In November 1865, when reporting her death, The Athenaeum rated Gaskell as "if not the most popular, with small question, the most powerful and finished female novelist of an epoch singularly rich in female novelists." Today Gaskell is generally considered a lesser figure in English letters remembered chiefly for her minor classics Cranford and Wives and Daughters: An Every-day Story. Gaskell's early fame as a social novelist began with the 1848 publication of Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life, in which she pricked the conscience of industrial England through her depiction and analysis of the working classes. Many critics were hostile to the novel because of its open sympathy for the workers in their relations with the masters, but the high quality of writing and characterization were undeniable, and critics have compared Mary Barton to the work of Friedrich Engels and other contemporaries in terms of its accuracy in social observation. The later publication of North and South, also dealing with the relationship of workers and masters, strengthened Gaskell's status as a leader in social fiction. Gaskell's fiction was deeply influenced by her upbringing and her marriage. The daughter of a Unitarian clergyman who was a civil servant and journalist, Gaskell was brought up after her mother's death by her aunt in Knutsford, a small village that served as the prototype not only for Cranford but also for Hollingford in Wives and Daughters and the settings of numerous short stories and novellas. In 1832 she married William Gaskell, a Unitarian clergyman in Manchester in whose ministry she actively participated and with whom she collaborated to write the poem "Sketches Among the Poor" in 1837.
"Our Society at Cranford," now the first two chapters of Cranford, appeared in Dickens' Household Words on 13 December 1851 and was itself a fictionalized version of an earlier essay "The Last Generation in England." Dickens so liked the original episode that he pressed Gaskell for more; at irregular intervals between January 1852 and May 1853 eight more episodes appeared.
Two controversies marred Gaskell's literary career. In 1853 she shocked and offended many of her readers with Ruth, an exploration of seduction and illegitimacy prompted by anger at moral conventions that condemned a "fallen woman" to ostracism and almost inevitable prostitution — a topic already touched on in the character of Esther in Mary Barton. The strength of the novel lies in its presentation of social conduct within a small Dissenting community when tolerance and rigid morality clash. Although some Element of the "novel with a purpose" is evident, Gaskell's sensitivity in her portrayal of character and, even more, her feel for relationships within small communities and families show a developing sense of direction as a novelist. Although critics praised the soundness of the novel's moral lessons, several members of Gaskell's congregation burned the book and it was banned in many libraries. Even Gaskell admitted that she prohibited the book to her own daughters, but she nevertheless stood by the work.
The second controversy arose following the 1857 publication of The Life of Charlotte Brontë. The biography's initial wave of praise was quickly followed by angry protests from some of the people dealt with. In a few instances legal action was threatened; however, with the help of her husband and George Smith the problems were resolved without recourse to law. The most significant complaint resulted from Gaskell's acceptance of Branwell Brontë's version of his dismissal from his tutoring position (he blamed it on his refusal to be seduced by his employer's wife) and necessitated a public retraction in The Times, withdrawal of the second edition, and a revised third edition, the standard text. Despite the initial complications and restrictions necessitated by conventions of the period (Gaskell did not, for example, deal with Brontë's feelings for Constantin Heger), The Life of Charlotte Brontë has established itself as one of the great biographies; later biographies have modified but not replaced it.
During 1858 and 1859 Gaskell wrote several items, mainly for Dickens, of which two are of particular interest. My Lady Ludlow, a short novel cut in two by a long digressive tale, is reminiscent of Cranford, yet the setting and social breadth anticipates Wives and Daughters. The second work, Lois the Witch, is a somber novella concerning the Salem witch trials which prefigures Gaskell's next work, Sylvia's Lovers, by its interest in morbid psychology. Sylvia's Lovers is a powerful if somewhat melodramatic novel. The first two volumes are full of energy; they sparkle and have humor. The ending, however, shows forced invention rather than true tragedy. Regarded by Gaskell as "the saddest story I ever wrote," Sylvia's Lovers is set during the French Revolution in a remote whaling port with particularly effective insights into character relationships.
Most critics agree that Cousin Phillis is Gaskell's crowning achievement in the short novel. The story is uncomplicated; its virtues are in the manner of its development and telling. Cousin Phillis is also recognized as a fitting prelude for Gaskell's final and most widely acclaimed novel, Wives and Daughters: An Every-Day Story, which ran in Cornhill from August 1864 to January 1866. The final installment was never written, yet the ending was known and the novel as it exists is virtually complete. The plot of the novel is complex, relying far more on a series of relationships between family groups in Hollingford than on dramatic structure. Throughout Wives and Daughters the humorous, ironical, and sometimes satirical view of the characters is developed with a heightened sense of artistic self-confidence and maturity.
Gaskell was hostile to any form of biographical notice of her being written in her lifetime. Only months before her death, she wrote to an applicant for data: "I disapprove so entirely of the plan of writing 'notices' or 'memoirs' of living people, that I must send you on the answer I have already sent to many others; namely an entire refusal to sanction what is to me so objectionable and indelicate a practice, by furnishing a single fact with regard to myself. I do not see why the public have any more to do with me than buy or reject the ware I supply to them" (4 June 1865). After her death the family sustained her objection, refusing to make family letters or biographical data available.
Critical awareness of Gaskell as a social historian is now more than balanced by awareness of her innovativeness and artistic development as a novelist. While scholars continue to debate the precise nature of her talent, they also reaffirm the singular attractiveness of her best works.
(From An Encylcopedia of British Women Writers, pp. 186-187)
Last modified 1990