A summary of the life and faith of Elizabeth Gaskell, 1810-1865
Elizabeth Gaskell was born Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson in 1810 in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. The house has a commemorative plaque and is close to the house where lived another famous author and friend, Thomas Carlyle. Her mother was a member of a well known Cheshire family, the Hollands, and it was to Knutsford that Elizabeth was sent to be cared for by her mother’s sister, Aunt Hannah Lumb, (“my more than mother”) after her mother died when Elizabeth was just one year old. Heathwaite, Aunt Lumb’s house overlooking the Heath, is still there today with its lovely garden.
Her uncle, Dr Peter Holland also lived in the town. It is thought that his two daughters, Mary and Lucy, may have been the models for Miss Jenkyns and Miss Matty in Cranford, a novel based on the people she knew and loved in Knutsford. The family were Unitarians and worshipped at our beautiful 300 year old Brook Street Chapel and Elizabeth was a Sunday School teacher there. She loved the simple beauty of the chapel and her description *(see below) of it in Ruth reflects this. Her words are as meaningful today as when she wrote them.
Elizabeth's ancestors were among the founders, ministers and trustees, and surround her in the graveyard where she lies with William and two of her daughters.
Elizabeth was sent to a school in Warwickshire run by the Byerley sisters. At Stratford-upon-Avon the girls attended church services and no doubt were awed by seeing Shakespeare’s memorial. In Brook Street Chapel’s graveyard there grows a mulberry tree,an offshoot of Shakespeare’s tree at New Place.
Back in Cheshire Elizabeth met William Gaskell who was junior minister of Cross Street Chapel in Manchester.* Though her aunt wondered how he could "fancy such a giddy, little thoughtless thing" as Elizabeth, they were happily married at Knutsford Parish Church in 1832. It was at that time a legal requirement that all marriages should take place in the established church. It was not until 1840 that marriages were allowed in Brook Street Chapel.
After her marriage Elizabeth lived the rest of her life in "dear old, dull,ugly, smoky,grim, grey, Manchester" although she never forgot her Knutsford roots and visited often. For the first few years, she was busy having children and carrying out the duties of a minister’s wife. She was the devoted mother of four daughters but was devastated by the death of her 10 month old son from scarlet fever. Losing all zest for life she was encouraged by William to take up writing as distraction from her grief .
Gaskell’s religion was practical, in her support for the poor and sick. When the family moved to 84 Plymouth Grove, which was partly funded by her writings, the move gave her cause for concern. She wrote to a friend questioning . . "whether it is right to spend so much ourselves on so purely selfish a thing as a house is, when so many are wanting . . . I must try and make the house give as much pleasure to others as I can and make it as little a selfish thing as I can". It was here that she entertained Charlotte Bronte, Dickens, Florence Nightingale and the Winkworth sisters. Charles Halle came to teach her eldest daughter to play the piano. Biographies and collections of her letters reveal her as an admirable wife and mother.
William and Elizabeth both taught in Manchester. All the family wore themselves out in charitable work during the cotton famine caused by the American Civil War and she knew all about the Crimean War from the Nightingale family.
To encourage William to retire, she secretly bought a house in Holybourne, Hampshire which is now, ironically an old people’s home. It was there that she died suddenly of a heart attack while drinking afternoon tea, aged 55 years. William never did live there.
The works of Elizabeth Gaskell
Her first novel after the death of her baby son was her novel Mary Barton, highlighting the problems of industrial Manchester, the wretched conditions of the poor mill workers and the Chartist struggle. It was condemned by some as subversive of the established order as the hardships of the poor were said to be their own fault due to their thriftlessness and vice. It was a true social novel. Carlyle admired it and so did Dickens who begged her to write for his magazine, Household Words.
She wrote a variety of short stories and her second novel was Cranford, begun as a short story that made Dickens ask for more. It is much loved for its gentle, ironic humour, based on her observations of the people and events in Knutsford and has never been out of print since 1853.
Ruth came next, which was a book about sexual morality where the heroine is an unmarried mother. It was an unmentionable subject at the time and drew attention to the different standards expected of men and women. Even more shocking was that Ruth was allowed to mend her ways and work for forgiveness. This was deemed "an unsuitable subject for fiction".
She knew members of William’s congregation had burnt the book and some friends and acquaintances shunned her. It was a measure of her practical religion to write such a difficult book and at the same time she befriended a "fallen woman" who was in prison and enabled her to emigrate. Elizabeth had written to the minister’s wife in Knutsford saying she had wished to come "before that book of mine is out as afterwards you may not wish to know me". It demonstrates her courage as a writer.
North and South has a similar setting to Mary Barton and she sought to bring understanding between the mill workers and the masters. Through her connections with the Gregs of Styal, also Unitarians, she knew that even idealistic schemes could founder. She also explored the crisis of faith of the heroine’s father, which reflected contemporary realities in the Church of England.
A biography of Charlotte Bronte followed, at the request of Charlotte’s father. Elizabeth and Charlotte had known each other well, visiting each other's homes and corresponding, but Elizabeth's willingness to include what Charlotte told her about Branwell's supposed affair with his employer's wife led to the first edition of the biography having to be withdrawn. £100 was donated from the proceeds of the book to provide a pump at Howarth. Her last novels, Sylvia's Lovers and Wives and Daughters were uncontroversial and very well received.
For further information on Elizabeth Gaskell, her life and times, visit
The Gaskell Society and Elizabeth Gaskell House.
* Excerpt from Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell describing the chapel
The chapel was up a narrow street, or rather cul-de-sac, close by. It stood on the outskirts of the town, almost in fields. It was built about the time of Matthew and Philip Henry, when the Dissenters were afraid of attracting attention or observation, and hid their places of worship in obscure and out-of-the-way parts of the towns in which they were built. Accordingly, it often happened, as in the present case, that the buildings immediately surrounding, as well as the chapels themselves, looked as if they carried you back to a period a hundred and fifty years ago. The chapel had a picturesque and old world look, for luckily the congregation had been too poor to rebuild it, or new-face it, in George the Third’s time. The staircases which led to the galleries were outside, at each end of the building, and the irregular roof and worn stone steps looked grey and stained by time and weather. The grassy hillocks, each with a little upright headstone, were shaded by a grand old wych-elm. A lilac bush or two, a white rose-tree, and a few laburnums, all old and gnarled enough, were planted round the chapel yard; and the casement windows of the chapel were made of heavy- leaded, diamond-shaped panes, almost covered with ivy, producing a green gloom, not without its solemnity within. This ivy was the home of an infinite number of little birds, which twittered and warbled, till it might have been thought that they were emulous of the power of praise possessed by the human creatures within, with such earnest, long-drawn strains did this crowd of winged songsters rejoice and be glad in their beautiful gift of life. The interior of the building was plain and simple as plain and simple could be. When it was fitted up, oak-timber was much cheaper than it is now, so the woodwork was all of that description: but roughly hewed, for the early builders had not much wealth to spare. The walls were whitewashed, and were recipients of the shadows of the beauty without; on their “white plains” the tracery of the ivy might be seen, now still, now stirred by the sudden flight of some little bird.
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Elzabeth Gaskell by Wiilliam John Thomson, of Edinburgh, 1832
The Gaskell Mulberry Plaque
Cross Street Chapel, 1835
The Gaskell Grave at Brook Street