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Gaskell, Elizabeth

mill mary charlotte henry

(British, 1810–65)

Elizabeth Gaskell was brought up by her aunt in the Cheshire village of Knutsford, later marrying William Gaskell, a Unitarian minister like her father. Her life with her husband brought her into close contact with the poor of Manchester, and it is her sympathy for them that inspired her first novel, Mary Barton (1848). The heroine is the daughter of a trade union activist, John Barton, who is chosen to kill Henry Carson, son of one the local employers, as a warning to the hard-hearted mill-owners. Henry Carson happens to be an admirer of Mary's. On one level, the novel is a pageturning romance; on another, it describes the plight of the workers in the industrial north graphically and movingly, based on Elizabeth Gaskell's first-hand observations and experiences. North and South (1855) similarly blends good story-telling with political insight, and concerns the clergyman's daughter, Margaret Hale, reluctantly falling in love with the stern, self-made, northern mill-owner, John Thornton. Cranford (1853) is a little different, being a series of affectionate, gentle stories about the inhabitants of a village (based on Knutsford). Ruth (1853), on the other hand, is a tragic story of a single mother. Wives and Daughters (1864–6) charts Molly Gibson's development from insecure girl to confident young woman, and takes in a wide range of classes and characters along the way. Few Victorian writers combine human interest with social issues so entertainingly, and fewer still demonstrate such a strong humanitarian desire for greater understanding between employers and employees. Gaskell also wrote a fine biography of her friend Charlotte Brontë.

Charles Dickens (Hard Times), Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot  SA

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