“To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood…” Wives and Daughters (1866) (Chapter 1)
Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (1810-65) was born on 29 September 1810 in Lindsey Row, Chelsea, at the house which is now 93 Cheyne Walk. She was the daughter of William Stevenson – a treasury official and journalist – and his wife Elizabeth Stevenson (née Holland). Mrs Stevenson died on 29 October 1811, and so at the age of just 13 months, the baby Elizabeth (later known as Lily) was sent to Knutsford in Cheshire to spend her childhood with her mother’s sister, Aunt Hannah Lumb, whom she was later to describe as her ‘more than mother’. Their house, then named The Heath but now Heathwaite House, still stands on what is now called Gaskell Avenue. Knutsford, a small country town, later became the inspiration for Cranford, and also for Hollingford in Wives and Daughters.
Elizabeth also spent some time in Edinburgh and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Her father had remarried when she was four, and her stepmother, Catherine Thomson, was a sister of the Scottish miniature artist, William John Thomson. He painted the famous portrait of Elizabeth in 1832 (pictured, left).
It was this lively and attractive young woman who married William Gaskell in 1832. He was the assistant minister at Cross Street Unitarian Chapel in Manchester at the time. They settled in the city and she helped with his work, offering support to the poor and teaching in the Sunday School, where reading and writing were taught, as well as scripture. During the early part of their married life, the Gaskells lived in Dover Street, just off the busy Oxford Road in the Chorlton-on-Medlock district. Their daughters Marianne, Margaret Emily (Meta) and Florence were born in 1834, 1837 and 1842, and later that year, the family moved to a larger house at 121 Upper Rumford Street, nearby. In 1845, Elizabeth’s only son, William, died of scarlet fever at the age of nine months. She had already had a few short stories published and her husband suggested that she wrote a novel as a distraction from her grief.
The Gaskells’ Manchester was a great cultural and intellectual centre, boasting institutions like the Literary and Philosophical Society, the Mechanics Institute and the Athenaeum. It was at the forefront of the new industrial age, but this rapid growth, as well as generating much wealth, also led to uncontrolled urban development and appalling squalor. In 1844, Friedrich Engels described the homes of the factory operatives in The Conditions of the Working Class in England: ‘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.’
Manchester was at the centre of great political change and much radical activity. Elizabeth observed these social tensions and used what she saw in her novels
In the preface to Mary Barton (subtitled A Tale of Manchester Life), published anonymously in 1848, Elizabeth says 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.’
Mary Barton had a huge impact on the reading public and provoked widespread discussion. Its subject matter – the appalling state of impoverished workers in the industrial centres of the North and her sympathetic treatment of their plight – pricked the conscience of a nation.
With its sensational plot and social realism, Mary Barton attracted the attention of Charles Dickens. It was at his invitation that much of her work was first published in the periodicals he edited: Household Words and All the Year Round. Elizabeth became a popular author, writing numbers of stories for Dickens. These stories (which include Cranford) are very varied and are quite distinct in style from her industrial fiction.
In 1846 a fourth daughter, Julia, had been born, and in 1850 the Gaskells took up residence at 42 (now 84) Plymouth Grove, a large, rather imposing house outside the grimy manufacturing district, with a view of open fields. Elizabeth was thrilled with her new home, though a little alarmed at its size and cost. In a letter to her friend Eliza (Tottie) Fox in April 1850, she wrote:
‘And we’ve got a house. Yes! We really have. And if I had neither conscience nor prudence, I should be delighted, for it certainly is a beauty…. I must try and make the house give as much pleasure to others as I can and make it as little a selfish thing as I can. My dear! It’s 150 a year and I dare say we shall be ruined; and I’ve already asked after the ventilation at the new Borough Gaol.’
Elizabeth was true to her word and was a sociable and energetic hostess; the house was always bustling, with a stream of visitors which included many eminent people of the day. She also tried to bring some countryside to the town by keeping a vegetable garden, a cow, pigs and poultry.
She had an exceptionally busy and active family and social life, and was still engaged in many works of charity. Elizabeth was an active humanitarian; her novels convey many messages about the need for social reconciliation, for better understanding between employers and workers and between the respectable and the outcasts of society. Her writing was carefully researched, and she took particular care in reproducing northern dialects accurately.
Despite her occasional tendency towards melodrama, Elizabeth had a natural gift for storytelling and Dickens referred to her as his ‘dear Scheherazade’. She originally published anonymously but, according to Victorian conventions, her readers came to know her as ‘Mrs Gaskell’ a name which made her sound matronly and safe. Elizabeth Gaskell (as we prefer to call her) was actually courageous and progressive in her style and subject matter, and often framed her stories as critiques of Victorian attitudes (particularly those towards women). She braved the opprobrium of her husband’s Unitarian congregation, in part for her depiction of prostitution and illegitimacy, particularly in her novel Ruth, and also for her challenge to the traditional view of women’s role in society. Her celebrated biography of her friend Charlotte Brontë added to her fame but also caused a furore as it was considered to contain libellous statements, which were later withdrawn.
Elizabeth Gaskell loved to travel and was always keen to escape the smoky atmosphere of Manchester. Some of her favourite British destinations were North Wales, the Lake District and Silverdale in Lancashire. She always wanted to meet new people and her trips away provided locations, plots and material for her writing. An independent spirit, she also ventured abroad most years, travelling to France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. She was usually accompanied by at least one of her daughters, rather than her husband, as William preferred to holiday alone..
She was, at the same time, a caring wife and mother, attractive and well-liked. At ease in any company, she was chatty, sociable and a prolific writer of letters. She had a wide circle of friends, which included Charlotte Brontë, John Ruskin, the Carlyles, Charles Kingsley and Florence Nightingale. Although they shared many artistic concerns, Elizabeth had a difficult working relationship with Charles Dickens who, as editor, often wanted to alter what she wrote. On one occasion, exasperated by her perceived waywardness as a contributor, he exclaimed to his sub- editor, ‘Oh! Mrs Gaskell-fearful-fearful! If I were Mr G. Oh heavens how I would beat her!’ It’s easy to see why they didn’t always get on.
Elizabeth wrote many vivid and warm hearted short stories and novellas, of which the finest is said 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 never finished.
Elizabeth Gaskell died suddenly on 12 November 1865 at The Lawn, a house in Holybourne in Hampshire that she was secretly buying as a post-retirement surprise for her husband and family.
Wives and Daughters was being published in the Cornhill Magazine, a high quality literary periodical specialising in the serialisation of novels. It appeared posthumously in volume form in 1866.
In the early twentieth century, her writing appeared old-fashioned and provincial, but today Elizabeth Gaskell ranks as one of the most highly-regarded British Victorian novelists. In this new century she is recognised as the accomplished artist that she was, and for the past thirty years or more has increasingly attracted the attention of literary theorists, academics and readers who just enjoy a good story. Consequently, more subtle and penetrating accounts of Gaskell’s life and writings are now being published for her growing readership.
The image of Elizabeth Gaskell by William John Thomson, of Edinburgh, 1832 is reproduced here by courtesy of the University Librarian and Director, The John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester