Mary Barton

Mary Barton

Mary Barton

Mary Barton


This is Elizabeth Gaskell's first novel, a widely acclaimed work based on the actual murder, in 1831, of a progressive mill owner. It follows Mary Barton, daughter of a man implicated in the murder, through her adolescence, when she suffers the advances of the mill owner, and later through love and marriage. Set in Manchester, between 1837-42, it paints a powerful and moving picture of working-class life in Victorian England.


MARY BARTON attracted critical attention from the beginning. There was general agreement that a significant new talent had appeared, but opinion about the subjectmatter, and the judgemental values expressed in the novel, ranged widely from extravagant welcome to cool hostility. That subject-matter was twofold: the provincial condition of life for workers in a metropolis that had developed in the industrial revolution, an unknown world to most readers, and the growing antagonism between the new classes of masters and men that had emerged there. The novel is therefore of its time in a special way, although like all enduring fiction it has qualities that ensure a life not limited to a time or place.

The particular circumstances of time and place relate to the period from 1837 to 1842 and the city of Manchester, a period of the growth of trade unions, of Chartism, of explosive industrial city expansion, of a shift from prosperity to extreme economic depression. Social observers had already noted the changes that were beginning to affect the social structure and social attitudes. Thomas Carlyle in Past and Present (1843) had delivered a scathing attack on the growing materialism, class antagonism and general social and cultural ugliness of the time, using Manchester as his example. The first words of his opening paragraph became a watchword for the mid-Victorians:

The Condition of England, on which many pamphlets are now in the course of publication, and many thoughts unpublished are going on in every reflective head, is justly recognised as one of the most ominous, and withal one of the strangest, ever seen in this world.

'The condition of England' was a topic of concerned . . .

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