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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

XI. The Political and Social Novel

§ 13. Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

The present seems the most appropriate place for speaking of the chief contributions to British fiction of Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, a writer of rare charm and, though no one knew better than herself the limits prescribed to her creations, possessed of true powers of both pathos and humour. For, although she preferred to exercise those powers chiefly in tracing the interplay of personal affections and passions, the influence of character upon character, the genial impulses of the soul and the shy sorrows of the heart, and the all-healing love which rises above self, they were, it is certain, first set in motion when her mind was brought to bear upon the social problems and troubles around her. In these, her loving nature was drawn, by personal affliction of its own, to take a sympathetic interest; and Mary Barton, written to beguile a mother’s grief for the loss of her infant son, her first book and that by which her literary reputation was at once established, may justly claim to rank among the most notable of the social novels of the age.

Mrs. Gaskell was described by one of the most faithful and gifted of her and her daughters’ friends as

  • like the best things in her books; full of gracious and tender sympathies, of thoughtful kindness, of pleasant humour, of quick appreciation of utmost simplicity and truthfulness, and uniting with peculiar delicacy and refinement a strength of principle and purpose and straightforwardness in action such as few women possess.
  • But her life was led in conditions of great tranquillity and almost unbroken happiness, and, after her death, the remembrance of her was preserved by the perfect love of those whom she had left behind her and to whom her wishes were law. She desired that no set biography of her should be attempted; and it is thus from her writings only that later generations are likely to gather much beyond the outward facts of her existence. Those who knew her or hers may indulge the belief that in those writings are to be found more than one experience that came very near home to her, transmuted into kindly lessons of resignation and of charity to all men.

    Mrs. Gaskell was born on 29 September, 1810, in what is now known as 93 Cheyne walk and was then called Lindsay row, Chelsea. Her father, member of a Berwick-on-Tweed family “in which ran a strong love of the sea,” was a man of original ability, in turn unitarian minister and (after an interval of schoolmastering and farming) keeper of the treasury records; her maternal grandfather was a descendant of the well-known Lancashire and Cheshire family of Holland, who farmed his own land at Sandle bridge in the latter county. William Stevenson may be fairly set down as the original of minister Holman in Cousin Phillis, and the intimate and enduring connection of the Cheshire Hollands with Knutsford suggested an infinitude of personal and local reminiscences of that town and its vicinity under the aliases of Cranford, Duncombe (in Mr. Harrison’s Confessions) and Hollingford (in Wives and Daughters). At Knutsford (which thus became part of herself), most of Elizabeth Stevenson’s girlhood was spent; the rest was divided between London, Newcastle-on-Tyne (where she resided in the house of a unitarian minister, William Turner, who is said to have suggested some features in the beautiful character of Thurston Benson in Ruth) and at Edinburgh (as humorously recorded in the introduction to Round the Sofa). In 1832, she married William Gaskell, then and to the end of his life, minister of the Cross street unitarian chapel in Manchester and an accomplished scholar, with whom all the rest of her life flowed on in perfect unison. The circle of friends of which she now became part and of which, in time, her house, 84 Plymouth grove, was to be looked upon as a chosen centre, was one of social as well as intellectual distinction; yet it was as a “greater Manchester,” in more than the local sense of the phrase, that she learnt to love the place, till, even on her holidays in Wales, and, afterwards, on the Neckar, in Italy and in her favourite France, she could look back, like Mary Barton on the railway to Liverpool, “towards the factory-chimneys, and the cloud of smoke which hovers over the place, with a feeling akin to Heimwch.” And it is not too much to say that what, from the first, helped to bind her to the city which, for more than fourscore years, was to be her home and that of her daughters, was the care for the poor of which she and they never lost sight. Several years before she began Mary Barton, she and her husband printed the first (and, as it proved, the only) one of a projected series of versified Sketches among the Poor, “rather” as she confidentially put it to her friend Mrs. Howitt, “in the manner of Crabbe, but in a more seeing-beauty spirit.” The influence of Crabbe, tempered in the fashion which this passage indicates, is, as will be seen, traceable in some of her published writings.