She was born in 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.
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.