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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–1865)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
CRITICS agree in placing the novels of Mrs. Gaskell on a level with the works of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë. It is more than probable that future generations will turn to her stories for correct pictures of simple everyday life that must fade in the swift succession of years. She has been compared to a naturalist who knows intimately the flora and fauna of his native heath.  1
  Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson was born in Chelsea, England, September 29th, 1810, the daughter of William Stevenson, a literary man, who was keeper of the records of the Treasury. She lived with her aunt at Knutsford in Cheshire, was sent to a private school in Stratford-on-Avon, and visited London and Edinburgh, where her beauty was much admired. In 1832 she was married to the Rev. William Gaskell, minister of a Unitarian chapel in Manchester. Mrs. Gaskell did not begin to write until she had reached middle age, and then chiefly to distract her thoughts after the death of their only son in 1844. Her first book, ‘Mary Barton,’ published anonymously in 1848, achieved extraordinary success. This was a “novel with a purpose,” for Mrs. Gaskell believed that the hostility between employers and employed, which constantly disturbed the manufacturing beehive of Manchester, was caused by mutual ignorance. She therefore set herself the task of depicting faithfully the lives of the people around her. It must be remembered, too, that the social types chosen by her were at that moment peculiarly interesting to a public weary of the novel of fashionable high life. The story provoked much public discussion; and among other critics, the social economist Mr. W. R. Greg, in his ‘Essay on Mary Barton,’ published in 1849, took the part of the manufacturer. ‘Mary Barton’ has been translated into French, German, and other languages, including Hungarian and Finnish. The story has for its central theme the gradual degeneration of John Barton, a workman who has a passionate hatred of the classes above him, and who, embittered by poverty and the death of his son and wife, joins the law-breakers of the town, and finally murders Henry Corson, a master manufacturer. ‘North and South,’ published in 1855, was written from the point of view of the masters, an admirable contrast to Barton being found in Thornton, the hero of this novel.  2
  In 1850, when Dickens was about to establish Household Words, he invited Mrs. Gaskell to contribute. This magazine contained her story ‘Lizzie Leigh’ and those immortal pictures of village life known as ‘Cranford.’ Mrs. Gaskell’s other novels are: ‘Ruth,’ the tragical story of a pretty young milliner’s apprentice; ‘Sylvia’s Lovers,’ whose scene is Monkhaven (Whitby), at the end of the eighteenth century; ‘Cousin Phillis,’ a simple story of a farmer’s daughter, which appeared first in the Cornhill Magazine in 1863–64; and ‘Wives and Daughters,’ also contributed to the Cornhill, and left unfinished by her death in Manchester, November 12th, 1865. By many persons the last novel is considered her best work, owing to its strength of characterization. Molly Gibson, the heroine; Cynthia, a heartless coquette; Squire Hamley and his sons Roger and Osborne, of Hamley Hall; and the Earl of Cumnor and his family at the Towers,—all are treated with impartial skill. Her famous ‘Life of Charlotte Brontë’ appeared in 1857. She became acquainted with Miss Brontë in 1850, and they were friends at once.  3
  A collected edition of Mrs. Gaskell’s works, published in seven volumes in 1873, includes the short stories ‘The Grey Woman,’ ‘Morton Hall,’ ‘Mr. Harrison’s Confessions,’ ‘A Dark Night’s Work,’ ‘The Moorland Cottage,’ ‘Round the Sofa,’ ‘The Old Nurse’s Story,’ ‘The Well of Pen-Morfa,’ ‘The Sexton’s Hero,’ ‘Lois the Witch,’ and others. Cranford is identified as the town of Knutsford. Its population consists of widows and maiden ladies, in bonds to their ancient gentility. With deft touch Mrs. Gaskell brings out the humor and pathos of these quaint characters, her finest creation being Miss Matty Jenkyns.  4
 
 
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