Today’s post is going to be another instalment of my “Spotlight On:…” series, which still remains my favourite blog post to write each month.
This month’s post is going to focus on the life of Elizabeth Gaskell. I have a couple of her books on my shelves but haven’t yet read them. I thought this would be a great opportunity to encourage myself to pick them up! Let me know if you’ve read any books by Elizabeth Gaskell?
As always, the post will be divided up into 6 different parts:
1. A little bit about their life
2. Their works I have read
3. Their works I am yet to read
4. Great film/TV adaptations based on their works
6. An author biography recommendation
So without further ado…
A Little Bit About Their Life
Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (née Stevenson) was born on 29 September 1810 in Chelsea, London. Her father, William Stevenson, was a treasury official and journalist and her mother, Elizabeth Stevenson (née Holland) died on 29 October 1811 when Elizabeth was only thirteen months old. Elizabeth was sent to Knutsford in Cheshire to be broguth up by her mother’s sister, Aunt Hannah Lumb, who she described as “more than mother”. Her house stands on a road that is now known as Gaskell Avenue and Knutsford became the inspiration for her novel, Wives and Daughters.
Her father was re-married when Elizabeth was four to Catherine Thom.son who was the sister of famous artist William John Thomson. Elizabeth’s life was relatively normal for someone her age; she received the traditional education normally given to young ladies ofh er time and developed a passion for literature.
In 1832, she married William Gaskell. He was the assistant minister at the Cross Street Unitarian Chapel in Manchester at the time and that is where the newly-married couple settled (Manchester would remain her home for the rest of her life). Elizabeth helped William with his work, offering support to the poor and teaching at Sunday School. The two had four children; Marianne, Margaret Emily, Florence and William. In 1845, William died of scarlet fever at the age of nine months. As Elizabeth was interested in literature, she already had written and published a few short stories but her husband suggested that she write as a form of distraction from her grief.
Mary Barton (published anonymously in 1848) was the outcome of this, as well as an outcome of her location. Manchester was at the forefront of the new industrial age and was experiencing rapid industrial growth. However, this led to poverty which in-turn led to great political activity. Elizabeth kept many notes on her experiences living in Manchester, reinforcing her connection and sense of community with the poor. In her own words, she wanted to “give utterance to their agony”.
‘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.’
As such, Mary Barton reflects a true experience of Manchester in the late-1830’s. The book was very well-received and Dickens praised it, inviting Elizabeth to contribute to his journals where her next major work, Cranford (1853) was published. 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. In 1853, she also wrote Ruth which was quite controversial upon its publication. In 1855, she wrote North and South. It was during these years that she became good friends with Charlotte Brontë and it was also in 1855 that Charlotte died. Charlotte’s father asked Elizabeth to write a biography on her friend. She agreed and published The Life of Charlotte Bronte in 1857. Gaskell became the first person to write Bronte’s biography and the popularity of this work helped her in her own literary career.
Elizabeth had a very fulfilling life. In 1846, her fourth daughter, Julia was born. Together, they had a beautiful family home away from the factories and industry of Manchester, overlooking fields. Elizabeth was an energetic hostess and there were also people visiting their home. She loved to travel and some of her favourite destinations included Wales, the Lake District and Lancashire. Elizabeth tried to integrate some of this coutnryside lifestyle into her day-to-day life; she kept cows, poultry and a vegetable garden at her Manchester home. Elizabeth was an active humanitarian through her writing, conveying the need for social change and carefully researching the lifestyles of the people she wrote about.
Elizabeth Gaskell died from a heart attack on 12 November 1865 in a home in Hampshire that she was buying as a surprise for her family.
Their Works I Have Read/Am Yet To Read
As I mentioned in the introduction, I haven’t read any of Gaskell’s books yet. I do own North and South and Wives and Daughters and I’m looking forward to reading Ruth, Cranford and her shorter stories.
Great Film/TV Adaptations
There’s quite a few adaptations of Gaskell’s works (and I am yet to watch any of them!) I know the BBC adaptations of Cranford, North and South and Wives and Daughters are very popular.
“Oh, I can’t describe my home. It is home, and I can’t put its charm into words”
“As she realized what might have been, she grew to be thankful for what was.”
“Those who are happy and successful themselves are too apt to make light of the misfortunes of others.”
“I won’t say she was silly, but I think one of us was silly, and it was not me.”
“Thinking has, many a time, made me sad, darling; but doing never did in all my life… My precept is, “Do something, my sister, do good if you can; but, at any rate, do something”.”
“I know you despise me; allow me to say, it is because you do not understand me.”
An Author Biography Recommendation
If you want to learn more about Elizabeth Gaskell’s life, I would recommend reading Elizabeth Gaskell by Jenny Uglow. Jenny has also written a biography on George Eliot if you’re interested in learning more about her too!
Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed!
Love, Zoë x