Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn

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GASKELL, ELIZABETH CLEGHORN (1810–1865), novelist, born in Lindsey Row, now part of Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, 29 Sept. 1810, was the daughter, by his first marriage, of William Stevenson [q. v.] He was a native of Berwick-on-Tweed, who, after quitting the unitarian ministry, had taken to agricultural pursuits, had written upon commerce, and finally settled as keeper of the records to the treasury in London, where he continued to write. The death of his brother Joseph, a lieutenant in the royal navy, in a French prison must have suggested an incident in ‘Cousin Phillis.’ A strong love of the sea ran in the family. Mrs. Gaskell's mother was a daughter of Mr. Holland of Sandle Bridge in Cheshire (the ‘Heathbridge’ of ‘Cousin Phillis’), a descendant of an ancient Lancashire family. Within a month after her birth the child lost her mother, and after being entrusted for a week to the care of a shopkeeper's wife was by a family friend, a Mrs. Whittington, taken down to her own mother's sister, Mrs. Lumb, at Knutsford in Cheshire. This journey is represented by the travels of the ‘babby’ in ‘Mary Barton’ (chap. ix.) Her aunt, but recently married, was obliged, for painful reasons, to live alone with her daughter; and Elizabeth was to be a companion to this child, who had become a cripple. She found a second mother in her aunt, more especially after the death of her cousin. The aunt was poor, and lived in a modest house with an old-fashioned garden on the heath. She had, however, other relatives at Knutsford: her uncle, Peter Holland (the grandfather of the present Lord Knutsford), who resided there, furnished her with a type, the good country doctor, of which she was fond (see Wives and Daughters and Mr. Harrison's Confessions). As she grew into girlhood she paid some saddening visits to Chelsea, where her father had married again, but not happily. When about fifteen years of age she was sent to a school kept by Miss Byerley at Stratford-on-Avon, where she learnt Latin as well as French and Italian. Here she remained two years, including holiday times.

The quaint little country town of Knutsford, some fifteen miles from Manchester, supplied Mrs. Gaskell with the originals of her pictures of life at Cranford in her work of the name, and at Hollingford in ‘Wives and Daughters’ (see Henry Green's Knutsford, 2nd edit. 1887, where is printed a letter on the antiquarian interest of the place from Jacob Grimm, who desires his kindest regards to Mrs. Gaskell). The disappearance of her only brother John Stevenson, on his third or fourth voyage as a lieutenant in the merchant navy about 1827, suggested an episode in ‘Cranford’ (see also the paper on ‘Disappearances,’ originally published in ‘Household Words’). Her father died 22 April 1829. She occasionally visited London, staying with her uncle, Swinton Holland, in Park Lane; and spent two winters at Newcastle-on-Tyne in the family of Mr. Turner, a public-spirited unitarian minister, and another at Edinburgh (the society of which afterwards suggested the introduction of ‘Round the Sofa’). At this time her youthful beauty was much admired, and at Edinburgh several painters and sculptors asked permission to take her portrait.

On 30 Aug. 1832 she married at Knutsford Church the Rev. William Gaskell [q. v.], minister of Cross Street Unitarian Chapel, Manchester. Her marriage proved extremely happy, and her husband became the confidant of her literary life. Her ‘Life of Charlotte Brontë’ allows an incidental glimpse of her genial home, where in course of time she devoted much care to the education of her daughters. She occasionally co-operated in Mr. Gaskell's professional labours; she was ready at all times for works of charity, and gladly devoted some leisure to teaching, but otherwise, especially in later years, liked her time as well as her mind to be her own. Mr. and Mrs. Gaskell settled at Manchester, in Dover Street, whence in 1842 they moved to Rumford Street, finally in 1850 migrating to 84 Plymouth Grove. The first ten years of her married life passed uneventfully. When William Howitt announced in 1838 his intention of publishing ‘Visits to Remarkable Places,’ Mrs. Gaskell wrote offering an account of Clopton Hall, near Stratford-on-Avon. This was eagerly accepted, appeared in 1840, and is her first known publication. Family tradition recalls poems on a stillborn infant of her own and on a wounded stag, as well as the opening of a short story, probably begun even before her marriage. ‘The Sexton's Hero’ (first published in 1865) was also possibly composed before ‘Mary Barton,’ the work which made her famous. On a Rhine tour in 1841 Mrs. Gaskell first began her long intimacy with William and Mary Howitt.

In 1844 Mr. and Mrs. Gaskell visited Festiniog. Here their only boy (Willie) died of scarlet fever. To turn her thoughts she, by her husband's advice, attempted to write; and there seems every reason to conclude that ‘Mary Barton’ was at once begun. She read Adam Smith, and perhaps others of the authorities at which, in ‘North and South’ (chap. xxviii.), she humorously represents a workman as ‘tugging.’ She sent the manuscript of the first volume to the Howitts, who ‘were both delighted with it’ (Mary Howitt, an Autobiography, 1889, ii. 28). The book was finished in 1847, and offered to more than one publisher. During the usual delay Mrs. Gaskell, as she afterwards declared, ‘forgot all about it.’ Early in 1848 Messrs. Chapman & Hall offered 100l. for the copyright, and on these terms ‘Mary Barton’ was published, anonymously, 14 Oct. 1848. Its success was electrical. Carlyle and Samuel Bamford [q. v.] sent congratulatory letters. Miss Edgeworth, just before her death, spoke enthusiastically of its interest, which she sometimes felt to be too harrowing Mme. Belloc, p. 9). Landor addressed some enthusiastic verses to the ‘Paraclete of the Bartons’ (Works, 1876, viii. 255–6). Of all Mrs. Gaskell's books her earliest has enjoyed the most widespread reputation. It has been translated into French and German and many other languages, including Finnish; while at home the author became an established favourite. Some of the chief employers of labour in the Manchester district, however, complained that they were unjustly treated, and that she spoke rashly of some ‘burning questions of social economy.’ She was accused in the ‘Manchester Guardian’ (28 Feb. and 7 March 1849) of ‘maligning’ the manufacturers. Much the same position was taken in W. R. Greg's ‘Essay on Mary Barton’ (1849), which he thought worth reprinting many years afterwards (1876) in his volume entitled ‘Mistaken Aims and Attainable Ideals of the Artisan Class.’ Without discussing the point here, it may be observed, as Professor Minto has done, that John Barton must not be taken too hastily as a type of his whole class; that the book refers to the period of distress (1842) which suggested Disraeli's ‘Sybil;’ and that it has unquestionably contributed to the growth of sentiments which have helped to make the manufacturing world and Manchester very different from what they were forty years ago. The sincerity of its pathos and insight into the very hearts of the poor are of enduring value. Its humour is marked by the rather patriarchal flavour characteristic of Lancashire humour in general; nothing is more striking in Mrs. Gaskell's literary life than the ease and rapidity with which, in this respect, her genius contrived to emancipate itself.

The new writer was eagerly welcomed by Dickens. In May 1849 she dined with him and many well-known men, including Carlyle and Thackeray, to commemorate the publication of the first number of ‘David Copperfield’ (Forster, Life of Dickens, ed. 1876, ii. 100). When early in 1850 Dickens was projecting ‘Household Words,’ he invited Mrs. Gaskell's co-operation in the most flattering terms (Letters of Charles Dickens, 1880, i. 216–17). The first number of the new journal, published 30 March 1850, contained the beginning of ‘Lizzie Leigh,’ a story by Mrs. Gaskell, which was concluded 13 April. In the following years she contributed frequently to ‘Household Words,’ wrote an occasional paper for the ‘Cornhill Magazine,’ and perhaps for other journals. These contributions and Mrs. Gaskell's minor writings in general were afterwards published in a variety of combinations with the shorter of her novels, or under the titles of the longer of the tales themselves, viz. ‘Lizzie Leigh,’ 1855; ‘The Grey Woman,’ 1865; ‘My Lady Ludlow,’ 1859, the last named being republished under the title of ‘Round the Sofa,’ 1871. Mrs. Gaskell could occasionally write with the single-minded intent of startling her readers (see ‘A Dark Night's Work,’ 1863, and ‘The Grey Woman,’ a story of the Chauffeurs, 1865), and again at times in the cheery workman's tract style, for which the benevolent purpose formed a quite sufficient excuse (‘Hand and Heart,’ in ‘Household Words,’ 1855 &c.). She was happiest in minor efforts like ‘Morton Hall’ or ‘Mr. Harrison's Confessions,’ both of which appeared in ‘Household Words,’ the first in 1853, the second in 1855. The very interesting tale of ‘The Moorland Cottage,’ written rather hurriedly, appeared as a Christmas book in 1850, with illustrations by Birket Foster. In it may be detected the first traces of the writer's more delicate vein of humour.

At the beginning of 1853, Miss Brontë having agreed to defer for a few weeks the publication of ‘Villette,’ in order to avoid comparisons (see her charming letter in the Life of Charlotte Brontë, ii. ch. xii.), Mrs. Gaskell published her second important novel, ‘Ruth.’ The story is in itself considerably more interesting than that of ‘Mary Barton,’ and the style, though still wanting in the more subtle charm of the authoress's later works, is unmistakably superior to that of her first book. No notice has hitherto been taken of the striking resemblance between certain characters in ‘Ruth’ and in Dickens's ‘Hard Times,’ published a year later than Mrs. Gaskell's novel.

Among Mrs. Gaskell's early contributions to ‘Household Words’ were those inimitable pictures of society in a little country town which were republished in June 1853 under the title of ‘Cranford.’ The original papers were printed at intervals from 13 Dec. 1851 to 21 May 1853, under headings which appear to have been in part devised by Dickens, who took a particular interest in the series (see his Letters, i. 270, 301). These delightful chapters of real life are both tinged with the most delicate sentiment, and constitute, in Lord Houghton's words, ‘the purest piece of humoristic description that has been added to British literature since Charles Lamb.’ The inhabitants of the little Cheshire town for which Mrs. Gaskell has secured literary immortality unhesitatingly acknowledged the fidelity of the portraiture. ‘Cranford is all about Knutsford; my old mistress, Miss ——, is mentioned in it, and our poor cow, she did go to the field in a large flannel waistcoat, because she had burned herself in a lime pit’ (H. Green, Knutsford, p. 114). A still more important work, ‘North and South,’ appeared in ‘Household Words’ from 2 Sept. 1854 to 27 Jan. 1855, in the course of which year it was republished with certain slight alterations. It is one of Mrs. Gaskell's ablest and most interesting books. It exhibits, at least till near the close, a notable advance in constructive power; the characters are drawn with unprecedented firmness, and in some cases tinged with true humour, and though there is no loss of sympathy for the artisan the judgment of social problems shows greater impartiality and riper reflection. Her experience was widened and her interest in politics had grown deeper. She had made acquaintance with many able philanthropists, and in the company of Susanna Winkworth [q. v.] had moved about a good deal among the working classes, listened to discussions at workmen's clubs, and made herself the confidante of many a poor girl. Dickens was warm in his congratulations to Mrs. Gaskell ‘on the vigorous and powerful accomplishment of an anxious labour’ (Letters, i. 381). But for some defects of construction, due perhaps in part to the piecemeal method of weekly publication which the authoress heartily disliked, ‘North and South’ might safely be described as her most effective narrative fiction.

In August 1850 Mrs. Gaskell had, during a visit to Sir James Kay Shuttleworth in the Lakes, made the acquaintance of Charlotte Brontë (Life of Charlotte Brontë, ii. ch. vii.) The marked contrasts of temperament and literary idiosyncrasy between them had only strengthened a friendship as warm and as free from the faintest shade of jealousy as any that is recorded in literary biography. Miss Brontë visited Mrs. Gaskell at Manchester in 1851, and again in 1853 (ib. ii. chaps. ix. xii.), and Mrs. Gaskell became truly fond of, and ‘very sorry for,’ her guest. In the autumn of 1853 she returned Miss Brontë's visit at Haworth, and she was present with her husband at the wedding of Mr. and Mrs. Nicholls in June 1854. Some time after Miss Brontë's death (31 March 1855) Mrs. Gaskell consented, at Mr. Brontë's urgent request, to undertake his daughter's life. All through 1856 she was employed upon the biography, giving herself up to the work with the utmost assiduity, and sparing no pains to insure accuracy in her statements and descriptions. She spent a fortnight at Brussels in careful investigations. When in the spring of 1857 the book was at last ready for publication, Mrs. Gaskell made a journey with two of her daughters to Rome, where they were the guests of Mr. W. W. Story.

In a passage of the original edition of the ‘Life’ Mrs. Gaskell reproduced a supposed statement of facts, which had been explicitly made to her by Miss Brontë, and on the authenticity of which she of course placed absolute reliance. The truth of the statement was denied by the persons implicated, and the result was a retractation in the ‘Times,’ and the withdrawal from circulation of all the unsold copies of the first edition of the biography. Concerning certain other statements the authoress was much harassed by disclaimers and corrections, to which she sought to do justice in the later editions, and in the end she was obliged, as other biographers have been before her, to decline further personal correspondence concerning the book. The substantial accuracy of the picture drawn by Mrs. Gaskell of her heroine's life and character, and of the influences exercised upon them by her personal and local surroundings, has not been successfully impugned. As to her literary skill and power and absolute uprightness of intention as a biographer there cannot be two opinions. She expressly disclaimed having made any attempt at psychological analysis (ib. ii. ch. xiv.); but she was exceptionally successful in her endeavour to bring before her readers the picture of a very peculiar character and altogether original mind.

There seems no doubt that the strictures, just or unjust, passed upon her ‘Life of Charlotte Brontë’ gave rise in Mrs. Gaskell to a temporary distaste for writing. But her life nevertheless continued its usual course of active intellectual exertion, social kindliness, and domestic happiness. She had a great power of making friends, and of keeping them, and the extent of her circle took away the breath of a solitary like Charlotte Brontë (ib. ii. ch. xiii.). The Miss Winkworths and other intimates at Manchester, Lord Houghton—in whose judgment Mrs. Gaskell's house made that city a possible place of residence for people of literary tastes—and many other country and London friends, together with a never ebbing flow of American and continental admirers of her genius, diversified her home life and her excursions to London; and about the autumn of 1855 she began an intimacy with Mme. Mohl, in whose house she repeatedly stayed at Paris, and in whose historic salon, ‘standing up before the mantelpiece, which she used as a desk,’ she afterwards wrote part of her last story (M. E. Simpson, Letters and Recollections of Julius and Mary Mohl, 1887, p. 126, cf. ib. 163–7, 182–184, 201–2, 217–19, 232; see also K. O'Meara, ‘Mme. Mohl: her Salon and her Friends,’ 4th paper, Atlantic Monthly, vol. lv. No. 330, April 1885; Mrs. Gaskell refers to Mr. and Mme. Mohl in My French Master, and pretty evidently to the lady and her power of ‘sabléing’ in the very sprightly paper, ‘Company Manners,’ contributed to Household Words in May 1854). But she never forgot old friends, and was always ready with useful advice to beginners in the art in which she had achieved fame. She possessed, too, a peculiar tact for training her servants. At one time she was much influenced by the example of the well-known prison philanthropist, Thomas Wright. During the cotton famine of 1862–3 she was a personal friend to many of the poor, and took a conspicuous part in organising and superintending for six or seven hours a day a method of relief—sewing-rooms—which had occurred to her before it came to be largely adopted (Mme. Belloc, pp. 18–20).

After the stress of the cotton famine she set her hand to a new story. The plot of ‘Sylvia's Lovers,’ published early in 1863, turns on the doings of the press-gang towards the close of last century. She stayed at Whitby (here called Monkshaven) to study the character of the place, and personally consulted such authorities as Sir Charles Napier and General Perronet Thompson on the history of impressment. In its earlier portions the story maintains itself at the writer's highest level; the local colouring is true and vivid; the pathetic charm of the innocent Sylvia is admirably contrasted by the free humour of the figures of her father and his man Kester, although the effect is rather marred by the coincidences introduced to insure a symmetrical conclusion. In 1863–4 followed, in the first instance as a contribution to the ‘Cornhill Magazine,’ the prose idyll of ‘Cousin Phillis.’ The little book, which was not published as a complete story till November 1865, is beyond dispute in execution the most perfect of Mrs. Gaskell's works, and has scarcely been surpassed for combination of the sunniest humour with the tenderest pathos.

Mrs. Gaskell's last story, ‘Wives and Daughters,’ also appeared in the ‘Cornhill Magazine’ from August 1864 to January 1866. It was reprinted as an unfinished work in the following February. It appeared at first in the magazine without her name. In it her later and more genial manner asserts itself with graceful ease. There is a certain weakness in the construction of the story; but its truthfulness of characterisation and its beautiful humanity of tone and feeling, ranging from the most charming playfulness to the most subduing pathos, stamp it as a masterpiece in its branch of imaginative literature.

A collected edition of Mrs. Gaskell's works was first published in seven volumes in 1873. The ‘Knutsford’ collected edition, edited by the present writer, came out in eight volumes in 1906. Neither includes the ‘Life of Charlotte Brontë,’ which was re-edited in 1900 by Mr. Clement K. Shorter. The collection of tales now included in ‘Round the Sofa’ was first brought out under the title of ‘My Lady Ludlow.’ Of her chief writings French translations have been published. ‘Mary Barton’ and ‘Cranford’ have also been translated into Hungarian. A Spanish version of ‘Mary Barton’ appeared in 1879.

Her strength began to fail when nearing the end of ‘Wives and Daughters,’ though her exertions never relaxed. On Sunday, 12 Nov. 1865, she was carried away by disease of the heart, ‘without a moment's warning,’ according to her epitaph. She was at the time conversing with (not reading to) her daughters, three of whom were around her, in the country house at Holybourne, near Alton in Hampshire, which she had purchased with the proceeds of her last book, and which she intended to present as a surprise to her husband. She was buried in the little sloping graveyard of the ancient unitarian chapel at Knutsford, where her husband was in 1884 laid by her side. A cross, with the dates of their births and deaths, marks their resting-place; but in the Cross Street Unitarian Chapel at Manchester they are commemorated by mural inscriptions, of which that to Mrs. Gaskell is from her husband's hand.

An interesting letter, dated 11 Nov. 1859, from ‘George Eliot’ to Mrs. Gaskell, gratefully acknowledging her ‘sweet encouraging words,’ has been printed in the ‘British Weekly.’ George Sand, only a few months before Mrs. Gaskell's death, observed to Lord Houghton: ‘Mrs. Gaskell has done what neither I nor other female writers in France can accomplish; she has written novels which excite the deepest interest in men of the world, and yet which every girl will be the better for reading.’ None of our novelists has shown a more extraordinary power of self-development. She might have excelled in a different field. During the last months of her life, inspired perhaps by the example of Mme. Mohl's ‘Essay on Mme. Récamier,’ she had thoughts of writing a life of Mme. de Sévigné, and pursued some preliminary researches on the subject both at Paris and in Brittany. She had long taken a warm interest in French history and literature (cf. her papers Traits and Stories of the Huguenots, An Accursed Race, Curious if True, My French Master, &c.) Mrs. Gaskell had at one time been very beautiful; her head is a remarkably fine one in the portraits preserved of her, and her hand was always thought perfect. She had great conversational gifts, and the letters in her ‘Life of Charlotte Brontë’ show her to have been a charming correspondent. The singular refinement of her manners was noticed by all who became acquainted with her. Perhaps her natural vivacity caused her now and then to chafe a little at the rather tranquil conditions of her existence. In Manchester even nonconformity has few emotional aspects, and if Mrs. Gaskell's rectors and vicars usually lean in the direction of imbecility, she seems to show a half-ironical preference on secular grounds for church over dissent. It is noticeable that her imagination was much attracted by whatever partook of the supernatural, across the boundaries of which she ventured in more than one of her minor writings (e.g. ‘My Lady Ludlow,’ ‘The Poor Clare,’ ‘The Old Nurse's Story’), and from which she does not seem to have shrunk in the confidential hours of home (see Life of Charlotte Brontë, ii. ch. xii.) But what was most characteristic as well as most fascinating in her must have been the sympathetic force of the generous spirit which animated her singularly clear and reasonable mind. In conversation with Charlotte Brontë, Mrs. Gaskell disputed her companion's sad view of human life: ‘I thought that human lots were more equal than she imagined; that to some happiness and sorrow came in strong patches of light and shadow (so to speak), while in the lives of others they were pretty equally blended throughout.’ To perceive this was to understand a lesson of the book of life which few modern imaginative writers have so powerfully and yet so unaffectedly impressed upon their readers.

[Family and private sources, except where otherwise indicated in the text. The only biographical sketch (previous to the present one) is a slight notice by Mme. Louise Sw. Belloc prefixed to E. D. Forgues's French translation of Cousin Phillis and other Tales (1879). This is partly founded on an obituary notice of Mrs. Gaskell signed ‘M.’ (Mrs. Charles Herford), which appeared in the Unitarian Herald, 17 Nov. 1865. Among other notices of her death was an admirable article by Lord Houghton in the Pall Mall Gazette, 14 Nov. 1865. The best critical paper on her writings is Professor W. Minto's in the Fortnightly Review, vol. xxiv. (July to December 1878).]

A. W. W.