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The diary of Mrs Gaskell

Published 16 March 2012

Extract from the diary of Elizabeth Gaskell

This month we commemorate Mothering Sunday on 18 March by showcasing the diary of Elizabeth Gaskell, the 19th century novelist and short story writer.

Mrs Gaskell is perhaps best known for the Cranford novels, which were recently adapted for television by the BBC to much acclaim.

She dedicated her diary to her daughter Marianne, to be given to her as "a token of her mother's love, and extreme anxiety in the formation of her little daughter's character". Seemingly, her intention was for Marianne to use the diary as some kind of instruction manual in her adult years: "If that little daughter should in time become a mother herself, she may take an interest in the experience of another".

Mrs Gaskell's own life was touched by tragedy and family breakdown. Born Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson in 1810, her mother died when she was just a year old, and she went to live with a maternal aunt, Hannah Lumb. Lumb's own daughter, also named Marianne, died a year later, aged 21. Elizabeth chose to stay with her aunt after her father's remarriage and came to regard her as "my more than mother".

Elizabeth married William Gaskell in 1831, and together they had several children. Marianne was almost six months old, their eldest surviving daughter, when Mrs Gaskell started her diary. She begins by first attempting to describe her daughter's character, which was "remarkably good tempered; though at times she gives way to little bursts of passion or perhaps impatience would be the right name".

The last diary entry is in October 1838, by which time she had another daughter, Margaret Emily (known as Meta), whom she describes as "A most generous little creature, always ready to give away eatables not so generous as to her play things". She ends with "May God help both my dear children".

Mrs Gaskell's diary and other material, such as her literary manuscripts and correspondence, is available for consultation in the Special Collections reading room. Contact us to arrange a visit.

Catalogue reference: Brotherton Collection Manuscripts: 19c Gaskell/ MS 3