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  • 11/10/2004

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

(September 29, 1810 - November 12, 1865)

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell is often seen as the most socially traditional of the major Victorian women authors.  Unlike George Eliot, she had no extra-marital affairs, unlike the Brontes, her upbringing was fairly normal as was her subsequent social life, and unlike Austen or Oliphant she got married and stayed that way, contributing an income controlled by her husband, but not writing for subsistence.  Gaskell's submissiveness seems indicated by the fact that she always called herself "Mrs. Gaskell" on her title pages.

Elizabeth Stevenson

was born in Chelsea,London, in 1810. Her mother, worn out by giving birth to eight children, of whom only two survived, died thirteen months later. Elizabeth's father, William Stevenson, was aUnitarian but had given up preaching to become the Keeper of the Treasury Records. Unable to raise her himself, Stevenson sent Elizabeth to live with her aunt Hannah Lamb, who lived in Knutsford,Cheshire.

Elizabeth shared her father's religious beliefs and attended the localUnitarian chapel and taught at Sunday school. At the age of eighteen, Elizabeth's brother, John Stevenson was drowned at sea. The news devastated her father and he went into a deep depression.Elizabeth now returned to her father's household inLondon where she nursed him until his death in 1829.

A distant relative, William Turner, aUnitarian minister inNewcastle, invitedElizabeth to live with his family.Elizabeth's was deeply influenced by Turner's religious beliefs and charitable works. On a visit to Turner's daughter, who lived inManchester, Elizabeth metWilliam Gaskell, a minister at their localUnitarian chapel. They quickly developed a close friendship and were married on 30th August, 1832.

Most of William Gaskell's parishioners were textile workers and Elizabeth was deeply shocked by the poverty she witnessed inManchester. Elizabeth, like her husband, became involved in various charity work in the city. She also started writing a novel that attempted to illustrate the problems faced by people living in industrial towns and cities.

Mary Barton: A Tale ofManchester Life was published in 1848. With its casts of working-class characters and its attempts to address key social issues such asurban poverty,Chartism and the emergingtrade union movement, Gaskell's novel shocked Victorian society. It also was greatly admired by other writers such asCharles Dickens,William Thackeray,John Ruskin,Charles Kingsley andThomas Carlyle. Dickens was so impressed that he arranged for Gaskell's next novel,Cranford, to be serialised in his journal,Household Words (1851-1853).

Other novels written by Gaskell includeRuth (1853),North and South (1855), andSylvia's Lovers (1863). In her books Gaskell expressed a deep sympathy for the poor and suggested the need for large-scale social reform. Gaskell also wrote an acclaimed biography ofCharlotte Bronte. This also created controversy and some allegedly libellous statements had to be removed beforeThe Life of Charlotte Bronte could be published. Elizabeth Gaskell died in 1865.Taken from:



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