Author Elizabeth Gaskell’s first ever novel ‘Mary Barton’ was written as a means of distracting herself from her grief over the loss of her young son. Taking inspiration from Manchester, the industrial hub where Elizabeth Gaskell was living at the time, ‘Mary Barton’ paints a fascinating yet horrifying picture of working-class life in a Victorian city. Young Mary Barton and her trade unionist father are barely getting by, and all around them people are being exploited and abused by the wealthy. While her father pursues a political path to equality, Mary is torn between marrying for love, and marrying above her social situation in order to improve her family’s fortunes. A ground-breaking novel for its’ time, ‘Mary Barton’ put the plight of the working classes front and centre – revealing the shocking cycle of poverty, starvation and death which affected so much of the population.
Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) is an enduringly popular and highly regarded English novelist. Born in Chelsea, London, Elizabeth was sent to live with her aunt in Knutsford, Cheshire after her mother died, a place which would provide inspiration for some of her most popular works, including ‘Cranford’. A sociable and lively young woman, Elizabeth married Minister William Gaskell in 1832 and settled in Manchester. An industrial hub and the scene of much political and social change, her time in Manchester influenced much of her writing. Her first novel, ‘Mary Barton’ focussed on the appalling and impoverished living conditions of those living in Northern industrial cities and was a huge success, sparking the interest of notable figures such as Charles Dickens, who invited Elizabeth to contribute to the periodicals he edited. An active humanitarian, her works dealt sympathetically with the plight of the poorest in society, and she did not shy away from controversial topics such as prostitution and illegitimacy. A close friend of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth also wrote a highly acclaimed biography of the author in 1857. Some of her best known and most loved novels include ‘Cranford’, ‘North and South’ and the posthumously published ‘Wives and Daughters’, all of which have been adapted for TV by the BBC, most recently ‘Cranford’ starring Judi Dench, Michael Gambon, and Greg Wise. Elizabeth Gaskell is regarded as one of the most important novelists of the Victorian era.