Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell Essay - Critical Essays

Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn


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.

Principal Works

Mary Barton (novel) 1848

"Lizzie Leigh" (short story) 1850

Cranford (novel) 1851-53

"The Old Nurse's Story" (short story) 1852

Ruth (novel) 1853

North and South (novel) 1854

"The Poor Clare" (short story) 1856

The Life of Charlotte Brontë (biography) 1857

My Lady Ludlow (novella) 1858

Cousin Phillis (novella) 1863

Sylvia's Lovers (novel) 1863

Wives and Daughters (unfinished novel) 1864-66

The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell (letters) 1966


J. A. V. Chappie and Arthur Pollard (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell, edited by J. A. V. Chappie and Arthur Pollard, Manchester University Press, 1966, pp. xi-xxix.

[In the following introduction to Gaskell's collected letters, Chappie and Pollard discuss the significance of the letters as reflections and commentaries on her experience and writing.]


'Don't you like reading letters? I do, so much. Not grand formal letters; but such as Mme Mohl's, I mean' (195).1 Mrs Gaskell knew the fascination of other people's let-ters. Writing to her sister-in-law, Mrs Charles Holland (née Elizabeth Gaskell), she wondered 'if odd bundles of old letters...

(The entire section is 5561 words.)

W. A. Craik (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: 'Mary Barton," in Elizabeth Gaskell and the English Provincial Novel, Methuen & Co Ltd., 1975, pp. 1-46.

[In the essay that follows, Craik contends that although Gaskell's Mary Barton is concerned with issues of social reform, it avoids a didactic tone in order to emphasize realistic situations and characters.]

Mary Barton in 1848 is new ground for the English novel. It has new materials, presents new ways of seeing and handling both its own materials, the world in which any writer finds himself, and the human nature which it is an essential part of most writers' task to reveal. Elizabeth Gaskell, by beginning her writing career...

(The entire section is 13641 words.)

Rosemarie Bodenheimer (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Private Grief and Public Acts in Mary Barton," in Dickens Studies Annual: Essays on Victorian Fiction, Volume 9, edited by Michael Timko, Fred Kaplan, and Edward Guiliano, AMS Press, Inc., 1981, pp. 195-216.

[In the following essay, Bodenheimer contends that Mary Barton can be read as a novel of mourningone which deals with two primary issues: what to do in response to injustice, and how such responses might traverse the divide between the private and public spheres.]

Mary Barton is a novel about responding to the grief of loss or disappointment. Its pages are filled with domestic disaster; the sheer accumulation of one...

(The entire section is 9357 words.)

Sally Mitchell (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "The Social Problem," in The Fallen Angel: Chastity, Class and Women's Reading, 1835-1900, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1981, pp. 22-43.

[In the essay that follows, Mitchell discusses Gaskell's Ruth as a novel that attempts to respond to the problem of prostitution, in part by criticizing the presupposition that "fallen women" should be ostracized from society and by suggesting that the general public has a certain responsibility for this problem.]

During the 1840s there was a sudden proliferation of books and articles about prostitution. It seems an odd opening for the Victorian era until we realize that the interest was a sign of increased...

(The entire section is 5413 words.)

Raymond Williams (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "The Industrial Novels," in Culture and Society, 1780-1950, Columbia University Press, 1983, pp. 87-92, 109.

[In the following essay, Williams argues that Mary Barton and North and South belong to a tradition of literature that he calls "industrial, " given their attempt to portray in careful and sympathetic detail the suffering engendered by Britain's self-transformation into a modern power.]

Our understanding of the response to industrialism would be incomplete without reference to an interesting group of novels, written at the middle of the century, which not only provide some of the most vivid descriptions of life in an unsettled industrial...

(The entire section is 2220 words.)

Catherine Gallagher (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Causality versus Conscience: The Problem of Form in Mary Barton" in The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Form 1832-1867, The University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. 62-87.

[In the essay that follows, Gallagher studies the influence of Gaskell's Unitarian understanding of moral freedom and responsibility on the writing of Mary Barton.]

As in the Religion of Causation, Man seemed to be crushed into a mere creature, so was it on his behalf that remonstrance broke forth, and, at the bidding of Channing, the Religion of Conscience sprang to its feet. However fascinating the precision...

(The entire section is 13761 words.)

Margaret Homans (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Mothers and Daughters I: Gaskell's Stories of the Mother's Word and the Daughter's Fate," in Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing, The University of Chicago Press, 1986, pp. 223-50.

[In the following essay, Homans claims that Mary Barton and "Lizzie Leigh" are both enactments of a dialogue between mother and daughter, a dialogue that hinges on the transmission of the written word.]

Central to Gaskell's myth of herself as a writer who put her duties as a woman ahead of her writing is the story of how she began to write seriously. In 1845 her ten-month-old son, William, died of scarlet fever, and "it was...

(The entire section is 14028 words.)

Patsy Stoneman (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Two Nations and Separate Spheres: Class and Gender in Elizabeth Gaskell's Work," in Elizabeth Gaskell, The Harvester Press, 1987, pp. 45-67.

[In the following essay, Stoneman argues that Gaskell's writing, rather than reflecting the bifurcation of society along class and gender lines, tends to blur the sharpness of these distinctions through role reversal, the behavior of domestic servants, and the description of the "inhuman possibilities of authority. "]

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...

(The entire section is 6919 words.)

Carol A. Martin (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Gaskell's Ghosts: Truths in Disguise," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 27-40.

[In the following essay, Martin discusses the role of the supernatural in Gaskell's novels and shorter works.]

"Do you believe in ghosts?" someone is supposed to have asked Madame du Deffand, to which she replied, "No . . . but I am afraid of them."1

If that question had been posed to Elizabeth Gaskell a hundred years later, she might have responded similarly: "No, but I write stories about them, I tell tales of them by my friends' firesides, and I have seen them." For Gaskell, not unlike Madame du Deffand and many others before...

(The entire section is 6608 words.)

Hilary M. Schor (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "'Filled in with Pretty Writing': Desire, History, and Literacy in Sylvia's Lovers" in Scheherezade in the Marketplace: Elizabeth Gaskell and the Victorian Novel, Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 153-81.

[In the following essay, Schor contends that Sylvia's Lovers is a plotting of desireespecially female desire, which "works its own narrative transformations " and gestures towards a history, writing, and identity particular to women.]

"Desire is always there at the start of a narrative," Peter Brooks has suggested: the desire of the reader for movement, of the text for its own end, of the characters for whatever the desideratum of the...

(The entire section is 14524 words.)

Tim Dolin (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Cranford and the Victorian Collection," in Victorian Studies, Vol. 36, No. 2, Winter, 1993, pp. 179-206.

[In the excerpt that follows, Dolin examines Gaskell's Cranford as a paradigm of the Victorian experience, specifically because it is organized as a collection of anecdotes centering around women's lives.]

The freight of Victorian things remaining in our own century has left historians with a plentiful resource, but also with a number of special problems. One has only to pause in a recreated drawing-room, at a genre painting, or over a passage of description in a novel, to sense the abundance and oppressiveness of a famously cluttered age. In The...

(The entire section is 7953 words.)

Philip Rogers (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "The Education of Cousin Phillis," in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 50, No. 1, June, 1995, pp. 27-50.

[In the following essay, Rogers contends that Gaskell's short story "Cousin Phillis" describes the predicament of the well-educated woman in Victorian Britain; his analysis also focuses upon the significance of the title character's name.]

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...

(The entire section is 8572 words.)

Gabriele Helms (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "The Coincidence of Biography and Autobiography: Elizabeth Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Brontë," in Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 4, Fall, 1995, pp. 339-59.

[In the essay that follows, Helms considers the manner in which Gaskell comes to understand herself in relation to Charlotte Brontë and thus combines the genres of biography and autobiography.]

The ongoing theoretical debates about the genres of biography and autobiography are often concerned with genre classifications, gender issues, intentions as well as techniques and methods, and a general rethinking of given paradigms. Many long-held categorizations and evaluations...

(The entire section is 7789 words.)

Further Reading


Sanders, Gerald DeWitt, and Clark S. Northrup. Elizabeth Gaskell. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1929, 267p.

Includes a comprehensive biography and bibliography of secondary sources on Gaskell up to 1929.

Schor, Hilary M. "Elizabeth Gaskell: A Critical History and A Critical Revision." Dickens Studies Annual: Essays on Victorian Fiction 19 (1990): 345-69.

Provides a discussion of the primary editions of Gaskell's work and a historical overview of Gaskell criticism with a focus on recent studies.

Selig, Robert L....

(The entire section is 833 words.)