrounded by progressive thinkers, reformers and humanitarians. Born Elizabeth Stevenson on September 29, 1810, she was raised, after her mother’s death when she was just one year old, by her “more than mother” aunt, Hannah Lumb, who ensured that she receives a good education and an introduction to Unitarianism.

Marriage and children

In 1832 Elizabeth married William Gaskell, a Unitarian clergyman in Manchester. Far from the rural quiet of her childhood in Knutsford, Cheshire, her new home in the sprawling town, a textile hub, exposed her to the impact of industrialization and urbanization on the poorest working people and the resulting social tensions. By then, she had also suffered her share of personal tragedy: the death of her father; the disappearance of Brother John at sea while in the Merchant Navy; and, in 1833, the loss of a stillborn daughter.

Gaskell eventually had four surviving daughters, Marianne, Margaret Emily (known as Meta), Florence, and Julia, and most of her time was spent being a loving mother and minister’s wife. But she also enjoyed writing, and in 1837 a poem written with William, titled “Sketches Among the Poor”, was printed in Blackwood’s Magazine. A few years later, his play on Clopton Hall for Visits to remarkable places becomes his first solo publication.

Mary Barton

Mary Barton was published in 1848 – anonymously, as many female writers did if they did not use male pseudonyms, but her identity emerged. With the novel causing a sensation for its stark and confrontational depiction of working-class struggles, radical activity and murder, Charles Dickens quickly made contact by inviting ‘Mrs Gaskell’ to contribute to his new weekly magazine, Household Words. He wrote: “I honestly know that there is no living English writer whose assistance I would wish to obtain in preference to the author of Mary Barton (a book that most deeply touched and impressed me).

I honestly know that there is no living English writer whose help I would wish to have in preference to the author of Mary Barton (a book which deeply touched and impressed me)

Charles Dickens

His little story Lizzie Leigh made the first issue, followed in 1851 by the serialization of his episodic novel Cranford, about two sisters and their genteel country lifestyle (which earns them comparisons to Jane Austen). The following years brought Gaskell’s other important and controversial social works. Ruth (1853), the story of a teenage seamstress who is seduced and has a child out of wedlock, met with hostile reviews – copies were even burned at Gaskell church. Undeterred, she continued with North and South (1854), an exploration of the different prospects of industrialization felt across the country.

Humanitarian and activism

Gaskell’s humanitarianism was not limited to the page either. During a cotton famine, she established tailoring shops to give work to factory workers, and the family home in Plymouth Grove became a hub of intellectuals to discuss the issues of the day. Her circle included Dickens, John Ruskin, Florence Nightingale, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Thomas Carlyle. Charlotte Brontë became a dear friend and in 1857, a few years after Brontë’s death, Gaskell wrote the first biography of the Jane Eyre author.

All the while, Gaskell continued to write novels and was prolific with short stories. In a time of monumental social change and upheaval, she was a powerful voice – and a feminine voice at that. She mixed realism and melodramatic romance; turns outcasts into heroines; and could shift from humorous forays to pastoral playfulness (Cranford) in virulent criticism of the standards of the time (Ruth). Moreover, she conceived her works not as calls for radical action, but as a greater need for compassion and understanding.

Death and legacy

On November 12, 1865, Gaskell died at the age of 55 after suffering a heart attack. She was in Hampshire in the house she had just bought. Write to the end, his latest novel, wives and daughters, was unfinished. It would be published posthumously in Cornhill Magazine, with the ending prepared by editor Frederic Greenwood based on what were believed to be Gaskell’s intentions. He also added a note about Gaskell:

“It is needless to demonstrate to those who know what is and what is not true literature that Mrs. Gaskell was endowed with some of the noblest faculties bestowed on mankind; that these grew into greater strength and matured into greater beauty in the decline of her days” and that she offered us some of the truest and purest works of fiction in the language. And she was herself what her works show she had been – a wise and good woman.

This article first appeared in BBC History Revealed

Colin L. Johnson