Elizabeth Gaskell was a Victorian novelist, also noted for her biography of her friend Charlotte Brontë.
She was born Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson in London on September 29, 1810, the daughter of a Unitarian minister. Gaskell was one of eight children, two of whom survived. (Her surviving brother John later went missing on a trip to India.) After her mother's early death, she was raised in Cheshire, England, where she lived with an aunt in Knutsford. Gaskell's happy memories of Knutsford would later have a key role in inspiring Cranford.
Gaskell was sent to boarding school, later going to Chelsea to care for her ailing father. In 1832, she married William Gaskell, also a Unitarian minister, and they settled in the industrial city of Manchester, her home for the rest of her life. Motherhood and the obligations of being a minister's wife kept her busy. However, the death of her only son intensified both her sense of identity with the poor and her desire to express their hardship, and Gaskell began to write.
Her first novel, Mary Barton, told the story of a working-class family in which the father, John Barton, lapses into bitter class hatred and carries out a retaliatory murder at the behest of his trade union. Published anonymously, its timely appearance in the revolutionary year of 1848 brought the novel immediate success, winning the praise of Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle.
Dickens invited her to contribute to his magazine, Household Words, where her next major work, Cranford, was serialized beginning in 1851. This, her most popular work, described her girlhood village of Knutsford and the efforts of its shabby-genteel inhabitants to keep up appearances. North and South was published in 1854.
Gaskell's work brought her many fans, including Charlotte Brontë. When Brontë died in 1855, her father, Patrick Brontë, asked Gaskell to write her biography. The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) was written with admiration and covered a huge quantity of firsthand material with great narrative skill.
Among her later works, Sylvia's Lovers (1863), dealing with the impact of the Napoleonic Wars upon simple people, is notable. Her last and longest work, Wives and Daughters (1864-66), concerned the interlocking fortunes of two or three country families and is considered by many her finest work. Gaskell died before it was finished.