Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

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Date: 2003
Document Type: Biography
Length: 2,514 words

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About this Person
Born: September 29, 1810 in London, United Kingdom
Died: November 12, 1865 in Holybourne, United Kingdom
Nationality: British
Occupation: Writer
Other Names: Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn; Stevenson, Elizabeth Cleghorn; Gaskell, Elizabeth C.; Gaskell, Elizabeth Stevenson; Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson; Gaskell, Mrs.; Gaskell, E.C.; Mills, Cotton Mather
Updated:Nov. 5, 2003


Family: Born September 29, 1810, in London, England; died November 12, 1865, in Holybourne, Hampshire, England; daughter of William (keeper of treasury records and writer) and Elizabeth (Holland) Stevenson; married William Gaskell (a minister), August 30, 1832; children: Marianne, Margaret Emily ("Meta"), Florence, William, Julia.





  • Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (novel; published anonymously), two volumes, Chapman & Hall (London), and one volume, Harper (New York, NY), 1848, reprinted, Viking, 1975.
  • (As Cotton Mather Mills, Esq.) Libbie Marsh's Three Eras: A Lancashire Tale, Hamilton, Adams (London), 1850.
  • (Attributed to Charles Dickens) Lizzie Leigh: A Domestic Tale, from "Household Words", Dewitt & Davenport (New York, NY), 1850.
  • The Moorland Cottage (published anonymously) Chapman & Hall (London), 1850, Harper (New York, NY), 1851.
  • Ruth: A Novel (published anonymously), three volumes, Chapman & Hall (London), and one volume, Ticknor, Reed & Fields (Boston, MA), 1853, new edition published under name Elizabeth C. Gaskell, Oxford University Press, 1985.
  • Cranford (published anonymously), Chapman & Hall (London), and Harper (New York, NY), 1853, new edition published under name Elizabeth C. Gaskell, Oxford University Press, 1980.
  • Lizzie Leigh and Other Tales (published anonymously), Chapman & Hall (London), 1855, Hardy (Philadelphia), 1869.
  • Hands and Heart and Bessy's Troubles at Home (published anonymously), Chapman & Hall (London), 1855.
  • North and South (published anonymously), two volumes, Chapman & Hall (London), and one volume, Harper (New York, NY), 1855, published under name Elizabeth C. Gaskell, Scholarly Press, 1971, revised edition, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1982, new edition, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1998.
  • The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Author of "Jane Eyre, " "Shirley, " "Villette" etc. (biography), two volumes, Smith, Elder (London), and Appleton (New York, NY), 1857, one volume, Oxford University Press, 1975.
  • My Lady Ludlow: A Novel, Harper (New York, NY), 1858, published in England as Round the Sofa, two volumes, Low (London), 1858, published as My Lady Ludlow and Other Stories, Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Right at Last, and Other Tales, Low (London), and Harper (New York, NY), 1860.
  • Lois the Witch and Other Tales, Tauchnitz (Leipzig), 1861.
  • Sylvia's Lovers (novel), three volumes, Smith, Elder (London), and one volume, Dutton (New York, NY), 1863, reprinted, Oxford University Press, 1982.
  • A Dark Night's Work, Smith, Elder (London), and Harper (New York, NY), 1863, published as A Dark Night's Work and Other Stories, Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Cousin Phillis: A Tale, Harper (New York, NY), 1864, published in England as Cousin Phillis and Other Tales, Smith, Elder (London), 1865, reprinted, Oxford University Press, 1981.
  • The Grey Woman and Other Tales, Smith, Elder (London), 1865, Harper (New York, NY), 1882.
  • The Manchester Marriage, Academy Chicago Publishers, 1987.
  • Wives and Daughters: An Every-Day Story, two volumes, Smith, Elder (London), 1866, one volume, Harper (New York, NY), 1866, reprinted, Viking, 1969.


  • The Works of Mrs. Gaskell, eight volumes, edited by A. W. Ward, Smith, Elder (London), 1906-11, reprinted as The Works: The Knutsford Edition, Lubrecht & Cramer, 1974.
  • The Novels and Tales of Mrs. Gaskell, eleven volumes, edited by C. K. Shorter, Oxford University Press, 1906-19.
  • The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell, edited by John A. Chapple and Arthur Pollard, Harvard University Press, 1966.
  • The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell and Charles Eliot Norton, 1855-1865, introduction by Jane Whitehill, Lubrecht & Cramer, 1973.
  • Elizabeth Gaskell: A Portrait in Letters, edited by J. A. V. Chapple and John Geoffrey Sharps, Manchester University Press (Manchester, England), 1980.
  • Four Short Stories, Pandora Press (Boston, MA), 1983.
  • Gothic Tales, Penguin (New York, NY), 2000.
  • Further Letters of Mrs. Gaskell, edited by John Chapple and Alan Shelston, Manchester University Press (Manchester, England), 2000.


Contributor of stories, essays, and articles to periodicals, including Cornhill and Charles Dickens's Household Words and All the Year Round.

Collections of Gaskell's papers are housed at Harvard University, Leeds University, the Manchester Central Reference Library, Manchester University, Princeton University, and the John Rylands Library.


Gaskell was born in 1810 in London, England. Her mother died about a year later, and Elizabeth was taken in by her mother's sister, Aunt Lumb. Growing up in the quiet country town of Knutsford, Gaskell had little contact with her father, who remained in London. Her Unitarian family encouraged the schooling of girls as well as boys, so Gaskell received a liberal education, first at home and then at a boarding school. By the time she left school at the age of seventeen, she had taken lessons in French, Latin, Italian, and dance, among other subjects.

When Gaskell finished school in 1827, she returned to Knutsford, but she went to London in 1828 after hearing about the disappearance of her only brother, John Stevenson, who was a sailor for the East India Company. She remained in London, with her father and stepmother, until her father's death in 1829. Gaskell then returned to Knutsford, where she lived until her 1832 marriage to the Reverend William Gaskell, who she met during a visit to Manchester.

The Gaskells settled in Manchester, as William Gaskell was already a prominent minister in that community. Elizabeth Gaskell thus traded the quiet provincial town of Knutsford for the burgeoning industrial city, and the contrast between these ways of life would later figure in her writing. Although she had a certain admiration for Manchester, Gaskell preferred the atmosphere of the country and referred to the city as "dear old dull ugly smoky grim grey Manchester, " according to Edgar Wright in the Dictionary of Literary Biography (DLB).

During her first years in Manchester Gaskell wrote a few pieces, including a sonnet to her stillborn child and a chronicle of her schooldays, but she devoted most of her time to domestic activity. Writing took on a greater importance after the death of her nine-month-old son in 1845, when Gaskell's husband encouraged her to write as a way of soothing her grief. She finished her first novel, Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life, in 1847. Gaskell was paid 100 pounds sterling for the manuscript, which was published anonymously in 1848.

Mary Barton details the life of the title character, the daughter of a mill hand. The Bartons live in Manchester, which has been beset by an economic depression. The period is marked by labor unrest, and Mary's father, John, is chosen by lot to kill the mill owner's son as an ultimate act of union protest. John does commit the murder, but Jem Wilson, who cares for Mary, becomes the suspect. Eventually the truth is disclosed, but not without more plot complications. Jem and Mary ultimately move away from Manchester together.

Although Mary Barton was published anonymously, Gaskell's authorship was soon revealed and the controversial book made her a celebrity. Critics praised the novel's humor and the quality of her prose, though some believed that Gaskell's view of labor relations exceedingly favored workers. Wright noted in his DLB essay that "a summary of the plot gives little hint of the real force of the novel: the presentation of Manchester life and the pressures that turn John Barton into a murderer.... Mary Barton is the first realistic portrayal of the phenomenon of the new major industrial city and its people."

With the success of Mary Barton Gaskell's literary career blossomed and she was soon writing stories for Household Words, a journal founded by renowned writer Charles Dickens. One such contribution was "Our Society at Cranford, " a story that became the first two chapters of the novel Cranford. Published in 1853, Cranford reflects the spirit of old-fashioned Knutsford society. The book features a cast of eccentric characters and mainly centers on the life of soft-hearted Miss Matty and the search for her missing brother, a plot element that parallels Gaskell's own brother's disappearance.

The novel revolves around relationships and social conduct, and it was praised by critics for the intimate style of its telling. "The attractiveness of Cranford, " according to Wright, "lies in the way in which [Gaskell] recreates with humor and affection a way of life that was already old-fashioned when she was a young girl growing up among the little group of ladies of good birth but small income who constituted Cranford society."

During the same period that she was writing Cranford, Gaskell was working on another novel, Ruth, whose 1853 publication netted the author 500 pounds sterling. Gaskell delved deeper into controversial subject matter with Ruth, which concerns a "fallen woman" who bears a child out of wedlock. An old family friend of Gaskell's provided the basis for the character Thurston Benson, a Dissenting minister who befriends Ruth and assists her in rearing her child. Ruth demonstrates the strength of her character at the end of the novel, when she serves as a nurse during a cholera epidemic and then succumbs to the disease herself.

Though Ruth received a negative reaction from aghast moralists, many critics viewed the book favorably. Wright noted in DLB that Ruth illustrates Gaskell's growth as a writer, and further stated that "the strength of the novel lies in its presentation of social conduct within a small Dissenting community when tolerance and rigid morality clash." Despite the distressing criticism of the book, Gaskell stood by her convictions. As quoted by Wright, the author stated that "`an unfit subject for fiction' is the thing to say about [Ruth]; I knew all this before; but I determined notwithstanding to speak my mind about it."

After the publication of Cranford and Ruth Gaskell continued her professional relationship with Charles Dickens, who asked her to write a novel for serialization in Household Words. Before she began her next book, however, Gaskell traveled and visited friends, including novelist Charlotte Bronte, whom she had met in 1850. When she finally started writing, Gaskell produced North and South, which was published in novel form in 1855.

The complex plot of North and South mainly revolves around John Thornton, a Milton (Manchester) mill owner, and Margaret Hale, a privileged young woman from Helstone (Knutsford), a small town in the rural south of England. The setting of the novel shifts from the south to the industrialized north when Margaret's family moves there, allowing for a comparison of the two realms. Contrasts pervade the novel: urban versus rural, workers versus employers, wealth versus poverty, and unionists versus nonunionists. In the midst of various subplots and social concerns, John and Margaret eventually fall in love and learn to appreciate each other's background.

Though North and South's complexity did not, to Dickens's chagrin, make it very suitable for serialization, Wright asserted in DLB that Gaskell achieved "maturity as a novelist" with the book. Wright continued, "The contrasts and themes are presented with far more power and subtlety than a plot summary can suggest. For example, the beauty of Helstone contrasts with the ugliness of Milton, but the beauty is a surface for ignorance and cruelty, while the ugliness conceals intelligence and vigor."

Gaskell's next project commenced upon the death of her dear friend Charlotte Bronte in 1855, when Bronte's husband and father asked Gaskell to write the novelist's official biography. Gaskell finished the book in 1857 and it achieved quick success. A frank and detailed portrait of Bronte and her family, The Life of Charlotte Bronte "has established itself as one of the great biographies, " according to Wright. "Later biographies have modified but not replaced it."

Gaskell spent the latter part of the 1850s writing pieces for Dickens's Household Words, including My Lady Ludlow and Lois the Witch, and for another periodical, Cornhill magazine. Sylvia's Lovers, Gaskell's next major effort, was published in 1863. The book relates the story of Sylvia Robson, a young woman who lives in the whaling community of Monkshaven. With Sylvia, Gaskell created "a portrait of passionate intensity without parallel in her work, " noted Wright in DLB. "As always, Mrs. Gaskell excels in presenting the setting and community life of the locality." Although some critics found fault with the novel's seemingly forced tragic ending, Wright noted that the book's "first two volumes are full of energy; they sparkle and have humor, as does Sylvia's own character."

After Sylvia's Lovers, Gaskell produced Cousin Phillis, a short novel that was originally serialized in Cornhill magazine. Told from the perspective of railroad engineer trainee Paul Manning, Cousin Phillis is set in a rural area similar to that depicted in Cranford. In this book, however, the industrial, in the form of the railroad, has begun to encroach upon the pastoral. Much of the novel is concerned with Phillis's love for Paul's employer, Holdsworth, who rejects her. As Wright explained in DLB, Cousin Phillis is a simple story whose "virtues are in the manner of development and telling.... Most critics would agree with Arthur Pollard's assessment of Cousin Phillis as the author's crowning achievement in the short novel."

Gaskell's final book was also serialized in Cornhill; Wives and Daughters: An Every-Day Story ran monthly from August 1864 to January 1866. The author earned 2000 pounds sterling for the book, enough money to buy a country retreat in anticipation of her husband's retirement. Although the final installment was never written, the book is virtually complete. The setting of Wives and Daughters is Hollingford, a locale similar to Knutsford but "reinterpreted as a much wider community, " according to Wright.

With Hollingford, Gaskell created "a community where society, from the great house to the tradespeople, has to grapple with a changing world, whether in technology or conduct or ideas, " Wright noted. The novel is structured around various relationships, family groups, and finely drawn characters. Author Henry James, Wright reported, remarked upon Gaskell's "genius" and "the gentle skill with which the reader is slowly involved in the tissue of [Wives and Daughters]." Wright also noted that the book is often compared to the work of Jane Austen "for its combination of humor and moral judgment in the observation of character and conduct."

Gaskell never completed Wives and Daughters because her health was failing. On November 12, 1865, she unexpectedly collapsed and died. Her critical reputation continued to develop, however, and "critical awareness of her as a social historian is now more than balanced by awareness of her innovativeness and artistic development as a novelist, " according to Wright. The recent reissuing of some of Gaskell's work is, Wright concluded, "helping to consolidate her reputation as undoubtedly major."




Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 4: Victorian Writers, 1832-1890, Gale, 1991, pp. 210-24.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, Volume 21: Victorian Novelists before 1885, 1983, pp. 174-88, Volume 144: Nineteenth-Century British Literary Biographers, 1994.

Gerin, Winifred, Elizabeth Gaskell: A Biography, Clarendon Press (Oxford), 1976.

Hopkins, Annette Brown, Elizabeth Gaskell: Her Life and Work, Lehmann (London), 1952.

Pollard, Arthur, Mrs. Gaskell: Novelist and Biographer, Manchester University Press, 1966.

Selig, R. L., Elizabeth Gaskell: A Reference Guide, Hall (Boston, MA), 1977.

Wright, Edgar, Mrs. Gaskell: The Basis for Reassessment, Oxford University Press, 1965.


Belles Lettres, fall, 1988, p. 14.

Books & Bookmen, January, 1972, p. 61; August, 1973, p. 137.

British Book News, July, 1983, p. 412; July, 1985, p. 387; March, 1986, p. 132; November, 1987, p. 775.

Choice, November, 1979, p. 1171; November, 1983, p. 422.

Christian Science Monitor, December 6, 1985, p. B3.

New Statesman, August 11, 1978, p. 190; July 30, 1982, p. 19.

New Yorker, August 20, 1979, p. 102.

New York Times Book Review, November 13, 1983, p. 19.

Nineteenth-Century Literature, September, 1993, p. 277.

Observer (London), November 14, 1971, p. 26; February 9, 1975, p. 27; August 8, 1993, p. 54.

Spectator, October 13, 1973, p. 487; December 2, 1989, p. 35.

Times Educational Supplement, June 30, 1972, p. 741; August 17, 1973, p. 950; January 24, 1975, p. 86; August 4, 1978, p. 81; June 8, 1984, p. 32.

Victorian Studies, spring, 1988, p. 351.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1000035560