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.