Born on the 29th of September in 1810 in west London, Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson was the daughter of a Unitarian minister, William Stevenson, and his wife Elizabeth Holland, who died a little over a year after giving birth to her. She was the last of eight children born to the couple, and only one of two that survived infancy. Her older brother John was the other.
After her mother's death, little Elizabeth was sent to live with her mother's sister, Hannah Lumb in Knutsford, Cheshire, a town southwest of Manchester. The fictional town of Cranford was inspired by life in Knutsford. Though her father remarried and had two more children when she was four years old, Elizabeth continued to live with her aunt and was given a traditional education. From age 11 to 16, she studied at school in Warwickshire. Her father encouraged her in her studies, and her older brother, now in the Merchant Navy, sent her books to read and letters about his life at sea. Her stepmother's brother, miniature artist William John Thomson, created a colorful painting of her when she was 22. It has become the most recognized portrait of her in her youth. She married Unitarian minister William Gaskell that year.
The newlyweds moved to Manchester where William was an assistant minister at Cross Street Unitarian Chapel. Four daughters were born: a stillborn baby (1833), Marianne (1834), Margaret Emily, called Meta (1837), and Florence (1842). In 1845, the growing family moved to a larger house where Elizabeth gave birth to son William. The child died of scarlet fever at only nine months old. It was his death that prompted her husband to suggest writing as a way to help with the grief. She had already written a handful of short stories that were published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine and Howitt's Journal, so she took to task and began work on her first novel, Mary Barton. In 1846, a year after the loss of little William, daughter Julia was born. Four years later, the family of six moved again to an even larger house in Manchester. She enjoyed an active social life there, but traveled annually to see, not just other regions of her country, but also others in the rest of Europe.
On November 12th, 1865, she died suddenly while visiting a home in Hampshire that she secretly bought for her family's retirement. Her novel, Wives and Daughters, was published posthumously early the next year.