Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell 1810-1865

(Born Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson; used the pseudonym Cotton Mather Mills) English novelist, biographer, short story writer, and poet.

For additional information on Gaskell's life and works, see .

A figure of the "golden age" of nineteenth-century English literature, Gaskell is best known for her novels of social reform and psychological realism, notably Ruth (1853) and North and South (1854). Her treatment of issues ranging from prostitution to mother-daughter relations both captured the public imagination and caused a great deal of controversy during Gaskell's own lifetime and has attracted the attention of more recent critics interested in problems of authorship and social responsibility. Gaskell's refined and compassionate portrayals of her central characters—often young, unmarried women who suffer misfortune—and her skillful use of detail have established an enduring popularity for and interest in her work.

Biographical Information

Born in London in 1810, Gaskell was the daughter of an occasional minister of the Unitarian Church in England. Gaskell's mother died when Elizabeth was a year old, and Elizabeth was sent to live with her maternal aunt in rural Cheshire, where she attended a school for girls. Educated in fine arts and languages, Gaskell began to read extensively, particularly novels, developing a love for books that would be sustained throughout her life. In 1831, she travelled to Newcastle, Edinburgh, and Manchester to visit prominent Unitarian ministers. In Manchester, she met William Gaskell, a young Unitarian clergyman; they were married in 1832 and lived in Manchester. Of her six children, four daughters survived infancy, and Gaskell maintained close relationships with all of them. It was in response to the death of her second child, William, from scarlet fever in 1845 that her husband suggested Gaskell begin writing as a form of distraction from mourning. The resulting novel, Mary Barton (1848), reflected Gaskell's interest in the plight of families, and particularly of women, affected by the industrialization of England. After the popular success of Mary Barton, Gaskell produced a prolific number of short stories and novels over the remaining years of her life.

Because William Gaskell was a professor of history and literature at Manchester New College, the family was relatively wealthy, and Gaskell became deeply occupied with charitable endeavors as well as with her now-successful writing career, while also finding time to travel in Europe. Additionally, she developed friendships, often sustained primarily through letters, with a number of prominent persons of literary or charitable circles, such as George Eliot, Mary Howitt, Charlotte Brontë, and Florence Nightingale. Gaskell published many of her short stories and serialized novels in Household Words, a popular journal that Charles Dickens edited. Gaskell was known in Manchester to be a gracious hostess and a very private celebrity, and she clearly struggled to negotiate the demands of private and public life, as many of her central characters do. At the height of her career, Gaskell was asked by the Reverend Patrick Brontë to write a biography of his daughter Charlotte, who had recently died. This work was published in 1857 as The Life of Charlotte Brontë and raised some controversy regarding the accuracy of the account. For many critics, Gaskell's friendship with Brontë had resulted in an overly sympathetic and sentimental tendency in the work, which, according to reviewers and the Brontë family alike, produced major misrepresentations of the subject. Disappointed at the reception of the Brontë biography, Gasiceli returned to writing fiction, completing several full-length works. She died in Manchester in 1865, leaving her last novel, Wives and Daughters (1864-66), unfinished.

Major Works

Gaskell's novels are often characterized as simultaneously industrial and domestic. As a group, they are novels of social reform that focus on deeply personal injustices. Beginning with Mary Barton, Gaskell was preoccupied with the role and status of women and specifically of women before marriage. The narratives reveal characters who are struggling to flourish in a strictly contained and frequently irrational world, such as the title characters of Ruth and Sylvia's Lovers (1863). True to her Unitarian faith, Gaskell wrote with a serious concern for the rational responsibility proper to human beings; yet she also recognized the overwhelming forces of public opinion, economic desperation, and misfortune. Her novels thus reflect a tension between the operations of freedom and destiny. Mary Barton, for instance, has tragic elements, but the moral responsibility of the central characters takes precedence. In this way, Gaskell used the interplay of the melodramatic and the ordinary to focus on forms of social injustice. Also, the moral seriousness of Gaskell's novels reflects the concerns of the Victorian era in questioning the legitimacy of authority: the characters with the most political or social power are often the least trustworthy (for Gaskell), and those with little or no power to fashion their own destiny, notably single women, servants, and the poor (such as the heroines of "Lizzie Leigh" [1850] and Ruth) are the central or more sympathetic figures. Her writing also reveals an ear highly attuned to dialect and natural conversation. Gaskell's last two novels, Sylvia's Lovers and the unfinished Wives and Daughters, were praised for the vividness of the characterizations and the portrayals of ordinary life. Her letters, which span her entire writing career, contain both personal communications and comments upon her own writing and other works of literature.

Critical Reception

Gaskell is best known for her insightful understanding and delicate expression of emotional and psychological suffering. W. A. Craik characterizes her as a "primitive"—one whose voice as an author developed not out of the study of classical technique but out of her own keen observational powers and compassion. What is most consistently praised in Gaskell's writing is the realism of plot, setting, and character (in spite of the fact that several stories give a prominent place to the supernatural); attention to detail and to the intimate dynamics of domestic life are also central features of her narratives. According to critical consensus, Gaskell generally avoided a didactic or self-righteous tone by letting the wealth of realistic details of domestic life and the vividness of the characters absorb the political message. The hesitancy that marks Gaskell's early novels evolves into a subtle and "unobtrusive" presence of the author. Very well received during and immediately after her lifetime, Gaskell was dismissed throughout much of the twentieth century as a writer who reflected the conventionality of the Victorian era and was considered a social conservative and a sentimental novelist. Early feminists criticized the "nostalgia" of her resolutions: marriage remained the goal for most of the heroines, and, like Dickens, Gaskell tended to romanticize the natural and the pastoral over and against the industrialized clamor of the urban. More recent critics have instead emphasized the tensions that animate Gaskell's novels and foreshadow major social reforms—tensions between the working and middle classes, between traditional authority and young women, and between the responsibilities of the public and the responsibilities of the individual.