A Few Words on Elizabeth Gaskell

PBS Masterpiece will be showing Cranford May 4, 11 & 18.  It has an all-star cast, to include Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Imelda Staunton and others. [see PBS Masterpiece for a preview and cast information.]   Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (1810-1865) is most known to us as the author of the then-controversial biography of Charlotte Bronte, where she laid bare the oddities of the Bronte household, publicizing the behavior of the semi-mad father and the destructive life and affairs of the son .   But she was a well-respected and popular author in her own day and we are now perhaps seeing a resurgence of that popularity with the broadcast of Wives & Daughters, North & South, and the soon-to-be-seen Cranford.  So I give a brief outline of her life and works, with a few references for further reading. 

Born in Cheshire to William Stevenson, a Unitarian minister, Elizabeth was raised by her aunt, the sister of her mother who died shortly after her birth.  The town of Knutsford and the country life she experienced there became her setting in Cranford and her “Hollingford” in North & South.  She married William Gaskell of Manchester, also a Unitarian minister, in 1832, had four daughters and one son, who died in infancy.  The loss of her son had a devastating effect on her and to keep herself from sinking into an ever-deeper depression, she took pen in hand and started to write.  She published her first book Mary Barton in 1848 (using the pseudonym Cotton Mather Mills), though there is some speculation that she actually started to write Sylvia’s Lovers (1863) first but put it aside to write the more socially-conscious Mary Barton.  Gaskell, according to Lucy Stebbins, was chiefly concerned with the ethical question of “The Lie”, i.e a belief that “deception was the greatest obstacle to the sympathetic understanding which was her panacea for individual and class quarrels.” (1)  This reconciliation between individuals of different classes and between the wider world of masters and workers was her hope for humanity and it was this zeal that often led her into false sentiment in her novels and stories.(2)  But because she saw both sides of the labor question and pitied both the oppressor and the oppressed, she was thus able to portray with often explicit candor the realities of her world.  But Stebbins also says that life was too kind to her as a woman to make her a great artist.  Her tales of vengeance and remorse were written more to satisfy public taste, after she started publishing in Dickens’ Household Words.  And David Cecil calls Gaskell “a typical Victorian woman….a wife and mother”….he emphasizes her femininity, which he says gives her the strengths of her detail and a “freshness of outlook” in her portrayals of the country gentry, while at the same time this femininity limits her imagination.  In comparing her to Jane Austen, Cecil writes:

         “It is true Mrs. Gaskell lived a narrow life, but Jane Austen, living a life just as narrow, was able to make works of major art out of it.  Jane Austen…was a woman of very abnormal penetration and intensity of genius. ….. [Gaskell] cannot, as Jane Austen did, make one little room an everywhere; pierce through the surface facts of a village tea-party to reveal the universal laws of human conduct that they illustrate.  If she [Gaskell] writes about a a village tea-party, it is just a village tea-party…”(3)

   Cecil is critical of her melodrama, her “weakness for a happy ending”, her overlong works that lack imagination and passion.  But he does credit her four major works (Sylvia’s Lovers, Cranford, Wives & Daughters, and Cousin Phillis) as classic and worthy English domestic novels. 

Anne Thackeray Ritchie, in her introduction to Cranford, published in 1891, also compares Gaskell to Austen, and finds the latter lacking:

Cranford is farther removed from the world, and yet more attuned to its larger interests than Meryton or Kellynch or Hartfield….Drumble, the great noisy manufacturing town, is its metropolis, not Bath with its successions of card parties and Assembly Rooms.” …. and on love, “there is more real feeling in these few signs of what once was, than in all the Misses Bennett’s youthful romances put together…only Miss Austen’s very sweetest heroines (including her own irresistible dark-eyed self, in her big cap and faded kerchief) are worthy of this old place….”  and later, “it was because she had written Mary Barton that some deeper echoes reach us in Cranford than are to be found in any of Jane Austen’s books, delightful though they be.” (4)

Margaret Lane in her wonderful book of essays on biography, Purely for Pleasure [which also includes the essay “Jane Austen’s Sleight-of-hand”], has two essays on Mrs. Gaskell.  Lane calls her one of the greatest novelists of the time, and especially praises Wives & Daughters over Cranford for its stature, sympathies, mature grasp of character and its humour, and its effect of “creating the illusion of a return to a more rigid but also more stable and innocent world than ours” and we feel refreshed in spirit after a reading. (5)

Wives & Daughters, Gaskell’s last work, and considered her finest, was published as a serial novel in Cornhill, the last unfinished part appearing in January 1866.  Gaskell had literally dropped dead in the middle of a spoken sentence at the age of 55, and the work remained unfinished, with only a long note from the Cornhill editor following the last serial installment.  Wives and Daughters tells the story of Molly Gibson and her new stepsister Cynthia, and their coming of age in the male-dominated mid-Victorian society of “Hollingford.”

But it is Lane’s essay on “Mrs. Gaskell’s Task” in which she so highly praises Gaskell’s achievement in her biography of Charlotte Bronte.  While Gaskell obviously suppressed some facts (the letters to M. Heger) and exaggerated others (Mr. Bronte as a father and Branwell as a son), Lane says “her great biography remains a stirring and noble work, one of the first in our language…. and it is in essence ‘truer’ than anything about the Brontes which has been written since…”(6)

Such contrary opinions!…certainly reminiscent of Austen’s admirers and critics!    Perhaps as Pam Morris says in her introduction to W&D, “Gaskell resists any simple categorization…her work ranges across the narrative forms of realism and fairytale, protest fiction and pastoralism, melodrama and the domestic novel.” (7)  I confess to having only read the Bronte biography and that years ago…but I have also had three of her novels (MB, C and W&D) sitting on my TBR shelf for many a year….I see a great task ahead in order to give Gaskell her just due! (or do I dare just see the movies??!)



1.  Stebbins, Lucy Poate. A Victorian Album: Some lady Novelists of the Period (Columbia, 1946) p. 96.

2.  Ibid.

3.  Cecil, David.  Victorian Novelists: Essays in Revaluation (Chicago, 1962) p. 187.

4.  Ritchie, Anne Thackeray.  Preface to Cranford (Macmillan, 1927) pp. vii, xix.

5.  Lane, Margaret.  Purely for Pleasure (Hamish Hamilton, 1966)  p. 153.

6.  Ibid, p. 170.

7.  Morris, Pam.  Introduction to Wives and Daughters (Penguin, 2001) p. vii.

* Both illustrations above are from the London Macmillan edition of Cranford, illustrated by Hugh Thomson (originally published in 1891). This copy is also available at the Illustrated Cranford site.

Further references:

The Gaskell Information Page which includes many links to other information, societies, etc.

The E-Texts of all her works.

A few biographies: by Angus Easson (London, 1979); Winifred Gerin (Oxford, 1980); Aina Rubenius, The Woman Question in Mrs. Gaskell’s Life and Work (Upsala, 1950); Jenny Uglow, Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories (London, 1993)1

And see also the recent Jane Austen Today Blog where Ms. Place discusses Cranford along with an interview with Judi Dench.

Mrs. Gaskell’s Works:

  1. Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life, anonymous (2 volumes, London: Chapman & Hall, 1848; 1 volume, New York: Harper, 1848);
  2. Libbie Marsh’s Three Eras: A Lancashire Tale, as Cotton Mather Mills, Esquire (London: Hamilton, Adams, 1850);
  3. Lizzie Leigh: A Domestic Tale, from “Household Words,” attributed to Charles Dickens (New York: Dewitt & Davenport, 1850);
  4. The Moorland Cottage, anonymous (London: Chapman & Hall, 1850; New York: Harper, 1851);
  5. Ruth: A Novel, anonymous (3 volumes, London: Chapman & Hall, 1853; 1 volume, Boston: Ticknor, Reed & Fields, 1853);
  6. Cranford, anonymous (London: Chapman & Hall, 1853; New York: Harper, 1853);
  7. Lizzie Leigh and Other Tales, anonymous (London: Chapman & Hall, 1855; Philadelphia: Hardy, 1869);
  8. Hands and Heart and Bessy’s Troubles at Home, anonymous (London: Chapman & Hall, 1855);
  9. North and South, anonymous (2 volumes, London: Chapman & Hall, 1855; 1 volume, New York: Harper, 1855);
  10. The Life of Charlotte Brontë; Author of “Jane Eyre,” “Shirley,” “Villette” etc., 2 volumes (London: Smith, Elder, 1857; New York: Appleton, 1857);
  11. My Lady Ludlow, A Novel (New York: Harper, 1858); republished as Round the Sofa (2 volume’s, London: Low, 1858);
  12. Right at Last, and Other Tales (London: Low, 1860; New York: Harper, 1860);
  13. Lois the Witch and Other Tales (Leipzig: Tauchnitz 1861);
  14. Sylvia’s Lovers (3 volumes, London: Smith, Elder, 1863; 1 volume, New York: Dutton, 1863);
  15. A Dark Night’s Work (London: Smith, Elder, 1863; New York: Harper, 1863);
  16. Cousin Phillis: A Tale (New York: Harper, 1864); republished as Cousin Phillis and Other Tales (London: Smith, Elder, 1865);
  17. The Grey Woman and Other Tales (London: Smith, Elder, 1865; New York: Harper, 1882);
  18. Wives and Daughters: An Every-Day Story (2 volumes, London: Smith, Elder, 1866; 1 volume, New York: Harper, 1866).

(this list from the Edgar Wright Gaskell Page)

7 thoughts on “A Few Words on Elizabeth Gaskell

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