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Gaskell [née Stevenson], Elizabeth Cleghornfree

(1810–1865)
  • Jenny Uglow

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (1810–1865)

by George Richmond, 1851

Gaskell [née Stevenson], Elizabeth Cleghorn (1810–1865), novelist and short-story writer, was born on 29 September 1810 in Belle Vue House, then part of Lindsey Row (now Cheyne Walk), Chelsea, London. She was the second surviving child of William Stevenson (bap. 1770, d. 1829), writer and minor Treasury official, and his first wife, Elizabeth (1771–1811), daughter of Samuel and Mary Holland, of Sandlebridge Farm, near Knutsford in Cheshire.

Family background and early life

Both of Elizabeth Stevenson's parents were Unitarians and this faith was a central force in her life, combined with a firm belief in social duty and reform. Her family background, and the settings of her parents' lives, also found a place in her fiction. William Stevenson, the son of a naval captain from Berwick-on-Tweed, studied for the Unitarian ministry at Manchester Academy. After his marriage in 1797 he turned first to teaching at Manchester College, expressing his radical ideas in Remarks on the Very Inferior Utility of Classical Learning (1796), and then tried scientific farming at Saughton Mills, East Lothian, Scotland. Here the Stevensons' son John (1798–1828) was born, while a local friend is remembered in their daughter's second name, Cleghorn. In Scotland Stevenson was one of the earliest contributors to the Edinburgh Review in 1802, and edited the Scots Magazine from 1803 to 1806. He then moved to London, where he was given a post in the Treasury and wrote articles on subjects from topography and experimental agriculture to naval history.

Elizabeth's mother also came from an old dissenting family. The Hollands of Cheshire had farming, professional, and mercantile interests; Elizabeth's uncle Peter was a doctor whose son, Sir Henry Holland, became physician to Queen Victoria, and was also a well-known travel writer. Another uncle, Samuel, was a Liverpool trader and north Wales quarry owner, while a third, Swinton, became a London merchant, with a large estate in Gloucestershire. The Hollands were linked by marriage and friendship to other prominent Unitarian families, including the Wedgwoods, Darwins, and Turners.

By early 1811 the Stevensons had moved to 3 Beaufort Row, Chelsea, but in October 1811 Mrs Stevenson died, and so at the age of thirteen months Elizabeth was taken to Cheshire to live with her mother's sister Hannah Lumb (1767–1837). Mrs Lumb was legally separated from her husband, who had not only been declared insane but also had another, unacknowledged family; her own daughter, Marianne, was disabled and died in 1812, aged twenty-one. Hannah Lumb's large house, The Heath, was later shared with another Holland sister, Abigail.

In 1814 William Stevenson married Catherine Thomson, the sister of Anthony Todd Thomson, the doctor who had delivered Elizabeth. They had two more children but Elizabeth stayed in Knutsford, visiting her father and stepmother rarely. She was 'very, very unhappy' on such visits, she later wrote, adding that were it not for the comfort of the river, and some local friends, 'I think my child's heart would have broken' (Letters, 797–8). She grew up keenly aware of family breakdown and tragedy, and with the difficulties and strengths of extended families, themes which she would later explore in depth in her fiction.

Elizabeth Stevenson was educated at home, by her aunts and occasional outside tutors, and at the Sunday school of Brook Street Chapel, until 1821. From her family and the chapel she imbibed the tenets of Unitarianism, which rejected as unknowable mystical doctrines such as the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, and placed great stress on human rather than divine responsibility for society. The church emphasized freedom of thought and rationality, believing in social progress aided by scientific discovery. But it also recognized the existence of suffering and oppression, and called on its adherents to speak out against them. The tension is reflected in her later fiction in the movement between optimism and intense awareness of pain, and in the drive to expose hypocrisy, in family, community, and nation. In the 1840s and 1850s, influenced by James Martineau and the Christian socialists, she seemed drawn to a more emotional form of worship, and often attended Anglican services. Her only antipathy, she declared, was 'to the Calvinistic or Low Church creed' (Letters, 648).

At eleven Elizabeth was sent away to the school run by the Byerley sisters, from October 1821 at Barford, Warwickshire and then, from May 1824, at Avonbank, Stratford upon Avon. The school had been partly funded by a loan from Josiah Wedgwood (a relation and partner of the sisters' father) and their pupils included both Unitarians and Anglicans. The curriculum was conventional: English, geography, history, French, dancing, music, drawing, and writing, with arithmetic at the end of the list. Unitarians tended to champion girls' education, but not women's full independence; Domestic Duties (1825), by one of the sisters who ran the school, Fanny Parkes, both advises young women to 'suffer and be still' and stresses their rights as well as their responsibilities. Another sister was Katherine Thomson, wife of Dr Anthony Todd Thomson and thus sister-in-law to the second Mrs Stevenson. A published novelist and talented journalist, she provided Elizabeth with a model of the way in which literary production could be combined with domestic life.

Family loss and widening circles, 1826–1831

Elizabeth left school in June 1826, returning to Knutsford and staying with Holland relations in Wales and Liverpool. Her letters suggest that she was already writing stories, but no early work survives. Her brother John had joined the merchant navy in 1820 (she retained vivid memories of going to London to see him off on one voyage). His graphic letters stimulated her imagination and in 1827 he directly encouraged her to write, but the following year he disappeared on a voyage to India, a haunting loss that may be remembered in her descriptions of the return of men feared drowned (like Charley Kinraid in Sylvia's Lovers) as well as the brother's surprise return from India in Cranford.

At this point Elizabeth went to Chelsea to live with her father and stepmother, but on 22 March 1829 William Stevenson died. After his death Elizabeth's base remained Knutsford, but she also stayed with different Holland relations in Gloucestershire, Liverpool, and Wales, and spent much of the next two years at the home of the Revd William Turner, a relation and the famous Unitarian minister of Hanover Chapel, Newcastle upon Tyne. Turner was a founder of the Literary and Philosophical Society, a scientific lecturer, and tireless campaigner for social causes: the emancipation of Catholics and Jews, the abolition of the slave trade, and the support of charity and Sunday schools. Humane, generous, and eccentric, he undoubtedly influenced her moral, humanitarian, and political outlook and his character is suggested in her portrayal of Mr Benson in Ruth.

In 1830 Elizabeth visited Edinburgh with Turner's daughter Anne, renewing links with Scottish family acquaintances, a circle evoked in the fictional frame to the collection Round the Sofa in 1859. At twenty Elizabeth was effervescent and well read, more interested in gossip of marriages than religious controversies or political causes. A neoclassic bust made about 1829 by the Newcastle-based sculptor David Dunbar shows a strong-featured, assured young woman. In 1832 she was also painted by William John Thomson, her stepmother's brother; his fine miniature (Manchester University Library) suggests the alert gaze of her blue-grey eyes, but is a more romantic portrayal than the bust, showing her glancing over her shoulder, with soft brown hair falling from a coil on top of her head.

Marriage and early writing

In Manchester in 1831 Elizabeth met William Gaskell (1805–1884), assistant minister at the Unitarian Cross Street Chapel, a powerful centre of reform, with a congregation largely composed of the families of prosperous manufacturers and professional men. They were engaged by mid-March 1832 and were married on 30 August at St John's parish church, Knutsford. They shared a faith and a love of literature and music but often seemed a contrast in appearance and temperament. While Elizabeth was of medium height, tending to plumpness (especially in later life), with an open smile, a constant flow of talk, and a distinct romantic streak, William was extremely tall and thin and apparently austere, with a dry sense of humour and an infinite capacity for hard work. Yet the marriage appears to have been extremely close, despite Elizabeth's many absences from home in later years.

After a honeymoon in north Wales the Gaskells set up home at 14 Dover Street, Manchester. The city had suffered badly from the trade depression of 1829, followed by strikes, lock-outs, and riots, and from the 1832 cholera epidemic. This directed sharp attention to the plight of local workers, illustrated by The moral and physical condition of the working classes employed in the cotton manufacture in Manchester (1832) by James Kay (later Kay-Shuttleworth). A ring of slums, factories, and polluted canals surrounded the city centre, separating it from the suburbs. Some sense of the shock of a country-bred young woman coming to live there is expressed by Margaret Hale's first impressions of Milton in North and South: the dark cloud of smoke, the 'long, straight, hopeless streets of regularly built houses', the jostling crowds, hard-faced men and independent mill girls.

Although Gaskell roundly resisted her time being taken up with the duties of a minister's wife, her husband's work continually drew her into direct contact with the Manchester poor. Helping the District Provident Society, she distributed soup tickets, food, and clothing, and later worked with the Sunday school children, visiting their homes, and inviting groups of girls to her house. Some of the most harrowing descriptions in Mary Barton echo the reports of the Mission to the Poor, produced by the Manchester Domestic Mission, based at Cross Street.

In July 1833 Gaskell's first child, a daughter, was born dead, and three years later she wrote a poignant sonnet, 'On Visiting the Grave of my Stillborn Little Girl'. Her first surviving daughter, Marianne, was born on 12 September 1834 (d. 1920) and her daughter's first years are recorded in Gaskell's detailed, comic, and touching maternal diary: 'She will talk before she walks I think. She can say pretty plainly “papa, dark, stir, ship, lamp, book, tea, sweep” &c—leaving poor Mama in the back ground' (Chapple and Wilson). Another daughter, Margaret Emily (Meta), was born on 5 February 1837 (d. 1913), but Hannah Lumb, whom Gaskell called 'my more than mother', died in Knutsford in May. Worn out by pregnancy and her aunt's death, Gaskell recuperated on holiday in Wales.

In these early years of marriage literary interests were not forgotten. Since 1832 William Gaskell had lectured at the Salford Mechanics' Institute and elsewhere on 'Poets of humble life', an interest fostered by Southey's Lives and Works of the Uneducated Poets (1831) and Carlyle's discussion of Ebenezer Elliott's Corn-Law Rhymes (Edinburgh Review, 1832). Local poets such as Samuel Bamford and Elijah Ridings were known to the Gaskells, and her husband's lasting interest in local writing and in dialect influenced Gaskell's writing, particularly Mary Barton (she attached his 'Two lectures on the Lancashire dialect' to the 1854 edition) and Sylvia's Lovers, which was often criticized for its oblique dialect forms.

This interest in artisan writing and local life paralleled that of the Quaker writers Mary and William Howitt, with whom Gaskell began to correspond, particularly on vanishing rural customs. In 1836 she was continuing her own study of poetry, especially the Romantics, and attempting to link it to contemporary life. In January 1837 a poem, 'Sketches among the Poor', by Mr and Mrs Gaskell, appeared in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 'rather in the manner of Crabbe' as she later told Mary Howitt (Letters, 33). In 1838 she sent William Howitt her atmospheric, neo-Gothic description of a schoolgirl's outing, 'Clopton Hall', possibly written at school at Avonbank, which Howitt included in his revised edition of Visits to Remarkable Places in 1840.

Between 1838 and 1840 Manchester was riven by clashes between Chartists and anti-corn law leaguers, while a new depression in 1840 caused widespread destitution, bringing exhausting relief work. In 1841, escaping the city, the Gaskells visited the continent, touring the Rhine country (where they met the Howitts), which would become the setting for some of her stories such as 'The Grey Woman' and 'Six Weeks at Heppenheim'.

But the real centre of Gaskell's life was now her family. One heartbreak of these years—mentioned only once in her surviving correspondence—was the death of 'a little son while yet a baby'; his name and dates are still unknown (letter to Harriet Andersen; Gaskell Society Journal, 71). Then on 7 October 1842 Florence Elizabeth (d. 1881) was born and soon the family moved to a larger house at 121 Upper Rumford Street, Manchester, and began the enduring habit of taking annual holidays at Silverdale on Morecambe Bay in Lancashire. On 23 October 1844 came the birth of the Gaskells' son William. This bright, red-headed baby brought Elizabeth intense joy, but at ten months he caught scarlet fever at Ffestiniog, north Wales, and died at Porthmadog in August 1845. After this Elizabeth sank into a deep depression which did not really dissipate until her last daughter, Julia Bradford (1846–1908), was born.

Intellectual circles, early stories, and Mary Barton, 1846–1848

In 1846 William Gaskell was appointed professor of history, literature, and logic at Manchester New College. The college brought new contacts, including the new professor of philosophy, the charismatic James Martineau, brother of Harriet. In contrast to dry, traditional Unitarianism, Martineau energetically promoted a more emotional faith, insisting that 'the unconscious affections' underlay belief more than rational judgement, an emphasis that resembles the current of feeling in Gaskell's fiction. Another highly unconventional new friend who also stressed the intuitive basis of faith was Francis Newman, professor of classics, brother of the future cardinal John Henry Newman.

Theological debate was intense, as Unitarian connections also extended to Germany and the United States: Elizabeth Gaskell corresponded frequently with the Boston minister John Pierpont, and reviewed Emerson's Manchester lectures for Howitt's Journal in 1847. Since 1840 her husband's membership of the Literary and Philosophical Society had also introduced Gaskell to new scientific ideas and arguments. This ferment of ideas, too, resonates in her work, most notably in Wives and Daughters. Her circle of personal friends also widened to include younger women like the future writers and translators Catherine and Susanna Winkworth, and the Essex Unitarian and feminist Annie Shaen.

Gaskell's first stories began to appear in 1847. The first was 'Libbie Marsh's Three Eras', published anonymously in 1847 in Howitt's Journal, which also carried 'The Sexton's Hero' and 'Christmas Storms and Sunshine' in 1848. During her long depression after her son's death, William had encouraged her to write. She had first planned a story set on the Yorkshire borders in the eighteenth century but then, as she wrote in her 'Preface', 'I bethought me how deep might be the romance of those who elbowed me daily in the busy streets of the town where I resided'. The result was Mary Barton: a Story of Manchester Life.

The novel was finished by late 1847 and sent to several publishers before William Howitt negotiated terms with Chapman and Hall. When it was published in October 1848 Gaskell's 'state of the nation' tale of Chartism, strikes, murder, and prostitution, misery and redemption prompted praise from concerned men as different as Samuel Bamford and Thomas Carlyle. Charles Kingsley applauded it in Fraser's Magazine (April 1849), as explaining the unrest and Chartism to the threatened, uncomprehending middle classes:

Do they want to know why poor men, kind and sympathising as women to each other, learn to hate law and order, Queen, Lords and Commons, country-party and corn law leagues, all alike—to hate the rich in short? then let them read Mary Barton.

In contrast, Manchester manufacturers (including many Cross Street Chapel members) felt they had been unfairly, and ignorantly, represented. The Manchester Guardian accused Gaskell of maligning the employers (28 February and 7 March 1849), and a stinging review from W. R. Greg in the Edinburgh Review that April denounced her ignorance of economics. The book appeared anonymously, but her authorship was soon known and she justified herself openly by her nonconformist belief that she had to 'speak the truth' and to urge antagonistic groups to communicate, in the hope of averting a crisis.

Despite her distress at exposure, Gaskell also enjoyed the fame, or notoriety. Visiting London in April 1849, she met Charles Dickens, John Forster, Anna Jameson, Jane Carlyle, and others. She also forged close friendships with her relations Fanny and Hensleigh Wedgwood, and with Eliza (Tottie) Fox, the artist daughter of the radical minister W. J. Fox. New Manchester friends included J. A. Froude and his wife and (less warmly) the novelist Geraldine Jewsbury. On holiday at Skelwith, near Ambleside in the Lake District, she met the Arnold family and Mary Fletcher, and her hero, Wordsworth.

Widening circles, 1849–1852

In 1849 two more of Gaskell's stories appeared, already revealing her command of different modes: 'Hand and Heart' in the Sunday School Penny Magazine, and in Sartain's Literary Magazine, 'The Last Generation of England', whose whimsical memory of village eccentricities anticipates Cranford.

In 1850 the Gaskells moved to a large house which would be their permanent home, 84 Plymouth Grove, Manchester; summer holidays were spent in the Lake District and at Silverdale. Domestic life engrossed her but Gaskell's letters show that the new house made her more self-analytical, divided, and restless. She felt, as she told Tottie Fox, that she had several 'Mes':

and that's the plague. One of my mes is, I do believe, a true Christian—(only people call her socialist and communist), another of my mes is a wife and mother, and highly delighted at the delight of everyone else in the house … Now that's my ‘social’ self I suppose. Then again I've another self with a full taste for beauty and convenience whh is pleased on its own account. How am I to reconcile all these warring members?

Letters, 108

Gaskell's joking distress was linked to conflicts typical of women of the time, between family duty and the need for self-expression. She resolved this by seeing her writing as the proper use of a God-given talent, and emphasizing her social concerns: in response to an invitation from Dickens to contribute to Household Words, she sent 'Lizzie Leigh', a story about a Manchester prostitute, which appeared in the first issue, on 30 March 1850. (She had first contacted Dickens the previous winter—knowing his interest in the subject—for advice concerning the emigration of a young girl in prison for prostitution, an incident clearly linked to her second novel, Ruth.)

'Lizzie Leigh' was quickly followed by 'The Well of Pen Morfa' and 'The Heart of John Middleton' for Household Words, and Gaskell's long novella The Moorland Cottage was also published as a separate book in 1850. She began to see herself as a professional writer, and welcomed the chance of friendship with Charlotte Brontë, whom she met in August 1850 at the Kay-Shuttleworths' summer home, Brierley Close, on Lake Windermere. Gaskell's avid curiosity about the identity of Currer Bell, and keen gathering of Charlotte's own words, mingled with gossip, already laid the foundation for her later biography. Brontë paid a return visit the following June, on her way back from the Great Exhibition, and became fond of the Gaskell children and of Elizabeth, whom she described as 'a woman of whose conversation and company I should not soon tire. She seems to me kind, clever, animated and unaffected' (1 July 1851, The Brontës: their Lives and Correspondence, ed T. J. Wise and J. A. Symington, 1933, 3.255). In July 1851 Gaskell herself visited the exhibition in London, and sat for her portrait to Richmond (National Portrait Gallery).

Gaskell's wide network of acquaintances added richness to her fiction. She was interested in all classes: mill workers and agricultural labourers, small shopkeepers, tradesmen and clerks; doctors, and lawyers and ministers; landowners and politicians and duchesses. Unitarian connections linked her with scholars and reformers in Britain, Europe, and America, from refugee supporters of Garibaldi to young, independent-minded women like Bessie Parkes and Barbara Bodichon. Gaskell, however, was never a wholehearted radical or feminist; while she treated controversial subjects, she elevates sympathy and communication above radical change. In this she resembles Marian Evans (George Eliot), ten years her junior. The two novelists had never met, and at first Gaskell supported the cause of Joseph Liggins as the author of Adam Bede. When she learned the true identity of the author she was dismayed but fascinated, begging Charles Bosanquet for a full account 'of what she is like &c &c &c &c,—eyes, nose, mouth, dress &c' (Letters, 587). Although Gaskell remained distressed that Evans could not legally marry G. H. Lewes, their correspondence was warm, and Evans spoke of their 'fellow-feeling', describing her as 'one of the minds which is capable of judging as well as being moved' (The George Eliot Letters, ed. G. S. Haight, 1954, 3.198–9).

Short stories, Ruth and Cranford, 1851–1853

At the start of the 1850s came a rush of short stories by Gaskell: the comic, Cranfordian 'Mr Harrison's Confessions' in the Ladies Companion, 1851, and 'Bessy's Troubles at Home' in the Sunday School Penny Magazine in 1852. Cranford (not originally conceived as a novel) appeared in batches of episodes in Household Words between 13 December 1851 and 21 May 1853. Over the next few years Household Words published a string of atmospheric sketches and stories including 'Traits and Stories of the Huguenots', 'Morton Hall', 'My French Master', and 'The Squire's Story' (1853); 'Modern Greek songs' and 'Company Manners' (1854); 'An Accursed Race' and 'Half a Lifetime Ago' (1855); 'The Poor Clare' (1856) and 'My Lady Ludlow', 'The Sin of a Father', and 'The Manchester Marriage' (1858).

As the first Cranford episodes appeared, Gaskell was already planning her next novel, Ruth; she gave an outline to Charlotte Brontë in April 1852, and the book itself appeared in January 1853. (Brontë postponed Villette slightly in the vain hope of avoiding comparisons.) Causing even more uproar than Mary Barton, Ruth tells the story of a fifteen-year-old seamstress who is seduced and has an illegitimate son. Taken in by a Unitarian minister, Mr Benson, she is passed off as a widow, making a new life until she is exposed and publicly denounced, before finally ‘redeeming’ herself as a nurse in a fever epidemic. A brave attack on current hypocrisy, the novel was attacked not only for the sexual theme but because of Benson's 'lie'; a copy was even burnt by members of William Gaskell's own congregation. Reviews were either equivocal or, like the influential Blackwood's, openly hostile: even some time later, the Anglican Observer (July 1857) was horrified at the idea that a woman who 'has violated the laws of purity' should be accepted by society. On the other hand several readers condemned the heroine's death as authorial cowardice. 'I am grateful to you as a woman for having treated such a subject', wrote Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but 'Was it quite impossible but that your Ruth should die?' (15 July [1853], JRL, MS 730/9).

Cranford, published in volume form in June, caused no such controversy. The episodic tale of two sisters, Deborah and Matty Jenkins, and their genteel circle of women friends has always been valued for its humour, while its clever experiment with narrative voice and structure have won increasing recognition and its profound analysis of ‘community’ and of women's lives has recently been reappraised by feminist critics.

North and South, 1854–1855

Gaskell's second Manchester novel, North and South, outlined a clash of social philosophies through its depiction of the relationship between the ‘southern’ Margaret Hale and the northern mill owner John Thornton. After the furore surrounding the publication of Mary Barton, friends had suggested that she respond to criticisms of bias towards the workers by writing a more sympathetic portrait of the masters. At first she resisted, saying that 'whatever power there was' in her novel, 'was caused by my feeling strongly on the side which I took' (Letters, 119). However, by 1854 industrial strife had eased and experiments in caring for the workforce, like those of her factory owner friends Samuel Greg and Salis Schwabe, made her think again.

Gaskell's new novel set out to be conciliatory. By cleverly exploiting the conventions of a romance blocked by preconceptions and misunderstandings (an industrial Pride and Prejudice) Gaskell brilliantly conveys the tensions of her society, and her own deep-held belief, stated by her heroine, that 'God hath made us so that we must be mutually dependent'. Employing a network of interlinked contrasts—between men and women, country and city, royalist and roundhead, evangelical, Anglican and freethinker, Norse and oriental myth—this powerful and inventive novel is at once a guardedly optimistic ‘protest novel’, a fierce questioning of authority, and an intimate study of a young woman's growth to self-knowledge.

North and South first appeared as a weekly serial in Household Words from 2 September 1854 to 27 January 1855. This was a mode of publication that Gaskell found hard to handle: her refusal to accept Dickens's editing, and a miscalculation of length, as well as her own perpetual lateness in delivering copy, made their relationship extremely tense. She regarded the abrupt ending of the serial version as 'mutilated'—'like a pantomime figure with a great large head and a very small trunk' (to Maria James, n.d. [1854], U. Leeds, Brotherton L.)—and expanded it for volume publication in 1855.

In 1854 William Gaskell became the senior minister of Cross Street Chapel, but, despite her current preoccupation with Manchester in her novel, from this point Elizabeth Gaskell herself spent less and less time in the city. In 1854 she visited France with her daughter Marianne, forming a lasting friendship with Mary Clarke Mohl, with whom she and her daughters often stayed in future years. While writing North and South, she also stayed with the Nightingale family at Lea Hurst, Derbyshire, meeting Florence Nightingale just before she set off to the Crimea. Gaskell admired Nightingale, but found her tendency to put causes before individual relationships 'jarring': 'She has no friend—and wants none. She stands perfectly alone, half-way between God and His creatures' (Letters, 319). While the strong heroines of her novels often reflect the determination and the trials of contemporary women, ultimately they value feeling and sympathy above male structures of power.

The Life of Charlotte Brontë, 1856–1857

The insistence on women 'speaking out' is the point at which Gaskell comes closest to Charlotte Brontë, whom Gaskell recognized as the more powerful writer. Their friendship was close, although based only on occasional visits. In April 1853 Brontë stayed in Manchester again, while Gaskell visited Haworth from 19 to 23 September, after a summer which included a stay in Paris and a visit to Normandy. The following May Brontë paid her last visit, shortly before her marriage to Arthur Nicholls. The two authors did not meet again, perhaps, Gaskell thought, because Nicholls's strict Anglicanism made a Unitarian friend unwelcome.

In 1855 Gaskell returned from a Paris holiday to learn that Charlotte had died on 31 March, and in June Patrick Brontë asked her to write his daughter's life, to offset inaccurate versions. Much of the next two years was spent in gathering letters, collecting information, and compiling the life: the manuscript (JRL) shows that her daughters helped with transcription, and her husband with style. In May 1856 she went to Brussels, where she met Constantin Heger (the model for Paul Emmanuel in Villette) and read Charlotte's passionate letters to him. Yet Gaskell suppressed the true relationship with Heger in her desire to save Brontë from the allegations of 'coarseness' made in her lifetime. To compensate, and explain Charlotte's despair in 1845, she emphasized the moral disintegration of Branwell Brontë and the sisters' isolation.

To escape the storm that was bound to accompany publication of The Life of Charlotte Brontë on 24 March 1857, Gaskell left in February for three months on the continent with her two eldest daughters and Catherine Winkworth. In Rome she stayed with the family of the American sculptor William Whetmore Story, whom she had met at the Mohls in 1854, and also formed a close and enduring attachment to the young Charles Eliot Norton, soon to become editor of The Nation. She went on to visit Venice before returning home via Paris.

In her absence William Gaskell had to deal with the many complaints of misrepresentation, helped by her publisher, George Smith and the Gaskells' solicitor, William Shaen. When threats of libel writs came from Lady Scott (who as Lydia Robinson was blamed by Gaskell for Branwell Brontë's disgrace), unsold copies of the biography were withdrawn and a formal letter of apology placed in The Times. Fierce criticism and more legal threats came from supporters of W. Carus Wilson, founder of Cowan Bridge, the school blamed for the deaths of the elder Brontë sisters. Individual complaints came from many individuals, including Harriet Martineau, G. H. Lewes and, most particularly, Patrick Brontë. All were dealt with in the revised third edition. Faced with such criticism, Gaskell took refuge in the justification used of Mary Barton and Ruth: 'I did so try to tell the truth, & I believe now I hit as near the truth as any one could do. And I weighed every line with all my whole power & heart' (Letters, 454).

Above all, Gaskell's biography had recognized the split that the creative life involved for women, something that she herself experienced. Describing the publication of Jane Eyre, Gaskell wrote: 'Henceforward Charlotte Brontë's existence becomes divided into two parallel currents—her life as Currer Bell, the author; her life as Charlotte Brontë, the woman. There were separate duties belonging to each character, not impossible, but difficult to be reconciled' (Life of Charlotte Brontë, part 2, ch. 2).

Censored and shaped as it was, The Life of Charlotte Brontë was none the less a landmark in biography, creating a new, feminine form which linked emotional and domestic life and suffering to creativity. At the end of the century the novelist Margaret Oliphant remembered its impact, suggesting that Gaskell had shattered the notions of 'delicacy' regarded as 'the most exquisite characteristic of womankind', and had 'originated in her bewilderment a new kind of biography … The Times blew a trumpet of dismay; the book was revolution as well as revelation' (Women Novelists of Queen Victoria's Reign, 1897, 118). However, many have since blamed Gaskell for creating a myth of Brontë as suffering victim, rather than active agent. The arguments still rage, and even late in the twentieth century, the Life was described as 'a persuasive and powerful polemic which has never been seriously challenged' (J. Barker, The Brontës, 1994, xviii).

Shorter fiction and Sylvia's Lovers, 1858–1863

The next few years saw the height of Gaskell's achievement as a story-teller. 'The Doom of the Griffiths' appeared in Harper's Magazine in 1858; in March 1859 'My Lady Ludlow' and several short pieces were collected in Round the Sofa, while one of her greatest stories, 'Lois the Witch' appeared in Dickens's new magazine, All the Year Round, in October. This journal also carried other Gothic tales: 'The Crooked Branch' (1859), 'The Grey Woman' (1861), 'A Dark Night's Work', and 'Crowley Castle' (1863). Dismayed by Dickens's treatment of his wife after their separation, and his declaration on that matter, published in Household Words, in 1860 Gaskell was hunting for new outlets in which to present her fiction. In that year she published 'Curious but True' in the rival Cornhill Magazine, edited by Thackeray and published by George Smith.

Stories were a good source of ready cash. Although Gaskell maintained that her husband had quickly buttoned up her first cheque from Household Words in his pocket (a teasing action that has since won him an undeserved reputation for stern patriarchal repression), most of her earnings seem to have been in her direct control, channelled through the family solicitor, William Shaen. She never earned as much as her great contemporaries (receiving £2000 from the Cornhill for Wives and Daughters in 1864, for example, compared to £7000 paid to George Eliot for Romola in 1862). Many of her short works were written quickly, in order to pay for holidays. At times, it seemed, she had a passionate desire to be anywhere but Manchester. She visited relations in Scotland, London, and Gloucestershire and friends in the south of England. In 1857 she made her first trip to Oxford, where her friends included the family of Benjamin Brodie, professor of chemistry. She also went to Germany and Paris with Meta and Florence in 1859, and revisited France in 1860 and 1862, when she toured Normandy and Brittany, planning a memoir of Mme de Sevigné. (Her interest can be seen in the delightful articles on French life published in Fraser's Magazine in 1864.) In 1863 she stayed with the Mohls before continuing to Rome with three of her daughters, returning for the wedding of her youngest daughter, Florence, to Charles Crompton.

Gaskell did not detach herself completely from Manchester, however, and she was certainly intensely active there in 1862, when a collapse in the cotton trade, brought on by the American Civil War, created widespread distress. In this crisis she set up sewing workshops to provide part-time employment for women, sought Florence Nightingale's help to see if former mill women might train as nurses, and canvassed support from local philanthropists. Exhausted by the work, both Gaskell and her daughter Meta collapsed, and stayed with the Brodies in Worthing to recuperate.

Yet Gaskell still wrote on. Since a visit to Whitby in 1859 she had been working on a historical story set largely in this small whaling port in the 1790s. Sylvia's Lovers, which she felt was the saddest story she ever wrote, was eventually published in February 1863. A haunting, experimental mixture, its complex plot sets personal dramas and betrayals against wider debates about responsibility and torn loyalties: in business life, in the relation of family to state, and the 'nation' to the 'people', even in the tension between divine and human law. Beneath the surface lie the inexplicability of human pain, and Gaskell's unspoken sense that neither religion nor the new evolutionary science afforded much consolation.

Wives and Daughters, 1864–1866

Sylvia's Lovers looked back to an era before industrialization and the coming of the railways. The pressures of that change, felt in all Gaskell's fiction, haunt the background of Cousin Phillis, a Turgenev-like pastoral tale of young love and paternal misunderstanding. There is also an element of personal nostalgia in this story, the setting of which, Heathbridge, was based on memories of Sandlebridge, the farm owned by Gaskell's grandfather Samuel Holland. Cousin Phillis was published by George Smith in four episodes in the Cornhill, from November 1863 to February 1864. The story's abrupt ending, forced by the deadline, gives a slightly false, if moving, sense of uncertainty, since Gaskell seems to have planned that her heroine would find some ease for personal pain in social work.

By mid-1863 Gaskell was planning her next novel, Wives and Daughters. Here she turned triumphantly to the time of her own youth, the late 1820s. This brilliant and touching novel combines a comedy of manners with the parallel tales of adolescent growth to self-knowledge of Molly Gibson and Cynthia Kirkpatrick. Through humour and the suggestive imagery of science, medicine, and exploration, Gaskell excavated the personal, social, and political values that formed her own generation: in a way the novel forms a study of the evolution of a society, and some aspects of the hero Roger Hamley were drawn directly from Gaskell's relation Charles Darwin.

Wives and Daughters began to appear in the Cornhill in August 1864, proving an immediate success. That summer, anxious about the health of her daughter Meta, she took her to the Alps, and in March 1865 they visited the Mohls in Paris. Deadlines were still a problem, 'I am so badly behind hand' she wailed (Letters, 937), but somehow she managed to send the text episode by episode to the supportive George Smith. Smith also helped her in her determination to buy a house in the south, to be near Florence, now living in London, and Marianne, who had long been engaged to her cousin Thurstan Holland.

In June 1865, without viewing it herself, Gaskell bought The Lawn, Holybourne, near Alton in Hampshire: she had borrowed money from George Smith, and the purchase was kept a secret from William Gaskell, despite the fiction that the house was for him 'to retire to'. By mid-August she was ill with strain—but still fitted in a lively visit to Lord Houghton (Monckton Milnes) at Fryston. She was rushing through the final chapters of Wives and Daughters and also sending 'Columns of gossip from Paris' to the Pall Mall Gazette, as well as five instalments of 'A Parson's Holiday', comic fictional letters about a dissenting minister trying to escape his congregation. In September and October, worn out, she herself took a quick holiday in Dieppe.

On her return, Gaskell at last saw her new house. Ten days later, at tea there with her family on 12 November 1865, she collapsed suddenly with a massive heart attack and died almost instantly. She was buried on 17 November in the cemetery of Brook Street Chapel, Knutsford, where William Gaskell was later buried beside her in 1884. Wives and Daughters remained unfinished. The last episode appeared in January 1866, with a note rounding off the story from the Cornhill's editor, Frederic Greenwood. It was published in two volumes later that year.

Literary reputation

Elizabeth Gaskell was an immensely lively personality and a writer of varied talents and moods. This has made her hard to classify and readers have tended to identify her with one or other of her novels: the humorous, subtle reporter of village life and spinster habits in Cranford; the social protest novelist of Mary Barton, Ruth, and North and South; the vivid historian of Sylvia's Lovers; the wise analyst of parental tension and female longing in Wives and Daughters and Cousin Phyllis. She is also one of the great, and still underrated, Victorian short-story writers. Often thought of as artless, or as a 'natural story-teller', she was in fact a skilled and self-conscious artist, revelling in the possibilities of genres, playing with narrative stance and ambivalence and literary reference. Her awareness of the different languages (religious, political, economic, scientific) applied to contemporary problems is reflected in her aim as a fiction writer to mediate between discourses and to break down barriers of communication between classes and individuals.

The basis of Gaskell's vision is realistic, displaying an acute observation of domestic detail and a marvellous ear for dialogue—from Manchester tenements to Paris salons. She was also a shrewd psychologist, but beyond that, realism often gives way to more symbolic writing. Dreams and supernatural elements, particularly in the shorter works, offer a method of exploring power and weakness, the potential for horror, oppression, distress, and redemption.

Largely because of concentration on single aspects of her varied work, Gaskell's reputation has probably undergone more revisionist critical swerves than that of any other major nineteenth-century author. After her death a collected edition of Gaskell's works was published in 1873, and the ‘Knutsford’ edition, edited by A. A. Ward appeared in 1906. By then, however, she had fallen out of fashion, although Cranford remained a staple text, read in a spirit of nostalgia by travellers and expatriates, and by soldiers in the trenches in the First World War. In the inter-war years her feminine, pastoral aspect was stressed and critical opinion was tellingly summed up by Lord David Cecil's highly misleading formulation of her in Early Victorian Novelists (1934) as 'a dove': 'she was all a woman was expected to be; gentle, domestic, tactful, unintellectual, prone to tears, easily shocked. So far from chafing at the limits imposed on her activities, she accepted them with a serene satisfaction'.

Not until the 1950s were Gaskell's social concerns fully recognized, first by Kathleen Tillotson in Novels of the Eighteen-Forties (1954) and then by Marxist critics like Arnold Kettle in From Dickens to Hardy (1958) and Raymond Williams in Culture and Society (also 1958). Now she was classed with Dickens, Disraeli, and Kingsley as a critic of industrial society. Mary Barton and North and South were singled out in Williams's terms, for their sensitive observation and attempt at imaginative sympathy, but her critique of industrialism was also felt to have weaknesses and her endings were attacked as melodramatic and escapist.

More recently, critics have acknowledged that Gaskell's structural breaks and vacillation of tone are related to a refusal to give easy answers to social and spiritual dilemmas, and to her desire to ‘feminize’ traditional values and forms. An early work placing Gaskell in the context of the contemporary women's movement was Aina Rubenius's The Woman Question in Mrs Gaskell's Life and Works (1950) but Gaskell as social novelist remained the main focus until the 1980s, with some attempts to place her in the different traditions of the provincial novel, and the fiction of dissent.

Following the 1980s ‘rediscovery’ of women's fiction Gaskell was ranged not only with Dickens and Kingsley but with contemporary women critics of society such as Frances Trollope, Harriet Martineau, and Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna. Feminist criticism of the 1990s explored her subtle extension of female, maternal values from the domestic to the public sphere, her dramatization of the tension between old and new systems of values, and the relation between her experience as a woman writing for male editors, and that of the industrial workers she described. In the process, the powerfully subversive elements of Gaskell's shorter fiction have received belated recognition.

Outside academe, Gaskell has always found devoted readers. In the late twentieth century their numbers increased and she acquired a high reputation in unexpected places—Italy and Japan, for example, produced a surprising number of Gaskell fans. At the same time, in Britain, her works became rich material for adaptations, or modern versions like David Lodge's novel Nice Work (1988), a colourful reworking of the sexual and cultural battles of North and South. In 1997–8 a radio dramatization of North and South was followed by radio readings of her short stories, while one of the last BBC television ‘classic serials’ of the twentieth century, screened in November and December 1999, was Andrew Davies's superb adaptation of Gaskell's final, greatest novel, Wives and Daughters.

Sources

  • J. Uglow, Elizabeth Gaskell: a habit of stories (1993)
  • N. S. Weyant, Elizabeth Gaskell: an annotated bibliography (1991)
  • J. Chapple, Elizabeth Gaskell: the early years (1997)
  • J. A. V. Chapple and A. Wilson, eds., Private voices: the diaries of Elizabeth Gaskell and Sophia Holland (1996)
  • J. A. V. Chapple, Elizabeth Gaskell: a portrait in letters (1980)
  • Gaskell Society Journal, 6 (1992), 71
  • J. G. Sharps, Mrs Gaskell's observation and invention (1970)
  • A. Eassan, ed., Elizabeth Gaskell: the critical heritage (1992)
  • E. H. Chadwick, Mrs Gaskell: haunts, homes, and stories (1910)
  • P. Stoneman, Elizabeth Gaskell (1987)
  • W. Gerin, Elizabeth Gaskell (1976)

Archives

  • Harvard U., MSS
  • Hunt. L., letters
  • JRL, corresp., literary MSS, and papers
  • JRL, letters
  • Man. CL, Manchester Archives and Local Studies, letters
  • NRA, priv. coll., MSS
  • Princeton University Library, New Jersey, letters and literary MSS
  • U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters and literary MSS, incl. MS of Sylvia's lovers
  • BL, letters to F. J. Furnivall, Add. MS 43798
  • CUL, letters to John Malcolm Ludlow
  • Lancs. RO, letters to Lady Kay-Shuttleworth
  • NL Scot., letters to George Smith and Mrs Smith
  • Trinity Cam., letters to Lord Houghton
  • U. Birm. L., letters to Harriet Martineau

Likenesses

  • D. Dunbar, bust, 1829, University of Manchester
  • W. J. Thomson, miniature, 1832, University of Manchester Library
  • G. Richmond, pastel drawing, 1851, NPG [see illus.]
  • S. Lawrence, pastel drawing, 1854, priv. coll.
  • A. McGlashon, carte-de-visite, 1862–3, NPG
  • photograph, 1864, JRL
  • W. H. Thornycroft, marble bust, 1895 (after D. Dunbar), University of Manchester Library
  • C. A. D'Orsi, bronze plaque, Mrs Gaskell Memorial Tower, Knutsford