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She was born in Chelsea, London. After her mother died, she lived with her aunt in Knutsford, Cheshire. She married William Gaskell, a priest, in 1832. They lived in Manchester, where several of her books are set. She died of a heart attack in Holybourne, Hampshire.
Her most famous books are Mary Barton, Cranford, North and South, and Wives and Daughters. She also wrote a book of the life of her friend, writer Charlotte Brontë. Some of her books have been made into movies and television programmes.