The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

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Online Talk: Song of the Shirt

Wednesday 4 October, 2023, 7:00 pm - 8:00 pm BST


With fingers weary and worn,

With eyelids heavy and red,

A woman sat in unwomanly rags,

Plying her needle and thread—

Stitch! stitch! stitch!

Thomas Hood wrote the famous poem The Song of the Shirt (1843), in response to a newspaper report about a widow and seamstress named Mrs Biddell who was forced, like many seamstresses of her day, to work for a pittance on which she could barely survive. So how can the poem help us better understand Elizabeth Gaskell’s popular novel Mary Barton? Victorian public opinion was both shocked and titillated by reports that seamstresses might be forced into prostitution by poverty. How were these concerns reflected in contemporary literature? Dr Ingrid Hanson looks at the figure of the seamstress, the reality of destitution and Victorian sexual politics in this insightful talk.