Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson was born on 29 September 1810 in Lindsey Row, Chelsea. Her father, William Stevenson, had been a Unitarian minister; but in 1797 he had resigned from the ministry and taken up farming under the direction of his friend, James Cleghorn, after whom his daughter was named. In the same year he had married Elizabeth Holland, from Sandlebridge in Cheshire. They had eight children, but only John, born in 1798, and Elizabeth survived.
The farm failed in 1801, and William Stevenson moved to Edinburgh, where he wrote newspaper and magazine reviews. He became editor of Scots Magazine in 1803. In 1804 he moved to London, where he held the post of Keeper of the Treasury Records until he died. He also contributed articles on agriculture, commerce, and navigation to various newspapers and magazines.
Mrs. Stevenson died when Elizabeth was thirteen months old, and Elizabeth was taken in by an aunt, Mrs. Lumb, in Knutsford. Knutsford was to appear in many of Gaskell's stories and novels. She would stay there for the next twelve or thirteen years and would frequently return later for respite from the turmoil of her life: "I am so much better for Knutsford--partly air, partly quiet and partly being by myself a good piece of every day."
William Stevenson remarried when Elizabeth was four. He visited Elizabeth only occasionally, and Elizabeth appeared to be unhappy when visiting him and his new wife. Although there are similarities between Gaskell's childhood and that of her subject, Brontë--they were both motherless, brought up in the north, and of a somewhat nervous temperament--Gaskell's life appears to have been more stable and happy than Brontë's.
Elizabeth attended school at Warwickshire from 1821 to 1826, first at Barford House near Warwick, then at Avonback in Stratford-upon-Avon. She also spent time in London with her father, who taught her languages, which she was later to put to good use in her travels on the Continent. After leaving school she spent most of her time at Knutsford "studying on her own," according to her recent biographer, Jenny Uglow. Her father died in 1829, and for two years she moved among relatives and friends in London, Newcastle, and Edinburgh. On a visit to Manchester in 1831 she met the Reverend William Gaskell; five years older than Elizabeth, he had been a minister at Cross Street Unitarian Chapel since 1828. They were married on 30 August 1832 in Knutsford. Outside of his pastoral duties William Gaskell was a lecturer in English literature at Manchester New College and then at the Workingmen's College, wrote articles and hymns, translated sacred verse, and served on civic committees. He took an interest in his wife's work, frequently correcting her manuscripts; she helped him with his lectures and did relief work among the poor.
Gaskell had a lively, generous, affectionate personality; her biographer Winifred Gérin describes her as having "a special quality of radiance" that made even the most shy, such as Brontë, feel comfortable with her. Gérin quotes Gaskell's friend Susanna Winkworth's initial impression of Gaskell: "she seemed always surrounded by an atmosphere of ease, leisure, and playful geniality, that drew out the best side of everyone who was in her company. When you were with her, you felt as if you had twice the life in you that you had at ordinary times."
The Gaskells had six children between 1833 and 1846. Their first child was stillborn, and their only son died of scarlet fever when he was ten, but four girls survived. Gaskell was a devoted mother--she wrote only occasionally during the early years of her marriage, but not for publication (for example, "My Diary": The Early Years of My Daughter Marianne , which was published posthumously in 1923). It was to overcome the death of her son in 1845 that she began writing seriously.
His death scarred her permanently; to this event has been linked what her biographer Annette Brown Hopkins calls "her preoccupation with death and other forms of disaster," and certainly arising from it is her great empathy for Brontë's grief over the deaths of her four sisters and brother.
Gaskell's first novel, Mary Barton, was published anonymously on 25 October 1848 and concerned the conflict between mill workers and owners. It was well received in literary circles, but the conservative press felt that Gaskell had presented a distorted picture by siding entirely with the laborers against the employers. Against these accusations she defended herself in a late-1848 letter in much the same way as she was to defend herself against accusations that The Life of Charlotte Brontë was not entirely true: "I can only say that I wanted to represent the subject in the light in which some of the workmen certainly consider to be true, not that I dare to say it is the abstract absolute truth." Gaskell worked from what she called "personal evidence." Mary Barton launched Gaskell's writing career, and she was soon invited by Charles Dickens to contribute to his new periodical, Household Words. She would write more than twenty-five stories and three serialized novels for the magazine.
Gaskell's first introduction to Brontë was through Brontë's novels Jane Eyre (1847) and Shirley (1849). Gaskell expressed uneasiness about both books, although she described them as "uncommon" and "wonderful." Mostly, like many other readers in England, she was curious about the identity of the writer, and when she received a copy of Shirley she wrote a letter of praise to Brontë's pseudonym, "Currer Bell." This letter is not extant, but Brontë's reaction to it is recorded in a letter to her editor. Gaskell's note "brought tears to my eyes. She is a good, she is a great woman. Proud I am that I can touch a chord of sympathy in souls so noble."
When the friendship between Brontë and Gaskell began, Brontë had just suffered the loss of her last sibling, Anne, and was alone in the parsonage at Haworth with her seventy-two-year-old father. Finding a replacement, both intellectual and emotional, for her writer sisters could not have occurred at a more fortunate time. Gaskell identified with Brontë's grief, having been motherless herself and having lost two children. Although she wrote to a friend on 14 May 1850 that she was "half amused to find you think I could do [Brontë] good," this objective seems to have been part of her impulse to form the friendship. Certainly it is the impetus behind The Life of Charlotte Brontë , which was written to make Brontë, as Gaskell says in a 23 December 1848 letter, "valued as one who had gone through such a terrible life." Curiosity and an instinct for a fascinating life story were also part of Gaskell's initial attraction. Although the two women discussed literary issues, Gaskell was primarily drawn to Brontë as a person rather than as an author. Indeed, Gaskell wrote in the 14 May 1850 letter that she was more interested in Shirley for "the glimpses one gets of" Brontë than for the story itself.
The five meetings between the two friends--in August 1850, June 1851, April 1853, September 1853, and May 1854--are documented in The Life of Charlotte Brontë. Gaskell wrote long letters to friends describing the visits, and she incorporates portions of these letters in her biography, thus re-creating the freshness of initial impression. There were fundamental differences between the two women in writing styles, subject matter, temperament, and beliefs; after their first meeting Gaskell wrote to Charlotte Froude, circa 25 August 1850, "She and I quarrelled & differed about almost every thing,--she calls me a democrat & can not bear Tennyson--but we like each other heartily .... and I hope we shall ripen into friends." During these visits Gaskell heard many of the sad details of Brontë's life; after the first visit she wrote on 25 August 1850 to Catherine Winkeworth, "Such a life as Miss Brontë's I never heard of before.... " Gaskell was able to observe Brontë's interaction with female friends, male visitors, children, and her father. They also engaged in conversations about religion, superstition, writing, and marriage. At the end of 1852 Brontë was proposed to by Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father's curate. She was unsure of her love for him, and her father was adamantly opposed to the marriage. This period was fraught with emotional crises for Brontë. Finally, in April 1854 she and Nicholls announced their engagement, and during Brontë's last visit with Gaskell matters of the heart were discussed fairly openly. Gaskell's portrait, which emphasizes Charlotte's nervous and somber temperament, reflects this period. But it is too simple to say that Gaskell saw only the tragic side of Brontë's life. During Gaskell's only visit to Haworth, in September 1853, the two women spent hours walking over the moors and talking before the fire. Gaskell balances the happy and the sad in her recollection of the visit: "Copying this letter has brought the days of that pleasant visit very clear to me,--very sad in their clearness. We were so happy together; we were so full of interest in each other's subjects.... I understood her life the better for seeing the place where it had been spent--where she had loved and suffered."
Brontë died on 31 March 1855. On 31 May Gaskell wrote to George Smith, Brontë's publisher, that she was thinking of writing some years hence a memoir of Brontë to "publish what I know of her, and make the world (if I am but strong enough in expression,) honour the woman as much as they have admired the writer." On 16 June Mr. Brontë wrote to Gaskell asking her to write "a brief account of [Charlotte's] life." This request had been precipitated by a letter from Charlotte's longtime friend Ellen Nussey to Mr. Brontë complaining that various writers were reporting inaccurately on Brontë's life and suggesting that Gaskell was the person best qualified to set the record right. After weighing the offer for two days, Gaskell accepted "this grave duty."
It was not unusual for a friend or relative to undertake a biography in this era; John Forster wrote a life of his friend Dickens (1872, 1874) and John Walter Cross wrote a biography of his wife, George Eliot (1885). Portraying the subject in a flattering light and writing an interesting narrative were goals of the Victorian biographer; while truth was not disregarded and faults could be pointed out, Victorian biographers subscribed to an unspoken code of ethics that involved decorum and propriety. Gaskell unabashedly admitted in an 18 June 1855 letter to Smith that with Nicholls and Mr. Brontë still living she would have to "omit a good deal of detail as to [Brontë's] home, and ... circumstances...."
The correspondence for the years from 1855 to August 1857, when the revised third edition of the biography came out, illustrates the tireless dedication with which Gaskell attacked the project. In a 26 December 1856 letter to Smith she says, "the amount of labour bestowed on the Biography, (to say nothing of anxiety in various ways,) has been more than double at least what the novel [North and South, 1855] cost me." Although sometimes called--by her and her contemporaries--a memoir, the work is much more than the rambling selection of personal reminiscences that Gaskell had first thought of writing. Gaskell wanted to honor, not flatter, and she set out to give a "right understanding," not a personal testimony. By Victorian standards The Life of Charlotte Brontë is well researched. Gaskell visited nearly every location where Brontë had been; she interviewed not just the accessible, obvious people, such as Mr. Brontë, Nicholls, and Nussey, but also traveled to London to interview Smith and to Brussels to interview Brontë's tutor, Constantin Heger. She was allowed access to Nussey's correspondence with Brontë--about 350 letters--and obtained letters from others, such as William Smith Williams, Brontë's editor at Smith, Elder and Company.
She attempted, as she said, to ascertain the truth, not simply record what Brontë had told her. For example, Gaskell was quite aware that Lowood--the school in Jane Eyre--and the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge were not identical and that Brontë's memories of the school might not have been accurate, so she visited the school, obtained records, interviewed a member of the staff and some of the former pupils, and attempted to locate the real Miss Temple. Although Gaskell was criticized at the time (and even now) for confusing fact and fiction in this section, Margaret Lane, in her corrective biography, writes that "it does not seem that [Gaskell] has been seriously unjust" in her assessment of this episode.
A personal-relationship biography carries significant weight, both negative and positive. To offset her own presence in the work, Gaskell chose to let Brontë be her own biographer through profuse use of her letters. In this respect Gaskell was following others, such as William Mason in his biography of Thomas Gray (1775) and John Gibson Lockhart in his work on his father-in-law, Sir Walter Scott (1837-1838). In the first half of the biography Gaskell had fewer letters and had to fill in Brontë's early history; but in the second half, as she wrote to Smith on 19 August 1856, she let Brontë express everything as much as possible "in her own words" because "her language ... is so powerful & living." An inherent problem in this technique is that the personality revealed in a letter tends to vary according to the recipient; in this case the recipient was Nussey, a serious, pious, martyrish woman with little interest in the arts. The "self" that Brontë chose to reveal to Nussey was only one of her many selves, but because those letters dominate the biography, so, too, does that "self"--the dutiful and often despondent Brontë. Readers have to be acute to notice the changes in temper portrayed in the few letters to Smith, Williams, Miss Wooler, and Gaskell herself. Although Gaskell was aware of this phenomenon--she wrote in a 15 December 1855 letter to Williams that "it is curious how much the spirit in which she wrote varies according to the correspondent whom she was addressing"--she does not remark on it in her biography. Modern critics tend to criticize Gaskell for what Katharine Frank calls "didactic" or "novelistic vision" in presenting Brontë as a tragic, suffering "heroine"; this view is, however, not simply imposed by Gaskell. Although largely a result of Gaskell's heavy dependence on the Brontë-Nussey correspondence which drew out the suffering and dutiful side of Brontë's character, this view reflects the social and cultural values of the Victorian period and is inherent in Brontë's own language.
The view of Brontë as a divided personality is a common one, although Gaskell, unlike more-recent biographers, mentions it only to avoid discussing it. Here she did have a predetermined thesis. Gaskell writes: "Charlotte Brontë's existence becomes divided into two parallel currents--her life as Currer Bell, the author; her life as Charlotte Brontë, the woman. There were separate duties belonging to each character--not opposing each other; not impossible, but difficult to be reconciled." Later biographers deal with this division as a crisis of creativity or a feminist struggle, but Gaskell decided to separate the woman from the author and concentrate on the former. In part, she did not think it her responsibility to engage in literary analysis, but she was also uncomfortable with Brontë's creative self. Unable to deal with the intense passion of Brontë's fiction (called "coarseness" by some Victorian reviewers of the day), Gaskell attempted to excuse it by saying that it arose "not from the imagination--not from internal conception--but from hard, cruel facts, pressed down, by external life...." Although Gaskell writes that she "cannot measure or judge of such a character as hers ... cannot map out vices, and virtues," it is mainly the vices that she finds difficult to discuss. Gaskell shows herself sensitive to many forces in Brontë's life, such as her physical environment, religion, and family, but can only speak in veiled terms of Brontë's creative energy, with its focus on passion.
The writer Charles Kingsley was so moved by Gaskell's biography, which, he said, presented a "valiant woman made perfect by suffering," that he began to read Brontë's works. But Gaskell did not make Brontë "perfect." She revered Brontë for her genius, her intelligence, her sense of duty, and her fortitude; but she points out, sometimes with a hint of frustration, Brontë's early "wild weird writing," which ran "to the very borders of apparent delirium"; her later "coarseness," which Gaskell calls "mistakes"; her inability to control her shyness, her hopelessness, and her fear of "loving too much"--which led her to restrain her own feelings.
Gaskell says in a July 1855 letter to Smith that her goal was to tell Brontë's story "distinct and delicate and thoroughly well," which suggests that she was concerned about technique as well as fact. She uses strategies she employed in her fiction, such as anecdote, vivid and poetically descriptive scenes, contrast, and emotional appeal. Gaskell's gift for describing landscape is notable in both her fiction and her biography. Such passages are more than backdrops, for she believed that environment influenced character. In the first chapter of the biography Gaskell suggests that the distant "sinuous wave-like hills" of Yorkshire and the view of the Haworth main street, which is like a "wall," affect the mind, creating an "oppressive" and "monotonous" mental state, a feeling of an "illimitable barrier." Gaskell leads the reader through this landscape into the graveyard, "terribly full of upright tombstones," and finally into the church--at which point, with an absolutely right sense of the power of simplicity, she records without comment the inscriptions on the memorials to all the dead Brontës, ending with Charlotte's, which is set apart from the others. It is a memorable beginning, evoking disaster and death.
At the basis of Gaskell's landscape descriptions is the implicit contrast between the wildness of the moors and the order of the parsonage or of the cultivated world of London and Brussels--a contrast that supports her thesis of a woman divided between lawlessness and moral purpose. Describing Emily and Charlotte in Brussels for the first time, she exclaims, "What a contrast to ["the wild Yorkshire village"] must the Belgian capital have presented to those two young women ...!" One such predilection for contrast got her into trouble: writing to Smith on 26 December 1856 about Branwell's involvement with Mrs. Lydia Robinson, she says, "I put that in [that Mrs. Robinson was enjoying London high society] ... to point the contrast of her life, & Branwell's death." Obviously, in this instance, she was less concerned with the laws of libel than she was with the techniques of narration. She had just written North and South, a novel whose theme is contrast, and that preoccupation carried over into The Life of Charlotte Brontë. Contrast as a dramatic device did not, however, necessarily distort truth. The moors, although primarily seen as wild, dark, and lawless, are recognized, as well, as the Brontës' "true home," rich with heather and radiant in the sunlight.
With an eye and ear finely tuned to the emotional content of pictorial vignettes and anecdote, Gaskell creates many moving moments. The ending of the biography, like the beginning, evokes a strong emotional response with its return to the images of parsonage, church, and tombstone that were announced in the opening chapter: "Early on Saturday morning, March 31st, the solemn tolling of the Haworth church-bell spoke forth the fact of her death to the villagers who had known her from a child, and whose hearts shivered within them as they thought of the two [Mr. Brontë and Nicholls] sitting desolate and alone in the old grey house."
Gaskell collected anecdotes from villagers and servants who recalled the deaths of Branwell, Emily, and Anne. Charlotte herself told Gaskell of one poignant moment as Emily neared death; Gaskell immortalized it in her retelling, with Charlotte's helplessness at her sister's death deftly underscored by the break in the rhythm of words: "I remember Miss Brontë's shiver at recalling the pang she felt when, after having searched in the little hollows and sheltered crevices of the moors for a lingering spray of heather--just one spray, however withered--to take in to Emily, she saw that the flower was not recognized by the dim and indifferent eyes."
The Life of Charlotte Brontë was finished on 7 February 1857, and Gaskell left for a holiday in Rome on 13 February. She was worn down by the concentrated writing, and as she usually did when one of her works was published, she wanted to escape the reviews. The biography came out on 25 March. The reviews were generally good, and both Mr. Brontë and Nussey seemed pleased with it. Mr. Brontë protested only "a few trifling mistakes," and a few months later he wrote Gaskell with high words of praise: "And my opinion and the reading World's opinion of the 'Memoir,' is that it is every way worthy of what one Great Woman should have written of Another, and that it ought to stand, and will stand, in the first rank of Biographies till the end of time...." Henry Chorley in the Athenaeum (4 April 1857) called the book a "work of Art" and repeated, at the beginning and at the conclusion of his review, that Gaskell had "produced one of the best biographies of a woman by a woman." Other reviews were equally positive. George Henry Lewes called the book "exquisite," writing Gaskell on 15 April 1857 that "the early part is a triumph for you; the rest a monument for your friend." Eliot admitted to crying over it and wrote to a friend on 16 April 1857 that "Mrs. Gaskell has done her work admirably, both in the industry and care with which she has gathered and selected her material, and in the feeling with which she has presented it." She does, however, criticize Gaskell for weakening "the effect of philippics against the woman who hurried on [Branwell's] utter fall" by attributing "Branwell's conduct entirely to remorse" rather than to "germs of vice" long since present.
Mrs. Robinson, who by then had married Sir Edward Dolman Scott, soon had these "philippics" brought to her attention. She heard that she had been identified in the biography as the "wretched woman" who had seduced Branwell Brontë, and she threatened a libel suit. None of this news reached Gaskell until she picked up her mail in Paris when she was en route home at the end of May. On 30 May William Gaskell--in the name of his wife, who was still away--was forced to print a public retraction of material concerning "a certain widowed lady." On 6 June the Athenaeum printed an editorial retracting its praise of Elizabeth Gaskell as "an accurate collector of facts" and insisted that the book be withdrawn and modified. On 16 June--exactly two years after Mr. Brontë's proposal that she write the biography--Gaskell wrote Nussey "I am in the Hornet's nest with a vengeance."
The "Hornet's nest" involved three major issues, and even today the controversy surrounding them has not been resolved. The first was Gaskell's treatment of the former Mrs. Robinson. Branwell, when a tutor for the Robinsons' son, had fallen in love with Mrs. Robinson and had been dismissed by her husband, the Reverend Edmund Robinson. Branwell hoped that his love would be reciprocated when Mr. Robinson died less than two years later, but he was rejected by Mrs. Robinson. This rejection, in Gaskell's opinion, caused Branwell's rapid decline, his abuse of opium and alcohol, and, because of their distress over his condition, the "premature deaths" of Emily and Anne. While she did not name the woman in question, Gaskell called her "depraved" and "wretched." Gaskell had been aware that this situation was potentially libelous; after a warning from Smith she had attempted to conceal the woman's identity even further. Although most critics believe that Gaskell was fundamentally correct in her assessment of the affair, she was certainly not discreet, and the reason would seem to be that she allowed her novelist side to exploit the situation. Furthermore, she was able to use the incident to imply that Charlotte's "coarseness" was a result of "what she had to bear; and what she had to hear," as she said in a 6 June 1857 letter to Kingsley.
Equally contentious were Gaskell's comments on the Reverend William Carus Wilson, who administered the Clergy Daughters' School. Gaskell acknowledges in the biography that Brontë may have taken "her conception of the truth for the absolute truth" and that it is difficult to sort out the evidence and "arrive at the truth." Nevertheless, Gaskell asserts that Wilson "certainly committed" errors, that he loved "authority," and that he ruthlessly lectured the children "on the sin of caring over-much for carnal things," thereby excusing the substandard food and sanitation at the school. Although she concludes that Brontë presented only one side in Jane Eyre and that Wilson did have a "noble and conscientious" side, Wilson and his son threatened a libel suit. A debate over the school took place in the newspapers, with letters from Wilson, from former students and from Nicholls who adamantly defended his wife's and Gaskell's position. When Gaskell rewrote this section for the third edition, she withdrew some of the more critical personal comments and also said that she had only heard Brontë refer to the school on one occasion. Gaskell had gleaned some of her information from Jane Eyre, although she had attempted to corroborate it by testimony from a laundress and some of Brontë's former fellow pupils. It seems quite clear that Gaskell, as she herself asserted in the 16 June 1857 letter to Nussey, "did so try to tell the truth"; and Alan Shelston notes in his edition of The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1975) that most of her accusations as to "the harshness of the regimen" and problems of sanitation have been "verified."
The third major issue was the question of Mr. Brontë's eccentricities. Although at first he called them only "trifling mistakes," he asked Gaskell to remove from the third edition the instances of his refusing meat to the children, sawing up chairs, burning the hearth rug, and cutting up his wife's silk gown. Some of these anecdotes Gaskell apparently got from a nurse who had been discharged, and they may have been exaggerated or misinterpreted; but the Haworth villagers supported this view of Mr. Brontë's eccentric personality, and he never denied most of the stories. Gaskell maintained that Charlotte told her the story about the silk gown and that it was verified by Nussey and another friend.
A fourth issue--the most controversial of all--did not surface until years after Gaskell's death. It concerned Gaskell's handling of Brontë's two years in Brussels and her affection for her tutor, Heger. Although as early as 1877 Brontë's next biographer, T. Wemyss Reid, implied that her novel Villette (1853), with its story of love between a tutor and his pupil, held the answer as to why Brussels was the turning point in Brontë's life, it was not until Brontë's letters to Heger were turned over to the British Library by Heger's son in 1913 that biographers were made aware of the strength of Charlotte's love for her tutor. It appears that Gaskell knew of the circumstances, saw the letters, and chose to cover up the "affair" because she felt that it reflected badly on Brontë's character and because she wanted to protect Heger. Gaskell manipulated portions of two of the four letters to suggest only a pupil-teacher relationship. She had to explain, however, why Brontë was so depressed during her last months in Brussels and why she returned home so suddenly; she did so primarily by distorting the time sequence of Branwell's troubles. Although Gaskell emphasized Branwell's deterioration as the cause for Brontë's return, she did mention "various reasons" such as Mr. Brontë's failing eyesight, Brontë's homesickness, her growing disgust with the Catholic environment, and her estrangement from Madame Heger. While these explanations were not entirely falsifications (although Branwell's and Mr. Brontë's illnesses were exaggerated), by eliminating Brontë's growing attachment to Heger, Gaskell did not represent the whole truth as she knew it. The aims of truth, confidentiality, and honor clashed in this case, and Gaskell's sensitivity to the feelings of the Hegers and to Brontë's father and husband exacted some compromise.
The Life of Charlotte Brontë came at the midpoint of Gaskell's career. The works she wrote afterward--five novels and thirteen stories--were apolitical and unprovocative, unlike the social novels of her first period. The biography no doubt made her wary about dealing with topical events, but it also increased her understanding of the complexity of character. Sylvia's Lovers (1863) deals with unfulfilled love and martyrish suffering, and its sad, passionate tone seems to echo Brontë's life.
Gaskell considered writing a biography of Marquise de Sévigné, whose correspondence with her daughter during the period of Louis XIV charmed her, but it never materialized. She continued to be busy with her family and social duties, including the tireless relief work she and her daughters did for the impoverished cotton workers in 1862-1863. In this period Gaskell showed great maturity and control in her writing, and many judge Wives and Daughters (1866), her last work, to be her finest. She used the earnings from this book to buy a retreat for her husband, whose health worried her. Gaskell died on Sunday, 12 November 1865, at her newly bought home, the Lawn, in Hampshire. She had gone there with some of her family (but not her husband, for whom the house was to be a present) to tend to the last of the refurnishing and to rest. She was buried in her favorite place, Knutsford, in a modest, private funeral.
In her lifetime her fiction was popular and well received, although she never achieved the intellectual brilliance of Eliot nor the passionate energy of the Brontës. As a classic of Victorian biography, The Life of Charlotte Brontë has been ranked alongside Lockhart's Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Bart. (1837-1838), Forster's The Life of Dickens (1872-1874), and James Anthony Froude's Thomas Carlyle (1884). Clement Shorter, an early Brontë critic, even wrote in 1896 that Gaskell's work "commands a place side by side with [James] Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson [LL.D., 1791]."
Generally speaking, though, Gaskell scholars such as Arthur Pollard, Coral Lansbury, and Angus Easson consider the biography more satisfactory than do Brontë scholars, who judge it primarily for its historical veracity. Although Brontë scholar Tom Winnifrith calls it "a classic of English biography," he blames Gaskell for being "the prime source of the fatal blurring of fiction and fact which has bedevilled Brontë studies." This comment points out the uneasy marriage between the literary and historical components of biography. Whatever their position, however, every biographer of Brontë acknowledges the force of Gaskell's work.
The Life of Charlotte Brontë, begun with such honorable intentions, ended in a "hornet's nest" of claims of defamation and threatened libel suits. At the height of the controversy Gaskell wrote to Nussey, "I did so try to tell the truth, & I believe now I hit as near the truth as any one could do. And I weighed every line with all my whole power & heart, so that every line should go to it's great purpose of making her known & valued, as one who had gone through such a terrible life with a brave & faithful heart." The subtle proviso in her statement is significant: she told the story as truthfully as anyone could--at that time, in that place, given the circumstances of living relatives and given the implicit Victorian code of ethics; for what is missing one has to look ahead 110 years to Gérin's biography. But the richness of incident and emotion that makes The Life of Charlotte Brontë so enduring is a testament to Gaskell's sympathy with people, power of observation, and love of storytelling.
From: Mitchell, Barbara. "Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell." Nineteenth-Century British Literary Biographers, edited by Steven Serafin, Gale, 1994. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 144.