The Gaskell Society
Portrait of Elizabeth Gaskell
Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell-(1810-1865)

Brief account of Life and Works.

“To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood…”
Wives and Daughters, (1866) (Chapter 1)

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (1810-65) was born on the 29th September 1810 in Lindsay Row, Chelsea, at the house which is now 93 Cheyne Walk. She was the daughter of William Stevenson a Unitarian minister and later a treasury official and journalist and his wife Elizabeth Stevenson (nee Holland) whose father Samuel Holland farmed at Sandlebridge near Knutsford in Cheshire. Elizabeth Gaskell’s mother died on 29th October 1811, and so at the age of 13 months, the baby Elizabeth, later known as ‘Lily’ came to spend her childhood living with her mother’s sister, Aunt Hannah Lumb (referred to by Elizabeth Gaskell as, “my more than mother”) at her house The Heath, (now named Heathwaite House) situated on what is now ‘Gaskell Avenue,’ in Knutsford, Cheshire.

It was this small country town of Knutsford that was the place that she was to re-create nearly forty years later as the setting for the town of ‘Cranford’ in her novel of the same name. Knutsford was also the inspiration and setting for ‘Hollingford’ in Wives and Daughters. Cumnor Towers in the novel; was based on the great house at Tatton Park. (The park-grounds start from the immediate boundary of the streets of the town of Knutsford.)

Elizabeth also spent some time in Newcastle upon Tyne and Edinburgh. Her father William Stevenson had married again when Elizabeth was four, and her stepmother Catherine Thomson was a sister of the Scottish miniature artist, William John Thomson who painted a famous portrait of Elizabeth in 1832. (See miniature of this portrait at the top of the Gaskell Society home page.)

In 1832 Elizabeth married William Gaskell, who was at the time the assistant minister at Cross Street Unitarian Chapel in Manchester. They settled in Manchester and she joined him there in his work with the poor distributing food and clothes at Cross Street Chapel.

During their early married life the Gaskells were resident for a time in Dover Street which was on the south-west side of the town, off the busy Oxford Road in the Ardwick district of Manchester. In 1842 the Gaskell family moved to 121 Upper Rumford Street which was a slightly larger house still in the same district.

In 1850 they moved to 42 (now 84) Plymouth Grove, a large house beyond the manufacturing district in view of open fields. Here Elizabeth tried to bring some countryside to the town by keeping a vegetable garden, a cow and poultry. The house was always bustling and they entertained a stream of visitors there over the years including many eminent literary personages of the day.

The Manchester or the Gaskell’s time was a city of extremes. It was a great cultural and intellectual centre, boasting institutions like the Literary and Philosophical Society, the Mechanics Institute and the Athenaeum. It was also the symbol of the new industrial age and the rapid growth of industry made a huge impact on the landscape of the city. Uncontrolled urban development created extreme poverty and squalor. Friedrich Engels described the homes of the factory operatives in The Conditions of the Working Class in England in 1844 writing:-

The workers dwellings of Manchester are dirty, miserable and wholly lacking in comforts. In such houses only inhuman, degraded and unhealthy creatures would feel at home.

It was also a time of great political change with Manchester as a centre of Chartist activity. Elizabeth Gaskell observed all these social tensions intimately and used her observations (and the hypocrisy that she saw at work) in her novels that have become known since as her ‘industrial novel’ genre.

William and Elizabeth Gaskell had four daughters and a son William who died in infancy from Scarlet fever. As a distraction from her grief at his death, her husband suggested that she turn to creative writing to help her get over the death of her baby son. Therefore it was out of that intense personal sorrow that her first novel Mary Barton (subtitled A Tale of Manchester Life) was born.

In the preface to he novel she wrote that she was inspired by thinking "how deep might be the romance in the lives of some of those who elbowed me daily in the busy streets of the town in which I resided. I had always felt a deep sympathy with the careworn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and  want."
She observes the bitterness of their resentment against the rich and sets herself the task of creating understanding and sympathy for them.

Mary Barton was anonymously published in 1848. It had a great impact on the reading public and was widely reviewed and discussed.
Its subject matter, the appalling state of the poor in the industrial activities of the North of England, and Gaskell’s empathic treatment of suffering workers in the Manchester area awakened the conscience of the nation.

With its tight plot and social realism, Mary Barton attracted the attention of Charles Dickens and it was at his invitation that much of her work was first published in Household Words and All the Year Round. With the help of Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell became popular for her writing, especially her ghost story writing. These stories are quite distinct in style from her industrial fiction and belong more to the Gothic fiction genre.

Mrs Gaskell led an exceptionally busy and active family and social life and was engaged with her husband in many works of charity. She was an active humanitarian and there are messages in several of her novels for the need for social reconciliation, for better understanding between employers and workers and between the respectable and the outcasts of society. She was a keen observer of human behaviour and speech, among both industrial workers in Manchester and farming and country-town communities, and a careful researcher of the background and technicalities of her novels.

She had a natural gift for story telling, so much so that Charles Dickens called her his, “dear Scheherazade,” although at first she was rather uncertain in the art of plot creation and was given to melodramatic devices.

Even though her writing conforms to Victorian conventions (including signing her name “Mrs Gaskell,” which makes her sound so comfortable and matronly), she was consistently progressive in her style and subject matter, and usually frames her stories as critiques of Victorian attitudes (particularly those towards women.) She braved the opprobrium of her husband’s congregation both for her depictions of prostitution and illegitimacy particularly dealt with in her novel Ruth. She also challenged traditional views of women’s role in society throughout her work and in her celebrated biography of her friend Charlotte Bronte, did so with particular directness. This work although it reinforced her fame during her lifetime also caused a furore, as it upset contemporary ideas of what people wanted to know about a life, and was considered to contain some allegedly libellous statements which had to be withdrawn.

Elizabeth Gaskell also loved travelling and was always keen to escape the smoky atmosphere of Manchester. Some of her favourite British holiday destinations were North Wales, the Lake District and Silverdale in Lancashire. She was ever observant and ready to talk to new people and her numerous holidays provided her with locations and plots for her fiction as well as material for articles.

She also ventured further afield; from 1853, she journeyed abroad almost every year, travelling to France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. She was usually accompanied by one of her daughters, while William preferred to holiday alone. Her fame as a writer brought her into contact with a wide range of people during these foreign holidays.

Elizabeth Gaskell was a devoted wife and mother; she was a beautiful and much liked woman, at ease in any company and had many friends who included Charlotte Bronte, John Ruskin, the Carlyles, Charles Kingsley and Florence Nightingale.

Her relations with Dickens were chiefly professional, but although they shared many artistic concerns, they had a difficult working relationship as their characters were not congenial: on one occasion, exasperated by her waywardness as a contributor, Dickens explained to his sub editor, “Oh! Mrs Gaskell-fearful-fearful! If I were Mr G. Oh heavens how I would beat her!
Poor Elizabeth, thank heavens he wasn’t her husband!!

Gaskell also wrote many vivid and warm hearted short stories and novellas, of which the finest is reputed to be Cousin Phillis (1863). Her other full-length novels were Cranford (1853) Ruth (1853) North and South (1855) Sylvia’s Lovers (1863) and finally Wives and Daughters (1866), which was left unfinished when Mrs Gaskell died suddenly of heart failure on 12th November 1865 at the house, The Lawn near Holybourne in Hampshire that she was buying secretly as a surprise for the family to live in after her husband’s retirement.

(And it is interesting perhaps that secrets; including the strain of having to know about them and keep them safe, form a considerable part of the plot of her last unfinished novel Wives and Daughters).

Wives and Daughters, was published in the *Cornhill Magazine 1864-6 and in volume form in 1866.

In the twentieth century, Mrs Gaskell’s writing began to appear increasingly old-fashioned and provincial, but today she ranks as one of the most highly-regarded British Victorian novelists.

In this new century, novelists like A.S Byatt are making a deliberate point of obscuring the boundary between fiction and non-fiction. Life and Literature are interwoven and form an imaginative continuum. Consequently a more subtle and penetrating criticism of Elizabeth Gaskell’s life and writings taken together is now being published for her growing readership.

*The Cornhill Magazine- (1860-1975) was a literary periodical of consistently high quality, which began with Thackeray as editor and specialized in the serialization of novels.

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Elizabeth Gaskell
Heathwaite, Knutsford
Heathwaite, Knutsford, Cheshire
The Parish Church, Knutsford
The Parish Church, Knutsford
The Parish Church, Knutsford
William Gaskell
Cross Street Chapel, Manchester 1835
Cross Street Chapel,
Manchester 1835
Brook Street Chapel, Knutsford
Brook Street Chapel,
Brook Street Chapel, Knutsford
Plymouth Grove, Manchester
The Lawn, Nr Holybourne, Hampshire
The Lawn, Nr Holybourne, Hampshire
Portrait of Elizabeth Gaskell
The Gaskell Memorial Tower, Knutsford