When choosing a project for my 19th century literature lesson I had a lot of authors to choose from: Austen, Dickens, Elliot, the Brontës… but Elizabeth Gaskell was not on the program! After consulting with my professor, we both agreed I could work on Mrs. Gaskell and Cranford for my presentation. The truth is, I could not be happier! First I read Cranford and then, when planning my first lesson as a teacher, I realized I could not tell my classmates about the book without referring to the author. So, here goes some information on Elizabeth before I publish my Cranford review. Sometimes, the life of authors is key to understand their works.
Elizabeth Gaskell was born Elizabeth Stevenson in Chelsea, London in 1810. She was one of the eight children of William and Elizabeth Stevenson. He, a Scottish unitarian minister, planned on leaving for India due to a post he was offered but when it eventually did not turn out well, the family remained in London. Elizabeth, mother of eight, died some months after Mrs. Gaskell was born and after seeing six of her eight children pass away, with only Elizabeth and John surviving. At the death of her mother, Elizabeth was sent North, to her mother’s family while her devastated father remained in London. This was not a unusual practice, but I cannot imagine how hard it must have been to grow up without your mother and knowing that your father cannot take good care of you. From the beginning of my research I was impressed by Elizabeth’s hard life and her endurance and desire to make the most of her life.
The city she was sent to was Knutsford, a town near Manchester, where her mother’s family lived. Elizabeth mainly lived with her aunt, Hannah. In 1814 her father had remarried but he did not take Elizabeth back. So, she remained in Knutsford, where she was encouraged to read the classics, with an especial love for Dr. Johnson, despite leaving school at sixteen. Due to her family’s lack of fortune and her upbringing, far from the metropolis, Elizabeth had an uncertain future.
At the age of 22, she married minister William Gaskell in Knutsford and the young couple moved to Manchester. There, they started a family but, following Elizabeth’s hard life, motherhood proved to be as hard as her previous experiences. Her first baby-girl was stillborn, leaving a young Elizabeth devastated. However, she got pregnant again and, too afraid to lose her baby again, she started a diary… and a writer was born. These are the beginnings of Mrs.Gaskell’s career as a Victorian writer. I cannot imagine the pain she must have endured, but I do see how writing may have helped her.
She started publishing as an anonymous writer, but then adopted the name “Mrs. Gaskell”. Although at first I thought this was an innocent choice, then I realized it was not at all. Previous female writers were all spinsters, outcasts of the 19th century society such as Jane Austen or the Brontës, but Elizabeth was a proper, married woman, a mother who also happened to be a writer. When she started publishing under her real name in Dickens’ magazine Household Words, she became a referent for a middle-class hungry for serialized literature. It may be difficult for us to understand how they longed for a new chapter, but we do the same nowadays with TV shows. At that time, literature had become a consumer’s good and entered the market as any other production had done.
Once she became famous, and friends with Charles Dickens, Elizabeth lead a very different life to what she was expected as a proper, Victorian wife. She preferred the London lifestyle to the provincial Manchester and spent quite a lot of time away from her husband, who remained in the North. But her hard work pay back and, at the age of 55, she could afford a house that would nowadays cost £ 174,000 (approx. $ 275,000). A house she kept from her husband, because it was supposed to be their retire for elderly life. Sadly, while Mrs.Gaskell was spending time there with her daughters, she suffered a heart attack and died. The typically Victorian lady, with a untypical Victorian life, died away from her husband, who had to be told about this new purchase and the death of her beloved wife at the same time.
But, apart from her unusual lifestyle, Gaskell’s contribution to English Literature is usually forgotten and underestimated. She wrote mainly about women in Victorian society and how they lived in danger of becoming outcasts. Ruth explores the harsh life of a hard-working woman who has a baby outside wedlock and still, manages to earn a living to support her daughter. Sylvia’s Lovers is the story of a woman trapped between two men and the psychological development that comes from such a conflict. However, despite such important themes, Mrs.Gaskell is not usually included in literature programs and is not as famous as (I think) she deserves.
So, Elizabeth Gaskell is definitily an important writer to always have in consideration, especially if we are interested in canonical or women’s literature. Later this week, I will post my review of Cranford.
Name: Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865)
Themes: women’s roles, domesticity, appearances, lost love and marriage, motherhood, death.
Famous works: Mary Barton, Cranford, Ruth, North and South, Sylvia’s Lovers, Wives and Daughters.
TV adaptations: Cranford, North and South, Wives and Daughters (all by the BBC)