She was born Elizabeth Stevenson in London in 1810. Her mother died when she was a child. Much of her childhood was spent in Cheshire, where she lived with an aunt at Knutsford, a town she would later immortalise as Cranford. She also spent some time in Edinburgh. Her stepmother was a sister of the Scottish miniature artist, W. J. Thomson, who painted a famous portrait of Elizabeth in 1832. In the same year, she married a Unitarian minister, William Gaskell (who had a literary career of his own), and they settled in Manchester. The industrial surroundings would also offer inspiration for her novels. The circles in which they moved included religious dissenters and social reformers, including William and Mary Howitt.
Mrs Gaskell's first novel, Mary Barton, was published anonymously in 1848. The best-known of her remaining novels are Cranford (1853), North and South (1855), and Wives and Daughters (1865). She was a friend of Charles Dickens, and wrote a biography of Charlotte Bronte.
Mrs Gaskell today ranks as one of the most highly-regarded British novelists of the Victorian era.