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Elizabeth Gaskell: a voice of the Victorians

While not the most famous of the Victorian novelists, Elizabeth Gaskell – “Mrs Gaskell” – was instrumental in bringing the unpleasant implications of industrialisation to the public conscious – and she did so with her own, female voice. Learn more about her life, books, death and legacy...

Published: June 12, 2022 at 1:19 pm
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Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell’s rise to be a public figure in Victorian society – as one of its most popular novelists and short story writers, known as 'Mrs Gaskell' – was borne from an intensely personal time in her life. In 1845, she lost her infant son to scarlet fever and, at her husband’s encouragement, turned to writing for nothing more than an outlet for her grief and a possible path out of depression. The result was her first novel, and an instant success: Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life.

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About a desperate working-class family, it vividly portrayed the slums of Manchester and plight of the poor. “I had always felt a deep sympathy with the care-worn men,” Gaskell said in the preface; a sympathy that had been nurtured throughout a childhood surrounded by progressive thinkers, reformers and humanitarians. Born Elizabeth Stevenson on 29 September 1810, she was raised, following her mother’s death when she was only one, by her “more than mother” aunt, Hannah Lumb, who made sure she received a good education and introduction to Unitarianism.

Marriage and children

In 1832, Elizabeth married William Gaskell, a Unitarian minister in Manchester. Far from the rural calm of her upbringing in Knutsford, Cheshire, her new home in the sprawling city, a centre of textiles, exposed her to the impact industrialisation and urbanisation was having on the poorest workers, and the resulting social tensions. By then, she had also suffered her share of personal tragedy: her father’s death; brother John’s disappearance at sea while with the Merchant Navy; and, in 1833, the loss of a stillborn daughter.

Gaskell eventually had four surviving daughters, Marianne, Margaret Emily (known as Meta), Florence and Julia, and most of her time was dedicated to being a loving mother and minister’s wife. But she enjoyed writing too, and in 1837 a poem penned with William, titled 'Sketches Among the Poor', was printed in Blackwood’s Magazine. A few years later, her piece on Clopton Hall for Visits to Remarkable Places became her first solo publication.

Mary Barton

Mary Barton was published in 1848 – anonymously, as many female writers did if not using male pseudonyms, but her identity came out. With the novel a sensation for its stark and divisive depiction of worker struggles, radical activity and murder, Charles Dickens was soon in touch inviting “Mrs Gaskell” to contribute to his new weekly magazine, Household Words. He wrote: “I do honestly know that there is no living English writer whose aid I would desire to enlist in preference to the authoress of Mary Barton (a book that most profoundly affected and impressed me).”

I do honestly know that there is no living English writer whose aid I would desire to enlist in preference to the authoress of Mary Barton (a book that most profoundly affected and impressed me)
Charles Dickens

Her short story Lizzie Leigh made the first issue, followed in 1851 by the serialisation of her episodic novel Cranford, about two sisters and their genteel country lifestyle (earning comparisons to Jane Austen). The next few years brought Gaskell’s other important, and controversial, social works. Ruth (1853), a tale of a teenage seamstress who is seduced and has a child out of wedlock, was met with hostile reviews – copies were even burned at Gaskell’s church. Undeterred, she followed up with North and South (1854), an exploration of the differing outlooks to industrialisation felt across the country.

Humanitarianism and activism

Gaskell’s humanitarianism was not confined to the page, either. During a cotton famine, she set up sewing shops to give employment to mill workers, and the family home on Plymouth Grove became a hub of intellectuals to discuss the issues of the day. Her circle included Dickens, John Ruskin, Florence Nightingale, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Thomas Carlyle. Charlotte Bronte became a dear friend and in 1857, a couple of years after Bronte’s death, Gaskell would write the first biography of the Jane Eyre author.

All the while, Gaskell kept writing novels and was prolific with short stories. In an era of monumental social change and upheaval, she was a powerful voice – and a female voice at that. She blended realism and melodramatic romance; made heroines out of outcasts; and could switch from humours forays into pastoral playfulness (Cranford) into hard-hitting critiques of the norms of the day (Ruth). What’s more, she framed her works not as calls for radical action, but a greater need for compassion and understanding.

Death and legacy

On 12 November 1865, Gaskell died at the age of 55 after suffering a heart attack. She was in Hampshire at the house she had just bought. Writing to the end, her latest novel, Wives and Daughters, was unfinished. It would be published posthumously in the Cornhill Magazine, with the ending put together by the editor Frederic Greenwood based on what was believed to be Gaskell’s intentions. He also added a note about Gaskell:

“It is unnecessary to demonstrate to those who know what is and what is not true literature that Mrs Gaskell was gifted with some of the choicest faculties bestowed upon mankind; that these grew into greater strength and ripened into greater beauty in the decline of her days’ and that she has gifted us with some, the truest, purest works of fiction in the language. And she was herself what her works show her to have been – a wise good woman.”

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This article was first published in BBC History Revealed

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