Giving Nineteenth Century Women Writers a Voice and a Face — Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell [née Stevenson] (1810–1865)

Although the ladies of Cranford know all each other’s proceedings, they are exceedingly indifferent to each other’s opinions. Indeed, as each has her own individuality, not to say eccentricity, pretty strongly developed, nothing is so easy as verbal retaliation; but, somehow, good-will reigns among them to a considerable degree.

The Cranford ladies have only an occasional little quarrel, spirited out in a few peppery words and angry jerks of the head; just enough to prevent the even tenor of their lives from becoming too flat.

Elizabeth Gaskell
Cranford (1851)

The above quotation from Cranford, suggested by Dr. Elizabeth Ludlow, crystallizes Gaskell’s desire to show the union of the new England with old Victorian values. Dr. Ludlow is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the Anglia Ruskin University and author of several articles in the Gaskell Journal.

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell was greatly influenced by her Unitarian family, later marrying a Unitarian minister. Her faith combined with a firm belief in social duty and reform constituted the central force in her life. She wrote novels and short stories depicting the lives of many strata of society, including the very poor, often incorporating the use of dialect into her writing. Her first novel, Mary Barton, published anonymously in 1848, was an immediate success, winning the praise of Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle. She went on to write Cranford and North and South. Cranford, a series of episodes in the lives of three women in the fictional town of the same name, was first serialized in the magazine Household Words, edited by Charles Dickens, beginning on December 13, 1851. The 1900 volume, featured in our exhibit, includes an introduction by Anne Thackeray Ritchie, another nineteenth-century writer.

Charlotte Brontë, yet another nineteenth-century writer and author of the well-known Victorian novel Jane Eyre, was a friend of Mrs. Gaskell, and when Charlotte died in 1855, her father, Patrick Brontë, asked Mrs. Gaskell to write her biography. The biography, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), made use of a huge quantity of firsthand material and was skillfully written.

 In addition to editions of the two books, Cranford (1900) and The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) authored by Mrs. Gaskell, the ABL owns two letters addressed to Elizabeth Gaskell. One letter is from John Ruskin, a famous English author and art critic, assuring her regarding the selection of an architect for the London Law Courts. The other letter points to Mrs. Gaskell’s influence even in America. It is a letter from Maria Weston Chapman of Boston, thanking Mrs. Gaskell for “her beautiful contributions” and presenting her with a copy of the 1856 The Liberty Bell, an abolitionist annual. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “A Curse for a Nation” was published in that edition.

The ABL also owns Poems and Translations by Elizabeth Gaskell Holland, Elizabeth Gaskell’s sister-in-law. Her book of poetry is available online at the 19th Century Women Poets page of the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections site. Holland’s book includes a poem celebrating Elizabeth Gaskell’s marriage.

Melinda Creech

One thought on “Giving Nineteenth Century Women Writers a Voice and a Face — Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell [née Stevenson] (1810–1865)

  1. Notes and Queries:

    What was Elizabeth Gaskell’s “beautiful contribution” referred to in the January 15, 1856 letter from Maria Weston Chapman?

    What was Elizabeth Gaskell’s connection to the selection of an architect for the London Law Courts as mentioned in the [ca. 1865] letter from John Ruskin?

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