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Elizabeth Gaskell : Author

Updated on September 11, 2014

Elizabeth Gaskell, an often overlooked Victorian novelist

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (1810-1865) was a well-respected and popular author in her own day and known to modern readers from the television adaptations of Wives & Daughters, North & South, and Cranford.

Many of her books dealt with social concerns and the very poor in early Victorian society. Life was incredibly difficult for urban working people during the Industrial Revolution and, like her friend Charles Dickens, Gaskell painted a detailed portrait of the enormous social gulf which was the reality of Victorian Britain.


Life of Elizabeth Gaskell

Along Unitarian principles

Gaskell was born Elizabeth Stevenson in a suburb of London, the daughter of Unitarians, a couple who didn't enforce belief in a creed or dogmatic formula. She had a sad childhood, losing her mother at a very early age and was consequently farmed off to relatives.

She followed the guidelines of her parents in her religious worldview and took the Unitarian principles as her own, eventually marrying a devout Unitarian Minister, William Gaskell, a man also interested in literature and the plight of the poor.

The Gaskells moved to Manchester and, after her first novel, Mary Barton, was published, they could afford to live in a house which Elizabeth described as 'a beauty'. Gaskell wrote her later novels from here while her husband held welfare committee meetings and tutored the poor in his study.

They entertained many visitors, among them Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Charles Eliot Norton.

Here, in her beautiful house, Elizabeth lived with her family until her death 15 years later.

You're In Cranford Now

My favourite Elizabeth Gaskell reading is the handful of short books, or long stories, known collectively as the Cranford Chronicles, domestic gems of small-town manners.

The BBC mini series which incorporates them is delightful, warm and clever on the small screen.


Cranford - A joy to watch

The story is based on three Elizabeth Gaskell novels revolving around spinsters and widows in a market town about to be thrust into the modern age.

The high class production features Dame Judi Dench, Dame Eileen Atkins, Sir Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton, Francesca Annis, Lesley Manville and Jim Carter.

Besides these greats from British theatre is the promising child actor, Alex Etel.

Knutsford in 1863 - Knutsford was the model for Gaskell's Cranford

Gaskell based her novellas about Cranford in the town of Knutsford on the Cheshire Plain, an area famed for its beautiful countryside and pretty towns and villages.

Knutsford is a popular destination during May Day celebrations, in particular for an old custom called "sanding the streets" in which the streets are decorated with coloured sands in patterns and pictures.

Tradition has it that King Canute, (Knut), while fording the River Lily, threw sand from his shoes into the path of a wedding party, wishing the newly-wed as many children as the grains of sand at their feet

Queen Victoria, in her journal of 1832 recorded: "... we arrived at Knutsford, where we were most civilly received, the streets being sanded in shapes which is peculiar to this town".


Elizabeth Gaskell's first novel, Mary Barton

Depressed by the death of her child ,William, Gaskell began writing the novel Mary Barton, in which she describes the lives of Manchester's poor. The novel was an immediate popular success and inaugurated her career as a novelist.

With an entirely working-class cast of characters, the background is Manchester in the 'hungry forties' and the acute poverty of the mill-hands. Mary Barton is the daughter of an active and embittered worker and trade unionist John Barton.

The plot turns on Mary's romantic choice between the son of a rich industrialist and a working-class lover.

Yes, there will be murder.

Mary Barton

Mary Barton can disturb the reader with the depiction of the suffering that poverty and oppression causes but it's not just about class systems in the early industrial age, it's about ambition, love and murder.

Background to Mary Barton

Mary Barton appeared the same year (1848) as Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto.

Although Gaskell's politics are quite different - her book nevertheless illustrates many of the characterisations of capitalism which are found in theoretical texts, and in a very human way.

What thoughtful heart can look into this gulf

That darkly yawns 'twixt rich and poor,

And not find food for saddest meditation!

Preface to Mary Barton

Chartists' Meeting, 1848

Gaskell wrote in her Preface to Mary Barton :

"I know nothing of Political Economy, or the theories of trade. I have tried to write truthfully; and if my accounts agree or clash with any system, the agreement or disagreement is unintentional.

To myself the idea which I have formed of the state of feeling among too many of the factory-people in Manchester, has received some confirmation from the events which have so recently occurred among a similar class on the Continent." .

The 'events' she refers to are the Revolutions of 1848, a series of political upheavals throughout the European continent beginning in Sicily and, further propelled by the French Revolution, soon spreading to the rest of Europe.

While the immediate political effects of the revolutions were reversed, the long-term reverberations of the events were far-reaching .From1848 we inherited our expectations for basic freedom and justice.

William Edward Kilburn

Gothic Fiction

Gaskell also wrote a number of short stories, as well as the biography of her friend Charlotte Bronte.

The 1980s saw the revival of the Gothic as a powerful literary form and Gaskell used the genre for a number of brooding stories which were published mainly by Charles Dickens in his popular magazine.

We can now read Gaskell's work online as, happily for us, all her works are out of copyright.

Gothic Tales

Gaskell was fascinated by the dualities in womens' lives, by the tyranny men wield, the revenge women exact, the merging of fact and fiction in everyday lives.

In these nine spine-tingling tales, she adds another layer of intrigue: the abrupt appearance of the supernatural in the most ordinary of settings.

The Old Nurse's Story

An exemplary Victorian ghost story, this tale was first published anonymously in the 1852 Christmas issue of Dickens' Household Words.

The Old Nurse's Story

You can read it here - etexts from Mitsuharu Mitsuoka

North and South : White Hell

"I believe I've seen Hell. It's white."

North and South was voted BBC "Best Drama" in 2004, while Richard Armitage, a relatively unknown actor, was voted "Most Desirable Drama Star" for his portrayal of the emotionally restrained John Thornton .

© 2009 Julia M S Pearce

Your comments on Elizabeth Gaskell

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    • Monika Weise profile image

      Monika Weise 

      5 years ago from Indianapolis, IN USA

      I've never even heard of Gaskell till I ran across this. I'll have to look her up.

    • redroses lm profile image

      Jenny Campbell 

      5 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

      I haven't read her, but your description of her makes me want to

    • Grasmere Sue profile image

      Sue Dixon 

      8 years ago from Grasmere, Cumbria, UK

      I hated Cranford when forced to read it at school, but now love it, and have just re read North and South.

      The BBC have done Elizabeth Gaskell proud!

    • gemmagold profile image


      9 years ago

      I agree Cranford was a joy to watch!Thanks for reminding me what a great author she was.5* favourited. I have also added you to my lens.

    • honeymishi07 profile image


      9 years ago

      I'm absolutely in love with North & South. BBC did a spectacular TV adaptation.

    • LouiseKirkpatrick profile image


      9 years ago from Berkshire, United Kingdom

      I haven't read any of Elizabeth Gaskell's work (yet!), but I am intirgued by the description of "Gothic Tales" and "The Old Nurse's Story" - these sound very much "up my street" :D

      5* for an excellent lens.

    • LucyVet profile image


      9 years ago

      Interesting lens. I enjoy Rosemary Sutcliffe, so I should check out some of these books.

    • Ramkitten2000 profile image

      Deb Kingsbury 

      9 years ago from Flagstaff, Arizona

      "Mary Barton" sounds like my kind of book. I've jotted down on my list of books to look for at the library. I've always been a fan on "period" novels (and films), especially with the good old love story thrown in, but had never heard of this author.

    • Stazjia profile image

      Carol Fisher 

      9 years ago from Warminster, Wiltshire, UK

      I first read Cranford in my late teens and have re-read it several times since. I've also read her other novels which are quite different and must have been quite shocking when they were published. Great lens, 5* and I've lensrolled it.


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