Biographical information and photographs about Elizabeth Gaskell are available at the website of The Gaskell Society, a Manchester-based organization. Here are some excerpts:
Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (1810-65) was born on 29 September 1810 in Lindsey Row, Chelsea, at the house which is now 93 Cheyne Walk. She was the daughter of William Stevenson – a treasury official and journalist – and his wife Elizabeth Stevenson (née Holland). Mrs Stevenson died on 29 October 1811, and so at the age of just 13 months, the baby Elizabeth (later known as Lily) was sent to Knutsford in Cheshire to spend her childhood with her mother’s sister, Aunt Hannah Lumb, whom she was later to describe as her ‘more than mother’. . . .
The Gaskells’ Manchester was a great cultural and intellectual centre, boasting institutions like the Literary and Philosophical Society, the Mechanics Institute and the Athenaeum. It was at the forefront of the new industrial age, but this rapid growth, as well as generating much wealth, also led to uncontrolled urban development and appalling squalor. In 1844, Friedrich Engels described the homes of the factory operatives in The Conditions of the Working Class in England: ‘The workers dwellings of Manchester are dirty, miserable and wholly lacking in comforts. In such houses only inhuman, degraded and unhealthy creatures would feel at home.’ . . .
In the preface to Mary Barton (subtitled A Tale of Manchester Life), published anonymously in 1848, Elizabeth says that she was inspired by thinking, ‘How deep might be the romance in the lives of some of those who elbowed me daily in the busy streets of the town in which I resided. I had always felt a deep sympathy with the careworn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and want.’
With its sensational plot and social realism, Mary Barton attracted the attention of Charles Dickens. It was at his invitation that much of her work was first published in the periodicals he edited: Household Words and All the Year Round. Elizabeth became a popular author, writing numbers of stories for Dickens. These stories (which include Cranford) are very varied and are quite distinct in style from her industrial fiction. . . .
Despite her occasional tendency towards melodrama, Elizabeth had a natural gift for storytelling and Dickens referred to her as his ‘dear Scheherazade’. She originally published anonymously but, according to Victorian conventions, her readers came to know her as ‘Mrs Gaskell’ a name which made her sound matronly and safe. Elizabeth Gaskell (as we prefer to call her) was actually courageous and progressive in her style and subject matter, and often framed her stories as critiques of Victorian attitudes (particularly those towards women). . . .
She was, at the same time, a caring wife and mother, attractive and well-liked. At ease in any company, she was chatty, sociable and a prolific writer of letters. She had a wide circle of friends, which included Charlotte Brontë, John Ruskin, the Carlyles, Charles Kingsley and Florence Nightingale.
Although they shared many artistic concerns, Elizabeth had a difficult working relationship with Charles Dickens who, as editor, often wanted to alter what she wrote. On one occasion, exasperated by her perceived waywardness as a contributor, he exclaimed to his sub- editor, ‘Oh! Mrs Gaskell-fearful-fearful! If I were Mr G. Oh heavens how I would beat her!’ ?It’s easy to see why they didn’t always get on. . . .
Elizabeth Gaskell died suddenly on 12 November 1865 at The Lawn, a house in Holybourne in Hampshire that she was secretly buying as a post-retirement surprise for her husband and family.
Wives and Daughters was being published in the Cornhill Magazine, a high quality literary periodical specialising in the serialisation of novels. It appeared posthumously in volume form in 1866.