10 July 1997

I first became a fan of Elizabeth Gaskell's works as a girl, when I read Mary Barton. Her novels are varied and brilliant, and her underrated short stories are both extremely lively and, I think, profound. Her style is so fluent that it is easy to overlook the complexities of her thought, her imagery, and the troubled, ambiguous nature of her attitude to such issues as faith, social change, or the position of women.

In the 1980s, when I wrote a short book on George Eliot, I became fascinated by the difference between her work and Gaskell's. I was also intrigued by the fact that so many women writers seemed to have to cut themselves off from commitments - like George Eliot, kept in a 'mental greenhouse' by G. H. Lewes - while Mrs Gaskell managed to write, have a family, take part in the busy work of the parish, travel, and have an extremely energetic social life. How did she do it?

From there, I plunged into the letters, edited by John Chapple and Arthur Pollard. These in turn, led me to want to write her biography. The years I spent working on this were immensely rich, both because of the nature of my subject and because so many people helped me in different ways, including the members of the Gaskell Society, especially John Chapple and Joan Leach - who showed me around Knutsford, and made me see the place through Gaskell's eyes. And I would like to salute the arrival of John's excellent, thought-provoking and wide-reaching book, Elizabeth Gaskell: The Early-Years - which no future Gaskell reader, or indeed, anyone who loves Victorian literature - can possibly do without.

It is wonderful to share this interest in a writer who is so warm, humane, funny, wise, and capable of reaching out to so many different people.

Jenny Uglow, Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories
(London: Faber and Faber, 1993)

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