Elizabeth Gaskell: Biography

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell.

 Mrs. Gaskell was born on 29 September, 1810, in what is now known as 93 Cheyne walk and was then called Lindsay row, Chelsea. Her father, member of a Berwick-on-Tweed family “in which ran a strong love of the sea,” was a man of original ability, in turn unitarianminister and (after an interval of schoolmastering and farming) keeper of the treasury
records; 43  her maternal grandfather was a descendant of the well-known Lancashire and Cheshire family of Holland, who farmed his own land at Sandle bridge in the latter county.William Stevenson may be fairly set down as the original of minister Holman in Cousin Phillis,and the intimate and enduring connection of the Cheshire Hollands with Knutsford suggested
an infinitude of personal and local reminiscences of that town and its vicinity under the aliases of Cranford, Duncombe (in Mr. Harrison’s Confessions) and Hollingford (in Wives and Daughters). At Knutsford (which thus became part of herself), most of Elizabeth Stevenson’s girlhood was spent; the rest was divided between London, Newcastle-on-Tyne (where she
resided in the house of a unitarian minister, William Turner, who is said to have suggested some features in the beautiful character of Thurston Benson in Ruth) and at Edinburgh (as humorously recorded in the introduction to Round the Sofa). In 1832, she married William Gaskell, then and to the end of his life, minister of the Cross street unitarian chapel in
 Manchester and an accomplished scholar, with whom all the rest of her life flowed on in perfect unison. The circle of friends of which she now became part and of which, in time, her house, 84 Plymouth grove, was to be looked upon as a chosen centre, was one of social as well as intellectual distinction; yet it was as a “greater Manchester,” in more than the local
 sense of the phrase, that she learnt to love the place, till, even on her holidays in Wales, and, afterwards, on the Neckar, in Italy and in her favourite France, she could look back, like Mary Barton on the railway to Liverpool, “towards the factory-chimneys, and the cloud of smoke which hovers over the place, with a feeling akin to Heimwch.” And it is not too much to say that what, from the first, helped to bind her to the city which, for more than fourscore years,was to be her home and that of her daughters, was the care for the poor of which she and they never lost sight. Several years before she began Mary Barton, she and her husband  printed 44  the first (and, as it proved, the only) one of a projected series of versified Sketches
among the Poor, “rather” as she confidentially put it to her friend Mrs. Howitt, “in the manner of Crabbe, but in a more seeing-beauty spirit.” The influence of Crabbe, tempered in the fashion which this passage indicates, is, as will be seen, traceable in some of her published writings.

The present seems the most appropriate place for speaking of the chief contributions to British fiction of Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, a writer of rare charm and, though no one knew better than herself the limits prescribed to her creations, possessed of true powers of both pathos and  humour. For, although she preferred to exercise those powers chiefly in tracing the interplay of
personal affections and passions, the influence of character upon character, the genial impulses of the soul and the shy sorrows of the heart, and the all-healing love which rises above self, they were, it is certain, first set in motion when her mind was brought to bear upon the social problems and troubles around her. In these, her loving nature was drawn, by personal affliction
of its own, to take a sympathetic interest; and Mary Barton, written to beguile a mother’s grief for the loss of her infant son, her first book and that by which her literary reputation was at once established, may justly claim to rank among the most notable of the social novels of the age.  42  Mrs. Gaskell was described by one of the most faithful and gifted of her and her daughters’
friends  41  as  like the best things in her books; full of gracious and tender sympathies, of thoughtful kindness,of pleasant humour, of quick appreciation of utmost simplicity and truthfulness, and uniting with peculiar delicacy and refinement a strength of principle and purpose and straightforwardness in action such as few women possess.But her life was led in conditions of great tranquillity and almost unbroken happiness, and, after her death, the remembrance of her was preserved by the perfect love of those whom she had left behind her and to whom her wishes were law. She desired that no set biography of her
should be attempted; and it is thus from her writings only that later generations are likely to gather much beyond the outward facts of her existence. Those who knew her or hers may indulge the belief that in those writings are to be found more than one experience that came very near home to her, transmuted into kindly lessons of resignation and of charity to all men.

In November 1865, when reporting her death, The Athenaeum rated G. as "if not the most popular, with small question, the most powerful and finished female novelist of an epoch singularly rich in female novelists." Today G. is generally considered a lesser figure in English letters remembered chiefly for her minor classics Cranford and Wives and Daughters: An Every-day Story. G.'s early fame as a social novelist began with the 1848 publication of Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life, in which she pricked the conscience of industrial England through her depiction and analysis of the working classes. Many critics were hostile to the novel because of its open sympathy for the workers in their relations with the masters, but the high quality of writing and characterization were undeniable, and critics have compared Mary Barton to the work of Friedrich Engels and other contemporaries in terms of its accuracy in social observation. The later publication of North and South, also dealing with the relationship of workers and masters, strengthened G.'s status as a leader in social fiction. G.'s fiction was deeply influenced by her upbringing and her marriage. The daughter of a Unitarian clergyman who was a civil servant and journalist, G. was brought up after her mother's death by her aunt in Knutsford, a small village that served as the prototype not only for Cranford but also for Hollingford in Wives and Daughters and the settings of numerous short stories and novellas. In 1832 she married William Gaskell, a Unitarian clergyman in Manchester in whose ministry she actively participated and with whom she collaborated to write the poem "Sketches Among the Poor" in 1837.
"Our Society at Cranford," now the first two chapters of Cranford, appeared in Dickens' Household Words on 13 December 1851 and was itself a fictionalized version of an earlier essay "The Last Generation in England." Dickens so liked the original episode that he pressed G. for more; at irregular intervals between January 1852 and May 1853 eight more episodes appeared.
Two controversies marred G.'s literary career. In 1853 she shocked and offended many of her readers with Ruth, an exploration of seduction and illegitimacy prompted by anger at moral conventions that condemned a "fallen woman" to ostracism and almost inevitable prostitution -- a topic already touched on in the character of Esther in Mary Barton. The strength of the novel lies in its presentation of social conduct within a small Dissenting community when tolerance and rigid morality clash. Although some Element of the "novel with a purpose" is evident, G.'s sensitivity in her portrayal of character and, even more, her feel for relationships within small communities and families show a developing sense of direction as a novelist. Although critics praised the soundness of the novel's moral lessons, several members of G.'s congregation burned the book and it was banned in many libraries. Even G. admitted that she prohibited the book to her own daughters, but she nevertheless stood by the work.

 The second controversy arose following the 1857 publication of The Life of Charlotte Brontë. The biography's initial wave of praise was quickly followed by angry protests from some of the people dealt with. In a few instances legal action was threatened; however, with the help of her husband and George Smith the problems were resolved without recourse to law. The most significant complaint resulted from G.'s acceptance of Branwell Bront‘'s version of his dismissal from his tutoring position (he blamed it on his refusal to be seduced by his employer's wife) and necessitated a public retraction in The Times, withdrawal of the second edition, and a revised third edition, the standard text. Despite the initial complications and restrictions necessitated by conventions of the period (G. did not, for example, deal with Bront‘'s feelings for Constantin Heger), The Life of Charlotte Bront‘' has established itself as one of the great biographies; later biographies have modified but not replaced it.

 During 1858 and 1859 G. wrote several items, mainly for Dickens, of which two are of particular interest. My Lady Ludlow, a short novel cut in two by a long digressive tale, is reminiscent of Cranford, yet the setting and social breadth anticipates Wives and Daughters. The second work, Lois the Witch, is a somber novella concerning the Salem witch trials which prefigures G.'s next work, Sylvia's Lovers, by its interest in morbid psychology. Sylvia's Lovers is a powerful if somewhat melodramatic novel. The first two volumes are full of energy; they sparkle and have humor. The ending, however, shows forced invention rather than true tragedy. Regarded by G. as "the saddest story I ever wrote," Sylvia's Lovers is set during the French Revolution in a remote whaling port with particularly effective insights into character relationships.

 Most critics agree that Cousin Phillis is G.'s crowning achievement in the short novel. The story is uncomplicated; its virtues are in the manner of its development and telling. Cousin Phillis is also recognized as a fitting prelude for G.'s final and most widely acclaimed novel, Wives and Daughters: An Every-Day Story, which ran in Cornhill from August 1864 to January 1866. The final installment was never written, yet the ending was known and the novel as it exists is virtually complete. The plot of the novel is complex, relying far more on a series of relationships between family groups in Hollingford than on dramatic structure. Throughout Wives and Daughters the humorous, ironical, and sometimes satirical view of the characters is developed with a heightened sense of artistic self-confidence and maturity.

 G. was hostile to any form of biographical notice of her being written in her lifetime. Only months before her death, she wrote to an applicant for data: "I disapprove so entirely of the plan of writing 'notices' or 'memoirs' of living people, that I must send you on the answer I have already sent to many others; namely an entire refusal to sanction what is to me so objectionable and indelicate a practice, by furnishing a single fact with regard to myself. I do not see why the public have any more to do with me than buy or reject the ware I supply to them" (4 June 1865). After her death the family sustained her objection, refusing to make family letters or biographical data available.

 Critical awareness of G. as a social historian is now more than balanced by awareness of her innovativeness and artistic development as a novelist. While scholars continue to debate the precise nature of her talent, they also reaffirm the singular attractiveness of her best works.

(From An Encylcopedia of British Women Writers, pp. 186-187)

Note 41. Eliot Norton, in a letter to J. Russell Lowell, written in 1857. See his Letters of Charles
           Eliot Norton (2 vols. 1913), vol. 1, pp. 171-2
           Note 42. A remembrance of the loss of her boy, already noticed, is traceable in Mary Barton,
           Lizzie Leigh, Ruth, Cranford, Mr. Harrison’s Confessions, Cousin Phillis and, doubtless, in
           other of her stories.
           Note 43. His mother, Mrs. Gaskell’s paternal grandmother, was cousin, once removed, of the
           author of The Seasons.
           Note 44. In Blackwood’s Magazine, for January, 1837 (vol. XLI, no. 255).