Elizabeth Gaskell 1810 – 1865
Pioneering writer and biographer
Elizabeth Gaskell’s Unitarian upbringing instilled in her the importance of taking action against injustice. She used her fiction writing to highlight the plight of the industrial poor. Exploring themes such as class conflict, gender roles, prostitution and drug addiction, her books inspired heated debate and moral outrage but ultimately contributed to social reform.
In 1832 Elizabeth married Unitarian minister William Gaskell and the couple moved from leafy Cheshire to Manchester, a vast, smoggy industrial sprawl. Elizabeth’s charity work, including prison visits, and teaching maths and literacy to mill workers, gave her an insight into issues faced by the city’s poor.
A keen diarist and letter writer, in 1845 a grief-stricken Elizabeth turned her hand to fiction writing to try and occupy her mind following the death of her infant son.
Elizabeth was horrified by the social injustice she witnessed around her. Her compassionate portrayals of vulnerable, marginalized people were based on the people she encountered in her voluntary work. She wanted her well-to-do readers to realise that workers didn’t strike for the sake of being difficult, but out of desperation to put food on the table for their hungry kids.
Her first novel Mary Barton was published anonymously in 1848. It was an immediate success, receiving criticism from some quarters for its positive portrayal of the working class, but praise from others – Charles Dickens became a huge fan, and serialised a number of her subsequent novels and short stories his magazine, ‘Household Words’.
Elizabeth’s third novel Ruth explored sexual politics and the role of women. In the mid-1800s women had limited opportunity for employment. Female workers were paid far less than their male counterparts. Unmarried women were regarded with suspicion, or seen as open target for harassment by predatory men. To get by in life a woman was expected to bag a husband to support and protect her. According to the strict moral codes that governed Victorian society, a woman’s virtue and chastity were crucial currency in securing a husband; physical desire was viewed as a source of shame; and a fallen woman was a sinner beyond redemption.
Ruth’s risqué storyline followed the fate of an unmarried mother who had been seduced and abandonned by her rich lover. Published in 1853, it proved her most controversial work. Statesman Richard Cobden dubbed Ruth “dangerous company for unmarried females”. Church acquaintances burnt copies of the book, and banned their wives from reading it.
However Gaskell remained defiant:
“An ‘unfit subject for fiction’ is the thing to say about it; I knew all this before; but I determined to speak my mind out about it; only how I shrink with more pain than I can tell you from what people are saying, though I would do every jot of it over again tomorrow…”
In 1865 Elizabeth died suddenly of a heart attack. Her prolific 20 year writing career had resulted in 6 novels, including the comedy Cranford; a pioneering biography of her friend Charlotte Bronte; dozens of novellas, articles and gothic ghost stories.
A number of her novels have been serialized as TV period dramas, including Cranford, North & South and Mary Barton. In 2010 a memorial panel to Elizabeth Gaskell was unveiled in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. Her house at 87 Plymouth Grove, Manchester is being converted into a visitor and community centre, due to open summer 2014.