Gaskell, Elizabeth 1810-1865
English novelist, short story writer, biographer, and essayist. See also Elizabeth Gaskell Literary Criticism.
One of the most popular writers of the Victorian era, Gaskell is principally remembered for her portraits of nineteenth-century provincial life in the novels Cranford (1853) and Wives and Daughters: An Every-day Story (1866). An esteemed storyteller, she also wrote a considerable assortment of short fiction, much of which was published in the weekly journals of Charles Dickens. Dickens, who had read Gaskell's popular social novel Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (1848), asked her to submit her new work to his Household Words. This encouraged her to write "Lizzie Leigh: A Domestic Tale" and provided her with a rewarding publishing outlet. Other short works, including "Lois the Witch" and "The Grey Woman" were originally published in Dickens's All the Year Round, prior to being released in collections. In all, Gaskell wrote over forty short stories and sketches, and several novellas. Many of these works are genre pieces—Gothic mystery stories or historical fiction—and many are comedies or darker tales of varying quality, which until recently have been somewhat neglected by critics in favor of her longer works, particularly Cranford.
Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson was born September 29, 1810 in Chelsea, London, but following her mother's death thirteen months later, moved to the quiet town of Knutsford in Cheshire with her aunt. She had little contact with her father from that time on, but the town of Knutsford became central to much of her writing and the principal location for her novels Cranford and Wives and Daughters. While on a visit to Manchester—the setting for her first novel, Mary Barton—she met the Unitarian minister, William Gaskell, whom she later married. She became active in the liberal Unitarian community and occupied herself with her domestic duties, including raising four children, and traveling. One of her trips took her to Haworth where she met Charlotte Brontë. The two became close friends, and Gaskell later undertook the writing of her biography, though its publication in 1857 was marred by charges of misrepresentation. Mortified by allegations of dishonesty, Gaskell did not attempt another full-length work until 1863, instead focusing on her production of shorter fiction. In 1865, exhausted from continuous work and persistent ill-health, Gaskell collapsed suddenly while visiting her Hampshire country home. She died of heart failure, leaving her novel Wives and Daughters unfinished.
Major Works of Short Fiction
While predominately concerned with social issues, especially the role of women in Victorian society, Gaskell's many other interests often surfaced in her shorter works of fiction. "Mr. Harrison's Confessions," like the later Cranford, reveals her ability to capture the nuance of a small and vanishing town's way of life. The story, which relies on misunderstood gossip, demonstrates Gaskell's characteristically light and gently ironic humor. "Curious, If True" represents Gaskell's exploitation of a fantasy motif, as its somewhat dim-witted narrator fails to recognize that he has stumbled into the dwelling of several aging fairy-tale characters, including Snow White and Cinderella. "The Old Nurse's Story," a tale of ghosts told from a feminine perspective, exemplifies Gaskell's work in the gothic mode, while "A Dark Night's Work" details a murder motivated by the inequities of social class. In "Lois the Witch" Gaskell demonstrates her talent for historical fiction. Inspired by the Salem witch trials, the story dramatizes themes of intolerance and fear. Among her novellas, Cousin Phillis resembles such realistic works as Mary Barton and North and South, and like them illustrates Gaskell's concern for social reconciliation during the industrial revolution. Its story follows the changes brought about by the construction of a railroad near the quiet, pastoral Hope Farm. The heroine of The Moorland Cottage (1850), Maggie Browne, faces a conflict between her social responsibilities and her own personal fulfillment. Certain elements of the story appear in Gaskell's later works of realistic fiction, especially Wives and Daughters.
Despite her popularity in the mid-1800s, for the first century after her death critics tended to view Gaskell as a limited writer whose novel Cranford alone kept her in the English canon. Her work, however, has since been reappraised. Scholars have noted her ability to convincingly convey the emotional states of her characters and have recognized that she indeed wrote in the mode of Realism even before its proponents, like her friend George Eliot, had articulated its tenets. Feminists have seen in Gaskell's short stories a sustained examination of the situation of women in a patriarchal society, especially in characters such as Thekla of "Six Weeks in Heppenheim" and Ellinor Wilkins of "A Dark Night's Work." And, while a portion of her short fiction has been perceived as ephemeral in nature, evidence both of the lasting appeal of much of her work and of the historical realities of her writing—she faced tremendous difficulties in a literary world dominated by male publishers and critics—has, according to modern critics, only magnified Gaskell's considerable achievements.
The Moorland Cottage (novella) 1850
Hands and Heart and Bessie's Troubles at Home 1855
Lizzie Leigh and Other Tales 1855
My Lady Ludlow (novella) 1858
Right at Last, and Other Tales 1860
Lois the Witch and Other Tales 1861
Cousin Phillis: A Tale (novella) 1864
The Grey Woman and Other Tales 1865
Mrs. Gaskell's Tales of Mystery and Horror 1978
Other Major Works
Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (novel) 1848
Cranford (novel) 1853
Ruth (novel) 1853
North and South (novel) 1855
The Life of Charlotte Brontë (biography) 1857
Sylvia's Lovers (novel) 1863
Wives and Daughters: An Every-day Story (novel) 1866
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SOURCE: Review of The Moorland Cottage, in The Athenaeum, No. 1208, December, 1850, pp. 1337-8.
[In the following assessment, the anonymous critic praises The Moorland Cottage for its "wholesome moral."]
There is little risk in predicting that this Christmas book will divide public favour with the Rhenish adventures of 'The Kickleburys.' Nor is there much hazard in saying that Mary Barton was not more unlike Becky Sharp than Combehurst is dissimilar to Cologne, Coblenz, Caub, and all the other C's of the Rhineland to which Mr. Thackeray has done the honours.
The Moorland Cottage, like Mary Barton, is a tale of passion and feeling, developed among what may be called every-day people:—but, unlike Mary Barton, it is not a tale of class-sufferings and class-interests. It is merely a story intended to soften the heart and sweeten the charities at Christmas time by the agency of pity and sympathy. The idea is simple, but the execution is of no common order. The characters are nicely marked. Mr. Buxton, the great man of the village-town,—his saint-like invalid wife—Mrs. Browne, with her jealous hardness towards her daughter and her credulous indulgence of her son—are as well made out as they are artfully, because artlessly, contrasted. Perhaps the following scene will bring the manner of our authoress and moreover the heroine, as...
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SOURCE: Review of Cousin Phillis, in The Bookman, Vol. XXXV, No. 206, November, 1908, pp. 98-9.
[Below, the anonymous critic favorably reviews Cousin Phillis.]
To most of us the name of Mrs. Gaskell has hitherto spelt Cranford. Comparatively few of us have any personal knowledge of this fragrant idyll, Cousin Phillis, which first saw light in the Cornhill in the early 'fifties, and is now ably and tenderly introduced by Mr. Thomas Seccombe to a forty-five-year-later audience. To read Cranford and Cousin Phillis now, and realise their respective dates, is to pause surprised at their order of production. Cranford came first—came, indeed, among Mrs. Gaskell's earliest writings, and Mr. Seccombe remarks: "Based upon generalised reminiscences of early childhood and youth, Cranford is coloured too with the riper tints of autumn, and the wonder is that these hues of sadness should be manipulated to so exquisite an issue by so fair, so sanguine, and so youthful a hand." The hand, however, was over forty years old when it began these finely artistic sketches of an avowedly inartistic period; and in forty years there is much opportunity to learn observation and suffer experience. The wonder lies even more, it seems to us, in the spontaneous radiance, the young glamorous youth and freshness of the later story, which gleams as if steeped in early morning...
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SOURCE: "The Humorist's Vision," in Elizabeth Gaskell: The Artist in Conflict, Twayne Publishers, 1969, pp. 132-81.
[In the following excerpt, Ganz studies Gaskell's use of humor in two of her short works, "Mr. Harrison 's Confessions" and My Lady Ludlow.]
"Mr. Harrison's Confessions" is indeed a remarkably enlightening introduction to Cranford, for it not only anticipates Mrs. Gaskell's basic approach in that work, but also the Cranford setting, characters, and situation. Less subtle in approach and less whimsical in characterization, it enables us to assess the fruition of her powers in Cranford where a fine discrimination is unerringly at work to suggest the humor and pathos of provincial existence.
Like Cranford, "Mr. Harrison's Confessions" treats us to a picture of small-town life in which a self-sufficient society largely composed of widows and maiden ladies pursues a well-regulated round of tea-drinkings, cardplayings, shopping trips, and outings, and indulges in its favorite pastime of gossip (mostly matrimonial conjectures). Specific characters in Cranford are already suggested: Miss Tomkinson, the Roman-nosed "grenadier" whose gruff appearance belies her kind heart is an appropriate predecessor for the assertive bluestocking Miss Deborah Jenkyns . . . busybody Miss Horsman anticipates Miss Pole.
Though Mrs. Gaskell handles the at...
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SOURCE: "Fireside Frissons," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3983, August 4, 1978, p. 881.
[In the following review of Mrs. Gaskell's Tales of Mystery and Horror, Tomalin suggests that the twentieth-century impulse to classify Gaskell as a "mystery" or "horror" writer is misleading.]
Elizabeth Gaskell's friends spoke of her as a teller of ghost stories at the fireside; and she once lightly claimed to have seen a ghost. Her biographer, Winifred Gérin, reminded us of her Celtic origins but had little more to say about her interest in the supernatural: hardly surprising, since the great mass of her work, including the majority of the stories in this slim collection, was firmly built on earthly premises.
Of the seven tales here, only one is a ghost story proper—"The Old Nurse's Story." Written in 1852 at the invitation of Dickens for the Christmas number of Household Words, it is a stock tale of a small orphan sent with her nurse to a lonely mansion below the Fells; they encounter weird music from a ruined organ, a locked east wing and whispers of old family scandals. The conclusion is crude melodrama, but there is one powerful touch which must surely be cribbed from Emily Brontë: a ghostly waif who is heard "crying, and beating against the window-panes, as if she wanted to be let in."
For the following Christmas Mrs Gaskell offered Dickens a wholly...
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SOURCE: Review of Mrs. Gaskell's Tales of Mystery and Horror, in Nineteenth Century Fiction, Vol. 34, No. 1, June, 1979, pp. 95-6.
[Here, Ferris faults Gaskell's ability to portray the nonrational motivations which give rise to fantasy, mystery, and the Gothic.]
This collection of six Gaskell stories [Mrs. Gaskell's Tales of Mystery and Horror] appears as part of the Gollancz Library of Fantasy and Macabre. But only two of the stories ("The Old Nurse's Tale" and "Curious If True") venture into the supranatural world of fantasy, and none generates the crawling horror of the genuine macabre. Readers hoping to discover exotic depths in a Gaskell released from the confines of realism will be disappointed. These tales come from the same world and the same mind as do the novels, so offer no startling insights into Gaskell as a fiction writer. Her novels, despite their diversity, draw sustenance from a firm belief in reason and history, and it is no accident that the most powerful story in this volume, "Lois the Witch," turns to history and reconstructs the collective loss of reason in Salem in 1692. But the emotional sanity and fundamental rationality that make Gaskell so attractive a realist prevent her from handling effectively less rational modes of narrative. The language of understanding lacks the psychic resonance and dramatic power needed to convey the edge where rational and nonrational...
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SOURCE: "The Landscape of Reality," in The Realistic Imagination: English Fiction from Frankenstein to Lady Chatterley, University of Chicago Press, 1981, pp. 204-26.
[In the following excerpt, Levine analyzes the narrative of Gaskell's novella Cousin Phillis, placing the work within the Victorian realistic tradition.]
Since, in keeping with the compromises realism entails, the landscape of the real is consistently rather flat, or at best rolling, a topographical survey of the Victorian novel would produce a large and unilluminating catalogue. It is worth pausing, however, for a glance at a characteristically low and domesticated landscape in order to gather some sense of the way such a landscape at once denies and imitates more absolute and more frightening realities, and accommodates itself to the more subtle shades, the less checkered patterns of the novelist's reality. A convenient place to look for such a landscape—although it is also the landscape of George Eliot's midlands, of Hardy's Wessex, of Trollope's Barsetshire—would be in the works of Elizabeth Gaskell, a writer who stands with Trollope as one of Victorian realism's most consistent practitioners. In Gaskell, as in Trollope, there are moments of violence and suggestions of extremes; but few writers stay more firmly within the limits Charlotte Brontë advocated but could not herself accept.
In her short novel...
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SOURCE: "Elizabeth Gaskell: The Telling of Feminine Tales," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall, 1984, pp. 274-87.
[In the following essay, Weiss maintains that the short tales within Gaskell's larger fiction work out "the anxieties and ambiguities inherent in the role of the female artist."]
In considering the works of Elizabeth Gaskell, the critic is immediately confronted with those twin damning adjectives, "charming" and "minor," which have clung to the reputation of Gaskell in the present century and prevented a balanced and serious consideration of her works. Discussions of her talent usually suggest her marginal status, protraying her as a homemaker and an amateur, rather than as a serious professional writer. And no quality has been held against the author more than her natural gift of storytelling. Her love of plot-making, her appreciation of the good anecdote, story, or melodrama has been cited against her, as if her very charm and natural ability as a spinner of tales were evidence of an absence of art and purpose in her works. In particular, the interpolated tales which frequently crop up in all but her most mature works are likely to strike the modern critic as disruptive and unnecessary. In recent years, however, feminist criticism has shed a new light on the act of storytelling and its psychological implications for the female artist. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, for example,...
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SOURCE: "Cousin Phillis, the Short Stories, and Cranford," in Elizabeth Gaskell, Twayne Publishers, 1984, pp. 48-77.
[In the following excerpt, Lansbury presents an overview of Gaskell's short stories.]
It was not unusual for the short story in [the mid-nineteenth century] to be a prelude, a testing piece for a subsequent novel. Themes were tried out on the public in one of the weekly or monthly magazines and, if the response were favorable, then a novel would follow in due course. Dickens's own short fiction frequently enunciates situations and expresses moods that were later developed in longer works. Thackeray's snobs, grimacing and strutting through the pages of Punch, can be found refined and humanized in Vanity Fair. Most Victorian novelists moved easily between journalism and fiction, frequently conflating the two forms.
Gaskell had begun her public career as a writer of short stories and essays, and she continued composing them to the end. "Libbie Marsh's Three Eras" (1847) had established a setting and provided characters who then moved onto the larger stage of Manchester in Mary Barton (1848). When this novel received critical acclaim Dickens wrote to Gaskell requesting a contribution for his journal Household Words. From the cast of Mary Barton she selected Esther and changed her to Lizzie Leigh, the errant daughter of a devout...
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SOURCE: "A Mixed Bag—Short Stories," in Elizabeth Gaskell, Berg Publishers, 1986, pp. 80-8.
[In the following essay, Brodetsky surveys Gaskell's work as a writer of short stories and novellas.]
An honest tale speeds best being plainly told.
Shakespeare: Richard II
During the whole period of her literary output, Elizabeth Gaskell was publishing short stories and novellas, from "The Three Eras of Libbie Marsh" in 1847 to Cousin Phillis, finished in 1864. That she had skill in telling a gripping tale is obvious from the fact that she never had difficulty in getting her stories published; indeed, they were often commissioned, particularly by Dickens, who usually paid generously for them.
These stories present some practical difficulties for the modern reader. In the first place, there are problems in getting hold of some of them, as there is no readily available complete edition. Secondly, in many cases they are much longer than the commonly accepted 'short story' of today, an important characteristic of which is surely that it can be conveniently read at a single sitting; this is frequently impractical with Elizabeth Gaskell's stories. The length may partly be explained by the serialisation of many of them in a variety of contemporary periodicals, and a further consequence of this is often...
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SOURCE: "Two Nations and Separate Spheres: Class and Gender in Elizabeth Gaskell's Work," in Elizabeth Gaskell, Indiana University Press, 1987, pp. 45-67.
[In the following excerpt, Stoneman investigates the means by which Gaskell blurs traditional gender roles across class divisions and criticizes patriarchal authority in her short fiction.]
The society in which Elizabeth Gaskell lived and wrote was intersected horizontally by class and vertically by gender divisions. Critics have created a divided image of her work by focusing on one or other of these axes—'industrial' or 'domestic'—and we can simply, but radically, revise this view by considering their interaction. I want to begin by drawing examples from Elizabeth Gaskell's lesser-known fiction, in which the issues are often very clear, but which critics have less completely labelled and categorised; this discussion will then serve as a context for a rereading of the familiar works in subsequent chapters.
What emerges from her work as a whole is that, at subsistence level, gender divisions are blurred: women exercise responsibility; men give basic nurturance. In the middle class, ideology heightens differentiation, producing infantilised women and authoritarian men.
Because Elizabeth Gaskell's studies of working-class life are read as 'industrial' novels, criticism has focused on factory-workers like...
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SOURCE: "Household Goodness: 'Cousin Phillis', Wives and Daughters," in Elizabeth Gaskell, St. Martin's Press, 1993, pp. 116-40.
[In the following excerpt, Spencer argues that Gaskell's later works, "Curious, If True" and Cousin Phillis, illustrate the melding of her social conscience with her escapist tendencies.]
Towards the end of her writing career, Gaskell gained a new sense of confidence in her work. Cousin Phillis (1863-4) and Wives and Daughters, the enchanting 'everyday story' which she had not quite finished when she died, display a new and dazzling sureness of artistic control. Edgar Wright explains this development in terms of a move from direct authorial commentary to more impersonal narrative methods. In Cousin Phillis the narrator is a major character in the story, and in Wives and Daughters the omniscient narrator withdraws to the background, leaving Molly Gibson, in Henry James's terms, the 'fine central intelligence' that gives the novel a unified viewpoint. (As Wright points out, James admired Gaskell's final novel). This artistic development is sometimes assumed to entail a movement away from the social commitment of her earlier fiction. Wright praises her for dropping the 'didactic element' in her later work, and sees Cousin Phillis and Wives and Daughters as a return to 'the Cranford world', a place whose values are so much...
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SOURCE: "A Habit of Stories," in Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories, Faber and Faber, 1993, pp. 236-58.
[In the following excerpt, Uglow explores the fifteen year period (1850-1865) during which Gaskell associated herself with Charles Dickens and wrote most of her short fiction.]
'I did feel as if I had something to say about it that I must say, and you know I can tell stories better than any other way of expressing myself.
This was how Elizabeth would explain Ruth to her friend Mary Green. Her new fame forced her to ask herself why she wrote. Until the late 1840s writing had been a private hobby, and she could justify the publication of the Howitt's stories and Mary Barton by her Unitarian belief in the moral function of art and in the duty to state the truth and expose social evils. Writing fiction was permissible as a branch of philanthropy. But what if it was just fun in itself? A personal need? A virtual career? While part of her shrank from the taint of professionalism, at the same time Elizabeth was briskly counting her earnings, studying her contracts and moaning about her publishers.
1850 was the year of her letters to Eliza Fox about the conflict of home duties and art. It was also the year she met Charlotte Brontë, and the year that she began to write for Dickens. A good time, then, to...
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SOURCE: "The Education of Cousin Phillis," in Nineteenth Century Literature, Vol. 50, No. 1, June, 1995, pp. 27-50.
[In the following excerpt, Rogers contends that Phillis's male education in Cousin Phillis is not liberating, as other critics have argued, but prescriptive and ultimately damaging.]
For Elizabeth Gaskell the story of Phillis Holman's disappointment in her first love in Cousin Phillis (1865) is inseparable from the process and content of her unusual education. As both daughter and lover—the only roles open to her as learner—Phillis is inescapably a pupil of men who control her education in ways that serve their interests. Learning from men what men traditionally have taught other men does not make her, as her cousin Paul naively supposes, "more like a man than a woman." On the contrary, the lessons of her reading and the experience of male tuition inculcate contradictory and damaging definitions of womanhood, diminishing her independence and sense of self. Like Gaskell's narrator, most critics of Cousin Phillis have interpreted Phillis' learning simply as evidence of her superior intelligence and promise rather than as allusive commentary on her predicament and that of educated women generally. Far from liberating her from the conventional constraints of Victorian womanhood, Phillis' readings in Virgil, Dante, and Alessandro Manzoni comprise no less prescriptive...
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Selig, Robert L. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Reference Guide, Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1977, 431 p.
A comprehensive bibliography of critical commentary on Gaskell's life and works published from 1848 to 1974.
Duthie, Enid L. The Themes of Elizabeth Gaskell. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980, 217 p.
Thematic study of Gaskell's works that includes chapters on nature, society, family, religion, and industry.
Easson, Angus. Introduction to Cousin Phillis and Other Tales, by Elizabeth Gaskell, pp. vii-xiv. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Summary of contemporary critical response to Gaskell's fiction.
——, ed. Elizabeth Gaskell: The Critical Heritage. New York: Routledge, 1991, 595 p.
Compilation of the enormous body of early criticism on Gaskell.
Fisher, Benjamin Franklin, IV. Review of Mrs. Gaskell's Tales of Mystery and Horror. Studies in Short Fiction 18, No. 1 (Winter 1981): 110-11.
Briefly evaluates several of Gaskell's genre stories, noting that "none of these tales is likely to enhance Mrs. Gaskell's literary standing."
Laun, Ellen M. "A Missing Gaskell Tale Found." Studies in Short Fiction 15, No. 2 (Spring 1978): 177-83.
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