Cranford's creator as fascinating as her work

In a triumph of quality television over the glut of reality fodder, a tale of women in bonnets thrashed I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here in the Sunday-night ratings.

In a triumph of quality television over the glut of reality fodder, a tale of women in bonnets thrashed I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here in the Sunday-night ratings.

Cranford, three Elizabeth Gaskell stories blended into one, stars Dame Eileen Atkins, Imelda Staunton, Jim Carter and Michael Gambon.

But Dame Judi Dench - one of the central characters - has said of the author behind the tales: "Nobody remembers who she was any more".

The Victorian writer was known for many years as simply "Mrs Gaskell", a prim title which masked her progressive style and subject matter.

She was a great socialist and socialite, a friend of Dickens, and risked the disapproval of her vicar husband's congregation to write about prostitution and illegitimacy. Her life was also marked by tragedy which would shape her craft and infuse it with a depth of feeling.

She was born in 1810 in Chelsea, the daughter of William Stevenson, a bookish, eccentric Unitarian minister who later worked for the Treasury in Whitehall. Elizabeth was the eighth child in 13 years, six of whom had died. A year after her birth, her mother - also Elizabeth - died at 41. The little girl known as Lily was sent off to Knutsford in Cheshire to live with Aunt Hannah. An inquisitive child, she took note of the country-town life around her, using Knutsford 40 years later as the setting for Cranford.

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Her father married again and Elizabeth felt rejected. He did not send for her for several years, and when he did, her stepmother resented her. In London, the nine-year-old was overshadowed by the couple's two children.

Elizabeth's schooling was her salvation. Surprisingly for a girl of her time, she had a good education and was encouraged to read widely and to write, and it was the start of her passion for collecting stories.

She made notes and kept journals and would press relatives to give her "details, more details" in their letters.

On the brink of adulthood, she was set back by two tragedies. Her beloved brother John was lost at sea on a voyage to India and six months later, her father died.

She longed for marriage and soon met the Rev William Gaskell. But Elizabeth's happiness was short-lived - their first child was stillborn.

She went on to have three daughters but her earlier experience scarred her and she kept a diary of her first healthy daughter's life in case she or the child died. This began her career as a writer, particularly ghost stories charged with tragedy.

Two sons came into her life briefly. One died before his birth was recorded and another died of scarlet fever at nine months. Elizabeth took to her bed and was inconsolable. Her husband encouraged her to write and three years later, Mary Barton was published, a bleak love story set in Manchester, the-then centre of great political change with the growth of the Chartist movement. Mary Barton's author was anonymous because women writers were still viewed with suspicion. Its subject matter, the appalling state of the poor in the industrial activities of the North of England, and Gaskell's empathic treatment of suffering workers in the Manchester area, awakened the nation's conscience.

She was an active humanitarian and there are messages in this and several of her other novels for the need for better understanding between employers and workers and between the respectable and the outcasts of society.

Charles Dickens admired her social realism and called her his "dear Scheherazade" - the legendary Persian queen and storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights.

Cranford started out as six episodes in a magazine he launched, before being published as a novel. He encouraged her to write more prolifically and finally the gossip and stories she had gathered over the years bore fruit.

She and her husband were now wealthy, but were living increasingly separate lives. They moved to a big house in Manchester and hired servants and someone to look after the girls. Elizabeth juggled being a wife and mother with writing, travelling and socialising, and loved London, which William detested.

She worked at a prodigious rate, but it was damaging her health - she had headaches that left her bedridden and regular fainting fits. She decided to leave Manchester for good and move to the south of England for her and William's health, but bought a house without telling her husband. Her daughters were in on the secret and were having tea with her in the house in Hampshire when she died, mid-conversation, of a heart attack. She was 55. The news had to be broken to her husband that not only had his wife died, but in a house he never knew she had bought for them.

It is interesting that secrets, including the strain of having to keep them, form a considerable part of the plot of her last unfinished novel, Wives and Daughters.

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