The death of her son William at 10 months old from Scarlett Fever in August of 1845 left woman writer Elizabeth Gaskell in a state of despair and depression. Her husband William encouraged her to write a novel to help her emerge from the depression.

The loss of her baby boy made her keenly aware of the suffering around her in the mill town of Manchester, England. Though always very concerned with issues of class and the rights of workers, Gaskell became even more sensitive to how the factory workers suffered frequent loss and death, often from starvation and unsanitary living conditions. This became a theme of much of her writing.

Read Nasty Women Writers previous post on Elizabeth Gaskell: Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) Part 1 —Having it all

Gaskell was friends with the writing couple Mary and William Howitt, having spent time with them in Germany, sharing their love of gothic and ghost stories while there. Mary and her husband William were writers who impressed Gaskell by how lucrative their writing careers were. Though they were more radical and unconventional than Gaskell, they were instrumental in launching her writing career. Her first published stories appeared in their short-lived Howitt’s Journal.

Cotton mill in Ancoats, Manchester, ca. 1820. [Wikimedia]

In Howitt’s Journal she published stories under the name Cotton Mather Mills. Three of them are “Libbie Marsh’s Three Eras,” “The Sexton’s Hero” and “Christmas Storms and Sunshine.” This began Gaskell’s long tradition of writing in serialized format for magazines which continued all her life. Indeed, many of her novels first appeared in serialized format forcing her to work under strict deadlines having committed to stories and chapters before they were written. It is important for us to understand this. Her work was in demand and she was solicited to write for periodicals and magazines all of her writing life. Whether written under her true identity or not, all of Elizabeth Gaskell’s writing was popular in her time.

Her first novel Mary Barton was published anonymously by Chapman and Hall in 1848. William Howitt made the introduction to the publisher and helped her make her first deal.

“Her own search led her beyond the immediate troubles of industrial Lancashire. Mary Barton turned drama of conflict between classes into an examination of humanity’s essentially divided nature. As Gaskell delved into the question of suffering her book became an exploration of the Fall, of innocence and guilt, asking continually, ‘Whose doing is it?’ Moral absolutes became blurred. Is it a ‘sin’ for a father to steal food for his dying son? For a mother to give opium to starving children, or turn to prostitution to buy medicine for her daughter?

Mary Barton touched and shocked its middle-class readers to an unprecedented extent because it showed how the poor suffered not in the mill or the factory but in their homes, with their wives and children, as the settled rhythms of their lives were shaken and destroyed”(Uglow 194).

First Novel: Mary Barton

Mary Barton is a nail-biter and a page-turner. I stayed up way too late and into the middle of the night reading this novel. I wanted to know what happens! I will not spoil it for those who have not read it.

It begins as a tale about the start of the trade unions and their difficult struggle to establish themselves in the mills of northern England in the mid nineteenth-century. The main character’s father, John Barton, is a leader of the movement. Gaskell tells of his being slowly ground down in his efforts, to a depression and a final desperate act.

In the course of showing this, she paints a picture of the intimate lives of the factory workers of Manchester and the years of struggle with little work, or even  no work and no pay which leads to starvation or what they call “clemming.”

Gaskell chose to write her novels with the Lancashire dialects her characters spoke in, often unintelligible to others. This is a stand out characteristic of her novels and writing. And she fought to keep it that way in spite of the protestations of her publishers.

“Perhaps the most revolutionary dimension of placing the workers at the center of their own story is Gaskell’s thorough-going use of dialect and representation of local accent in the speech of her working-class characters.We can measure the power of the dialect by the extent to which it caused her publishers unease”(Minogue in MB intro XXII).

So many people die in this book and so many of them are children. It is clear that Gaskell is working out her own grief in this novel as her husband suspected she might. The picture she paints is bleak and yet the community is rich with connection and people who care for and help one another. The cellar hole houses are disturbingly well  depicted.

Mary Barton is training to be a seamstress and working long hours from morning to night. She will eventually have her own shop, a step up from a factory worker, but the training is exploitative. When her father can no longer get hired by any of the factories because of his union leanings, they are sent into poverty and famine and are at risk of losing their rental. Her father, yet hopeful, goes with his trade union to London to speak to Parliament in a meeting they have agreed to but they refuse to hear them once they get there. They finally arrange a meeting with the local mill owners which goes poorly, leaving them worse off than before. John Barton tumbles into despair, turning to opium. Mary’s life is dark.

“Gaskell is to be greatly applauded for drawing attention to conditions which few other writers were highlighting in that way; for making sure that the ‘rich man’ did ‘know’ at least something of ‘what the poor man feels.’ Dickens is again the obvious forerunner, but Gaskell does what he does not do—she gives her working-class characters a central role in the action. In Mary Barton it is the bourgeois characters who are on the periphery, of interest only as they pertain to the working-class characters. This was properly revolutionary, and was recognized as being so by Gaskell’s associates”(Minogue, intro MB XXII).

The second half of the book takes a turn into mystery and intrigue and even a show stopping court case. This is where it picks up speed, keeping the reader riveted. Mary Barton claims agency for herself in this half of the novel, making decisions and taking actions that change the course of events. She is powerful and strong and in control of her own destiny.

After the publication of Mary Barton, Gaskell took a fair bit of flack from the people in Manchester. It hit too close to home for many of them. Only a few knew who wrote Mary Barton, but many in the town as well as newspaper reviews called it one-sided. It gained praise, however,  from many authors including Thomas Carlyle who wrote to Gaskell after someone informed him that she was the author.

Achieving fame

A trip to London after publication gave Gaskell a chance to finally meet Charles Dickens at a party he hosted for the release of his new book, David Copperfield. On that London trip, Gaskell was treated as a celebrity. On this same trip she first met Eliza Bridell Fox and they became life-long friends. She also met the Carlyle’s, and Jane became a friend.

“From Mary Barton onwards, Elizabeth’s writing provided a second, competing world, as vivid and demanding as her daily life, which she could enter and leave at will”(Uglow 213).

In 1850 Charles Dickens wrote to Elizabeth Gaskell asking her to contribute to his new weekly journal, Household Words. Uglow writes:

“The causes Dickens particularly wanted to publicize —education, housing, sanitary reform—were dear to the Gaskell’s hearts”(250). This began a long collaboration of him soliciting stories from her for which he paid her well.

“From this year on Dickens became the chief publisher of Gaskell’s shorter works, and to start with he proved a shrewd and tactful editor. . . For the first couple of years their relationship was good and, as far as was possible for an editor with such itchy fingers, he left her work alone. The honeymoon did not last. They disagreed, gently, over the first Cranford episode in 1852 and eventually clashed violently, with endless, hair-tearing wrangles, over the serialization of North and South in 1854. What began as a friendly, even flirtatious relationship finally settled into a wary and stubborn truce. But of over forty stories and articles written by Elizabeth Gaskell between 1850 and her death, two-thirds were published by Dickens, either in Household Words or its successor, All The Year Round”(254-255).

A woman with women friends

Elizabeth Gaskell always had a close circle of women friends. She was a person people liked to be around. Probably this felt like her upbringing with her mother’s extended family and circle of women. Uglow includes this description by one of her friends:

“When you were with her, you felt as if you had twice the life in you that you had at ordinary times. All her great intellectual gifts, -her quick, keen observation, her marvelous memory, her wealth of imaginative power, her rare felicity of instinct, her graceful and racy humour,- were so warmed and brightened by sympathy and feeling, that while actually with her, you were less conscious of her power than of her charm. No one ever came near her in the gift of telling a story. In her hands the simplest incident,- a meeting in the street, a talk with a factory-girl, a country walk, and old family history,-became picturesque and vivid and interesting”(Uglow 162).

Jenny Uglow (b.1947) lives in Canterbury and Cumbria, England. As well as Elizabeth Gaskell, she is also the biographer of Thomas Bewick, Hogarth, Edward Lear, George Eliot, and many more. The Pinecone: The Story of Sarah Lost tells the life of a groundbreaking Victorian woman architect.

Uglow was editorial director at Chatto & Windus (Random House) until 2012. She is also the author of articles and reviews.

“Uglow compiled an encyclopaedia of biographies of prominent women, first published in 1982; the work is currently in its fourth edition and contains more than 2,000 biographies, though later versions have involved other editors. Uglow later wrote: I embarked on the Macmillan Biographical Dictionary of Women in a fit of pique because all reference books were full of men: it was a mad undertaking, born of a time when feminists wanted heroines and didn’t have Google” (

Ruth followed Mary Barton. It is a novel that expands on the theme she began in Mary Barton about the fate of Esther, Mary Barton’s aunt who has disappeared in the beginning of the novel. It is revealed later that she was wooed by a man from a higher class. She left with him and lived with him for a couple years before bearing a daughter out of wedlock. Esther is eventually abandoned by the man and falls into prostitution in an attempt to feed and care for her ailing daughter. She shows up later in Mary Barton’s life to try to save Mary from a similar fate. Mary has indeed been tempted by the son of a mill owner and believes for a while that he will marry her and help her escape her station in life. Mary, however, realizes the fantasy and comes to her senses on her own.

The life of Esther, a minor character in Mary Barton, illustrates what few options were available to women in that circumstance in the Victorian era. Gaskell gives center stage to such a woman in Ruth. Ruth does not fall into prostitution but is led into an affair, sex and subsequent conception of an illegitimate child. Her life’s trajectory is fully determined by that. The book was seen as scandalous and not allowed in many homes because it dealt with the issue of sex and the desire of a woman, two things which were not openly discussed in the Victorian era.

“I did feel as if I had something to say about it that I must say, and you know I can tell stories better than any other way of expressing myself.”

This was how Elizabeth would explain Ruth to her friend Mary Green. Her new fame forced her to ask herself why she wrote. Until the late 1840s writing had been a private hobby, and she could justify the publication of the Howitt’s stories and Mary Barton by her Unitarian belief in the moral function of art and in the duty to say the truth and expose social evils. Writing fiction was permissible as a branch of philanthropy. But what if it was just fun in itself? A personal need? A virtual career? While part of her shrank from the taint of professionalism, at the same time Elizabeth was briskly counting her earnings, studying her contracts and moaning about her publishers.

1850 was the year of her letters to Eliza Fox about the conflict of home duties and art. It was also the year she met Charlotte Brontë, and the year she began to write for Dickens. A good time, then, to consider how completely she lived in an atmosphere of stories. In 1850 she published ‘Lizzie Leigh’, ‘The Well of Pen-Morfa’ and ‘The Heart of John Middleton’ and a novella, The Moorland Cottage. These were forerunners of a wealth of shorter works, stunningly varied and accomplished, which would pour from her pen in the next fifteen years, most of them destined to appear in Dickens’s Household Words(Uglow 236).

Read Nasty Women Writers post: Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell: Women Writers who were Friends

She wrote Cranford as she was finishing up Ruth, after a visit home to Knutsford in 1851. She published that in serial form in Dickens’ magazine.

“In her fiction, Gaskell gives full due to female rivalry, jealousy, cruelty and pettiness, but the closeness of women is still one of her great subjects, from ‘Libbie Marsh’ and Cranford to stories like ‘The Poor Clare,’ where the heroine takes refuge in literal ‘sisterhood’, or ‘The Grey Woman’, where Anna Scherer and her servant, aptly called Amante, live together disguised as man and wife”(165).

Gaskell went on to write North and South, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, two more novels and, when her relationship fell apart with Dickens, wrote for Cornhill Magazine which was published by George Smith and edited by William Makepeace Thackery.

Elizabeth Gaskell is a Nasty Woman Writer.

© Theresa C. Dintino 2024

Works cited

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life, with an introduction and notes by Sally Minogue. Wordsworth Classics. 2012.

Uglow, Jenny. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories. London, Faber and Faber, 1993.