Elizabeth Stevenson, the second surviving child of William Stevenson (1770-1829 and his first wife, Elizabeth Holland Stevenson (1771–1811), was born in Lindsey Row (now Cheyne Walk), Chelsea, London, on 29th September 1810. Her mother, worn out by giving birth to eight children, of whom only two survived, died thirteen months later. Elizabeth's father was a Unitarian 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. Her aunt was legally separated from her husband, who had been declared insane. Hannah's own daughter, Marianne, was disabled and died in 1812, aged twenty-one. In 1814 her father married Catherine Thomson. They had two more children but Elizabeth stayed with his aunt, visiting her father and stepmother rarely. She was "very, very unhappy" on such visits, she later wrote, adding that were it not for the comfort of the river, and some local friends, "I think my child's heart would have broken".
Her biographer, Jenny Uglow, has argued: "Elizabeth Stevenson was educated at home, by her aunts and occasional outside tutors, and at the Sunday school of Brook Street Chapel, until 1821. From her family and the chapel she imbibed the tenets of Unitarianism, which rejected as unknowable mystical doctrines such as the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, and placed great stress on human rather than divine responsibility for society. The church emphasized freedom of thought and rationality, believing in social progress aided by scientific discovery. But it also recognized the existence of suffering and oppression, and called on its adherents to speak out against them." At eleven Elizabeth was sent away to a school at Barford, Warwickshire. In May 1824, she attended Avonbank School in Stratford upon Avon, that had been partly funded by a loan from Josiah Wedgwood.
Elizabeth's brother John Stevenson had joined the merchant navy in 1820. His letters stimulated her imagination and in 1827 he encouraged her to write stories. The following year he disappeared on a voyage to India. he news devastated her father and he went into a deep depression. Elizabeth now returned to her father's household in London where she nursed him until his death on 22nd March 1829. She spent the next two years at the home of the Revd William Turner, a relation and a Unitarian minister of Hanover Chapel, Newcastle upon Tyne. Turner was a tireless campaigner for social causes: the emancipation of Catholics and Jews, the abolition of the slave trade, and the support of charity and Sunday schools. He was to have a lasting influence on her political views.
On a visit to Turner's daughter, who lived in Manchester, Elizabeth met William Gaskell, a minister at their local Unitarian chapel. They quickly developed a close friendship and were married on 30th August, 1832. The author of Gaskell: A Habit of Stories (1993) has argued: "They shared a faith and a love of literature and music but often seemed a contrast in appearance and temperament. While Elizabeth was of medium height, tending to plumpness (especially in later life), with an open smile, a constant flow of talk, and a distinct romantic streak, William was extremely tall and thin and apparently austere, with a dry sense of humour and an infinite capacity for hard work. Yet the marriage appears to have been extremely close, despite Elizabeth's many absences from home in later years."
In July 1833 Gaskell's first child, a daughter, was born dead. Her first surviving daughter, Marianne, was born on 12th September 1834 and her daughter's first years are recorded in Gaskell's diary: "She will talk before she walks I think. She can say pretty plainly papa, dark, stir, ship, lamp, book, tea, sweep." Another daughter, Margaret Emily, was born on 5th February 1837.
Gaskell's poem, Sketches among the Poor , appeared in The Blackwood Magazine in 1837. Her friends encouraged her to do more writing but she felt that she needed to concentrate on caring for her children. She later wrote: "When I had little children I do not think I could have written stories because I should have become too much absorbed in my fictitious people to attend to my real ones... everyone who tries to write stories must become absorbed in them (fictitious though they be) if they are to interest their readers."
Gaskell's next child was born dead. She gave birth to Florence Elizabeth on 7th October 1842. The family now moved to a larger house at 121 Upper Rumford Street, Manchester. On 23rd October 1844 came the birth of the Gaskells' son William, but at ten months later he died of scarlet fever. After this Elizabeth sank into a deep depression which did not really end until her last daughter, Julia Bradford was born in 1846. During this period the Gaskells became friends with the social reformers, Samuel Bamford and James Martineau.
Gaskell was kept busy with the duties of being a minister's wife. She became a member of the District Provident Society, and helped distribute soup tickets, food, and clothing for the poor. Most of William Gaskell's parishioners were textile workers and Elizabeth was deeply shocked by the poverty she witnessed in Manchester. Elizabeth, like her husband, became involved in various charity work in the city. She now considered herself past having anymore children started writing a novel that attempted to illustrate the problems faced by people living in industrial towns and cities. Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life was published in 1848 by Chapman and Hall.
With its casts of working-class characters and its attempt to address key social issues such as urban poverty, Chartism and the emerging trade union movement, Gaskell's novel shocked Victorian society. The Manchester Guardian accused Gaskell of unfairly criticising the employers and The Edinburgh Review denounced her ignorance of economics. However, it was greatly admired by other writers such as Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle. The social reformer, Charles Kingsley, argued in Fraser's Magazine (April 1849), that the novel should be read by the educated classes: "Do they want to know why poor men, kind and sympathising as women to each other, learn to hate law and order, Queen, Lords and Commons, country-party and corn law leagues, all alike - to hate the rich in short? then let them read Mary Barton."
Claire Tomalin has pointed out: "With no more education than any other nice girl born in 1810; with marriage at twenty-one, and seven pregnancies thereafter; with all the domestic and social duties of the wife of a Unitarian minister, and the care and upbringing of her children; not to mention a taste for travel - prison visiting and humanitarian work among the poor - a social life as exuberant as that of Dickens and a circle of friends as large - with all this, still, at the age of thirty-six she became an enormously successful and respected writer in a hugely competitive and brilliant field."
In February 1850, Charles Dickens decided to join forces with his publisher, Bradbury & Evans, and his friend, John Forster, to publish the journal, Household Words. Dickens became editor and William Wills, a journalist he worked with on the Daily News, became his assistant. Dickens planned to serialise his new novels in the journal. He also wanted to promote the work of like-minded writers. The first person he contacted was Elizabeth Gaskell. Dickens had been very impressed with her first novel, Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (1848) and offered to take her future work. She sent him Lizzie Leigh , a story about a Manchester prostitute, which appeared in the first issue, on 30th March 1850. Dickens also published her stories The Well of Pen Morfa and The Heart of John Middleton .
In August 1850 Gaskell met Charlotte Brontë at the summer home of James Kay-Shuttleworth. The two women became friends and took a keen interest in her children. She later recalled that Gaskell was "a woman of whose conversation and company I should not soon tire. She seems to me kind, clever, animated and unaffected". Gaskell also got to know Florence Nightingale. She admired her sense of duty but found her manner difficult: "She has no friend - and wants none. She stands perfectly alone, half-way between God and His creatures".
Elizabeth Gaskell continued to publish stories in Household Words including Traits and Stories of the Huguenots , Morton Hall , My French Master , The Squire's Story , Company Manners , An Accursed Race , Half a Lifetime Ago , The Poor Clare , My Lady Ludlow , The Sin of a Father and The Manchester Marriage . She also produced a series of stories that were published between 13th December 1851 and 21st May 1853, that eventually became the novel, Cranford. Her biographer, Jenny Uglow has suggested that the Cranford stories "make the dangerous safe, touching the tenderest spots of memory and bringing the single, the odd and the wanderer into the circle of family and community."
During this period Gaskell visited Charles Dickens at his home: "We were shown into Mr. Dickens' study... where he writes all his books... There are books all around, up to the ceiling, and down to the ground... after dinner ... quantities of other people came in. We were by this time in the drawing-room, which is not nearly so pretty or so home-like as the study... We heard some beautiful music... I kept trying to learn people's faces off by heart, that I might remember them; but it was rather confusing there were so very many. There were some nice little Dickens' children in the room, who were so polite, and well-trained."
Gaskell also began work on a new novel. Ruth (1853) caused even more uproar than Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life. As the author of Gaskell: A Habit of Stories has explained: "Ruth tells the story of a fifteen-year-old seamstress who is seduced and has an illegitimate son. Taken in by a Unitarian minister, Mr Benson, she is passed off as a widow, making a new life until she is exposed and publicly denounced, before finally ‘redeeming’ herself as a nurse in a fever epidemic. A brave attack on current hypocrisy, the novel was attacked not only for the sexual theme but because of Benson's ‘lie’; a copy was even burnt by members of William Gaskell's own congregation." Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of those who condemned the heroine's death as authorial cowardice. "I am grateful to you as a woman for having treated such a subject. Was it quite impossible but that your Ruth should die?"
Gaskell's next novel, North and South (1855), also appeared in Household Words (2nd September 1854 to 27 January 1855). The book deals with the relationship between Margaret Hale and John Thornton, who ran a textile mill. It has been suggested that Gaskell was attempting to provide a more sympathetic portrait of factory owners. It is probably significant that she had become friendly with social reformer, Robert Hyde Greg, who owned Quarry Bank Mill.
Peter Ackroyd, the author of Dickens (1990) has pointed out: "Mrs Gaskell's North and South, which was proving too long and too unwieldy for serial publication. Mrs Gaskell herself was also somewhat difficult, particularly in her inability or slowness to cut her text as Dickens desired; nothing irritated him more than unprofessional behaviour, especially in novelists whom he knew to be inferior to himself, and although he kept his own communications with Mrs Gaskell relatively courteous he was far from flattering about her to his deputy." Gaskell was also often late in delivering her manuscript. Dickens commented to William Henry Wills that if he was her husband, he would feel compelled to "beat her". Dickens eventually edited the serial and she regarded the abrupt ending of the serial version as "mutilated... like a pantomime figure with a great large head and a very small trunk".
Charlotte Brontë died on 31st March 1855 and soon afterwards Patrick Brontë asked her to write his daughter's life. Much of the next two years was spent in gathering letters, collecting information, and compiling the life. The Life of Charlotte Bronte created a great deal of controversy when it was published. Family members were upset by her portrait of Branwell Brontë. When threats of libel writs came from Lady Scott (who as Lydia Robinson was blamed by Gaskell for Branwell Brontë's disgrace), unsold copies of the biography were withdrawn and a formal letter of apology placed in The Times. She later wrote: "I did so try to tell the truth, and I believe now I hit as near the truth as any one could do. And I weighed every line with all my whole power & heart".
Gaskell now concentrated on writing stories for Dickens's new magazine, All the Year Round. This included The Crooked Branch , The Grey Woman , A Dark Night's Work and Crowley Castle . She was very upset by the way Dickens treated his wife, Catherine Dickens . She especially disapproved of the statement in the newspapers: "Some domestic trouble of mine, of long-standing, on which I will make no further remark than that it claims to be respected, as being of a sacredly private nature, has lately been brought to an arrangement, which involves no anger or ill-will of any kind, and the whole origin, progress, and surrounding circumstances of which have been, throughout, within the knowledge of my children. It is amicably composed, and its details have now to be forgotten by those concerned in it." Gaskell now began sending her stories to William Makepeace Thackeray , the editor of The Cornhill Magazine.
Gaskell was now at the height of her powers. However, she told a friend: "I do not think I ever cared for literary fame; nor do I think that I ought to be cared for. It comes and it goes. The exercise of a talent or power is always a great pleasure; but one should weigh well whether this pleasure may not be obtained by the sacrifice of some duty." Gaskell was convinced that one needed to reach a certain age before you became a great writer. She told one young novelist: "When you are forty, and if you have a gift for being an authoress, you will write ten times as good a novel as you could do now, just because you will have gone through so much more of the interests of a wife and mother."
Sylvia's Lovers was published in February 1863. She felt was the saddest story she ever wrote. Jenny Uglow has argued: "Sylvia's Lovers looked back to an era before industrialization and the coming of the railways. The pressures of that change, felt in all Gaskell's fiction, haunt the background of Cousin Phillis, a Turgenev-like pastoral tale of young love and paternal misunderstanding. There is also an element of personal nostalgia in this story, the setting of which, Heathbridge, was based on memories of Sandlebridge, the farm owned by Gaskell's grandfather Samuel Holland. Cousin Phillis was published by George Smith in four episodes in the Cornhill, from November 1863 to February 1864. The story's abrupt ending, forced by the deadline, gives a slightly false, if moving, sense of uncertainty, since Gaskell seems to have planned that her heroine would find some ease for personal pain in social work."
Elizabeth Gaskell collapsed suddenly with a massive heart attack at her new home in Holybourne, near Alton in Hampshire, on 12th October, 1865. She died soon afterwards and was buried on 17th November in the cemetery of Brook Street Chapel, Knutsford.
We proceeded home, through many half-finished streets, all so like one another, that you might have easily been bewildered and lost your way. Not a step, however, did our friends lose; down the entry, cutting off that corner, until they turned out of one of these innumerable streets into a little paved court, having the backs of houses at the end opposite to the opening, and a gutter running through the middle to carry off household slops, washing suds, etc. The women who lived in the court were busy taking in strings of caps, frocks, and various articles of linen, which hung from side to side, dangling so low, that if our friends had been a few minutes sooner, they would have had to stoop very much, or else the half-wet clothes would have flapped in their faces: but although the evening seemed yet early when they were in the open fields - among the pent-up houses, night, with its mists and its darkness, had already begun to fall.
Carson's mill ran lengthways from east to west. Along it went one of the oldest thoroughfares in Manchester. Indeed, all that part of the town was comparatively old; it was there that the first cotton mills were built, and the crowded alleys and back streets of the neighbourhood made a fire there particularly to be dreaded. The staircase of the mill ascended from the entrance at the western end, which faced into a wide, dingy-looking street, consisting principally of public houses, pawnbrokers' shops, rag and bone warehouses, and dirty provision shops. The other, the east end of the factory, fronted into a very narrow back street, not twenty feet wide, and miserably lighted and paved. Right against the end of the factory were the gable ends of the last house in the principal street - a house which from its size, its handsome stone facings, and the attempt at ornament in the front, had probably been once a gentleman's house; but now the light which streamed from its enlarged front window made clear the interior of the splendidly fitted up room, with its painted walls, its pillared recesses, its gilded and gorgeous fittings-up, its miserable squalid inmates. It was a gin palace.
Berry Street was unpaved; and down the middle a gutter forced its way, every now and then forming pools in the holes with which the street abounded. Never was the old Edinburgh cry of "Gardez l'eau!' more necessary than in the street. As they passed, women from their doors tossed household slops of every description into the gutter; they ran into the next pool, which over-flowed and stagnated.
You went down one step from this foul area into the cellar in which a family of human beings lived. It was very dark inside. The window-panes many of them were broken and stuffed with rags, which was reason enough for the dusky light that pervaded the place at mid-day. After the account I have given of the state of the street, no one can be surprised that on going into the cellar inhabited by Davenport, the smell was so foetid as almost to knock the two men down. Quickly recovering themselves, as those inured to such things do, they began to penetrate the thick darkness of the place, and to see three or four little children rolling on the damp, nay wet brick floor, through which the stagnant, filthy moisture of the street oozed up; the fireplace was empty and black; the wife sat on the husband's lair, and cried in the dark loneliness.
Mrs Gaskell's North and South, which was proving too long and too unwieldy for serial publication. Mrs Gaskell herself was also somewhat difficult, particularly in her inability or slowness to cut her text as Dickens desired; nothing irritated him more than unprofessional behaviour, especially in novelists whom he knew to be inferior to himself, and although he kept his own communications with Mrs Gaskell relatively courteous he was far from flattering about her to his deputy.
What we learn from the story is that Elizabeth Gaskell was a far stranger person than the usual picture of her allows. A strange, strong person - the superwoman of Victorian literature, perhaps? For she was lovely, charming, clever, expansive, brave, without vices or even neuroses; and formidable. With no more education than any other nice girl born in 1810; with marriage at twenty-one, and seven pregnancies thereafter; with all the domestic and social duties of the wife of a Unitarian minister, and the care and upbringing of her children; not to mention a taste for travel - prison visiting and humanitarian work among the poor - a social life as exuberant as that of Dickens and a circle of friends as large - with all this, still, at the age of thirty-six she became an enormously successful and respected writer in a hugely competitive and brilliant field.
Compare her with other great women writers of her generation, all of whom felt absolutely obliged to protect themselves from the normal world in order to get any writing done. George Eliot (childless) refused even to keep a spare room for friends, knowing what it would do to her working schedule. Elizabeth Barrett (one late child) made herself into an invalid to get time and privacy in which to write. Christina Rossetti (childless) turned determinedly away from the pleasures of earthly life. The Bronte sisters (all childless, though Charlotte died pregnant) defended their isolation with ferocity, at the cost of any semblance of conventional womanly happiness.
But Mrs Gaskell would dance half the night; she had a hearty appetite; she played cards, went to the theatre, cared about fashion and gossip, adored her children, enchanted almost everyone who met her and was forever entertaining and being entertained. Annie Thackeray described her conversational manner as "gay yet definite", a description that suits many aspects of her behaviour perfectly. Even when her husband, with his degree from Glasgow and his classical scholarship, put her down for "slip-shod" letter-writing, she remained a cheerful correspondent to his sister; and when she was quite tired out from all the demands made on her, the letter-writing pen only dashed the faster. Dickens, who admired her work, but did not expect women to fight him, was driven to exclaim, in the course of an editorial battle with her, "if I were Mr G. O Heaven how I would beat her".
Mrs Gaskell was unbeatable. Her range and achievement as a writer of biography, novels and stories over the mere twenty years she had at her disposal are staggering. How was it done? She was certainly not the meek, dovelike creature some earlier biographers have drawn; equally, she was not the full-blown Marxist and feminist others have divined beneath the Cranford cap...
As a daughter, her life was sad, her mother dying when she was just one year old; but she was taken in by a middle-aged aunt who lived, separated from an insane husband and with a crippled daughter, in the little Cheshire town of Knutsford. So her consciousness was formed among strong, odd women, and apart from her only brother. Knutsford was to become Cranford four decades later, its female society reconstituted in gently humorous prose. Jennifer Uglow suggests that the Cranford stories "make the dangerous safe, touching the tenderest spots of memory and bringing the single, the odd and the wanderer into the circle of family and community", which is perceptive both about the book and about its origins in the life of an orphan.
Growing up, Elizabeth was not unhappy; but she saw little of either brother or father and, when she did, found she had acquired an uncongenial stepmother. The sore and empty places left in the heart and the imagination by such experiences - lost parents and siblings, false geniality - must be thought of when you ask what makes someone become a writer. Add to them the disappearance of her brother at sea when she was eighteen, immediately followed by the death of their father; small wonder if the imagination had the edge on the real world. Yet she was cheerful, popular, serene, apparently pleased enough to keep moving from one set of friends and relations to another...
Unlike Dickens, she made her marriage work. To be fair to Mr Gaskell, it was he who encouraged her to start writing seriously, in the aftermath of the death of their small son. And although she did mention his inability to express affection, you can't help wondering whether a certain emotional emptiness, first in childhood, then in marriage, may not have helped to form and keep her a writer. Too much intimacy, too much 'happiness', can be a problem, a distraction from the world of the imagination, a spoke in the mechanism that manufactures fiction. Had she lived, had she led Mr Gaskell triumphantly to the intimacy of the Hampshire dream house, would she have gone on writing so well? We can't tell.