Tremendously popular in her lifetime, Elizabeth Gaskell now tends to be overshadowed by the Brontës and George Eliot. Cranford (1853) and Wives and Daughters (1866) have been the most acclaimed of her works, although today Mary Barton (1848), her first novel, and North and South (1855) receive more critical attention. The two pairs of novels represent Gaskell's prevailing interests as an author: provincial life and urban issues. In all of her writing, Gaskell was concerned with how individual lives play out against the pressures of history and social life.
Gaskell was the daughter and wife of Unitarian ministers. Born in London, the infant Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson was sent, after the death of her mother, to live with an aunt in the Cheshire village of Knutsford, which would become the model for Cranford and for Hollingford in Wives and Daughters. After her father's death, she visited the urban centers of London, Newcastle, Edinburgh, and Manchester, and it was in Manchester that she met and married William Gaskell in 1832.
Out of her observations of the Manchester poor came Mary Barton, which was one of an array of novels written in the 1830s and 1840s that brought the miserable living conditions of the working poor to the public's attention. Along with Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Charles Kingsley, and Charlotte Brontë (in 1849's Shirley), Gaskell wrote of the "Condition of England." Coming from different points on the reform spectrum, these authors borrowed from the emerging field of sociology (Friedrich Engels's The Condition of the Working Class in England was first published in 1844) to document the problems of poverty with the goal of social change in mind. Although northern industrialists opposed Gaskell's representation of the exploitative rich and the working poor, and some critics charged her with overly broad characterization, Mary Barton was immediately successful and brought Gaskell fame as a writer.
With Cranford's serialization from 1851 to 1853, she became affiliated with Dickens's magazine Household Words. Something of a celebrity in England, Gaskell lent her support to raising funds for her friend Florence Nightingale's work in the Crimea in 1854. The following year, Gaskell was asked by the father of Charlotte Brontë (also her friend) to write her biography. Published in 1857, Life of Charlotte Brontë received the support of Brontë's widower but was challenged by other parties concerned in it. Despite this blot on her literary reputation, Gaskell continued to write until her sudden death in 1865, with Wives and Daughters serialized into 1866.