Elizabeth Gaskell

(b. 1810 - d. 1865)

Elizabeth Gaskell was one of the most famous female authors of Victorian England. Her writing illuminated the plight of the working class and other sometimes difficult and unpleasant social issues. Born Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson in London, Gaskell was the daughter of a Unitarian minister. She moved to the village Knutsford to live with an aunt when her mother died. She married William Gaskell in 1832 and they settled in the city of Manchester. She worked with her husband in his ministry, but the condition of the poor in Manchester began to stir her thoughts and sympathy.

Gaskell's literary career did not begin until the middle of her life, when her only son died. She focused her attention on the poor in the industrial community in her novel Mary Barton (1848). The novel chronicles a working-class family struggling to survive and the class conflicts and hatred they face. Many critics were harsh in their reviews because of her open sympathy for the working class. Her novel was a success despite this because of her undeniable talent. Much of her work continued to examine social issues in England. Ruth (1853), a novel about seduction, broke with traditional Victorian moral codes by allowing the seduced girl to escape the traditional progression to prostitution and death.

Her work had much critical success among her contemporaries. Charles Dickens even invited her to contribute to his magazine, Household Words. Gaskell also became friends with Charlotte Bronte. After Bronte's death, Gaskell wrote one of the most famous biographies about her life. However, shortly after its publication, controversy arose. Several of the people mentioned in the book felt that they were unfairly represented and even threatened legal action. The experience left her with such a strong distaste for biographies that she implored her daughters to do all that they could to prevent any biographies of her from being written.

Gaskell's popularity during her lifetime has since waned a bit, but she still remains an important figure in Victorian British Literature. Her last work Wives and Daughters, is considered to be one of her best. Her humorous tone allows her to satire the society around her and shows Gaskell's artistic growth. Unfortunately, her health deteriorated while she was working on the novel and she died before it was completed. While historians still debate how major her work was and are trying to discover how she places next to her contemporaries, it cannot be denied that her work as a social historian and her work in a traditionally male occupation make her a figure worth studying even today. 

Annotated Bibliography

Brodetsky, Tessa. Elizabeth Gaskell. Dover, NH: Berg, 1986.
This source is much shorter than most of the books on Gaskell that are listed here. This biography touches only the most important events in her life. It outlines her major works and what influenced her during their creation. While brief, this is a well written source. It would be acceptable for a high school reading level and would be helpful to anyone interested in learning more about Elizabeth Gaskell.

Chapple, J.A.V. Elizabeth Gaskell: The Early Years. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.
This is probably one of the best sources on Gaskell's life that you can use when researching her life. Chapple has edited two volumes of Gaskell's letters and personal documents and is one of the experts on her life. This work, as the title suggests, focuses more on her personal life rather than her work. Much of the book explores her family and their lives. There are several pictures of her and the members of her family. Chapple shows how Gaskell's interaction with her family and her upbringing influenced her writing. This is one of the most comprehensive sources and should be consulted before writing any kind of paper on Elizabeth Gaskell.

Chapple, J.A.V., Pollard, Arthur, eds. The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.
While somewhat dated, this is an excellent source. It is an extremely large collection of primary sources outside of Gaskell's novels. Her letters and personal papers are collected, transcribed and organized into two sections: dated and undated sources. The letters range from every period in her life and cover issues in her writing and other aspects of her and her family's life. This is a great source, but it will take a significant amount of time to sort through the letters and find the information you want. It would be a good source for anyone committed enough to research Gaskell's life.

Chapple, J.A.V., Shelston, Alan, eds. Further Letters of Mrs. Gaskell. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003.
This source is a companion to the first volume of Letters of Mrs. Gaskell. Like the first volume, the letters are organized in two sections: dated and undated. All of the letters in this volume were discovered after the original volume was printed. It is much smaller than the first version. Also like the first volume, the letters span her entire life and a variety of subjects. This book would be a good source for anyone willing to do in-depth research on Gaskell. It doesn't have as much material as the first volume, so they should probably be consulted together in order to get the most complete view of Gaskell's life.

Foster, Shirley. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
This is part of a series about authors that seems to be aimed at a more general audience. It is written in clear, simple language that makes it easy for most college level students to understand. This discusses her writing with reference to her taste, relations with other authors and her experiences in being a writer. More attention is given to her lesser known short stories. This source is worth looking at because it explores Gaskell's work from a slightly different perspective, rather than examining her just through gender and class issues. Anyone who wants to write about her work should consult this book.

Holstein, Suzy Clarkson. "Finding a Woman's Place: Gaskell and Authority." Studies in the Novel. 21, no. 4 Winter 1989, 380-389.
This article examines Gaskell's writing in terms of her relationship to patriarchal power and authority. As a female writer, she was redefining what was normally considered a male profession even as she had to continue to fulfill her role as wife and mother. The author examines her relationships with her husband and father while trying to find out where she fit with traditional Victorian authority. Gaskell's writing is examined to see how she incorporates her different ideas of authority and how this distinguishes her from other authors of the time This article is a well written look at the interaction between Gaskell's life and her fiction.

Landow, George P. "Elizabeth Gaskell on The Victorian Web" (Last Updated 2000) <http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/gaskell/gaskellov.html> (18 December 2005).
This page, which is part of a larger web site on Victorian literature, is the most comprehensive site on Elizabeth Gaskell on the web. The site contains a wealth of information about the historical period along with many pages specifically on Gaskell. There is a biography of her life along with a list of works, many of which are on the site in full text along with commentary and discussion questions. Her works are broken down in terms of theme, characterization, imagery, narrative, gender matters, religion, and genre. The site also compares her work to many of her contemporaries. When searching Gaskell on the web, this site should be the starting place. The links to online articles and other web sites makes it an invaluable resource for studying any aspect of Gaskell's life and work.

Lindner, Christopher. "Outside Looking In: Material Culture in Gaskell's Industrial Novels." Orbis Litterarum. 55, no 5 2000, 379-397.
Gaskell's Mary Barton and North and South are examined through an economic lens in this essay. The industrial culture of the Victorian age is inspected on the production side. Linder notes the absence of the consumption of the goods produced by the characters in the novels and shows how Gaskell uses this to expose the demoralizing experience this creates for workers. This article is an interesting look at consumerism that ties Gaskell's works together well when presenting the problems of the Industrial Revolution. It would be an acceptable article for any college level research paper.

Markovits, Stefanie. "North and South, Easy and West: Elizabeth Gaskell, the Crimean War, and the Condition of England." Nineteenth-Century Literature 59, no. 4 March 2004, 463-493.
This article examines the novel North and South in the context of the Crimean War (1854-1856). Gaskell was preoccupied by the war at the time she started writing this and was even staying at the home of Florence Nightingale for part of the war. The author uses this context to examine the novel as a historical document, even going so far as to compare the character Margaret Hale with Nightingale at the end of the article. This article is useful for anyone looking to examine North and South or the effects of the Crimean War in relation to Gaskell's life.

Matsuoka, Mitsuharu. "The Gaskell Web." (Last updated 27 Sept. 2005) <http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/Gaskell.html> (18 December 2005).
This is another excellent site on Mrs. Gaskell. Run by a Japanese professor, this page is home to The Gaskell Society and their web site. The main page has links to this as well as a biography, bibliography and chronology of her life. There is also a small collection of portraits done throughout Gaskell's life. For anyone considering a trip to England, there is a printable map of Knutsford that references different places in the novel Cranford. The e-texts page (which is found at <http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-etexts.html>) is a large collection of almost all of Gaskell's works that is available for download and private use. They are all in html format, so you could actually open them up as web pages and read them on your computer or print them out to read. While her novels are fairly easy to find, this page also has a large collection of her short stories, which are not as widely available. The variety of sources and  the references on this site make it just as valuable a research tool as The Victorian Web. 

PBS's Masterpiece Theatre. "Wives and Daughters" <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/wives/index.html> (18 December 2005).
This page was created for the release of the PBS movie based on Gaskell's last novel, Wives and Daughters. While containing mostly information about the movie, the page also offers some resources on Gaskell. There is a page of links to different sites on the web, as well as a list of brief biographies of  19th century women writers. There are several clips from the movie along with a page that describes English society during the Victorian age. This site is useful for understanding the world that Gaskell lived in and how it influenced her work.

Pollard, Arthur. Mrs. Gaskell: Novelist and Biographer. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965. 
This source is by one of the editors of The Letters or Mrs. Gaskell. Pollard is making a critical examination of Gaskell's work. He looks at traditional parts of the novel, including setting, themes, plots and the characters of her major works. This is a literary book and would be most useful to those who already have some background in the study of literature. Any English students or teachers would find this book useful when trying to interpret any of Gaskell's major novels.

Rubenius, Aina. The Woman Question in Mrs. Gaskell's Life and Works. New York: Russell & Russell, 1973.
This source looks at women's issues during the Victorian period that influenced Gaskell's work. Rubenius studies women in factory work and makes connections with Gaskell. She examines how Gaskell tried to use her literature to bring these social problems to the attention of others. This is a slightly older source, but it is still useful. It takes a slightly different approach to a feminist reading. It is fairly easy to read and would be acceptable for a variety of audiences.

Simkin, John. "Elizabeth Gaskell" Spartacus Schoolnet. No date.  <http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Jgaskell.htm> (18 December 2005).
This page is designed with educators in mind. The short biography of Gaskell would be a suitable introduction to her life and work for middle and high school students. There are links throughout the page for the most important terms used. Her husband, Manchester, many other authors and the issues Gaskell discusses in her work all have their own pages. There are also excerpts from Mary Barton at the bottom of the page. This page isn't for someone looking to do a lot of research about Mrs. Gaskell, but is a nice introduction to her life and work.

Stoneman, Patsy. Elizabeth Gaskell. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
This biography is part of the "Key Women Writers" series that looks at some of the most important female figures in literature. Stoneman takes a feminist approach to Gaskell's work and examines the interaction of class and gender in her work, hoping to find some new ways of approaching her novels.. She focuses only on Gaskell's most major works and doesn't look at any of her shorter fiction. This is a good source for literature students, but it doesn't spend much time looking at Elizabeth Gaskell as a person. 

Weiss, Barbara. "Elizabeth Gaskell: The Telling of Feminine Tales ." Studies in the Novel. 16, no. 3 Fall 1984, 274-288.
This article examines Gaskell's work from a feminist perspective and claims that perhaps her work was one way for her to understand her role as a woman and to work through the anxieties and difficulties that arose through being a female artist. The author examines Gaskell's attitudes about making fiction and how she worked creatively. Although a little dated, this is an interesting look at Gaskell's work that focuses less on class and more on gender issues. It shows how she justifies women's right to create fiction through her work. This would be a good source for anyone interested in studying her literature or gender issues.


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URL: http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/elizgaskell.html
Written by Jean Lloyd December 2005
Last Revision: 7 July 2006

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