11/23/2008

Woman of the week - Elizabeth Gaskell

Name: Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, born Stevenson
Born: 29 September 1810, London, England
Died: 12 November 1865, Holybourne, England
Married to: William Gaskell
Children: Five daughters and one son
Occupation: Writer

Gaskell was a Victorian author of novels dealing mostly with social issues in the industrial northern England - but she is also very well known for her biography on Charlotte Brontë, who was a close, personal friend.

Gaskell was born the youngest child of the civil servant, and former minister, William Stevenson, and his wife Elizabeth, née Holland. She had seven siblings - but only her older brother John and she would survive into adulthood. Her brother went missing in 1828 when travelling to India. Her mother died just three months after the birth of Gaskell and she was sent off to her maternal aunt Hannah Lumb in Knutsford, Cheshire. Gaskell was brought up as an unitarian and would remain one for the rest of her life.

Aged eleven she was sent to boarding-school, in Stratford-upon-Avon, and remained there until 1827. When she finished her education she returned home to her father, who by now was remarried and had two children by his new wife. But his health was failing and he died in 1829. Gaskell continued to live among relatives until she met the unitarian minister William Gaskell (born in 1805), whom she married on the 30 August 1832 in Knutsford. They moved to Manchester where William was made minister of the Cross Street Chapel.

The new surroundings would mean much to Gaskell, working as a minister's wife and taking care of the needing since the poverty was great in the city and social work was an important part of the couple's work-load. Gaskell also gave birth to six children: a still-born daughter (1833), Marianne (1834-1920), Margaret Emily (1837-1913), Florence Elizabeth (1842-1881), William (1844-1845) and Julia Bradford (1846-?). It was after the death of her son she began to write novels - though she had before that written poems (sometimes together with her husband) and short stories. Her first full-length novel was Mary Barton - A tale of Manchester life (1848), which painted a rather grim picture of the living conditions in an industrial town - something she knew quite a lot about first hand. The book was published anonymously, but her identity was soon discovered. Charles Dickens greatly approved of her writing and she became a contributor to his magazine Household words.

Her second novel Ruth (1853), which fought for the rights of unmarried mothers, caused a lot of controversy and she was criticized for her views on the topic. Her later fiction did not take on such hot topics, but could still portray the harsh reality for the poor - though they also showed a more genteel side of her which the public appreciated more. Among these works can be mentioned Cranford (1853) and North and South (1855).

Gaskell met the fellow writer Charlotte Brontë in 1850 and they became very good friends. After Brontë's death in 1855 her father and husband asked Gaskell to write a biography. She did a very thorough job of this, researching quite a lot - but also mixing fact with fiction. When The life of Charlotte Brontë hit the market in 1857 it was a great success (and meant a lot to make Brontë more famous), but Gaskell was soon criticized for it by people who did not like the way they were handled in the book. Brontë's father was not pleased either. The second edition was withdrawn, and it is the third edition that is now the standard text of that book.

Gaskell died in 1865 from heart-failure. She is buried in the graveyard at Knutsford. Her husband survived her until 1884 - and was then buried next to her.

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