1902 Encyclopedia > E C Gaskell

ELizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell
English novelist

ELIZABETH CLEGHORN GASKELL, (1810-1865), one of the most distinguished of England's women-novelists, was born at Cheyne Row, Chelsea, September 29, 1810. She was the second child of William Stevenson, of whom an account is given in the Annual Biography and Obituary for 1830. Mr Stevenson, who began life as classical tutor in the Manchester Academy, and preached also at Doblane, near that town, afterwards relinquished his ministry and became a farmer in East Lothian ; and later, on the failure of his farming enterprises, he kept a boarding-house for students in Drummond Street, Edinburgh, where he also became editor of the Scots Magazine, and contributed largely to the Edinburgh Review. At the time of his daughter's birth Mr Stevenson had been appointed Keeper of the Records to the Treasury, and was living in Chelsea, still a diligent contributor to various periodicals of the day. Mrs Stevenson, Mrs Gaskell's mother, was a Miss Holland, of Sandlebridge in Cheshire, an aunt of the late Sir Henry Holland. She died at the birth of her daughter, who was in a manner adopted, when she was only a month old, by her mother's sister, Mrs Lumb. This lady had married a wealthy Yorkshire gentleman, but a few months after her marriage, and before the birth of her child, discovered that her husband was insane, and fled from him to her old home in the little market town of Knutsford, in Cheshire. Mrs Lumb's own daughter having died, she transferred all her affection to the little Elizabeth, between whom and her there existed through life the strongest bond of affection. During Elizabeth's childhood at Knutsford she was visited now and then by her sailor-brother ; but while she was still a girl he went to India, where he somewhat mysteriously, and without any apparent motive, disappeared, and all further trace of him was lost. She was afterwards sent for about two years to a school kept by a Miss Byerley at Stratford-on-Avon, and on leaving school went for a time to live with her father, who had married again. Under his guidance she continued her studies, reading with him in history and literature, and working, chiefly by herself, at Latin, Italian, and French, in all of which she was in later life proficient. Having tenderly nursed her father in his last illness, she returned to her aunt at his death in 1829 ; and, with the exception of one or two visits to Newcastle, London, and Edinburgh, she continued to live at Knutsford till her marriage. She had at this time a reputation for great beauty; and even in later life her exquisitely-shaped soft eyes retained their light, and her smile its wonderful sweetness. Her marriage to the Rev. William Gaskell, M.A., of Cross Street Chapel, Manchester, took place August 30, 1832, at Knutsford church; and during the earlier years of her married life Mrs Gaskell lived very quietly in Manchester, surrounded by a few intimate and cultured friends, and devoting all her time and abilities to the cares of a necessarily frugal household. Among these friendships, that with Miss Catherine Winkworth and her sisters was perhaps the longest and most cherished. From the first, although she never visited the poor as a member of any organized society, she sought by all means in her power to relieve the misery which, in a town like Manchester, she was constantly witnessing. She gave the most devoted help and tender sympathy to such cases of individual distress as came under her notice. She assisted Mr Travers Madge in his missionary work amongst the poor, and was the friend and helper of Thomas Wright, the prison philanthropist. She also made several individual friendships among poor people, and knew personally one or two types of the Chartist working-man. She was specially interested in the young working-women of Manchester, and for some years held a weekly evening class at her own house for talking with them and teaching them. Of Mrs Gaskell's seven children, two were still-born, and another, her only son, born between the third and fourth of her four living daughters, died at the age of ten months. The death of this baby is said to have been the cause of Mrs Gaskell's beginning to write, when she was urged by her husband to do so, in order to turn her thoughts from her own grief. She began by writing a short paper called " An Account of Clopton Hall," for William Howitt's Visits to Remarkable Places. This was followed by one or two short stories, such as the " Sexton's Hero," for the People's Journal; and then she wrote Mary Barton, a Tale of Manchester Life. On its completion, she sent it to one publisher in London who rejected it unread, and then to Messrs Chapman and Hall, who, after keeping the manuscript for a year without acknowledgment, wrote to her accepting the novel for publication, and offering the authoress ¿£100 for the copy-right. The appearance of Mary Barton in 1848 caused great excitement in Manchester, and a strong partisanship was felt for and against its anonymous author. After its publication Mrs Gaskell paid several visits in London, where she made many friends, among whom we may men-tion Dickens, Forster, Mrs Jameson, Lord Houghton, Mrs Stowe, Ruskin, and Florence Nightingale. Her friendship with Charlotte Bronte also dates from about this time, when the two authoresses met at the house of Sir James and Lady Kay Shuttleworth, near Bowness, in Westmore-land, and Mrs Gaskell received her first impressions of the shy " little lady in a black silk gown," who afterwards be-came personally her dear friend,—although, from a literary point of view, they could hardly help being rivals,—and the story of whose life, when it was ended, Mrs Gaskell was destined to write with such consummate care and tender appreciation. But Mary Barton was to prove only the first of a series of scarcely less popular publications, which appeared either independently or in periodicals such as Household Words. It was followed in 1850 by The Moor-land Cottage. Cranford and Ruth appeared in 1853; North and South, in 1855 ; The Bife of Charlotte Bronte, in 1857 ; Round the Sofa, in 1859 ; Right at Last, in 1860 ; Sylvia's Lovers, in 1863 ; and Cousin Phillis and Wives and Daughters, in 1865.

During these years—years of increasing worldly prosperity and literary distinction—Mrs Gaskell often went abroad, chiefly to Paris and Borne, but once for a long visit to Heidelberg, and once also to Brussels, to collect information about Charlotte Bronte's school-days. In Paris her genius was warmly appreciated ; and, while she was a guest among them, Guizot, Montalembert, and Odillon Barrot vied in doing her honour. Of her visits in England some of the pleasantest were to Oxford, where she counted among her friends Mr Jowett and Mr Stanley (dean of Westminster). At other times, when she was busy writing one of her novels, she would leave home with one or two of her children, and carry her manuscript to some quiet country place, where she could write undisturbed. When she was at home, although she was enthusiastically interested in the political questions of the day, and her warm, impulsive nature made her ready at any time to give personal help and sympathy where it seemed to be needed, Mrs Gaskell refrained from taking active part in public movements or social reforms, if we except, indeed, the great sewing-school movement in Manchester at the time of the cotton famine in 1862. Her life was thoroughly literary and domestic. She read much : Goldsmith, Pope, Cowper, and Scott were the favourite authors of her girlhood; in later life she admired Buskin and Macaulay extremely, and delighted in many old French memoirs of the time of Madame de Sevigne, whose life she often planned to write. It is remembered of her that one day, when she was reading George Eliot's first and anonymous story Amos Barton, she looked up and said, " I prophesy that the writer of this will be a great writer some day." The prospect of the awful cotton famine in Manchester in 1862 set Mrs Gaskell anxiously thinking what could be done to relieve the coming distress, and she decided, " without any suggestions from others, on a plan of giving relief and employment together to the women mill-hands, which was an exact prototype of the great system of relief afterwards publicly adopted, namely, the sewing-schools." When these were formed, Mrs Gaskell " merged her private scheme in the public one, and worked most laboriously in the sewing-school nearest her home." This was but three years before her death, Still busy writing her novel Wives and Daughters, she was staying with her children at Holybourne, Alton, in Hampshire, a house which she had just purchased as a surprise and gift to her husband, when she died suddenly of heart disease, about 5 o'clock on Sunday evening, November 12, 1865. Her remains were carried to the churchyard of the Old Presbyterian Meeting-house at Knutsford, where her childhood and girlhood had been spent, and which she had left as a bride, tbree-and-thirty years before. A memorial tablet in memory of Mrs Gaskell was erected by her husband's congregation, in Cross Street Chapel, Manchester-—a tribute not only to her genius, and the spirit in which it was exercised, but to the " tenderness and fidelity" of the wife and mother who had lived long amongst them.

With this knowledge of the facts of Mrs Gaskell's life, it is not difficult to trace the sources of her inspirations. Some of her shorter tales, it is true, seem to have been suggested merely by her readings; and, carefully as she collected their materials, these are the least satisfactory of her writings. But by far the most of what she wrote was founded on observation and experience. Mrs Gaskell has reproduced, with slight variations, in her novel North and South, the incident in her father's youth, when he and his friend and fellow-student, the Bev. George Wicke of Monton, believing it wrong to be " hired teachers of re-ligion," resigned their ministries and sought a livelihood otherwise. The beautiful story in " Mary Barton " of the two working-men who brought the baby from London to Manchester is a version of an anecdote about Mrs Gaskell's own infancy, of her being taken to Knutsford, after her mother's death, by a friend who chanced to be travelling that way. The little county town of " Cranford"-—with its population of widows and maiden ladies, and its horror of the masculine portion of society—is Knutsford, so long Mrs Gaskell's home. In Cranford every character, if not every incident, is real; and the pathetic little story of Poor Peter can have been suggested only by the disap-pearance of that sailor brother who used to visit Mrs Gaskell in her girlhood, and whose mysterious loss also must have interested her always afterwards in " disappear-ances "—the title of one of her papers in Household Words. Pleasant months spent at Morecambe Bay and Silver-dale initiated her in the mysteries of rural and farm life, Her visits to France were the origin of her tales of the Huguenots and the French refugees at the time of the Bevolution. The Edinburgh of her girlhood appears in one or two of her stories, briefly but vividly sketched. Her schooldays at Stratford-on-Avon are remembered in Lois the Witch; and, if only in a little story like the visit to Heppenheim, we can trace her excursions from Heidelberg along the broad, white Bergstrasse. But it is most of all in Mary Barton, a story of the trials and sorrows of the poor in Manchester, whom she had had so many oppor-tunities of observing, that Mrs Gaskell gave her personal knowledge and experience to the world. Her severest critic, Mr W. R. Greg, admits Mrs Gaskell's knowledge of her subject, but objects to the impression left by the novel on the mind of the reader as inaccurate and harmful. " Were Mary Barton'' he says, " to be only read by Man-chester men and master manufacturers, it could scarcely fail to be serviceable, because they might profit by its suggestions, and would at once detect its exaggerations and mistakes ;" but on the general public he fears its effect will be " mischievous in the extreme." One doubts whether a calm solution of a great economic difficulty, such as that which Mrs Gaskell treats of, could ever be given in a novel; and certainly the warm-hearted, impulsive authoress of Mary Barton had no such aim in view. It is probable that she wrote without any distinct economic theories. Earnest, benevolent intentions she no doubt had, but she was far more of an artist than a reformer. Had it not been so, Mary Barton would not rank so high in the literature of fiction as it does. It is no work of occasion, the chief interest of which departs when the occasion itself is over. It is a thoroughly artistic production, and for power of treatment and intense interest of plot has seldom been surpassed. It is as the authoress of Mary Barton that Mrs Gaskell will be remembered. Of her other works, Ruth is singularly inferior to its predecessor ; but North and South, which takes the side of the master manufacturers, as Mary Barton did that of the men, has been scarcely less popular with the public. Perhaps the two best of Mrs Gaskell's productions, each in its own way, are the exquisitely humorous Cranford and Cousin Phillis, which has been fitly called an idyll in prose. Wives and Daughters, even in its uncompleted state, is artistically almost faultless, and full of a quiet restful beauty entirely its own. George Sand was a great admirer of this novel, and Mrs Gaskell's family still cherish a saying of hers about it:—"It is a book," she once said to Lord Houghton, " that might be put into the hands of an innocent girl, while a the same time it would rivet the attention of the most blase man of the world." Her one work which is not a novel-—her Life of Charlotte Bronte—it is difficult to praise too highly, either as a biography proper, or as a narrative written with the consummate skill of the novelist. Some people, indeed, have thought that Mrs Gaskell transgressed the bounds of the biographer in publishing so many details of Miss Bronte's domestic and private life; but the case was a peculiar one. The character of Charlotte Bronte's writings made it advisable that her reader, in order properly to understand her, should be admitted to some of the hitherto hidden facts of her short, sad life. Mrs Gaskell, knowing and esteeming Charlotte Bronte in the character of friend, daughter, and wife, hoped in some degree to justify to the world the morbid, unhealthy tone which pervaded her genius; and surely, if any hand was to draw the curtain, none could have done it more tenderly than that of her friend. (r. M.)

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