Close to Home: Elizabeth Gaskell Wrote Mary Barton, Her Novel about Working-Class Life in Manchester, 160 Years Ago. It Was Written from the Heart, Says Sue Wilkes, Even Though It Angered the Mill-Owners Who Were Her Personal Friends

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'I've seen a father who had killed his child rather than let it clem before his eyes; and he were a tender-hearted man ...' Elizabeth Gaskell's novel Mary Barton caused a furore on its publication in October 1848. With its depiction of the vast gulf between the cotton masters and their 'clemmed' (starving) mill workers, 'A Tale of Manchester Life', as it was subtitled, sparked a furious debate in Cottonopolis. Was it true to life? Did Mary Barton, as its detractors claimed, exacerbate tensions between the classes rather than promote greater understanding?

Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-65) was married to the Reverend William Gaskell, a Unitarian minister. She helped her husband with his flock at Cross Street, Manchester, and witnessed first-hand working-class poverty and deprivation. She already had short pieces of work in print, including Libbie Marsh's Three Eras (1847), the story of a Manchester working girl. Gaskell began writing Mary Barton at William's suggestion as a distraction from grief after their infant son's death from scarlet fever in 1845.

The novel tells the story of John Barton and his daughter Mary, 'the light of his hearth, the voice of his otherwise silent home', after his wife's death in childbirth. John, a 'thorough specimen of a Manchester man', is shown on an ever-downward spiral of despair as unemployment and starvation take their toll. The novel draws on real events to chronicle his downfall, such as Parliament's rebuff in 1839 of the Chartists' monster petition with its million-and-a-half signatures. One of the key incidents, John Barton's murder of mill-owner's son Harry Carson, was inspired by Thomas Ashton's fatal shooting by striking workers in 1831. Ashton was the son of a wealthy Hyde mill-owner. The novel was originally entitled John Barton; the publisher suggested the change of title, perhaps unhappy with having a murderer on the title page. Mary Barton was published anonymously--Elizabeth valued her privacy, and also anticipated controversy. But her identity soon leaked out.

Mary Barton brought Manchester's everyday life onto readers' laps, engraving the reality of people's homes with precise detail. The Davenports' cellar dwelling has windowpanes 'broken and stuffed with rags'; the fireplace is 'empty and black'; the dying man lies on 'damp and mouldy straw'. The contrast with the comfortable home of the mill-owning Carson family is blunt: the house 'almost in the country ... furnished with disregard to expense'; the kitchen's 'roaring fire', the luxurious library's 'well-spread breakfast table'.

Although Mary Barton received good literary reviews and praise from Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens, the book attracted savage criticism in the Manchester Guardian and British Quarterly. It was Gaskell's depiction of mill-owners enjoying privileged lifestyles while their workers' children starved to death that hit a raw nerve. She wrote to a friend: 'My poor Mary Barton is stirring up all kinds of angry feelings against me in Manchester.' Worst of all was the reaction of the cotton masters in William Gaskell's Cross Street congregation: angry, betrayed and hurt, they lambasted the novel as one-sided.

Contemporary accounts testify to the accuracy of Gaskell's Manchester scenes. Peter Gaskell (no relation) described the houses: 'built back to back, fronting one way into a narrow court, across which the inmates may shake hands without stepping out of their own doors; and the other way, into a back street, unpaved and unsewered' (Artisans and Machinery, 1835). Dr James Kay (later Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth), a leading social reformer, wrote that the population was 'crowded into one dense mass'. The atmosphere was smoky and polluted; the streets were 'the common receptacles of mud, refuse, and disgusting ordure' (Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes, 1831). Kay deplored the lack of 'cordial sympathy' between the higher and lower classes, and warned of 'explosive violence' if the gulf wasn't bridged. …