The Gaskell Society Journal
Volume 3 (1989)

Elizabeth Gaskell's Manchester (1)

Alan Shelston

'Manchester': from George R. Catt, The Pictorial History of Manchester, n.d. (1843)

My title today will bear two interpretations. On the one hand - and this would be particularly appropriate in that we are meeting here in Cross Street Chapel - 'Elizabeth Gaskell's Manchester' might refer to the city in which she herself lived and worked, many of whose monuments we can still see today. The original Cross Street Chapel has sadly gone but 'th'owd church' as she calls the cathedral, then the collegiate church, in Mary Barton, of course still stands. Cross Street itself was undergoing distinctive improvements in the 1830s, the years when the Gaskells were settling into their Manchester life, and if we walk through King Street into Mosley Street we pass the site of the old Town Hall, now demolished and replaced by Lloyd's Bank, and then the Bank of England, built in 1845, the year when Elizabeth Gaskell began Mary Barton. Going through Spring Gardens we come out opposite the Portico Library, of which of course Mr Gaskell was a leading member, and, turning down Mosley Street, we come to the City Art Gallery - in the Gaskells' time the Manchester Royal Institution, with the Athenaeum just round the corner in Princess Street. Just a stone's throw away, in Cooper Street, was the Mechanics' Institute, where blind Margaret Jennings was asked to sing to demonstrate the lectures of a musical professor. Might that musical professor have been a colleague of 'Monsieur Hallé', who by 1850 was conducting concerts at the Concert Hall in Lower Mosley Street? Much of Victorian Manchester has gone, but much remains, even if overshadowed by newer and larger-scale building, and one of the privileges of living in Manchester is that one can walk around the city and feel so closely in touch with its nineteenth-century past. This, as I say, is the city that Elizabeth Gaskell would have known, and if we define it in terms of its principal buildings we need to remember that they reflect it as a city of cultural and intellectual vibrancy, supporting, for example, not only a library like the Portico, but its Literary and Philosophical Society, its Theatre Royal - again, a building of 1845 - and, a little later, its Free Trade Hall, built in 1856 as a triumphant focal point for the city's culture.

Mosley Street, Manchester, 1824 (The Portico Library is in the left foreground, and the view looks towards St. Peter's Church, now no longer standing.)

And yet very little of the Manchester I have been describing finds its way into Elizabeth Gaskell's novels. Hence my suggestion that my title has an alternative interpretation. Her personal experience as the wife of a leading figure of Manchester life would have brought her into contact with the 'business' Manchester centred on King Street and the Exchange, and with the cultural Manchester of the great institutions, and we know from her correspondence how much she valued her friendships in Manchester society. But if we read her Manchester fiction, and in particular the early stories and Mary Barton - North and South is a rather different case - we get a very different 'Elizabeth Gaskell's Manchester'. What we get there, of course, is the Manchester of the courts and alleys that no longer appear in the guidebooks, and that indeed have disappeared altogether. The names remain: Green Heys, Ancoats, Ardwick Green; Store Street, which runs up by London Road, now Piccadilly, Station, and London Road itself, to which John Barton hurried to find a druggist's shop where he could buy relief for the suffering workman.

I am concerned in this paper primarily with the Manchester of Elizabeth Gaskell's fiction. And it is not difficult, of course, to see why it should focus not on the Manchester of her own social and cultural milieu but on that other Manchester - the Manchester of the mill operatives and their families that she came to know through her charitable work as a minister's wife. She explains quite explicitly in her 'Preface' to Mary Barton where her fictional sympathies lie:

I bethought me how deep might be the romance in the lives
of some of those who elbowed me daily in the busy streets
of the town where I resided. I had always felt a deep
sympathy with the care-worn men, who looked as if doomed
to struggle through their lives in strange alternations
between work and want ('Preface', p.37).(2)

Her purpose was expository: to lay before those citizens of the 'other' Manchester - the Manchester of business and cultural achievement - as well as before a wider world, the realities of that hidden Manchester whose 'woes', as she says, 'pass unregarded by all but the sufferers' (p.38).

Pollard and Kennedy's Mills, Ancoats-Lane, Manchester, C.1830

When the Gaskells came to Manchester in 1832 they were coming to what, over the next decade, was to be the most talked about and the most written about city in the land. The most discussed city in the western hemisphere, one might say, since it attracted commentators not only from London, but from the major countries of Europe. The German commentator Friedrich von Raumer made three separate visits to Manchester in 1825, 1836 and 1841; his earlier impressions are recorded in his England in 1835, an extensive travel book. He was followed by another and now more famous German, Friedrich Engels. Engels was to become an adoptive Mancunian of course, but in the first instance he lived here for less than two years, from 1842 to 1844. During that time he drew extensively on his knowledge of Manchester for his book The Condition of the Working Class in England, first published in Germany in 1845. There has been an extended and often acrimonious debate about the reliability of Engels's work, but its descriptions of Manchester poverty cannot be discounted, and neither can its analysis of class relations in the city. Engels has his blue plaque on a university residence behind Oxford Road; when he lived there he was only a few hundred yards from where the Gaskells then lived, in Dover Street on the opposite side of the Oxford Road. There is no record of their ever having met although it's worth remembering that Elizabeth Gaskell had an entrée to the German community, amongst whom Engels spent his time, via her friends the Salis Schwabes. There were a number of visitors from France, most famously perhaps the great travel writer Alexis De Tocqueville, who visited the city for seven days only in 1835, but left us a graphic description of it, but also the journalist Leon Faucher, who visited Manchester in 1844 and left a far more substantial record of his experience. These were to be followed by another French commentator, Hyppolite Taine. It was not only foreign observers who came, however; Manchester was a symbol of all that was new, and it attracted writers from London - Dickens, of course, and Disraeli of the novelists, and men like Angus Bethune Reach, writing for the Morning Chronicle, whose investigations collected under the title Manchester and the Textile Districts in 1849, give us very detailed information about living conditions in the Manchester that the Gaskells knew. And to all this, of course, we can add the accounts of the insiders: James Kay-Shuttleworth, writing in 1832, the year of the Gaskells' arrival in the city, of The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes Employed in the Cotton Manufacture in Manchester, Peter Gaskell (no relation) also writing in the eighteen thirties, and the Irishman, William Cooke Taylor.(3) I intend to refer to the work of some of these writers in the course of this paper. Finally we have Elizabeth Gaskell's fiction, and I hope to show what extra dimension she offers to our understanding of the Manchester of the 1830s and 1840s.

St. George's Church, Hulme, 1830 (The foundation stone was laid in 1826, and the church consecrated in 1828.)

The reason, of course, for all this journalistic activity was Manchester's status as a symbol of the new industrialism. Other cities had developed in similar ways as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, but none had done so so dramatically or with such evident dynamism. Gaskell pays her own tribute to this in North and South, where the southerners, Margaret Hale and her father, come ultimately to admire the energy of the northern business community in which they find themselves. Margaret, Gaskell tells us, 'liked the. exultation in the sense of power which these Milton men had'.(4) What particularly impressed the earlier commentators were the simple physical manifestations of the new industrialism, its impact on the landscape, and above all the sense of hitherto unrealised extremes - of the way in which industrial achievement polarised human experience as never before. Here, for example, is De Tocqueville's famous description of his first view of Manchester as he approached it from its rural surroundings:

An undulating plain, or rather a collection of little hills.
Below the hills a narrow river (the Irwell), which flows
slowly to the Irish sea. Two streams (the Medlock and the
Irk) wind through the uneven ground and after a thousand
bends, flow into the river. Three canals made by man unite
their tranquil lazy waters at the same point. On this watery
land, which nature and art have contributed to keep damp,
are scattered palaces and hovels. Everything in the
exterior appearance of the city attests the individual powers
of man; nothing the directing power of society. At every
turn human liberty shows its capricious creative force.
There is no trace of the slow continuous action of government.

Thirty or forty factories rise on the tops of the hills I
have just described. Their six stories tower up; their huge
enclosures give notice from afar of the centralisation of
industry. The wretched dwellings of the poor are scattered
haphazard around them. Round them stretches land
uncultivated but without the charm of rustic nature and still
without the amenities of a town. . . . Some of [the] roads are
paved, but most of them are full of ruts and puddles into
which foot or carriage wheel sinks deep. . . . Heaps of dung,
rubble from buildings, putrid, stagnant pools are found here
and there amongst the houses and over the bumpy, pitted
surfaces of the public places. . . . Amid this noisome labyrinth
from time to time one is astonished at the sight of fine
stone buildings with Corinthian columns. . . . But who could
describe the interiors of those quarters set apart, home of
vice and poverty, which surround the huge palaces of
industry and clasp them in their hideous folds? On ground
below the level of the river and overshadowed on every side
by immense workshops, stretches marshy land which widely
spaced muddy ditches can neither d rain nor cleanse.
Narrow twisting roads lead down to it. They are lined with
one-storey houses whose ill-fitting planks and broken
windows show them up, even from a distance, as the last
refuge a man might find between poverty and death.
Nonetheless the wretched people reduced to living in them
can still inspire jealousy of their fellow beings. Below
some of their miserable dwellings is a row of cellars to
which a sunken corridor leads; twelve to fifteen human
beings are crowded pell-mell into each of these damp,
repulsive holes.(5)

The New Bailey Prison, Salford, from Lancashire Illustrated, 1831.

Let me pause for a moment to say something about the way a documentary description like this fills out some of the details of Elizabeth Gaskell's fiction. In Mary Barton she too introduces her readers to Manchester by way of its rural environs - in the opening pages the Barton and Wilson families are shown returning from a holiday walk in Green Heys Fields. But in the novel the presence of the families in fact humanises the scene, softens it indeed: rural pleasures are set in direct contrast to urban pressures. In De Tocqueville's account we see the countryside taken over by urban sprawl - the effect is one of spoliation and blight. We have to remember of course that Gaskell is writing ten years later. Manchester was a rapidly developing city and as it created its problems, so it did its best to solve them. A footnote by the translator in Faucher's account of Manchester of 1844, for example, gives details of the arrangements made for the sweeping of the streets and assures us - or rather Faucher who had seen fit to question them - that 'All streets in the township, paved or unpaved are to be swept when they require it' and that the 'scavenging department' has now provided for the purpose a machine, consisting of 'a number of brushes, in a horizontal position, attached to an endless chain, thrown over pulleys, which are turned by pinions on the axle-tree of the cart'. As a result of this Manchester, which 'was formerly one of the dirtiest towns in the kingdom', is now 'decidedly the cleanest large town in the kingdom'.(6) It is thus reasonable to expect that some of the conditions described by De Tocqueville would have improved, but Gaskell's description in Mary Barton of the visit paid by John Barton and George Wilson to the cellar-dweller Davenport suggests that there were still plenty of parts that the sweeping machine failed to reach. She is graphic in her description ; when she describes the gutter as being full of 'household slops of every description' (ch.6, P.98) her readers would have taken the point of her emphasis. De Tocqueville spells it out specifically though and again I think we get from his description a fuller sense of the actual chaos of uncontrolled urban development. His account of the 'fine stone buildings with Corinthian columns' rising up almost unpredictably amongst the squalor provides an important adjustment that we need to make when we see those same buildings set in modern well-paved streets. But the most important contrast between Elizabeth Gaskell's accounts of Manchester in her fiction and what we have here is that what she as a resident of her city takes as the normal condition of daily life De Tocqueville as a visitor is astonished by. He goes on:

Look up and all around this place you will see the huge
palaces of industry. You will hear the noise of furnaces,
the whistle of steam. These vast structures keep light and
air out of the human habitation which they dominate; they
envelope them in perpetual fog; here is the slave, there the
master; there the wealth of some, here the poverty of most;
there the organised effort of thousands produce, to the
profit of one man, what society has not yet learned to give.
Here the weakness of the individual seems more feeble and
helpless even than in the middle of a wilderness; here the
effects, there the causes.

A sort of black smoke covers the city. The sun seen
through it is a disc without rays. (One remembers at this
point Mrs Gaskell's reference to the 'cloud of smoke' which
Mary Barton sees hanging over the city as she leaves on
her journey to Liverpool in search of the evidence that will
save her lover.) Under this half-daylight 300,000 human
beings are ceaselessly at work. A thousand noises disturb
this damp, dark labyrinth, but they are not at all the
ordinary sounds one hears in great cities. . . .

From this foul drain the greatest stream of human
industry flows out to fertilise the whole world. From this
filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most
complete development and its most brutish; here civilisation
works its miracles, and civilised man is turned back into a

De Tocqueville focusses here on the extremes of Manchester experience, and above all on the paradox at the heart of its industrial success - 'here civilisation works its miracles, and civilised man is turned back into a savage'. And of course this paradox has an explicitly political dimension; Manchester was famous for its industrial triumphs, but it was remembered by Elizabeth Gaskell's contemporaries as the city of Peterloo. 'In all hearts that witnessed Peterloo,' wrote Thomas Carlyle, 'stands written, as in fire-characters . . . a legible balance-account of grim vengeance . . . payable readily at sight with compound interest! Such things should be avoided as the very pestilence.'(8) Mary Barton is posited on this paradox 'How little does the rich man know/Of what the poor man feels' and it addresses itself, by way of Barton's murder of Mr Carson, very melodramatically to the political dimension. Elizabeth Gaskell, in her account of the horrors of Manchester poverty, never pulls her punches. Nevertheless the rhetoric of commentators like De Tocqueville and Carlyle stands in apparent contrast to her stiller and smaller fictional voice. Where the commentators offer a public overview, in highly dramatic terms, Elizabeth Gaskell gives us the insight of an insider, speaking from within the city that these commentators have come to see.

* * * * * * * * * *

We should now consider the Manchester fiction more closely. Mary Barton, of course, is the novel that I am primarily concerned with, and I should say straightaway that North and South seems to me altogether a different case. It was certainly born, like Mary Barton, of Elizabeth Gaskell's Manchester experience, and it has always been seen as her attempt to redress the balance after leaning so heavily towards the case of the workers in the earlier novel. That in itself is an over-simplification, and in fact in North and South she so fictionalises her setting that were it not for the fact that it is by her I wonder whether we would identify it as being set in Manchester at all. She gives the city a fictional name - Milton Northern - and the descriptions that she offers of her settings - the bleak streets to which the Hales come to live, and Mr Thornton's mill, where he lives on the premises - might apply to any Northern cotton town. There is no mention in North and South of any distinctly Manchester institutions, far less the kind of geographical detail that we have in Mary Barton; apart from the fact that Gaskell knew the background rather more intimately than Dickens her fictional city of Milton Northern in fact stands to Manchester much as Dickens's Coketown does to Preston in Hard Times. At any rate I doubt whether we can extract much about Gaskell's Manchester from it. Far more to the point is the short story Libbie Marsh's Three Eras, published just before Mary Barton in Howitt's Magazine in 1847.

Libbie Marsh's Three Eras, like her other Manchester story, Lizzie Leigh, demonstrates in microcosm the intimacy of insight that informs Elizabeth Gaskell's method - her capacity for reporting from the inside - in Mary Barton itself. It is an unpretentious story about a working girl who is moved by the plight of a crippled child living opposite her first to give him a canary, and then a day out on a Bank Holiday. The boy dies; in the last of the three 'eras' we see Libbie comforting his mother, and in doing so finding her own purpose in life. What distinguishes even such a simple tale is Gaskell's insight into the psychology of her characters; what gives it credibility is her direct evocation of the realities of working-class life. As in Mary Barton she identifies a specific Manchester location in her opening paragraphs, 'No 2 Court, Albemarle Street' is where Libbie Marsh has come to live. It is 'rather more out of town' than her previous lodgings in 'Dean Street' from which it is reached after a weary journey. The house where Libbie Marsh has come to lodge, we are told, 'was the last one on the left-hand side of the court. A high dead brick wall connected it with its opposite neighbour. All the dwellings were of the same monotonous pattern, and one side of the court looked at its exact likeness opposite, as if it were seeing itself in a looking-glass' (p.460).(9) Gaskell is describing territory that she knew, and she skilfully relates it to the experience of her characters. This specificity about matters of location authenticates the experience in the story; as it develops its holiday theme she describes the parties going to 'this or that railway station, or to the boats that crowd the canals on this bright holiday week' (p.472), and then the journey - difficult for the crippled child - to Knott Mill to take the canal boat to Dunham where they are to enjoy their day's outing. Here again Gaskell shows her knowledge of the context - part of the pleasure of the holiday is making plans for it, and there is a good-humoured debate amongst the working people about the relative merits of Dunham Park and Alderley Edge. The popularity of these areas for Bank Holidays for the Manchester working class is something that we can read of in the slightly later writings of Edwin Waugh; in one of his essays of the 1850s Waugh describes taking the train to Bowdon, and walking out to Rostherne, and then all the way back, along the Chester Road, to Manchester.(10) The pioneer historians of industrialism, J L and Barbara Hammond, stated categorically that the working-classes in this period had no opportunity for leisure at all, and one would have expected the pressure of long and regular working hours to have told against it.(11) We know though from local authors like Samuel Bamford and Ben Brierley that the wakes and fairs tradition survived the pressures of factory industrialism, and it is to the point that in both Libbie Marsh and Mary Barton Gaskell uses the contrast of holiday pleasure to point up the day to day rigours of working life. Anyway Libbie opts for Dunham and the day there gives her the opportunity to offer a different perspective on the city itself:

They had taken Franky there to show him Manchester, far
away in the blue plain. . . . Far, far away in the distance, on
that flat plain, you might see the motionless cloud of smoke
hanging over a great town, and that was Manchester - ugly,
smoky Manchester; dear busy, earnest, noble-working
Manchester; where their children had been born, and where,
perhaps, some lay buried; where their homes were, and
where God had cast their lives, and told them to work out
their destiny (p.477).(12)

Distance would seem to lend enchantment to the view - this is again a very softened panorama when we compare it with De Tocqueville's description. Libbie Marsh's Three Eras, like Mary Barton, is a tribute to the values of working-class community; what Elizabeth Gaskell's fiction reveals - and what an outside observer cannot show because he cannot know them from experience - are the human qualities that sustain the city-dwellers through even their darkest trials.

When we come to Mary Barton we find the techniques of Libbie Marsh deployed on a much larger scale. Gaskell's concern is with community values, and these she locates in a city which is a known and knowable community. In this respect it is interesting to compare her Manchester to Dickens's London. The Dickens city is one which, like the city of Elizabeth Gaskell, is known from the inside; he too, in novels like Oliver Twist and the later Bleak House, identifies the familiar landmarks and the less familiar street names to authenticate the experience he describes. But the Dickens city is one in which the reader as well as the characters ultimately gets lost - that is the symbolic point of Dickens's proliferation of metropolitan detail. In Gaskell's case it works rather differently. After that opening day's outing in Green Heys Fields the families return across the city, first to the Barton home in 'Barber Street' which, since it lies between Green Heys and Ancoats where the Wilsons are ultimately bound, must have been, one suspects, somewhere in the cluster of working-class dwellings at the back of Oxford Road. Gaskell names all her locations as if talking to someone who will be completely familiar with them. Mary Barton becomes a sempstress at Ardwick Green, to which of course she walks from her home, and when Harry Carson hangs about near the street where she lives his social status makes him singularly out of place. The Davenports, the poor cellar-dwellers, live in Berry Street, an unpaved street off Store Street; to obtain money for their relief John Barton visits a pawn-shop in the London Road. The outcast Aunt Esther gives her address to Mary herself as 'Angel Meadow, 145, Nicholas Street' (ch.21, p.298). The real Angel Meadow was in one of the most notoriously squalid districts; there is a certain black irony to its name. The Carsons, as befits their social status, live two miles out of town, 'almost in the country'. (Engels described how in Manchester the superior classes all lived on the fringes of the city, and how too the main roads were laid out in a way that effectively concealed from them the squalor that lay behind them. 'Anyone who knows Manchester', he says, 'can infer the adjoining districts from the appearance of the thoroughfare, but one is seldom in a position to catch from the street a glimpse of the real labouring districts' (13) - his point is one which underlies Gaskell's whole purpose in Mary Barton.) Harry Carson meets his death in 'Turner Street', a short-cut to his own garden-door. If one tries to find all these locations in the contemporary street directories and ordnance survey maps one is not always successful. To take the simple case of Carson's mill, for example, Gaskell describes it as being located on lone of the oldest thoroughfares in Manchester' in a part of the town where 'the first cotton mills were built, and the crowded alleys and back streets of the neighbourhood made a fire there particularly, to be dreaded' (ch.5, p.87). My hunch would be that this is Deansgate, since the first cotton mills were located in an area on the Manchester bank of the Irwell, but while she fails to identify the street itself she also tells us that a 'narrow back lane called Dunham Street ran along the end of the mill'. The only Dunham Street in the 1845 Street Directory of Manchester though is defined as being located in Hulme off the Stretford New Road. Similarly her 'Turner Street' cannot be the one in the same directory, which is located at the top of High Street, and is thus far too central in the city for it to afford access to the Carson's garden, as we are told it does. But the point of the detail, of course, and of the way it is so unassertively part of Elizabeth Gaskell's fictional rhetoric is that it establishes the authority of her insider's view. Mary Barton is very explicitly 'A Tale of Manchester Life', as the sub-title has it - consider, as a final example, John Barton's attempt to trace his sister Esther, which he relates to his listeners just as the author relates her story - intimately, and with the sense that the listener will know exactly what he is talking about:

I even went to a policeman, a good enough sort of a man. . . .
I believe he asks other policemen; and one on 'em had seen a
wench, like our Esther, walking very quickly, with a bundle
under her arm, on Tuesday night, toward eight o'clock, and
get into a hackney coach, near Hulme Church. (ch.l, p.46)

That could have been the very beautiful and distinctive church of St George, Hulme, built 1826-8 and still standing, but now sadly locked and no longer in use. Tombstones in its graveyard testify to its military connection with the Hulme barracks which were situated nearby. Esther's tragedy, is literally a tragedy of the Manchester streets: released from the New Bailey prison on the Salford side of the Irwell, 'the door closed behind her with a ponderous clang, and in her desolation she felt as if shut out of home - from the only shelter she could meet with, houseless and pennyless as she was, on that dreary day' (ch.14, p.207).

Esther's story raises a further point of topicality about Mary Barton. Barton's trust in the policeman - 'a good enough sort of man' - reflects an attitude to the Manchester police that is diffused throughout the novel. The Manchester streets are in fact policed by an effective and humane force; when the outraged Jem Wilson strikes Harry Carson the incident is observed by a beat constable who is in turn respectful to the mill-owner's gentleman son - 'Shall I take him to the lock-ups for assault, sir?' - and generous in his advice to Jem: 'Take care, my man!' he says, 'there's no girl on earth worth what you'll be bringing on yourself if you don't mind' (ch.15, p.230). Here Gaskell is reflecting a very recent development; the Manchester Police force was a creation of the 1840s, brought into being by the County Police Act of 1839, and by the end of the decade, under its Chief Constable, Captain Willis, it had achieved a high reputation for efficiency. In 1847 Willis was able to claim in his official report that, during the five and a half years in which he had been in office, 'there has been a considerable decrease in crime, and a marked general improvement in the orderly conduct of the population', and this despite the deterioration of trade, and the prevalence of 'commercial distress'. In a comment that has obvious implications for Mary Barton itself Willis concludes:

I attribute the absence of violence of late, on the part of
the working classes, and the rarity of strikes, very much to
the greater spread of intelligence among them. I think that
many of them are now convinced that such conduct only
adds to their sufferings, and injures themselves more than
their employers.(14)

Not only are there Policemen on the beat in Mary Barton, there is an active detective force. Dickens's Inspector Bucket in Bleak House is usually regarded as the first Police detective in literature, but Gaskell anticipates Dickens by some five years when she introduces the detective who traps Jane Wilson into revealing the ownership of the gun that has killed Harry Carson. 'There is always', she says, 'a pleasure in unravelling a mystery, in catching at the gossamer clue which will guide to certainty. This feeling, I am sure, gives much impetus to the police.' (ch.19, p.273) This kind of fascination with the romance of detective work is something we associate with a later literary generation, and it is interesting. to find it this early in a socially realistic novel. Gaskell shows her detective as both humane and apparently successful. As Esther says, a little later, 'the police are so cute about straws'. This is a very early instance of literary detection and it is precisely topical. What the sociologists call 'social control' was a major problem in the expanding Victorian cities, and the pervasive presence of the police force in Mary Barton is a very accurate reflection of an important contemporary development.

Elizabeth Gaskell, then, is a novelist of the city's interiors, knowing its streets and courts from the inside as only a local resident could. But above all, of course, she is the novelist of domestic interiors; she knows not only the streets from the inside, but the insides of the houses that form them. Her purpose is to draw attention to the gulf that divides rich and poor; she does so by showing the contrasts in the domestic lives of her city dwellers. I have referred already to the dreadful cellar-dwelling of the Davenports, the poorest workers in her novel; it is from there that Wilson goes to Mr Carson's, in search of the hospital order that he needs to save the dying man. Gaskell deliberately takes her time to show the life-style of the Carsons; their leisured ease is in direct contrast to what we have seen earlier. Carson's 'is a good house, and furnished with disregard to expense' but it is certainly not gratuitously self-indulgent; 'there was much taste shown, and many articles chosen for their beauty and elegance adorned his rooms'. The Carsons are making a leisured breakfast, the father reading a newspaper and his son a review, and they are joined by the youngest daughter who as 'she was too young to go to the assemblies' is the first of the daughters to come down (ch.6, p.105ff.). Gaskell is not critical of the life-style as such; it would indeed have been familiar to her from her acquaintance with the Manchester business and cultural scene. I said at the outset that little of this world finds its way into the novels, but in her description of the Carson household she does enough to hint at its possibilities. Clearly the Carsons are well-read - they take breakfast in fact in their library - and we can imagine Mr Carson senior as a member, for example, of the Manchester Athenaeum, described by a contemporary as having 'an extensive library, which contains 16,000 volumes of the best standard and modern works in literature, science, philosophy and art; a reading and a news-room, which is liberally supplied with all the London daily and weekly newspapers, also provincial and colonial journals',(15) and perhaps of the Portico Library, and attending the lectures of the Literary and Philosophical Society. His wife, the servant tells us, will want the carriage at three 'to go to the lecture . . . at the Royal execution' while his daughters' love for assemblies' would have taken them to any one of a number of social gatherings. The Manchester business élite created their own culture and if they were not all, like Gaskell's friend and critic W R Greg, likely to have written substantial essays on political and philosophical topics, we can learn from the. Gaskell letters just how considerable that culture was. Carson is certainly no philistine; Gaskell makes that very clear. His son's crime, in the fullest sense of the word, is carelessness: what he disregards is the true cost of his comfort.

The Carsons, though, are not the focal centre of the novel, and neither are the destitute Davenports. That rests in the decent working-class folk of the story, and above all in the Barton and Wilson families. It is through them that we are introduced to Manchester life, and it is their domestic interiors that Gaskell describes with the greatest affection. In that she has been accused by some critics of softening her account it is worth comparing her description of Barton's home - in the happy time before tragedy overtakes the family - with one of a similar setting by an outside observer, the journalist Angus Bethune Reach. Here, first, is Elizabeth Gaskell: the Bartons have returned home after their day out at Green Heys:

The room was tolerably large, and possessed many
conveniences. On the right of the door, as you entered,
was a longish window, with a broad ledge. On each side of
this hung blue-and-white check curtains, which were now
drawn, to shut in the friends met to enjoy themselves. Two
geraniums, unpruned and leafy, which stood on the sill,
formed a further defence from out-door pryers. In the
corner between the window and the fire-side was a
cupboard, apparently full of plates and dishes, cups and
saucers, and some more nondescript articles, for which
their possessors could find no use - such as triangular
pieces of glass to save carving knives and forks from
dirtying table-cloths. However, it was clear Mrs Barton was
proud of her crockery and glass, for she left her cupboard
door open, with a glance round of satisfaction and pleasure.
On the opposite side to the window was the staircase, and
two doors; one of which (the nearest to the fire) led into a
sort of little back kitchen, where dirty work, such as
washing up dishes, might be done, and whose shelves
served as larder, and pantry, and storeroom, and all. The
other door, which was considerably lower, opened into the
coal-hole - the slanting closet under the stairs; from which,
to the fire-place, there was a gay-coloured piece of oil-cloth
laid. The place seemed almost crammed with furniture (sure
sign of good times among the mills). Beneath the window
was a dresser with three deep drawers. Opposite the
fire-place was a table, which I should call a Pembroke, only
that it was made of deal, and I cannot tell how far such a
name may be applied to such humble material. On it, resting
against the wall, was a bright green japanned tea-tray,
having a couple of scarlet lovers embracing in the middle.
The fire-light danced merrily on this, and really (setting all
taste but that of a child's aside) it gave a richness of
colouring to that side of the room. It was in some measure
propped up by a crimson tea-caddy, also of japan ware; a
round table on one branching leg really for use stood in the
corresponding corner to the cupboard; and, if you can
picture all this with a washy, but clean stencilled pattern on
the walls, you can form some idea of John Barton's
home. (ch.2, P.50)

What is so strikingly good about this description, of course, is its detail, expressed not simply in the inventory of the furniture but in the specific observations - the geraniums which are 'unpruned', the devices to protect the table-cloth, the 'bright green' colour of the japanned tea-tray, with its 'scarlet' lovers embracing in the middle, and the 'crimson' tea-caddy. The overall effect is of general well-being, and this might seem strange when we think of Gaskell's directly expressed propagandist intention for her novel; these are neither the 'poor' nor, as the case of Job Legh will remind us, the 'uneducated' factory-workers of her Preface. Surely the condition of the Manchester working-class was not as comfortable as this, even in 'good times among the mills'? But we have, as I say, other comment with which Gaskell's account may be compared. Here is Reach's account of one of what he calls 'the better class houses in Hulme':

The room was ten feet by eight, and hung with a paper of
cheap quality and ordinary pattern. In at least two of the
corners were cupboards of hard wood, painted mahogany
fashion, and containing plates, teacups, saucers etc. Upon
the chimney-piece was ranged a set of old-fashioned glass
and china ornaments. There was one framed print hanging
from the wall - a steel engraving of small size, reduced from
the well-known plate of the 'Covenanter's Marriage'. Beside
this symbol of art was a token allegiance to science, in the
shape of the old-fashioned tube barometer, not apparently in
the most perfect state of order. There were two tables in
the apartment - a round centre one of ordinary material,
and a rather handsome mahogany Pembroke. . . . The chairs
were of the comfortable old-fashioned Windsor breed; and on
the window-ledge were two or three flower-pots, feebly
nourishing as many musty geraniums. The floor was
carpetless - a feature, by the way, anything but
characteristic. In the passage, however, was laid down a
piece of faded and battered oil-cloth. The general aspect of
the place, although by no means a miracle of neatness, was
tolerably clean and comfortable The landlady, a buxom
dame of fifty, or thereabouts, does not work in the mill, but
her sons and daughters - two of the latter married - all
do. (16)

Reach's account of Manchester first appeared a year after Mary Barton in 1849. Like Elizabeth Gaskell, he makes it clear that this is one of the better kept Manchester homes, and it is quite remarkable - even suspicious -, I think, how close he is to the description in Mary Barton. Not only does he confirm that the Manchester working class cultivated geraniums on the window-sill, he gives us the wall-coverings, the corner-cupboards, the tables - in his case the Pembroke is of genuine mahogany - and the oil-cloth on the floor, and again the overall impression is of a quite tolerable degree of comfort. In neither case, of course, does the comfort invalidate the central thesis of Mary Barton; the point in fact that Gaskell is making is that this is what workers like the Bartons have to lose, and indeed as a consequence of not simply of his own wilfulness but of personal tragedy (Mrs Barton's death) and economic circumstances Barton does indeed lose it. Furthermore we have the eample of the cellar-dweller's hovel to demonstrate the realities of life to workers less fortunately placed than John Barton. Elizabeth Gaskell, like many middle-class novelists, can be seen to sentimentalise the concept of working-class community, particularly by imposing upon it her own standards of family morality, but there can be no doubting the accuracy of her record of individual circumstances in cases like those of the Barton or the Wilson households. She nowhere claims, incidentally, that the Bartons or the Wilsons are comprehensively typical; they are an example of the best aspects of working-class family life as she sees it, but she is far from claiming that all Manchester households are like these. When she comes to describe working-class culture, as distinct from domestic life, however, she offers us contrasting individualisms; on the one hand we have the quietist intellectualism of Job Legh, the amateur entomologist, and on the other the violent political activism of John Barton. Here, as many have suggested, she is on much less certain ground. Certainly we can find real-life instances of Job Legh, while the fear of political violence was hardly without its foundations. But contemporary evidence would suggest that she has polarised the issues; there is in fact a substantial literature of working-class activism that was both corporate and non-violent. Particularly active in Manchester, for example, were the Owenite socialists, of whom Faucher's translator gives an account. 'They open and close their meetings,' he says, 'with the singing of democratic hymns, and their sermons are political discourses on the justice of democracy and the necessity for obtaining the charter . . . they have done much to refine the habits of the working-classes. They are mostly advocates of temperance societies . . . the popularity they have obtained by these endeavours to improve the habits of their fellow-townsmen, is one great cause of their success in the propagation of their system. . . . Their audiences on Sunday evenings are usually crowded.' (17) We learn nothing from Mary Barton of this dimension of working-class life. Instead, the emphasis falls upon the domestic dimension of working-class community: wonderfully effectively of course, but in a way perhaps which limits its range of reference.

Elizabeth Gaskell's failure to acknowledge the strength of corporate working-class culture - as distinct from her account of the individual activities of Job Legh and blind Margaret - is a telling omission, and it is paralleled by her heavy reliance on a plot constructed in terms solely of personal conflict. It is, of course, a direct consequence of her commitment to basing her novel on the lives of individual families, and it is this feature, as all critics acknowledge, that gives Mary Barton its particular strength. Elizabeth Gaskell's 'Tale of Manchester Life' is surely remarkable for what it includes, and not for what it leaves out. What it reveals to us, after all, is what the visitors to this most spectacular of Victorian cities can only have touched on: the realities of life itself within the city, the day-to-day experience of those whose fate it was to live here. 'I have tried to write truthfully,' Gaskell wrote in her Preface (p,38). Who could deny that her novel expresses the conviction of personally understood truth?


  1. A paper given at the Manchester meeting of the Gaskell Society, 23rd April 1988.
  2. All page references to Mary Barton are to the Penguin edition, ed., Stephen Gill, Harmondsworth. 1970.
  3. Peter Gaskell, The Manufacturing Population of England, 1833; William Cooke Taylor, Notes on a Tour of the Manufacturing Districts of Lancashire, 1842. A number of the works referred to in this paragraph have appeared as modern reprints.
  4. North and South, Penguin edition, ed., Dorothy Collin, Harmondsworth, p.217.
  5. Alexis De Tocqueville, Journeys to England and Ireland, ed., J. P. Mayer, 1958, pp.105-6.
  6. L. Faucher, Manchester in 1844, 1844, rpt. 1969, p.71. Faucher's translator, described on his 1844 title-page as 'a member of the Manchester Athenaeum', was Joseph Culverwell, a member of William Gaskell's Cross Street congregation (vide E. Burney, Cross Street Chapel Schools, Manchester, 1977, p.19).
  7. De Tocqueville, op.cit., p.108.
  8. Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present, 1843, PP.21-2 (Bk.l, ch.3).
  9. All page references to Libbie Marsh's Three Eras are to Volume One of the 'Knutsford' edition of The Works of Mrs Gaskell, ed., A. W. Ward, 1906.
  10. Edwin Waugh, 'Rostherne Mere', Sketches of Lancashire Life, 2nd edn., 1857, pp.235-247.
  11. J. L. and Barbara Hammond, The Skilled Labourer, 1760-1832, 1920, p.7: 'The new towns were built for a race that was allowed no leisure'.
  12. Gaskell's description replicates the many artists' views of Manchester that were produced at this time, and it may be that subconsciously she is remembering not so much an observed scene as these various representations.
  13. Prederick Engels, The Condition of the Working-Class in England, 1845, reprinted in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels on Britain, Moscow, 1962, p.80.
  14. Quoted in F. Hill, Crime: Its Amount, Causes, and Remedies, 1853, p.31.
  15. H. B. Duffield, The Stranger's Guide to Manchester, 1851, rpt. 1984, p.7.
  16. Angus Bethune Reach, Manchester and the Textile Districts in 1849, ed. C. Aspin, 1972, pp.5-6.
  17. Faucher, op.cit., p.75.

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