Elizabeth Gaskell Manuscript Collection

Scope and Content

The collection includes letters from Charles Dickens to Elizabeth Gaskell; an autograph manuscript of Dickens' A Child's Dream of a Star; over 200 letters collected by Mrs Gaskell from contemporary writers, politicians and other notable persons; letters of William Makepeace Thackeray and Walter Savage Landor; and original manuscripts of The Grey Woman and Wives and Daughters (both published in 1865). The Library also holds manuscripts of Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) and The Crooked Branch (1859); autograph letters from Charlotte Brontë and Patrick Brontë to Mrs Gaskell, and other manuscripts relating to the Brontë family; a portrait miniature of Mrs Gaskell by W.T. Thomson; and Mrs Gaskell's ink-stand, paper-knife and other personal possessions.

Administrative / Biographical History

Elizabeth Gaskell was born Elizabeth Stevenson at Lindsey Row, Chelsea on 29 September 1810. Her father, William Stevenson, was a keeper of the records to the Treasury in London and a writer on commercial topics; earlier in his life he had been a Unitarian minister. Soon after her birth, Elizabeth's mother died and she was sent into the care of her aunt, Mrs Lumb, at Knutsford in Cheshire. Elizabeth Gaskell was much influenced by her early life at Knutsford which was to be the model for her novel, Cranford (she also based Hollingford in Wives and Daughters on it). At fifteen she was sent to school at Stratford-upon-Avon, where she remained for two years.

In 1832 she married the Reverend William Gaskell, minister of Cross Street Unitarian Chapel in Manchester. The marriage proved a happy one; the Gaskells originally lived at Dover Street, Manchester, before moving to Rumford Street in 1842 and finally to 84 Plymouth Grove in 1850. Her first-known publication, an account of Clopton Hall, was published in 1840. In 1844, after her son Willie died during a visit to Festiniog, Elizabeth Gaskell turned to writing to overcome her grief, beginning work on Mary Barton . The book was finally completed in 1847 and was published anonymously by Chapman and Hall in 1848. It enjoyed immediate success, winning plaudits from many leading literary figures, and it was translated into a number of different languages. However Gaskell had also aroused controversy by her unfavourable portrayal in the novel of the employing class in Manchester, some of whom attacked her in the press.

Charles Dickens had been especially impressed by Gaskell's debut, and he invited her to contribute to his new journal, Household Words in 1850. The first number, published on 30 March 1850, included her short story Lizzie Leigh. She contributed frequently to this and other journals in coming years, writing stories in a number of different styles. In 1853, Mrs Gaskell published her second novel, Ruth, and this was followed by her humorous portrait of provincial life, Cranford, in the same year (this work had originally appeared in Household Words between 1851 and 1853). One of her most important works, North and South, was published in Household Words between September 1854 and January 1855, and was reproduced in a single edition in the latter year. This was a less emotive and more deeply characterised novel of contemporary social conditions, for which Gaskell had undertaken a great deal of research in the Lancashire area.

After the publication of this novel, Mrs Gaskell moved into the new area of biography. She had met Charlotte Brontë in 1850, and they became firm friends, despite considerable differences of personality. After Brontë's death in 1855, Mrs Gaskell agreed to write her life, which she worked on intensively until it was published in 1857. Certain comments made in the book, based on conversations between Gaskell and Brontë, aroused great controversy, and Gaskell was forced to retract the statements in the columns of The Times, and to withdraw all the unsold copies of the first edition on the grounds that they were libellous. Despite these setbacks, her portrait of Charlotte Brontë was considered a success. Gaskell temporarily reduced her literary output after this controversy, and she spent time travelling on the Continent and working on various philanthropic causes, especially during the Cotton Famine of 1862-3. In 1863 she published Sylvia's Lovers, followed by Cousin Phyllis. Her last work, Wives and Daughters, was published in the Cornhill Magazine between August 1864 and January 1866. It was reprinted as an unfinished work in the following February. In November 1865 Mrs Gaskell died suddenly of a heart attack at her country home at Holybourne, Hampshire. She was buried at the Unitarian chapel in Knutsford, where her husband was also laid to rest in 1884. A collected edition of Mrs Gaskell's works was published in seven volumes in 1873.

Source: Jenny Uglow, 'Gaskell , Elizabeth Cleghorn (1810-1865)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. By permission of Oxford University Press - http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/10434.

Access Information

The collection is available for consultation by any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

Donated to the John Rylands Library by the executors of Miss M.E. Gaskell, October 1936.


Description compiled by Jo Klett, project archivist, with reference to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article on Elizabeth Gaskell.

Other Finding Aids

Recorded in published handlist of English Manuscripts (English MSS 726-734, 876-877); other material recorded in unpublished card catalogue of University MSS.

Alternative Form Available

Alternative form: published microfilm: Elizabeth Gaskell and Nineteenth-Century Literature: Manuscripts from the John Rylands University Library, Manchester (Woodbridge: Research Publications, 1989).

Separated Material

Elizabeth Gaskell's papers have been widely dispersed. The Brotherton Library, Leeds University has some letters and literary manuscripts including Sylvia's Lovers; there are also letters and literary manuscripts at Princeton University Library. A summary version of Mary Barton is held by the Victoria & Albert Museum, National Art Library, (ref.: Location Register of English Literary MSS 18-19th cent 1995 48.E.23).

Related Material

See also the Elizabeth Gaskell Printed Collection held at The John Rylands Library, which includes first editions and association copies of many of her writings.


For Eng MSS 727 and 731-734 see also Ross D. Waller, Letters addressed to Mrs Gaskell by celebrated contemporaries (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1935). .