Described by the press after her death as ‘one of the greatest female novelists of all time’ Elizabeth Gaskell was born in 1810 and lived at 84 Plymouth Grove in Manchester with her family from 1850 until her death in 1865. She is best known for writing Cranford, North and South and the biography of her friend Charlotte Bronte.
The enduring appeal of Elizabeth Gaskell’s writing has ensured it has remained in print, despite being written over 150 years ago. Her novels, Mary Barton and North and South, confront many contentious issues: poverty, social conditions, industrial relations and divisions between people created by class, gender, geographical origins or prejudice.
Elizabeth shows how poor social conditions often forced people into opium and alcohol addiction, but also shows the powerful community spirit which can grow from economic hardship.
The vulnerability and strengths of women are common themes. In Mary Barton and Ruth, Elizabeth examines how innocent young girls are controlled by powerful men, a problem not uncommon today. She criticises the social criteria on which marriage was often based, and examines what makes a good husband, wife, parent or friend.
In North and South, the northern industrialist, Thornton, believes the north needs a separate government, not ‘laws made for us at a distance…We stand up for self-government, and oppose centralisation.’ This is something we continue to debate today. To Margaret Hale he says, ‘You despise me…because you do not understand me.’ The need to understand each other is central to Elizabeth’s writing.
As well as being an acclaimed author Elizabeth Gaskell was a radical changemaker of her time and one connected with other notable female reformers, as the exhibition in the new Brontë Room reveals. Amongst the circle of women that Elizabeth and her daughters would meet, invite to her home and correspond with were Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), Florence Nightingale, Christabel Pankhurst, Beatrix Potter and Annie Swynnerton.
As the wife of a Unitarian minister, Elizabeth vowed to be a ‘useful friend’ to her new husband’s parishioners when she settled in Manchester in 1832. Their faith was committed to education and social improvement for all, the motivation for Elizabeth’s numerous charitable acts.
Elizabeth taught Sunday school children from poorer families throughout her life, a role emulated by her daughter, Meta. She offered voluntary help to those in need and during the general strike of 1842 the Gaskells ‘fed long queues of hungry people who came to their door each morning’.
The Lancashire Cotton Famine, caused by the American Civil War 1861-65, led to many working shorter hours or suffering periods of unemployment. Elizabeth and her daughters responded by running sewing schools for women, who earned a small wage, and received a cheap meal and a basic education. They also sourced fresh milk for the babies and young children of the workers.
Once famous, Elizabeth was able to appeal to the wealthy and influential to donate money and goods to her relief work. At her request, Charles Dickens was instrumental in assisting a young prostitute to start a new life in South Africa upon her release from prison in 1850.
Did you know?
- Elizabeth first met Charlotte Brontë in Windermere in August 1850. Later Charlotte stayed with Elizabeth in Manchester in June 1851 and for a week in April 1853, sleeping in what is now the Bronte Room at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House. She described Elizabeth as ‘kind, clever, animated and unaffected’, liked William and adored their youngest daughter, Julia. Her last visit to Manchester was in May 1854, a month before her marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls.
- Like their parents, Meta and Julia Gaskell were passionate about improving conditions for all those living and working in Manchester. They understood that culture could help to offset the effects of industrialisation on people’s lives. By becoming founding subscribers of the Manchester College of Music (later the Royal Northern College of Music) and donating generously to the Whitworth Art Gallery and the Hallé Concerts Society, they enabled more people to enjoy the arts.
- Meta gave generously to Owens College (later the University of Manchester) and was one of the nine founders of Manchester High School for Girls, the school later attended by the Pankhurst daughters.