Elizabeth Gaskell Biography: Birth, Childhood, & Education

Gaskell Blog © Katherine C.

At Belle Vue House in Chelsea, London on the 29th of September 1810, Elizabeth Cleghorn was born into the Stevenson family. She was named after her mother and a friend of her father, James Cleghorn, who was a writer and farmer.

She had a brother, John, who was older by twelve years. There are no records of the Stevenson’s having other children in between the births of John and Elizabeth but some sources say Gaskell was their eighth child so it may be assumed her mother, Elizabeth, suffered miscarriages. She must have been relieved at how ‘remarkably strong’ her daughter was.

Knutsford photographed in the late Victorian era, Gaskell grew up here; it's was the inspiration for Cranford

About a year later her mother passed away and her cousin, Marianne –the daughter of Hannah Lumb, suggested they take care of little Elizabeth or ‘Lily’ as she was known. She reassured the father that she would try to be a mother to her. So Elizabeth went to live in the small town of Knutsford at Heathside (a Georgian style home; most were Tudor style of Knutsford) and was tenderly taken care of by her Aunt and cousin.

Tragically Marianne died ‘of a days illness’ six months later in Halifax, West Yorkshire. It’s something of a mystery as to what exactly she was doing in Halifax but we’ll save speculation of that and the background story of the Lumb’s for another post.

Elizabeth Gaskell in 1832, painted by her step-uncle and famous miniature painter, William John Thompson

When Elizabeth was four her father married Catherine Thompson. One of her brothers, William John, would later paint the famous miniature portrait of Elizabeth and the other, Anthony Todd, was married to Katherine nee Byerley, the youngest of three sisters (Jane and Frances, called Fanny) whose school was located in Barford and which eleven year old Gaskell would study at.

Before her formal education began her learning had been fostered by her Aunt and the family had a wonderful collection of the Classics, which she had access to. She had a love for poetry and shared the favorite poet of Jane Austen, William Cowper. Scott, Pope, and Goldsmith were also very admired.

The bridge over the Avon which leads into Barford. Photo © Flickr User, click image to view their gallery

The Byerley’s school curriculum included English, Geography, History, Dancing, Music, Drawing, Languages, particularly French and Italian, and Arithmetic.  Barford left an impression on Gaskell, it appears in two of her stories Lois the Witch and My Lady Ludlow and with it’s charming village and countryside it’s easy to understand why.

Barford also lead to her correspondence with George Eliot, she was delighted with the accuracy of her portrayal of Warwickshire. Three years into her education the school relocated to Stratford-upon-Avon, roughly ten miles away.

Edinburgh Review, one of the magazine's that Gaskell's father contributed to

Her youth was surrounded by writers. Two of her teachers later became authors:Katherine of a social satire novel, Constance and Fanny (published by her married name Mrs. William Parkes), Domestic Duties or Instructions to Young Married Mothers on the Relations and Duties of Married Life, which may have been slightly teased of in Gaskell’s style of writing Cranford. Her father, William, in addition to being the Keeper of Treasury Records for Whitehall, edited and wrote for various magazines.

Her brother, who constantly kept in touch with his sister, later tried to publish a work, the rejection of which caused him to confide to Elizabeth in a letter that ‘he may stay in India.’ He had been destined for the Royal Navy, as was the custom on the paternal side of the family but had no entry and so went into the merchant navy with the East India Company. It was still a great shock when he was reported missing and it may be that he was truly lost at sea, died, or carried out his intention of staying in India.

When her formal education ended June 1826 she spent the Winter with her father in London where he continued to teach her adding Latin to her studies. His health declined and she was with him to the last when he died of a stroke in the Spring. She doesn’t seem to have liked her step-mother, Catherine very well.  Perhaps she was something like Mrs. Gibson of Wives and Daughters, she wrote to Hannah Lumb saying how improved Elizabeth was since she last saw her and that:

Victorian Manchester

I could easily see that he felt proud of his daughter… I shall ever love Elizabeth as my own child

After her fathers death she spent time in Knutsford and with other friends and relations, which eventually leads her to Manchester and us into the next post on her Marriage, Children, and Society that is coming in a few weeks.


“Brief account of Life and Works.” The Gaskell Society. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Oct. 2010. <http://www.gaskellsociety.co.uk/life.html&gt;.

Chapple, John. Elizabeth Gaskell: The Early Years. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2009. Print.

Handley, Graham. An Elizabeth Gaskell Chronology (Author Chronologies Series). New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.

Hubbard, Susan . “Elizabeth Gaskell.” Literary Warwickshire. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2010. <http://www.literarywarwickshire.com/page5.html&gt;.

Wright, Edgar. “Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (DLB).” The Gaskell Web. Laurentian University, n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2010. <http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-DLB.html&gt;.


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