Her 'Life' of Charlotte provoked a storm across literary England

The woman later to be known worldwide as ‘Mrs Gaskell’ was born Elizabeth Stevenson, on September 29, 1810, in what is now number 93, Cheyne Walk, London, daughter of a Unitarian minister. Her mother died when she was just 13 months old, and she was raised by an aunt who lived in Knutsford, Cheshire (later the model for her village ‘Cranford’).


The girl Elizabeth, youngest of eight, was educated at home by her aunts and occasional outside tutors, and at Brook Street Chapel Sunday School, until 1821, when, aged 11 she was sent away to school in Barford, Warwickshire.


Encouraged to write by her brother John’s letters home from the merchant navy, she began to produce stories at school. But after John disappeared at sea on a voyage to India, she returned home to London to nurse her father through his deep depression until he died in 1829.

She was visiting a friend in Manchester when she met William Gaskell, a Unitarian minister, they were soon married, and settled in Manchester. Although in many ways they seemed completely ill-suited – Elizabeth was short and plump, talkative and romantic, while William was tall, thin, hard-working and serious - their marriage was close and happy.

She gave birth to six children, of whom three daughters survived, but it was the death of her only son that inspired her to write her first novel Mary Barton, which was published anonymously. It was an immediate success, drawing admiration from Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens, who asked her to contribute to his magazine Household Words. She wrote her serial Cranford for him, then her novel North and South the following year.

She met Charlotte Brontë in August 1850 at the Lake District summer home of social reformer James Kay-Shuttleworth, and they instantly became friends. Charlotte wrote of Elizabeth that she was "a woman of whose conversation and company I should not soon tire. She seems to me kind, clever, animated and unaffected".
After Charlotte died in 1855 it was her father Patrick who asked Elizabeth to write Charlotte's biography. She delivered the finished manuscript two years later, but, although it won early praise, it caused huge problems for its author. Many of those featured in it were insulted by her portrayal of them, and, with law suits threatening, Elizabeth was forced to make many alterations to the manuscript.

Elizabeth Gaskell died soon after collapsing with a heart attack on November 12, 1865, at her new home near Alton, Hampshire, leaving her longest work, Wives and Daughters, incomplete. She is buried at Brook Street Chapel, Knutsford, Cheshire.


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