She was born 1810 in Chelsea, London, the eighth and last child of William Stevenson and Elizabeth Holland Stevenson. Little is known of her mother except that she came of a prosperous family and died when Elizabeth was thirteen months old. Her one surviving brother, John, disappeared while in the marine service. Her father had been a Unitarian minister but resigned his orders on conscientious grounds. He had tried scientific farming, and was an editor and contributor to Scottish periodicals. Although he lived until his daughter was nineteen, she was actually raised by an aunt and cousin, Hannah and Marianne Lund, in Knutsford, Cheshire. Elizabeth was very close to her aunt and deeply loved the country town in which she grew up, and which she fictionalized in later novels such as Cranford.

Elizabeth Stevenson was educated in a fashionable school in Stratford-upon-Avon. She visited London where she nursed her father in his last illness, and visited relatives in Manchester, where she met the Unitarian minister William Gaskell, whom she married in 1832 at the age of twenty-two. He was an unusually active man in reforming and progressive causes in addition to his regular duties as a minister. Though fond of her husband, Elizabeth Gaskell complained hat he isolated himself in his study, refusing to visit with his family, and that in times of stress and public opposition to her work he was not encouraging or sympathetic. Also he controlled her earnings, which at peak were two thousand pounds per book, probably several times his own annual salary.

One year after marriage she bore a stillborn daughter, then four others--Marianne, Margaret Emily, Florence Elizabeth, and Julia Bradford; then twelve years after her marriage she bore William, who died of scarlet fever ten months after birth. Besides caring for her children, she managed a large house, gardened, kept hens and a cow, entertained frequent visitors, and interested herself in day nurseries, workers' emigration, and homes for factory girls.

Before she wrote Mary Barton, Gaskell had published a few brief articles and stories, including "Sketches Among the Poor, No. 1" in 1837. During 1838-42 the cotton industry had suffered a period of strife and distress, and when she began to write in 1845 she chose a presentation of this recession. At first the book was entitled "John Barton," but the publishers demanded a change, and perhaps the plot was somewhat revised to accord with the title. The novel was published anonymously, a frequent practice of early and mid-nineteenth-century women novelists, partially a result of the code of female modesty, but partially in awareness of reviewers' consistent denigration of women authors.

Cotton masters and some reviewers criticized Mary Barton harshly or condescendingly informed Gaskell she knew nothing of the principles of her subject, but still the novel received much praise and established her as a well-reputed novelist. She published serially in Dickens' Household Words and later in The Cornhill. Gaskell continued to write novels defining social problems, Ruth (1853) and North and South (1855), but also novels set in the countryside of her childhood, Cranford (1853) and Wives and Daughters (1865).

Gaskell's portrayal of the heroine of Ruth, an unwed mother, also drew much criticism. Since the "social problem" novel was often considered an inferior or less interesting genre, for many years Cranford was her most widely read novel. Her later novels are usually considered better in organization; she improved as an artist and relied less on authorial intrusion, melodrama, and sentimentality, and her last major work, Wives and Daughters, 1865, is often considered her best work. Even so, Mary Barton is probably the most read of her works at present and arguably the greatest condition-of-England novel of the 1840s.

After Gaskell became a novelist she travelled widely, made numerous literary friends, and maintained an extensive correspondence. One of the greatest efforts of her life was her biography of her deceased friend, Charlotte Bronte, which she researched with unusual care, but which offended persons still living who threatened legal action, Charlotte' father, and others. Considered one of the best nineteenth-century biographies, her Life of Charlotte Bronte told about as much truth about its subject as was possible to tell at the time. Gaskell died while furnishing and preparing a house for her husband's retirement; at the age of 55 she suddenly fell forward while taking tea.

There had been previous industrial novels, among them Frances Trollope's Michael Armstrong, The Factory Boy (1840) and Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna's Helen Fleetwood (1840). Disraeli's Sybil (1845) is a well-written novel but gives an outsider's, "tourist" view of the lives of the poor and argues for Disraeli's political solution of Tory reform, to be led by the Young England party of Parliament. After Mary Barton other industrial-condition-of-England novels appeared, among them Dickens' Hard Times (1854) and Charles Kingsley's Alton Locke and Yeast; but within a decade the "condition of England" novel per se went out of style and was replaced by other forms of social commentary on urban life and class differences (e. g. Eliot's Felix Holt, Gissing's The Nether World, Harkness, A City Girl).

Mary Barton was set in Manchester, a city whose population had risen from 118,000 to 354,000 in the forty years from 1801-1841. Despite some reviewers' claims that she chose extreme incidents, Gaskell sought out typical rather than extreme cases as sources for her scenes (e. g., the incident of Barton's meeting the man with a starving child). The novel is set in the years 1839-42, a period of recession and Chartist agitation; the Great Charter, the petition mentioned in the novel, was presented to parliament in June 1839. Gaskell describes her original conconception for her novel:

Round the character of John Barton all the others formed themselves; he was my hero, the person with whom all my sympathies went, with whom I tried to identity myself at the time, because I believed from personal observation that such men were not uncommon and would well reward such sympathy and love as should throw light upon their groping search after the causes of suffering, and the reasons why suffering is sent, and what they can do to lighten it (42).

Clearly Gaskell distanced herself from this entirely sympathetic attitude in the final version, which condemns Barton on many grounds, yet both responses remain intertwined and intensify the book's ideologically uneven tone and its conflicted and troubled power.