Gaskell was born Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson on September 29, 1810. Her family lived in Chelsea (now Cheyne Walk.) After her mother died when Gaskell was still a toddler, her father, William, took her to North England to stay with an aunt. He remarried, and didn’t see her again until she was twelve years old, causing her to feel abandoned. At twenty, she married William Gaskell, a Unitarian minister like her father, and moved to 1 Dover Street, Manchester. She had four daughters, and worked as a pastor’s wife among the young girls who labored long hours in the city’s cotton mills. A frequent traveler, the nature of her foreign correspondence reveals that she was a private person – she wanted the letters burned – who was more industrious and organized than passionate.
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About the Author
Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (1810–1865) was a major Victorian novelist whose works have provided readers with endless enjoyment and social historians with enormous insight into English life in the mid-19th century. Her major works include Cranford and Wives and Daughters, in addition to the first biography of her fellow novelist Charlotte Brontë.
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A MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE.
"Oh! 't is hard, 't is hard to be working
The whole of the live-long day,
When all the neighbours about one
Are off to their jaunts and play.
"There's Richard he carries his baby,
And Mary takes little Jane,
And lovingly they'll be wandering
Through fields and briery lane."
THERE are some fields near Manchester, well known to the inhabitants as "Green Heys Fields," through which runs a public footpath to a little village about two miles distant. In spite of these fields being flat, and low, nay, in spite of the want of wood (the great and usual recommendation of level tracts of land), there is a charm about them which strikes even the inhabitant of a mountainous district, who sees and feels the effect of contrast in these commonplace but thoroughly rural fields, with the busy, bustling manufacturing town he left but half-an-hour ago. Here and there an old black and white farmhouse, with its rambling outbuildings, speaks of other times and other occupations than those which now absorb the population of the neighbourhood. Here in their seasons may be seen the country business of haymaking, ploughing, etc., which are such pleasant mysteries for townspeople to watch: and here the artisan, deafened with noise of tongues and engines, may come to listen awhile to the delicious sounds of rural life: the lowing of cattle, the milkmaid's call, the clatter and cackle of poultry in the old farmyards. You cannot wonder, then, that these fields are popular places of resort at every holiday time; and you would not wonder, if you could see, or I properly describe, the charm of one particular style, that it should be, on such occasions, a crowded halting place. Close by it is a deep, clear pond, reflecting in its dark green depths the shadowy trees that bend over it to exclude the sun. The only place where its banks are shelving is on the side next to a rambling farmyard, belonging to one of those old world, gabled, black and white houses I named above, overlooking the field through which the public footpath leads. The porch of this farmhouse is covered by a rose-tree; and the little garden surrounding it is crowded with a medley of old-fashioned herbs and flowers, planted long ago, when the garden was the only druggist's shop within reach, and allowed to grow in scrambling and wild luxuriance - roses, lavender, sage, balm (for tea), rosemary, pinks and wallflowers, onions and jessamine, in most republican and indiscriminate order. This farmhouse and garden are within a hundred yards of the stile of which I spoke, leading from the large pasture field into a smaller one, divided by a hedge of hawthorn and blackthorn; and near this stile, on the further side, there runs a tale that primroses may often be found, and occasionally the blue sweet violet on the grassy hedge bank.
I do not know whether it was on a holiday granted by the masters, or a holiday seized in right of Nature and her beautiful spring time by the workmen, but one afternoon (now ten or a dozen years ago) these fields were much thronged. It was an early May evening - the April of the poets; for heavy showers had fallen all the morning, and the round, soft, white clouds which were blown by a west wind over the dark blue sky, were sometimes varied by one blacker and more threatening. The softness of the day tempted forth the young green leaves, which almost visibly fluttered into life; and the willows, which that morning had had only a brown reflection in the water below, were now of that tender grey-green which blends so delicately with the spring harmony of colours.
Groups of merry and somewhat loud-talking girls, whose ages might range from twelve to twenty, came by with a buoyant step. They were most of them factory girls, and wore the usual out-of-doors dress of that particular class of maidens; namely, a shawl, which at midday or in fine weather was allowed to be merely a shawl, but towards evening if the day was chilly, became a sort of Spanish mantilla or Scotch plaid, and was brought over the head and hung loosely down, or was pinned under the chin in no unpicturesque fashion.
Their faces were not remarkable for beauty; indeed, they were below the average, with one or two exceptions; they had dark hair, neatly and classically arranged, dark eyes, but sallow complexions and irregular features. The only thing to strike a passer-by was an acuteness and intelligence of countenance, which has often been noticed in a manufacturing population.
There were also numbers of boys, or rather young men, rambling among these fields, ready to bandy jokes with any one, and particularly ready to enter into conversation with the girls, who, however, held themselves aloof, not in a shy, but rather in an independent way, assuming an indifferent manner to the noisy wit or obstreperous compliments of the lads. Here and there came a sober, quiet couple, either whispering lovers, or husband and wife, as the case might be; and if the latter, they were seldom unencumbered by an infant, carried for the most part by the father, while occasionally even three or four little toddlers had been carried or dragged thus far, in order that the whole family might enjoy the delicious May afternoon together.
Some time in the course of that afternoon, two working men met with friendly greeting at the stile so often named. One was a thorough specimen of a Manchester man; born of factory workers, and himself bred up in youth, and living in manhood, among the mills. He was below the middle size and slightly made; there was almost a stunted look about him; and his wan, colourless face gave you the idea, that in his childhood he had suffered from the scanty living consequent upon bad times and improvident habits. His features were strongly marked, though not irregular, and their expression was extreme earnestness; resolute either for good or evil, a sort of latent stem enthusiasm. At the time of which I write, the good predominated over the bad in the countenance, and he was one from whom a stranger would have asked a favour with tolerable faith that it would be granted. He was accompanied by his wife, who might, without exaggeration, have been called a lovely woman, although now her face was swollen with crying, and often hidden behind her apron. She had the fresh beauty of the agricultural districts; and somewhat of the deficiency of sense in her countenance, which is likewise characteristic of the rural inhabitants in comparison with the natives of the manufacturing towns. She was far advanced in pregnancy, which perhaps occasioned the overpowering and hysterical nature of her grief. The friend whom they met was more handsome and less sensible-looking than the man I have just described; he seemed hearty and hopeful, and although his age was greater, yet there was far more of youth's buoyancy in his appearance. He was tenderly carrying a baby in arms, while his wife, a delicate, fragile-looking woman, limping in her gait, bore another of the same age; little, feeble twins, inheriting the frail appearance of their mother.
The last-mentioned man was the first to speak, while a sudden look of sympathy dimmed his gladsome face. "Well, John, how goes it with you?" and in a lower voice, he added, "Any news of Esther yet?" Meanwhile the wives greeted each other like old friends, the soft and plaintive voice of the mother of the twins seeming to call forth only fresh sobs from Mrs. Barton.
"Come, women," said John Barton, "you've both walked far enough. My Mary expects to have her bed in three weeks; and as for you, Mrs. Wilson, you know you are but a cranky sort of a body at the best of times." This was said so kindly, that no offence could be taken. "Sit you down here; the grass is well nigh dry by this time; and you're neither of you nesh folk about taking cold. "Stay," he added, with some tenderness, "here's my pocket-handkerchief to spread under you to save the gowns women always think so much on; and now, Mrs. Wilson, give me the baby, I may as well carry him, while you talk and comfort my wife; poor thing, she takes on sadly about Esther."
These arrangements were soon completed; the two women sat down on the blue cotton handkerchiefs of their husbands, and the latter, each carrying a baby, set off for a further walk; but as soon as Barton had turned his back upon his wife, his countenance fell back into an expression of gloom.
"Then you've heard nothing of Esther, poor lass?" asked Wilson.
"No, nor shan't, as I take it. My mind is, she's gone off with somebody. My wife frets and thinks she's drowned herself, but I tell her, folks don't care to put on their best clothes to drown themselves; and Mrs. Bradshaw (where she lodged, you know) says the last time she set eyes on her was last Tuesday, when she came downstairs, dressed in her Sunday gown, and with a new ribbon in her bonnet, and gloves on her hands, like the lady she was so fond of thinking herself."
Table of Contents
Elizabeth Gaskell: A Brief Chronology
A Note on the Text
The Composition of the Novel
- Excerpts from Gaskell’s Letters
- Parable of Dives and Lazarus
Contemporary Reviews of the Novel
- Athenaeum (21 October 1848)
- Examiner (4 November 1848)
- Christian Examiner (March 1849)
- Edinburgh Review (April 1849)
- Fraser’s Magazine (April 1849)
Social Commentary on Industrialization
- Thomas Carlyle, Chapter I, Chartism (1840)
- “EmigrationReport of the Poor-Law Commissioners on the Subject,” Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal (15 February 1840)
- Joseph Adshead, Distress in Manchester. Evidence (Tabular and Otherwise) of the State of the Labouring Classes in 1840-42 (1842)
- Leon Faucher, Manchester in 1844: Its Present Condition and Future Prospects (1844)
- Ralph Barnes Grindrod, The Slaves of the Needle(1844)
- Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845)
- Charles Kingsley, Appeal to the Chartists (12 April 1848)
- Caroline Norton, Letters to the Mob (1848)
- Morning Chronicle (Thursday, 1 November 1849)
- William Rathbone Greg, Employers and Employed (1853)
Related Fiction and Poetry
- Thomas Hood, “Song of the Shirt” (1843)
- Charlotte Brontë, Chapters 8 and 19, Shirley (1849)
- Charles Dickens, Chapter 4, Hard Times (1854)
- George Eliot, Chapter 31, Felix Holt (1866)
Chartism and Free Trade
What People are Saying About This
"The revolution urged by Mary Barton is a revolution in the emotional and mental dispositions of individuals towards each other … a thoroughly idealist enterprise."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Two men love the Mary Barton- one she has known her entire life being from the same poor neighborhood as her while the other is from a wealthy family. What should she do?Mary Barton's life doesn't go according to plan and her life is changed forever! Set in the 1840's during the industrial upheaval in England, Glaskell takes the reader on a journey through love, loss, social restrictions, death, murder, and redemption. Great cast of characters that come together to create a well written and moving story- the beautiful Mary, faithful Margret, devoted Jem, simple Job, doting John, and meddling Esther, to name a few. As a fan of Austen as well as Glaskell's 'North and South' and 'Wives and Daughters', I enjoyed this book and it did not disappoint- could not put it down! A real page turner!!
It was sitting on my bedside table for over a month and I just couldn't bring myself to finish it. Really depressing, almost Dickensian.
Not as good as North and South or Wives and Daughters; the conflicts between workers and masters was a bit trite and the poems at the beginning of the chapters were not that good and it was not as well written as a Hardy or Trollope novel, by any means.
Mary Barton is, like Elizabeth Gaskell's more famous novel North and South, set in a manufacturing town and is concerned with the wide inequities between the working and master classes. Published in 1848, this is Gaskell's first novel and sets the stage for the major concerns she would highlight in her work. This story follows Mary Barton, a young woman of the working class in the industrial town of Manchester, whose father is a vocal advocate of better conditions for the poor. Mary has two lovers: Jem Wilson, a man of the working class, and Henry Carson, the son of a prominent mill owner. When murder is done, Mary must see through her illusions and save the man she loves. But what if it is at the expense of another person she loves? The descriptions of life among the poor in Manchester are appalling, and Gaskell explores the depths of human suffering in ways that grip the imagination. I suspect I will be haunted a little by these long-gone agonies, the "clemming" of children, the despair and utter helplessness of the parents. And the hard-heartedness of Parliament, that refused to even listen to the plea of the delegates from the working class. Gaskell is always at great pains to make it clear that she knows nothing of politics and economics, but she can't help abjuring the rich to help the poor; it seems to her the only possible solution. I was saddened by the fate of Esther, counterpart to the much older and saintly Alice. Both die in end, but Alice with such a wonderful aura of peace and faith in God... Esther, the streetwalker and prostitute, in a ragged heap on the wet streets. There is a feeling of inevitability about Esther's death; is there ever a reclaimed, rejuvenated prostitute in any Victorian literature? How much more fascinating it would have been to see Esther escape her horrible life and come away with Jem and Mary to Canada. I don't know why Gaskell chose not to explore that possibility¿she is certainly sympathetic toward the plight of the ruined woman¿but Esther dies and is mourned in the way quite proper to the literature of the time. Ah well. As with her characters in Wives and Daughters, Gaskell portrays very realistic people, especially in Mrs. Wilson, Jem's mother, who is of an irritable and scolding temper. Her mother-love, her best impulses, her moments of sacrifice are given full weight in the narrative, but we also see her littlenesses and the trifles that upset her. She's very human indeed. Mary, too, is not without her faults, most notably a slight vanity and propensity for flirting. I also really liked Job Legh, that simple old man with his love for natural history and science, and the crusty Mr. Sturgis and his kind wife. Interestingly enough, for those who are familiar with Gaskell's other work, there is a Molly Gibson referenced in the story (though she never appears). Apparently it was a good enough name to be reused. Comparisons with Gaskell's better-known novels, especially North and South, are natural. It is clear that this is Gaskell's first novel; there are certain plot gaps, such as the gun (when it was clearly ascertained to be Jem's, why did no one ask him who had borrowed it of him?). And it's fairly clear who is responsible for the murder, right from the start. But this isn't meant to be a whodunit. One theme that runs throughout the novel is the idea of culpability and blame, and how it may rest not only with the perpetrator of a crime, but also with the influences that made the criminal what he is. Gaskell's sympathy is strongly with the workers; she acknowledges their wildness and their violent crimes, but asks who it was that made them that way. It's the masters, of course, and though their deeds are wicked, so are those who brought them to such extremities. But the idea of culpability is not just for masses of people; it is also personal. Mary Barton feels the weight of it when she considers that it was her rash, angry words that may have spurred Je
I have mixed feelings about this book. Some bits were really thrilling and exciting - particularly the murder trial and Mary's efforts to track down the alibi to try and clear an innocent man's name. However, the rest of it surrounding felt quite pedestrian and plodding, despite the large number of deaths due to poverty and starvation in the first few chapters. More could have been made of the worker's strike, and the injustices etc. But the central story is still enjoyable.
Mary Barton is a love story and a murder mystery but as Elizabeth Gaskell writes, the real motivation for telling the story was "to give some utterance to the agony which, from time to time, convulses this dumb people; the agony of suffering without the sympathy of the happy, or of erroneously believing that such is the case." So Mary Barton is ultimately a study of workplace relations, of the uneasy relationship between the working class and the factory owners. Gaskell builds a detailed picture of how a dispute over wages in the mills escalates: "So class distrusted class, and their want of mutual confidence wrought sorrow to both. The masters would not be bullied, and compelled to reveal why they felt it wisest and best to offer only such low wages; they would not be made to tell that they were even sacrificing capital to obtain a decisive victory over the continental manufacturers. And the workmen sat silent and stern with folded hands refusing to work for such pay. There was a strike in Manchester."It could be a dull and dreary read but the characters are drawn so beautifully and despite the 'clemming" (starving) and the death and the distress...there is a dry humour carved into some of the character descriptions. I particularly liked the character of Job, someone we would refer to these days as having a bit of an OCD. Job is at heart a botanist and likes to collect specimens of all descriptions. The account of Will Wilson, a sailor, courting Job's grand-daughter Margaret is very amusing...the bargaining chips being exotic specimens of dried fish and other sundry items from far off lands!! "Job wanted to prove his gratitude, and was puzzled how to do it. He feared the young man would not appreciate any of his duplicate Araneides; not even the great American Mygale, one of his most precious treasures; or else he would gladly have bestowed any duplicate on the donor of a real dried Exocetus. What could he do for him? He could ask Margaret to sing."This book isn't for everyone I'm sure. It may at times seem over-blown or over-done in its sentimentality. At times I felt it was a guilty pleasure - a bit like "Neighbours" for the soul. That didn't seem to worry me for some reason. I was just captivated by the account of life in Manchester in the 1840s and the characters' struggle to make their way in the face of unemployment, starvation and everything else you can think of. There is true pathos in this book. Death is a regular visitor to the point of ridiculousness - but any family historian will tell you that it sometimes seems a miracle that any of us are here today, if you study the lives of your ancestors.For my money, it was worth every cent and more. I loved it.
It was a good read. I like history and it gave a thorough vision of the reality of life of the poor.
A contemporary of Dickens, Gaskell portrays the horrors of the disenfranchised poor working class.Although she can't get away from the prejudices of her own time (she tends to talk about the poor as if they were a different species and is all amazement and wonderment when they are able to reatian their dignity) she creates some surprisignly strong, flawed and interesting female characters. I really enjored this book despite for the neatly wrapped up threads at the end (a blind girl suddenly gets "fixed".
Not an easy read. Found myself skimming through it. Not one of the more readable classics.