Open main menu

Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 21.djvu/56

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
 

Lancashire family. Within a month after her birth the child lost her mother, and after being entrusted for a week to the care of a shopkeeper's wife was by a family friend, a Mrs. Whittington, taken down to her own mother's sister, Mrs. Lumb, at Knutsford in Cheshire. This journey is represented by the travels of the ‘babby’ in ‘Mary Barton’ (chap. ix.) Her aunt, but recently married, was obliged, for painful reasons, to live alone with her daughter; and Elizabeth was to be a companion to this child, who had become a cripple. She found a second mother in her aunt, more especially after the death of her cousin. The aunt was poor, and lived in a modest house with an old-fashioned garden on the heath. She had, however, other relatives at Knutsford: her uncle, Peter Holland (the grandfather of the present Lord Knutsford), who resided there, furnished her with a type, the good country doctor, of which she was fond (see Wives and Daughters and Mr. Harrison's Confessions). As she grew into girlhood she paid some saddening visits to Chelsea, where her father had married again, but not happily. When about fifteen years of age she was sent to a school kept by Miss Byerley at Stratford-on-Avon, where she learnt Latin as well as French and Italian. Here she remained two years, including holiday times.

The quaint little country town of Knutsford, some fifteen miles from Manchester, supplied Mrs. Gaskell with the originals of her pictures of life at Cranford in her work of the name, and at Hollingford in ‘Wives and Daughters’ (see Henry Green's Knutsford, 2nd edit. 1887, where is printed a letter on the antiquarian interest of the place from Jacob Grimm, who desires his kindest regards to Mrs. Gaskell). The disappearance of her only brother John Stevenson, on his third or fourth voyage as a lieutenant in the merchant navy about 1827, suggested an episode in ‘Cranford’ (see also the paper on ‘Disappearances,’ originally published in ‘Household Words’). Her father died 22 April 1829. She occasionally visited London, staying with her uncle, Swinton Holland, in Park Lane; and spent two winters at Newcastle-on-Tyne in the family of Mr. Turner, a public-spirited unitarian minister, and another at Edinburgh (the society of which afterwards suggested the introduction of ‘Round the Sofa’). At this time her youthful beauty was much admired, and at Edinburgh several painters and sculptors asked permission to take her portrait.

On 30 Aug. 1832 she married at Knutsford Church the Rev. William Gaskell [q. v.], minister of Cross Street Unitarian Chapel, Manchester. Her marriage proved extremely happy, and her husband became the confidant of her literary life. Her ‘Life of Charlotte Brontë’ allows an incidental glimpse of her genial home, where in course of time she devoted much care to the education of her daughters. She occasionally co-operated in Mr. Gaskell's professional labours; she was ready at all times for works of charity, and gladly devoted some leisure to teaching, but otherwise, especially in later years, liked her time as well as her mind to be her own. Mr. and Mrs. Gaskell settled at Manchester, in Dover Street, whence in 1842 they moved to Rumford Street, finally in 1850 migrating to 84 Plymouth Grove. The first ten years of her married life passed uneventfully. When William Howitt announced in 1838 his intention of publishing ‘Visits to Remarkable Places,’ Mrs. Gaskell wrote offering an account of Clopton Hall, near Stratford-on-Avon. This was eagerly accepted, appeared in 1840, and is her first known publication. Family tradition recalls poems on a stillborn infant of her own and on a wounded stag, as well as the opening of a short story, probably begun even before her marriage. ‘The Sexton's Hero’ (first published in 1865) was also possibly composed before ‘Mary Barton,’ the work which made her famous. On a Rhine tour in 1841 Mrs. Gaskell first began her long intimacy with William and Mary Howitt.

In 1844 Mr. and Mrs. Gaskell visited Festiniog. Here their only boy (Willie) died of scarlet fever. To turn her thoughts she, by her husband's advice, attempted to write; and there seems every reason to conclude that ‘Mary Barton’ was at once begun. She read Adam Smith, and perhaps others of the authorities at which, in ‘North and South’ (chap. xxviii.), she humorously represents a workman as ‘tugging.’ She sent the manuscript of the first volume to the Howitts, who ‘were both delighted with it’ (Mary Howitt, an Autobiography, 1889, ii. 28). The book was finished in 1847, and offered to more than one publisher. During the usual delay Mrs. Gaskell, as she afterwards declared, ‘forgot all about it.’ Early in 1848 Messrs. Chapman & Hall offered 100l. for the copyright, and on these terms ‘Mary Barton’ was published, anonymously, 14 Oct. 1848. Its success was electrical. Carlyle and Samuel Bamford [q. v.] sent congratulatory letters. Miss Edgeworth, just before her death, spoke enthusiastically of its interest, which she sometimes felt to be too harrowing Mme. Belloc, p. 9). Landor addressed some enthusiastic verses to the ‘Paraclete of the Bartons’ (Works, 1876, viii. 255–6). Of all Mrs. Gaskell's books her earliest has enjoyed the most widespread re-