Gaskell, Elizabeth

  • Deirdre d’AlbertisEmail author
Living reference work entry


Industrial novel Labor movements Activism Social problem novel Life writing Economics Unitarianism Women’s education 


Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell’s fiction marked the emergence under industrial capitalism of the modern labor movement, women’s rights campaigns, and British imperialism. Born into an era of political turmoil and social unrest, Gaskell approached her work as a writer and activist with a keen awareness of her role in participating in social change.


Born into an era of political turmoil and social unrest, Elizabeth Cleghorn (Stevenson) Gaskell (1810–1865) approached her work as a writer and activist with a keen awareness of the role of educated, middle-class women such as herself in mediating as well as participating in social change. In a career that spanned key decades – from the 1840s through 1860s – Gaskell’s fiction marked the emergence under industrial capitalism of the modern labor movement, women’s rights campaigns, and British imperialism. Her identity as an author and the generic contours of her oeuvre transcend neat categorization: the Gaskell of provincial manners and mores found in Cranford (1853) or Wives and Daughters (1866) stands in uneasy proximity to the Gaskell of urban industrialization and Condition of England debates represented by Mary Barton (1848) or North and South (1855). The successful realist novelist is rarely coupled with the crafter of uncanny short stories. The parablist of Ruth (1853) or the historicist of Sylvia’s Lovers (1863) coexists not without tension alongside the biographer of The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857). Celebrated for the charm and wit of her domestic fiction, she was also upbraided by contemporaries for cross-class sympathies and her defense of the mid-Victorian “Fallen Woman.” Her Wordsworthian affection for pastoral settings coexisted alongside a quasi-sociological interest in urban environments. As Gaskell herself acknowledged, she was destined to struggle throughout her life with role conflict and ambiguity: “One of my mes is, I do believe, a true Christian—(only people call her socialist and communist), another of my mes is a wife and mother, and highly delighted at the delight of everyone else in the house … Now that’s my ‘social’ self I suppose. Then again I’ve another self with a full taste for beauty and convenience whh is pleased on its own account. How am I to reconcile all these warring members?” (Letters 108).

Given the heterogeneity of her collected works, not to mention “warring members,” assembled under the name of “Mrs. Gaskell”(d’Albertis 2007), it is not surprising that this woman of letters continues to attract a wide range of readers in the English-speaking world even as her literary reputation has fluctuated wildly, a reliable indicator of the ongoing influence of theoretical and historical analysis of women’s writing (Davis 1992) as well as the multigenerational influence of materialist and historicist criticism in the academy. Whereas once interpreters situated Gaskell as difficult to assimilate to Marxist readings of nineteenth-century cultural production (beginning with Raymond Williams in 1958), twenty-first-century approaches have considerably complicated the argument that “industrial novels famously fail to offer political solutions to proletarian suffering” by focusing not only on the franchise but also on the radical potential of “a democratic culture of social networks that force supposed superiors to reckon with workers’ perspectives, participation, and disagreement” (243, 251 Lewis 2013). Recent scholarship has brought to bear on Gaskell’s literary production questions informed by ecocriticism (Kennedy 2017), theories of cross-class performativity (Kucich 2013), Victorian periodical studies (Hammond 2018), and the history of economics and finance (Miller 1994; Bigelow 2003; Leighton and Surridge 2013). The formal plenitude of her texts – from sketches and essays through novellas to historical novels and social problem three-deckers – as well as her experimentation with structures of narration allowed Gaskell to explore boundaries between fact and fiction and gender and genre in ways that significantly expanded the reach of women’s realist writing in the Victorian period.

Family, Networks, and “Narratability”

Gaskell’s early years were unmistakably shaped by the death of her mother, Elizabeth Holland Stevenson (1771–1811), when she was little more than an infant. Of eight siblings, only her brother John Stevenson survived to adulthood (he was to disappear in 1828 under mysterious circumstances while serving in the merchant navy). Raised in a female household by her “more than mother” maternal aunt, Hannah Lumb (1767–1837), at Knutsford in Cheshire, Elizabeth Stevenson was connected to a network of Unitarian families including the Hollands, Wedgwoods, and Turners (Charles Darwin, for instance, was a cousin). Her father, William Stevenson, a Treasury official who had trained for but left the Unitarian ministry and made a name for himself as a minor literary figure, remarried in 1814. Elizabeth found visits to her father’s Chelsea household with her stepmother Catherine Thomson to be painful: such interludes most likely informed her later portrayal of marriage and family life as shot through with conflict, misunderstanding, and a sense of irreconcilable loss. Awareness of such disrupted early attachments helps to contextualize the recurrence in Gaskell’s fiction of deceased parents and lost siblings; even more significantly, it explains a tone of melancholy or regret that could be said to pervade Gaskell’s literary project. “Documenting damage and loss is a mode of making reparation,” suggests critic Adela Pinch, who notes that throughout her career Gaskell evinced “a strong interest in dramas of saying and unsaying, in remorse and atonement”(833).

The fragility of traditional family structure is writ large in Gaskell’s work, particularly in the shorter pieces unconstrained by novelistic conventions (she wrote more than 40 sketches and stories throughout her career). Lizzie Leigh (1850) was published over three installments in Charles Dickens’s newly launched Household Words, for instance, chronicles one “family’s disgrace” resulting from an unmarried daughter’s pregnancy and consequent exile. Anne Leigh is emboldened to move to Manchester, searching for and reclaiming Lizzie from prostitution, only after the death of her husband and in defiance of her sons; out of the ruins of this traditional, patriarchal family, Gaskell represents a resulting network of care, fosterage, and restoration of mother-daughter bonds (Ludlow 2016).

Gaskell’s most light-hearted and seemingly modest series of sketches, Cranford, is famous for its lack of “plot” or dramatic incident; yet even Cranford is shaped by painful moments of family breakdown. The disgrace, flight, and eventual return home of “Aga” Peter Jenkyns, whose youthful playacting at sexual transgression openly flouts paternal authority, introduce a note of violent rupture to this beloved story of women living in self-sufficient community with one another (rather than in anything resembling patriarchal family structures). The “Amazonian” women of Cranford, widows and spinsters outside a dominant culture of reproduction and sexuality who might appear “redundant” according to domestic ideology, elect without fuss to live in a network of loose affiliation apart from any separate spheres logic that might render them explicitly dependent on and auxiliary to the world of men (Niles 2005; Fenton-Hathaway 2014) – or at least until the Town and Country Bank fails and the vulnerability of the women’s “elegant economy” becomes urgently apparent. Under duress, however, a voluntaristic network of support arises to sustain anew economically compromised members of the community. Cranford critically reframes the plot of marriage and childbearing as one among many stories that might be told about the lives of women with work to do in the world (Wilwerding 2017). In this and other instances, Gaskell consistently explored the outer reaches of what critic D.A. Miller (1989) has theorized as the very condition of “narratability”: riffing on marriage plot conventions – but often in a distinctly minor key – without conceding to such forms any ultimate overriding or determining function, Gaskell imagined new forms of love and affinity not unlike the women-centered home in which she was herself raised by Hannah Lumb.

Unitarianism and Women’s Education

It is difficult to overstate how profoundly Elizabeth Gaskell was shaped by her Unitarian upbringing and her marriage into elite Unitarian society in Manchester. Unitarianism in nineteenth-century Britain, with its history of toleration and eclecticism, stressed the exercise of individual conscience and the importance of social reform; rejecting conceptions of original sin and the holy Trinity, adherents to the faith were inheritors of a proud tradition of Rational Dissent. “Since their leaders tended mostly to come from the new urban commercial and industrial elites, their social philosophy was pervaded or tinged with social and economic prejudices that indicated their class,” notes educational historian Ruth Watts, “the contribution of Unitarians to theology, education, culture, social reform, economic thinking, and local and national politics, particularly in Britain and the United States, makes a study of them essential for understanding 19th century history.” Unitarian attitudes toward the education of women help to explain the extraordinary intellectual career of Harriet Martineau who, like Gaskell, linked social reform to literary production (as evidenced by her influential Illustrations of Political Economy of 1832). “Tolerant, progressive, and liberal,” mid-nineteenth century Unitarian “authors and politicians, lawyers and doctors, councillors and administrators. .. . cooperated with other faiths in good works” (Chapple 2007, p. 167). It was this habitus, broadly speaking, of the nonconformist, educated, prosperous northern middle classes that shaped Elizabeth Gaskell’s commitments and values. As a product herself of this more expansive approach to education in a culture dominated by conceptions of women’s learning as complementary rather than equivalent to men’s, Gaskell’s lively interest in issues of the day – even if disavowed through such overt narratorial asides as the famous rejoinder at the opening of Mary Barton: “I know nothing of Political Economy, or the theories of trade. I have tried to write truthfully; and if my accounts agree or clash with any system, the agreement or disagreement is unintentional” (38) – clearly informs the breadth of subject matter in her writing as well as her reliance on a full range of genres from sensation fiction and melodrama to the historical novel, not to mention nascent social science discourse and evolutionary thought, in representing the causes and consequences of social change (Buzard 2012; Martin 1983). Unitarianism with its core emphasis on the duty to exercise rational responsibility in conduct of the self as well as toward others created the conditions for Gaskell’s openness, curiosity, and capacity to judge as well as to act in response to problems of the day.

With her marriage in 1832 to William Gaskell (1805–1884), assistant minister at Manchester’s Cross Street Chapel, Elizabeth Gaskell confirmed and extended the creative influence of Unitarianism in her adult life (Webb 1988). The Gaskells’ marital partnership enabled both William and Elizabeth to move confidently through a wide range of literary, academic, and social circles. William Gaskell joined the faculty of Manchester New College in 1846, bringing the couple into regular contact with scholars and theologians, as well as manufacturers and philanthropists who passed through their home first on Upper Rumford Street and then at 84 Plymouth Grove in Manchester. Elizabeth Gaskell’s embrace of imaginative sympathy, stimulated by her inheritance of Unitarian tolerance and liberalism, would eventually place her at odds not only with more conventional members of her husband’s congregation but also with a particular strain of “dogmatic, hard Unitarianism” as she called it (Letters 84), a form of narrow rationalism she came in later life to regard as insufficiently compelling and inclusive, not to mention complacent and even at times hypocritical. As critics Monica Correa Fryckstedt and Christine Krueger have persuasively argued, Gaskell’s Unitarian background and personal faith were to provide impetus for the “preaching” she was to perform through her literary work: in Mary Barton and Ruth she relied explicitly on biblical allusion and Christian symbolism to shape the contours of her fiction toward this end. Yet even in her less obviously religious works, she continued to delineate themes of sacrifice and redemption. “Bearing witness,” as many of Gaskell’s characters are moved to do, in defense of those without voice or representation, offers a clear model for the author who would herself testify on behalf of the powerless through the medium of fiction.

Manchester and Social Problem Fiction

Elizabeth Gaskell’s fateful move to the burgeoning metropolis of Manchester was to provide focus for development of her energies over the coming decade and a half, even as it awakened an awareness of and growing commitment to social justice. The original “shock city” of the industrial revolution (Briggs 1993, p. 56), Manchester in the 1830s and 1840s was understood to be a test case for social reformers intent upon addressing crises uniquely associated with laissez-faire capitalism: in works such as James Kay’s 1832 The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes Employed in the Cotton Manufacture in Manchester and Friedrich Engels’s 1845 The Condition of the Working Class in England (Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England), questions of sanitary reform and urban planning (or lack thereof), public health, and environmental pollution were rendered – albeit from very different political perspectives – with increasing awareness of new gender and class relations under construction in the mills and factories of the city. From the cholera epidemic of 1832 through the rise of Chartism to the economic depression of the “hungry forties,” Gaskell saw in Manchester a microcosm of the ills of the nation from the vantage point not only of an industrialist or “clemming” worker but also of the middle-class female observer increasingly drawn out of private life into public engagement with relief work and philanthropy (Elliott 1994). Publication of her first novel, Mary Barton, was received in the context of class conflict in 1848: Reading such a novel in the “year of revolutions,” Gaskell realized she had the power to direct “people’s attention to the social evils and the more strange contrasts which exist in old nations” (Letters 115).

Gaskell used her fiction to make visible the plight and agency of individuals rather than society as a whole. Her work places singular characters – John Barton instead of the Chartist Movement or Ruth Hilton instead of what W.R. Greg in 1850 termed “The Great Social Evil” of prostitution – firmly at the center of textual representation (Anderson 1993). Her commitment to social transformation was mediated through moments of contact with specific people and influences (Pasley, the young prostitute, who inspired Gaskell to contend with the rhetoric of “fallenness,” for example, on whose behalf she corresponded with Charles Dickens about his rescue work with Angela Burdett-Coutts) not abstraction or disinterested study. Florence Nightingale’s career, in her view, inspired admiration even as “her want of love for individuals” struck Gaskell as troubling (Letters 320). Stories were to provide a means of structural analysis for Gaskell in ways that would profoundly impact the mid-Victorian social imaginary (Gallagher 1985). Her social problem fiction in general and Mary Barton in particular, as critic Caroline Levine (building on Alex Woloch’s The One v. the Many) has argued, depends on a strategic use of typology rather than quantitative data (as Engels would do) to represent human experience in the aggregate:

The scalar logic of Gaskell’s crowd passage[s] emerges as maddeningly complex, moving in conflicting directions. On the one hand, she concentrates us on the few rather than the many and insists that we cannot know the many directly. She can only sketch in a small handful of people, the angry worker, the abandoned girl, the criminal, and the Christian, from among many more the novel cannot accommodate. At the same time, this small sample size is implicitly large in that each is a type representing a group of many instances (68).

Levine goes on to posit that it is this kind of realist novel – to be consulted and internalized along with social theory and quantitative analysis – which allows readers to encounter what she calls “the enormity effect” of social phenomena: “the novel matters because, like data visualization and network mapping, it develops discursive forms by which we may apprehend the social” (73). Gaskell’s apparently artless direct address of readers (theorized as “engaging narration” by theorist Robyn Warhol) along with her interest in “individual characters, who endure transformations that are difficult to predict and comprehend” (Henry 2007, p. 162), points to the novelist’s rejection of fixed systems of taxonomy, even as her championing of character as type linked her to an entire cohort of writers engaged in nineteenth-century Anglo-American social reform by means of literary production or “the Novel of Purpose” (Claybaugh 2006).

Maternity, Writing, and Women’s Work

The early years of Gaskell’s married life were dominated by childbirth and family concerns; so too, however, she was consistently interested in literature and writing, a singular drive that was often downplayed in initial accounts of her career. William and Mary Howitt, Quaker reformers well-networked in the publishing industry, encouraged Elizabeth Gaskell’s fledgling literary efforts throughout the 1830s, publishing her first solo work of fiction in Howitt’s Journal in 1847; Mary Howitt, in many ways, could be said to have served for Gaskell as a “model of a professional but socially motivated woman writer” (Uglow 1993, p. 117).

This lengthy apprenticeship does not feature prominently in statements Gaskell made about her own beginnings as an author. “Three years ago I became anxious (from circumstances that need not be more fully alluded to) to employ myself in writing a work of fiction”: so opens the Preface to Mary Barton, implying that the grief attendant upon loss of her infant son provided her with the impetus “to employ myself in writing.” William Gaskell encouraged her to undertake a novel as she struggled with depression after Willie’s death (Uglow 2004); what the story leaves out, however, is the background and rich context for his suggestion. Elizabeth and William Gaskell shared literary interests from the outset of their marriage, publishing poetry together in the 1830s and collaborating on dialect and local history projects that informed both his work and hers. As a diarist, Elizabeth minutely chronicled the 1st years of her eldest surviving child Marianne born in 1834, reflecting at the same time upon her own conceptions of maternity and child development (Chapple and Wilson 1996). Writing in a real sense was fully integrated into family life: her daughters once of age assisted in Gaskell’s literary labors and her husband was a trusted confidant when it came to many of “Mrs. Gaskell’s” professional negotiations (running interference, for instance, under threat of legal action following publication of The Life of Charlotte Bronte). Whereas early feminist literary historians were wont to read the Gaskells’ partnership as defined by subordination, largely because of the legal and fiduciary imbalance between “man and wife” enshrined under marriage and property laws of coverture in Victorian England (as well as a few asides by Gaskell herself), it seems clear that their association was mutually supportive. Elizabeth Gaskell had enough autonomy and control over her own finances, for instance, to purchase a second home in 1865 without her husband’s awareness or permission (even as the investment required a work-around with a loan from her publisher George Smith).

By mid-century, a recognizable women’s movement was emerging in England and America: its focus was still (as it had been in Mary Wollstonecraft’s time) on access to education, but it also placed questions of property and work at the center of its reform efforts. The Langham Place Group provided critical mass for the activism of Barbara Leigh Smith (author in 1857 of Women and Work) and Bessie Rayner Parkes; the reformers advocated for women’s employment even as they questioned married women’s lack of access to their own earnings and inheritance. Gaskell was aware of these efforts, signing in 1856 a petition presented to Parliament in support of property rights for married women. She wondered candidly at the same time in a letter to her friend Tottie Fox if legal reform could truly alter an entrenched culture of masculine privilege:

a husband can coax, wheedle, beat, or tyrannize his wife out of something and no law whatever will help this that I see. (Mr Gaskell begs Mr Fox to draw up a bill for the protection of husbands against wives who will spend all their earnings.) However our sex is badly enough used and legislated against, there’s no doubt of that—so though I don’t see the definite end proposed by these petitions I’ll sign. (Letters 379)

Even as she questions the efficacy of communicative action – Gaskell’s work frequently features the failure of the written word or “definite end proposed” in mediating inter-group conflict – she signs in an act of solidarity (“our sex is badly enough used and legislated against”). “The 1856 petition demanded property rights for “all married women, and particularly working women, ‘women [employed in] the processes of trade … sempstresses, laundresses, charwomen, and other multifarious occupations,’ observes scholar Clare Pettitt,” but it is striking that the petition was submitted by, and rapidly became associated very closely with literary writers” (Pettitt 2004, pp. 205–206). In this, as so many social questions, Gaskell stood at the fulcrum of debates over the meaning and value of women’s work in the 1850s, precisely at a moment when working-class female laborers were being regarded along with women writers as equally visible and unsettling participants in the marketplace (Zlotnick 1998).

It is her biography of Brontë, written shortly after the death of the younger writer, that offers greatest insight into Gaskell’s understanding of women’s literary production as an apparent conflict between domestic duties and professional ambition (Hughes and Lund 1999). Linda Peterson has argued that Gaskell disrupted “the oppositional mode” of earlier accounts of “the private woman” versus “the public author” in The Life of Charlotte Bronte, in order “to reformulate the artistic and the domestic as ‘parallel currents.’ Perhaps speaking for herself as much as for Brontë, Gaskell suggests that there are ‘separate duties belonging to each character—not opposing each other; not impossible, but difficult to be reconciled’” (Peterson 2009, p. 134). In the Life, Brontë is presented not as a working “professional” but as an instinctive Romantic genius. “Gaskell minimizes the professional aspects of Brontë’s career, excludes financial details from Brontë’s letters to her publisher, and shows her subject as much more interested in ideas than in profits” (148). In fending off Brontë’s critics – who excoriated her for not conforming to conventional gender expectations – Gaskell sought to establish her friend and contemporary’s legitimate claim to the status of artist. She also mobilized myths of authorship that celebrate women’s writing primarily as morally sanctioned or as aesthetically valid rather than a product of labor. Paradoxically, The Life of Charlotte Brontë both articulates and evades the material and economic implications of women’s literary production as a form of work, a gesture that was to have long-standing implications for generations to come (Schor 1992).

History, Trauma, and Narrative Form

As she grew older, travelled widely, and gained an increasingly international audience for her writing, Elizabeth Gaskell pushed intentionally at the formal constraints of the novel, experimenting over time with fragmentary forms that defied conventional assumptions about plot and narration. Foregrounding the mediating agency of embedded narrators, Gaskell explored patterns of storytelling that accentuate asynchronicity and multivocality, drawing attention to the epistemological and ethical work of reading itself, even as she became interested in the persistence of historical trauma. In her least well-known novel, Sylvia’s Lovers (1863), she turned to the period of the Napoleonic Wars perhaps as a relief from the notoriety and controversy that surrounded publication in 1853 of Ruth and her 1857 biography of Brontë. The historical novel and related story or sketch forms ranging from Gothic to sensation fiction also allowed her to investigate with a sense of distance extreme states of consciousness and disturbing themes that were to preoccupy her near the end of her life. Lois the Witch (1859), a lengthy novella about the Salem witch trials, anticipates the dark vision of Sylvia’s Lovers, a novel composed with difficulty and delay as Gaskell and her family attempted to alleviate the suffering that descended on Manchester with economic fallout from the American Civil War. Violence, impressment, warfare, and mass hysteria shape the melodramatic contours of these late texts even as they harshly constrain the experience of the individual. Right at Last (1858), first published in Household Words as “The Sin of a Father,” sounded a note of doom that was to became increasingly pronounced in Gaskell’s fiction: innocents are made to suffer for the wrongdoing of previous generations. Looking to the past offered Gaskell a way to question not only the present but also expected outcomes for the future of Britain during its so-called Age of Equipoise between 1852 and 1867. “Time lags” observes Clare Pettitt, of Gaskell’s Sylvia’s Lovers, a novel exquisitely attuned to historical disjunction in isolated rural communities with geological barriers to communication and travel, revealing how “anachronisms and pockets of stubborn historical survival pollute a straightforward model of progress” (618).

Whereas in Mary Barton, her young protagonists could hope to build a better life by emigrating to Canada (leaving an older generation dead or dying behind) and in North and South deep divisions between capital and labor might be humanized through friendly association and the healing power of marriage between genteel Southerner Margaret Hale and Northern industrialist John Thornton, Sylvia’s Lovers – often referred to as “the saddest story” Gaskell ever wrote – represents history as irredeemably rooted in conflict and struggle (Shaw 2007). Although she would return to the pastoral quietude of the provinces in Cousin Phillis (1863–1864) and her last great unfinished work, Wives and Daughters (1864–1866), Gaskell’s late domestic fiction situates its characters in a world shaped by encroaching, impersonal forces of modernization, and change. The fact that her final novel concludes with an editorial note penned by Frederick Greenwood after Gaskell’s sudden and unexpected death only accentuates the equation of fictional endings in her work with variables well beyond any single individual’s control.


Elizabeth Gaskell’s life and work stand as a testament to the world-shaping power of domestic ideology in the middle years of the Victorian period: middle-class women writers in general and Elizabeth Gaskell in particular seized the opportunity to wield the moral authority vested in them with the avowed aim of shaping culture through their writing. As a Unitarian raised to value the importance of bearing witness to injustice and suffering, Gaskell entered into union with a life partner who supported and advanced her literary ambitions. Devotion to family – her “social self” – was framed as complementary to her life as a writer: travel and work commitments were shared openly with her four daughters even as she grew increasingly accustomed to thinking of herself as an artist and maybe, at times, an avowedly “professional” writer.

Gaskell never openly espoused feminist ideas, however, nor did she ever become “a socialist or communist”: she clung instead to a motivating perception of herself as a “true Christian” albeit one with liberal, reformist sympathies. The fact that she was able to maintain the coherence of her “many mes” in fashioning this identity, even as she was frequently mistaken by her contemporaries (and by critics ever since) as radically and unselfconsciously dissembling in her allegiances and sympathies, helps to explain why she continues to fascinate, provoke, and challenge readers.



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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Languages & LiteratureBard CollegeAnnandaleUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Emily Morris
    • 1
  1. 1.St. Thomas More College, University of SaskatchewanSaskatoonCanada