Interesting facts from the life of Mrs Gaskell, Victorian novelist, author of North and South
1. She wrote her first novel to console herself when she was grieving for the death of her son. The Gaskells’ only son Willie died of scarlet fever in 1845. Partly as a response to his death, Mrs Gaskell – she is still often known by the married title, although some readers now refer to her as Elizabeth Gaskell – set about writing Mary Barton, her ‘tale of Manchester life’. It was published in 1848 to huge acclaim.
2. Elizabeth Gaskell wrote an 1859 story called ‘The Half-Brothers’ which features a collie dog named Lassie. Whether this was the inspiration for the series of popular films featuring – you’ve guessed it – a collie dog named Lassie is not known. But if it wasn’t then it’s a nice coincidence. Gaskell’s Lassie even saves the day at the end of the story, much as the more famous twentieth-century Lassie would play the hero (or, rather, heroine) in a short story by Eric Knight, as well as the film Lassie Come Home (and sequels).
3. Mrs Gaskell wrote other things besides realist fiction set in the nineteenth century. The most celebrated of these is Lois the Witch (1861), a dark tale set against the backdrop of the 1692 Salem witch trials in America.
4. The first recorded use of ‘squiffy’ as a slang term for ‘drunk’ is in a letter by Gaskell written in the mid-1850s. What’s more, the first known use of the glorious word ‘sesquipedalian’ to refer to somebody who is fond of using long words is in Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1853 work Cranford. Gaskell wrote Cranford for Charles Dickens‘s periodical Household Words, and indeed, Dickens learnt much from Gaskell’s realist attention to the grimy and unpleasant realities of working-class city life: his 1854 novel Hard Times is seen as essentially Dickens’s attempt to ‘do a Gaskell novel’.
5. She wrote a biography of Charlotte Brontë. Published in 1857, two years after Charlotte’s death, The Life of Charlotte Brontë is considered among the finest of Victorian literary biographies. Fellow novelist Margaret Oliphant described it as a new kind of biography – more than this, it is ‘for every woman dropped out of sight’. Gaskell has not dropped out of sight, and her novels – especially North and South, Mary Barton, and even the unfinished Wives and Daughters – continue to recruit enthusiastic readers with each new generation. Elizabeth Gaskell herself died in 1865, aged 55, from a heart attack. In September 2010, for the bicentenary of her birth, she was commemorated with a memorial panel in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey.
Image: Elizabeth Gaskell in c. 1860, author unknown, via Wikimedia Commons.