The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

Mary Barton – the book that divided a nation

1848 was the year of revolution.

A series of political upheavals took place across Europe.  Their aim was ostensibly to remove the old monarchical structures and create independent nation-states.

In February, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto and the second French Republic was proclaimed.

In April, the last great Chartist petition was collected with – it was claimed – six million signatures. It was to be delivered to Parliament after a peaceful mass meeting on Kennington Common in London.

In July, the first US women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls NY, organised by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott.

And in the October, Chapman and Hall published Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel Mary Barton. It was published anonymously.

Edward Chapman made some important suggestions and changes to Gaskell’s original text. One was to change the title from John Barton to Mary Barton, another was that she should write a preface to the novel.  In April 1848, Gaskell writes to Chapman wondering why she need explain herself when:

“…the events on the Continent have directed public attention to the consideration of the state of affairs between the Employers and their work people.”

Yet despite her clear knowledge of the events abroad, Gaskell was afraid to appear political, a deeply troubling perspective for a woman at that time. She tried hard to distance herself from this stance by drawing reader’s attention to home life and romantic attachments. However, the domestic can never be successfully separated from the political and therefore Gaskell’s efforts were doomed to fail, especially as Edward Chapman did not adopt Gaskell’s chosen title, ‘Mary Barton, a Manchester Love Story’, instead drawing attention to the divided nature of the text by naming it, Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life.  

Like the multi-faceted nature of this novel, the responses to Mary Barton were divided. Some hailed Gaskell as a champion of the poor; others as a traitor to her own class. In January 1849 she writes to Edward Chapman:

“Half the masters are bitterly angry with me – half (and the best half) are buying it to give their work-people libraries.” 

One of these philanthropic manufactures was Samuel Greg of Styal Mill; however, his brother, William Rathbone Greg, had a very different view. Greg criticised Gaskell for dwelling on the workers’ sufferings and ignoring the struggles of unsuccessful manufacturers. In March 1854 she writes to Emil Souvestre how Greg: ‘reviewed and abused Mary Barton and we are none the less friends’. 

Gaskell’s own aim was to emphasise the shared humanity of masters and men. She shows the variety of individuals that make up the workers: from the self-educated Job Legh, to the impoverished and desperate Davenports. Alice represents the rural workers who migrated from their homes to find employment in the cities; Mary and Margaret represent those girls who become apprenticed to dressmakers, others go into service. In Jem Wilson, Gaskell depicts the clever young engineer/inventor, the model for whom could have been William Fairbairn or James Nasmyth – both were friends of the Gaskells. 

Gaskell believed: 

from personal observation that such men were not uncommon, and would well reward such sympathy and love as should throw light down on their groping search after the cause of suffering, and the reason why suffering is sent and what they can do to lighten it…(Preface of Mary Barton).

Perhaps she was right, since in Gaskell’s first biography Haunts Homes and Stories, Alice Chadwick writes:

A working man of Oldham was so touched by the faithful story, that he showed his gratitude by making a pilgrimage  to Plymouth Grove once a year, accompanied by his children, in order to show them the house in which the author of Mary Barton lived (1913 edition, p. 159)

Diane Duffy