Hello? Anyone home? Have I interrupted your reading? A thousand pardons!
Have you finished the book yet? I must say, this was my first outing with Elizabeth Gaskell’s work, but I found the tone delightful. From the very first, the humor leapt out at me. I read some lines aloud to my husband, who even found a chuckle.
Mrs. Gaskell, as she was often called by her adoring readers, began life as Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson. She did not have an easy childhood. She was the youngest of eight children, all of whom except a brother died in infancy, and her mother died a little over a year after giving birth to Elizabeth. Her grief-stricken father sent her to live with an aunt, even after he married again and had two more children. It is said the aunt’s home in Knutsford, Cheshire, was the pattern for the town of Cranford as well as Hollingford in Wives and Daughters, another of her works with which 19 Teen readers might be familiar. I couldn’t help wondering whether Miss Matty’s brother Peter wasn’t modeled a bit after Mrs. Gaskell’s brother John, a sailor in the Merchant Marine, who disappeared during an expedition to India in 1827.
At age 22, Elizabeth married a Unitarian minister like her father. Two years later, they were blessed with a daughter (Marianne), followed by Margaret in 1837, Florence in 1842, and Julia in 1846. Between Florence and Julia, Elizabeth gave birth to a son, William, who died in infancy like her siblings. It was said she felt his death so keenly that only writing would provide a solace, and her husband suggested that she try a novel rather than the short stories she had written up until then.
Her first novel (Mary Barton) was published anonymously in 1848. Though some protested the story, which deals with the working class and those who fancy themselves above and includes some darker themes, the work garnered the attention of the likes of Charles Dickens. He invited her to submit her work to his Household Words, a popular magazine. She would write Cranford for him in a series of stories, as Marissa mentioned, beginning in 1851.
But while Cranford is noted for its droll humor and delicate characterizations, Elizabeth had a strong sense of what today we would call social justice. Unlike many books published during that time, which featured the upper classes, her North and South, like Mary Barton, not only dealt with the working class but showed a marked affinity for their situations.
While her works were quite popular during her time, her literary career was not without controversy. In 1853, she dared to write a novel that openly discussed the plight of women who had been seduced and bore illegitimate children. Supposedly her readers found it quite shocking. In addition, she had met and befriended Charlotte Bronte and was asked by Charlotte’s father to write her biography. The work is heralded by many as a model for biographies, but Elizabeth was actually threatened with a lawsuit because of her depiction of some of the people in it.
She was, apparently, a warm, welcoming hostess, who was kind to the poor and loved to travel with her daughters. Sadly, Elizabeth passed away in 1865, leaving Wives and Daughters unfinished, although at enough of a stopping point that it was published posthumously.
So, what do you think of the delightful Mrs. Gaskell?
Do you see any other influences from her life in Cranford?
Have you read or seen the adaptations for Wives and Daughters or North and South? How did they compare to Cranford?
Please, chime in!