Elizabeth Gaskell Gaskell, Elizabeth - Essay

Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson


(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

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

The Athenaeum (review date 1850)

(Short Story Criticism)

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 pleasantly before the public as any in the book. The delicate and pious Mr. Buxton has become aware that Maggie Browne is insufficiently prized at the Moorland Cottage, and has tempted the child over to Combehurst to see her. This the grudging mother has reluctantly permitted.—

"It needed a good deal of Nancy's diplomacy to procure Maggie this pleasure; although I don't know why Mrs. Browne should have denied it, for the circle they went was always within sight of the knoll in front of the house, if any one cared enough about the matter to mount it and look after them. Frank and Maggie got great friends in these rides. Her fearlessness delighted and surprised him, she had seemed so cowed and timid at first. But she was only so with people, as he found out before his holydays ended. He saw her shrink from particular looks and inflections of voice of her mother's; and learnt to read them, and dislike Mrs. Browne accordingly, notwithstanding all her sugary manner towards himself. The result of his observations he communicated to his mother, and in consequence he was the bearer of a most civil and ceremonious message from Mrs. Buxton to Mrs. Browne, to the effect that the former would be much obliged to the latter if she would allow Maggie to ride down occasionally with the groom, who would bring the newspapers on the Wednesdays (now Frank was going to school), and to spend the afternoon with Erminia. Mrs. Browne consented, proud of the honour, and yet a little annoyed that no mention was made of herself. When Frank had bid good-bye, and fairly disappeared, she turned to Maggie. 'You must not set yourself up if you go amongst these fine folks. It is their way of showing attention to your father and myself. And you must mind and work doubly hard on Thursdays to make up for playing on Wednesdays.'—Maggie was in a flush of sudden colour, and a happy palpitation of her fluttering little heart. She could hardly feel any sorrow that the kind Frank was going away, so brimful was she of the thoughts of seeing his mother; who had grown strangely associated in her dreams, both sleeping and waking, with the still calm marble effigies that lay for ever clasping their hands in prayer on the altartombs in Combehurst Church. All the week was one happy season of anticipation. She was afraid her mother was secretly irritated at her natural rejoicing; and so she did not speak to her about it, but she kept awake till Nancy came to bed, and poured into her sympathising ears every detail, real or imaginary, of her past and future intercouse with Mrs. Buxton. And the old servant listened with interest, and fell...

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The Bookman (review date 1908)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Margaret Ganz (essay date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Claire Tomalin (review date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Ina Ferris (review date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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George Levine (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Barbara Weiss (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Coral Lansbury (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Tessa Brodetsky (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3207 words.)

Patsy Stoneman (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3047 words.)

Jane Spencer (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Jenny Uglow (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

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Philip Rogers (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


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.


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