"I'll not listen to reason... reason always means what someone else has got to say." -- Elizabeth Gaskell
Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, néeStevenson (29 September 1810 — 12 November 1865), often referred to simply as Mrs Gaskell, was a British novelist and short story writer during the Victorian era. Her novels offer a detailed portrait of the lives of many strata of society, including the very poor, and as such are of interest to social historians as well as lovers of literature.
"A little credulity helps one on through life very smoothly.""A wise parent humors the desire for independent action, so as to become the friend and advisor when his absolute rule shall cease.""How easy it is to judge rightly after one sees what evil comes from judging wrongly!""Madam your wife and I didn't hit it off the only time I ever saw her. I won't say she was silly, but I think one of us was silly, and it wasn't me.""My heart burnt within me with indignation and grief; we could think of nothing else. All night long we had only snatches of sleep, waking up perpetually to the sense of a great shock and grief. Every one is feeling the same. I never knew so universal a feeling.""People may flatter themselves just as much by thinking that their faults are always present to other people's minds, as if they believe that the world is always contemplating their individual charms and virtues.""Sometimes one likes foolish people for their folly, better than wise people for their wisdom.""The cloud never comes from the quarter of the horizon from which we watch for it.""To be sure a stepmother to a girl is a different thing to a second wife to a man!"
Gaskell was born Elizabeth Stevenson on 29 September 1810, at 93 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, which was then on the outskirts of London. Gaskell was the eighth and last of her parents' children; only she and her brother John survived infancy. Her father, William Stevenson, was a Scottish Unitarian minister at Failsworth, Lancashire but resigned his orders on conscientious grounds, moving his family to London in 1806 with intention of going to India after he had been named private secretary to the Earl of Lauderdale, who was to become Governor-General of India. This position did not materialise, and Stevenson was instead nominated Keeper of the Treasury Records. Stevenson's wife, Elizabeth Holland, came from a family from the English Midlands that was well connected with other Unitarian and prominent families like the Wedgwoods, the Turners and the Darwins, and when she died three months after giving birth to Gaskell she left a bewildered husband who saw no other alternative for young Elizabeth but to be sent away to live with her mother's sister Hannah Lumb, in Knutsford, Cheshire.
While she was growing up Gaskell's future was very uncertain as she had no personal wealth and no firm home, even though she was a permanent guest at her aunt and grandparents' house. Her father had married again to Catherine Thomson in 1814 and the couple had a male heir, William (born 1815) and a daughter, Catherine (born 1816). Although Gaskell would sometimes spend several years without seeing her father and his new family, her older brother John would often visit her in Knutsford. John had early been destined for the Royal Navy, like his grandfathers and uncles, but he had no entry and had to go into the Merchant Navy with the East India Company's fleet. John went missing in 1827 during an expedition to India.
Much of Elizabeth's childhood was spent in Cheshire, where she lived with her aunt Hannah Lumb in Knutsford, a town she would later immortalise as Cranford. They lived in a large red brick house, Heathwaite, on Heathside (now Gaskell Avenue), which faces the large open area of Knutsford Heath.
She also spent some time in Newcastle upon Tyne (with Rev. William Turner's family) and in Edinburgh. Her stepmother was a sister of the Scottish miniature artist, William John Thomson, who painted the famous 1832 portrait of Gaskell in Manchester. Also during this period, Gaskell met and married William Gaskell, the minister at Cross Street Unitarian Chapel, who had a literary career of his own. They spent their honeymoon in North Wales, staying with Elizabeth's uncle, Samuel Holland, who lived near Porthmadog.
The Gaskells settled in Manchester, where the industrial surroundings would offer inspiration for her novels (in the industrial genre). They had several children: a stillborn daughter in 1833, followed by Marianne (1834), Margaret Emily (1837), known as Meta, Florence Elizabeth (1842), William (1844—1845), and Julia Bradford (1846). Her daughter Florence married a barrister, Charles Crompton, in 1862.
They rented a villa in Plymouth Grove in 1850, after the publication of Gaskell's first novel, and Gaskell lived in the house with her family until her death 15 years later. All of Gaskell's books except one were written at Plymouth Grove, while her husband held welfare committees and tutored the poor in his study. The circles in which the Gaskells moved included literary greats, religious dissenters, and social reformers, including William and Mary Howitt. Charles Dickens and John Ruskin visited Plymouth Grove, as did American writers Harriet Beecher Stowe and Charles Eliot Norton, while conductor Charles Hallé lived close by and taught piano to one of Gaskell's four daughters. Close friend Charlotte Brontë is known to have stayed there three times, and on one occasion hid behind the drawing room curtains as she was too shy to meet Gaskell's visitors.
Gaskell died in Holybourne, Hampshire in 1865, aged 55. The house on Plymouth Grove remained in the Gaskell family until 1913.
Gaskell's first novel, Mary Barton, was published anonymously in 1848. The best known of her remaining novels are Cranford (1853), North and South (1854), and Wives and Daughters (1865). She became popular for her writing, especially her ghost stories, aided by Charles Dickens, who published her work in his magazine Household Words. Her ghost stories are quite distinct, in the "Gothic" vein, from her industrial fiction.
Even though her writing conforms to Victorian conventions (including signing her name "Mrs. Gaskell"), Gaskell usually frames her stories as critiques of contemporary attitudes: her early works focused on factory work in the Midlands. She always emphasized the role of women, with complex narratives and dynamic female characters.
In addition to her fiction, Gaskell also wrote the first biography of Charlotte Brontë, which played a significant role in developing her fellow writer's reputation.
Unitarianism urges comprehension and tolerance toward all religions and, even though Gaskell tried to keep her own beliefs hidden, she felt strongly about these values, which permeated her works...as in North and South, where "Margaret the Churchwoman, her father the Dissenter, Higgins the Infidel, knelt down together. It did them no harm".
Gaskell's style is notable for putting local dialect words into the voice of middle-class characters and of the narrator. For example, in North and South Margaret Hale suggests redding up (tidying) the Bouchers' house and even offers jokingly to teach her mother words such as knobstick (strike-breaker). Her husband collected Lancashire dialect, and Gaskell defended her use of dialect as expressing otherwise inexpressible concepts in an 1854 letter to Walter Savage Landor:
:'...you will remember the country people's use of the word "unked". I can't find any other word to express the exact feeling of strange unusual desolate discomfort, and I sometimes "potter" and "mither" people by using it.'
She used the dialect word "nesh" (soft), which goes back to Old English, in Mary Barton:
"Sit you down here: the grass is well nigh dry by this time; and you're neither of you nesh folk about taking cold."
and later in 'The Manchester Marriage' :
"Now, I'm not above being nesh for other folks myself. I can stand a good blow, and never change colour; but, set me in the operating-room in the Infirmary, and I turn as sick as a girl."
"At Mrs Wilson's death, Norah came back to them, as nurse to the newly-born little Edwin; into which post she was not installed without a pretty strong oration on the part of the proud and happy father; who declared that if he found out that Norah ever tried to screen the boy by a falsehood, or to make him nesh either in body or mind, she should go that very day."