BOOK REVIEW / Heaven: strawberries and cream for ever: Sue Gaisford reads a new and thorough life of the remarkable Victorian Mrs Gaskell: Elizabeth Gaskell: A habit of stories - Jenny Uglow: Faber pounds 20

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'OH MRS GASKELL - fearful - fearful] If I were Mr G, O Heaven how I would beat her]' That's what the ungrateful Dickens thought about a woman who had contributed, in the previous year alone, 11 long articles to his magazine Household Words, besides publishing two full-length novels and, incidentally, running a household of her own which included four tricky daughters. Mr G did not beat her. The evidence suggests that, in common with virtually everyone else who knew her, he marvelled at her.

You really do have to take your hat off to her. Had telephones been invented, her bill would have been colossal. As it was, she dashed off letters daily to a wide circle of friends detailing the tremendous business of her life. A morning in 1857 began like this:

'Now in this hour since breakfast I have had to decide on the following variety of important questions. Boiled beef - how long to boil? What perennials will do in Manchester smoke & what colours our garden wants? Length of skirt for a gown? Salary of a nursery governess - & stipulations of a certain quantity of time to be left to herself. - Read letters on the state of Indian army - lent me by a very agreeable neighbour & return them, with a proper note, & as many wise remarks as would come in a hurry. Settle 20 questions of dress for the girls, who are going out for the day & want to look nice & yet not spoil their gowns with the mud &c &c - See a lady about an MS story of hers, & give her disheartening but very good advice. Arrange about selling two poor cows for one good one, see purchasers, & show myself up to cattle questions, keep, & prices - and it's not half past 10 yet]'

She was clearly a woman of many talents and much energy. Jenny Uglow's huge biography has a breathless air of galloping to keep up with its subject, but now and again it catches her, pins her down and elicits her secrets. One of these seems to have been an ability to immerse herself in whatever she was up to, with total absorption. People who found her irritating, stubborn or erratic generally forgave her because she was so clearly deeply interested and always completely involved. 'When you were with her,' Susanna Winkworth recalled 'you felt you had twice the life in you . . . No one ever came near her in the gift of telling a story. In her hands the simplest incident became picturesque and vivid.' The same Susanna also said that the only person she ever met who could talk more quickly was the Prussian ambassador.

We think of her now as the author of Cranford and the biographer of Charlotte Bronte, though precious few of today's children will ever read either. They should, and it is greatly to the credit of this book that its reader - or this one anyway - really wants to get hold of her other books too. Ms Uglow analyses and discusses them all with enthusiasm and skill. Although this makes for an urwieldy book (nearly 700 pages), it is hard to see how these critical passages could have been cut. More than most writers, Mrs Gaskell's life was very closely bound up with her work. Like Jane Austen before her, she vould write away at home, frequently having to put aside her manuscript because of interruptions. In Mrs Gaskell's case, though, it was often the children: 'The little ones come down on us like the Goths on Rome, making inroads and onslaughts into our plans.'

She was married to a busy and well-known Unitarian minister, William Gaskell, who was himself a poet and the author of some 70 hymns. She relied on him to check her work, seeing 'the rules of syntax as the province of men, a kind of straitjacket on the spontaneity of women'. In return, she helped him with his Sunday school, which had more than 400 pupils, and worked hard to support him through the hardships brought about by the Corn Law riots and the cotton famine that struck Manchester during the American Civil War.

Every aspect of her life appeared in her novels. The first was Mary Barton, written as therapy after the death of her only son. It dealt passionately with the poverty brought about by greedy mill owners and caused huge controversy because of its honesty in portraying the suffering of the workers. For Dickens, the problem was the large number of death-bed scenes: 'I wish to Heaven her people would keep a little firmer on their legs,' he grumbled. The second, Ruth, which dealt with prostitution, was publicly torn up by several angry Manchester parishioners. She began to dread her reviews.

It was Cranford that made her popular. Based on her childhood memories of Knutsford, it is full of memorable characters, a comic masterpiece of anecdote. Those who lived there recognised several incidents: the cow who fell into the lime-pit and was given a flannel waistcoat and drawers; the two old ladies whose servant had to hop over the white parts of their new carpet to keep it clean; the carriage full of dressed-up dogs driven out daily for exercise. It was her favourite, too. Long after it was published she was still rejoicing in 'Cranfordisms', such as the old girl who explained her orthographic difficulty with the gnomic utterance: 'I have never been able to spell since I lost my teeth.'

Charlotte Bronte was a gift. Like Mrs Gaskell's, her mother had died young and her father was, well, unusual. (Reverend Bronte put a loaded pistol into his pocket every morning, for example). They were good friends, though Charlotte found that after the 'liveliness and gaiety' of the Gaskell menage 'Haworth Parsonage is rather a contrast'. The Life of Charlotte Bronteis masterly: sympathetic, well-researched and sometimes surprisingly discreet, it opened a path happily trodden by countless succeeding biographers.

Jenny Uglow sometimes calls her Lily, as her friends did, sometimes Elizabeth and sometimes, sternly, Gaskell. It is only a little quibble, but in the welter of other Elizabeths and Gaskells, such nomenclature can be a confusing irritation. Apart from that, her book is admirably thorough and presents a wonderful kaleidoscope of the hectic enthusiasm that was Mrs Gaskell's life. She died suddenly, in mid-conversation, in her fifties. We are left to hope that she got her wish and that Heaven, for her, was 'a place where all books and newspapers wlll be prohibited by St Peter: and the amusement will be in driving in an open carriage to Harrow, and eating strawberries and cream for ever'.

(Photograph omitted)