Elizabeth Cleghorn (I kid you not) Gaskell turned 40 on 29 September 1850; in one sense this was the latter part of her life (she was only 15 years away from her death), yet at the same time, her life as a writer was only just beginning. Her first novel, Mary Barton, had been published just two years before, and the great works for which she would be long remembered still lay ahead of her.
Following the publication of Mary Barton, Gaskell focussed initially on shorter publications. In 1850 she wrote The Well of Pen-Morfa and The Heart of John Middleton, both short stories, and the novella The Moorland Cottage. Another novella, Lizzie Leigh, though not published as a single volume until 1855, appeared in instalments during 1850 in Dickens’ Household Words. Like Mary Barton, this was a tale of a fallen woman; it challenged Victorian preconceptions of how such women should be condemned and consequently proved controversial for the time, with some members of Gaskell’s own congregation apparently burning their copies of the book.
In her personal life, Gaskell and her family moved in 1850 to their home in Plymouth Grove, Manchester, where she resided until death. She had been married to her husband William, a minister, for 18 years, and they had four daughters together, and one son whose premature death in 1845 had provided the inspiration for Mary Barton. In 1850, Gaskell was again finding real life inspiration, but this time in the form of a young girl in prison, Paisley, who would later be immortalised as Ruth (1853). But this was not an opportunistic encounter; on the contrary, Gaskell wanted to help Paisley, and wrote to Dickens for advice on how best to do this.
On the subject of Gaskell and Dickens, their work together is remembered for a rocky professional relationship, primarily because of the way she reacted to Dickens’ heavy-handed editing style. He famously changed part of Gaskell’s Cranford stories (published between 1851 and 1853), editing out a reference to his own book The Pickwick Papers ostensibly because of modesty, but doing so at such a late stage that Gaskell was not consulted in the change, and was unimpressed by the interference (suffice to say, any copy of Cranford today has the original version restored). But ultimately this is one instance in a long career of working together, and back in 1850 this relationship was still in its early days; Gaskell would publish a number of works in Dickens’ journal, including short stories (and contributions to Dickens’ Christmas numbers), the aforementioned Cranford and Lizzie Leigh, and arguably her most famous work North and South (1854-5). Thus to consider Gaskell at 40 requires reconsidering this relationship not as the difficult one it has been pigeonholed as, but a fledgling one still to bear great fruit.
As said, Gaskell at 40 was already in the last third of her life, with a heart attack in 1865 cutting off her life at the age of 55. Her writing, therefore, is not that of a young lady but a mature woman, a mother of four and wife of a minister, Mrs Gaskell was a respectable lady (in stark contrast to the scandalous Mary Elizabeth Braddon). Yet the latter end of her life secured a reputation, with great praise heaped upon her at her death as ‘the most powerful and finished female novelist of an epoch singularly rich in female novelists’. She built upon the success and reputation of female novelists before her (including of course Charlotte Bronte, for whom she posthumously acted as biographer), courting the praise of the public while still challenging their conceptions and offering more three-dimensional portraits of women. To still have this work and legacy ahead of her in 1850 is proof indeed that life can begin at 40.
Gaskell and Buckingham: Many of Gaskell’s publications can be found in their original form on the department’s flagship site Dickens Journals Online. Her novel North and South is a set text on the Victorian Fiction module.