Elizabeth Gaskell Questions and Answers
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What was the historical significance of Elizabeth Gaskell?

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Elizabeth Gaskell is historically important because of the insight her novels give on the Victorian Era in which she lived and wrote.  In this sense, she is similar to Charles Dickens, whose works describe the same time in English history.

Gaskell was born in 1810 and died in 1865.  During this time, England's economy was changing as the Industrial Revolution began.  Gaskell used her writing to examine these changes and to criticize them in some ways.  She was very much concerned with the effects of the changes on the poor and on women in particular.

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Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) is historically significant as a writer because of her contributions to what is commonly called the "social problem" or "condition of England novel," a work of fiction that critiqued the social problems in Victorian society. After marrying her husband William Gaskell in 1832, she moved to Manchester, which was then the industrial powerhouse of the North and the center of the textile industry. Through volunteering with the poor, Gaskell was exposed to the harsh industrial working conditions and poverty of the working class.

Gaskell's experiences inspired her first novel, "Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life" (1845), which featured a working class girl whose father works in a cotton mill. In her introduction, Gaskell credited "the care-worn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and want" as the inspiration for her novel. The work sheds a light on these conditions. "Mary Barton" received praise from many authors, including Charles Dickens, who invited Gaskell to contribute to his magazine, "Household Words."

Gaskell's later works also focused on the changing society around her and the problems of the North. Her most famous novel, "North and South" (1855), drew inspiration from the rise of trade unions and the Chartist movement, which sought reform for the working class. The novel is told from the perspective of Margaret Hale, a young woman from the south of England who moves to Milton, an industrial town based on Manchester. Margaret is horrified when she witnesses the conditions of local cotton mill workers, and she quickly blames the mill's owner, John Thornton. Both find themselves on opposing sides of a labor strike. They eventually fall in love and come to better understand each other's perspectives. The novel satirizes the societal differences of England's north and south, and it illustrates the necessity of employee-worker communication.

Gaskell is also significant for her focus on women characters. Although her works were not revolutionary (many ended with marriages for her female protagonists, and she did not touch on issues like suffrage), Gaskell did give voices to a variety of women characters. "Mary Barton" and "Ruth" (1853), for example, feature working class heroines, and "Cranford" (1853) focuses on a women centric society. At the end of "North and South," Margaret's inheritance saves John Thornton's mill, allowing her to take a more active role in their marriage.

In addition to her novels, Gaskell was also a dedicated volunteer and reformer, and she provided service during the Lancashire Cotton Famine.