Elizabeth Gaskell, 1810-1865

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A novelist, she married a Unitarian minister at Manchester and in 1848 published anonymously her first book, Mary Barton, in which the life and feelings of the manufacturing working classes are depicted with much power and sympathy. Other novels followed, Lizzie Leigh (1855), Mr. Harrison’s Confessions (1865), Ruth (1853), Cranford (1851-3), North and South (1855), Sylvia’s Lovers (1863), etc. Her last work was Wives and Daughters (1865), which appeared in the Cornhill Magazine, and was left unfinished. Mrs. G. had some of the characteristics of Miss Austen, and if her style and delineation of character are less minutely perfect, they are, on the other hand, imbued with a deeper vein of feeling. She was the friend of Charlotte Bronté (q.v.), to whom her sympathy brought much comfort, and whose Life she wrote. About Cranford Lord Houghton wrote, “It is the finest piece of humoristic description that has been added to British literature since Charles Lamb.”

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CRANFORD (153 KB)  
Fiction, England, social life and customs, 19th century
Based on stories from her childhood, Gaskell offers an ironic commentary on early victorian life in a country town. Cranford has charm, humor, and pathos without sentimentality, and no purpose other than to present and regret the passing of a community whose values are worth recalling. Cranford is the name of a small, imaginary town in the north-west of England. The narrator, Mary Smith, describes the lives of Cranford's inhabitants with affection and amusement. It is mostly "ladies" who rule Cranford -men are not much in evidence- and these ladies have a great many social rules. For example, it is very important to visit newcomers to the town, and people must never talk about anything that matters because there is no time to do it. Another strange thing about Cranford is that there are not many men about. The ladies in the town are quite old and they are not interested in men ... or that is what they say.


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MARY BARTON (348 KB) 
Fiction, England, social life and customs, 19th century
She won instant recognition with her first novel, Mary Barton (1848), which shocked readers with its revelations about the grim living conditions of Manchester factory workers and antagonized some influential critics because of its open sympathy for the workers in their relations with the masters; but the high quality of the writing and the characterization were undeniable. (Its accuracy as social observation has been compared to the work of Friedrich Engels and other contemporaries by critics such as John Lucas.) At the same time it presented a new world, the world of Lancashire factory people, making them the main characters and using their dialect (judiciously modified) for the dialogue.

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