Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell.

Mary Barton online

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E-text prepared by Les Bowler, St. Ives, Dorset,
and revised by Joseph E. Loewenstein, M.D.

Editorial note:

_Mary Barton_, Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell's first novel,
was published (anonymously) in 1848 by Chapman and Hall.


A Tale of Manchester Life



"'How knowest thou,' may the distressed Novel-wright exclaim,
'that I, here where I sit, am the Foolishest of existing
mortals; that this my Long-ear of a fictitious Biography shall
not find one and the other, into whose still longer ears it
may be the means, under Providence, of instilling somewhat?'
We answer, 'None knows, none can certainly know: therefore,
write on, worthy Brother, even as thou canst, even as it is
given thee.'"





Three years ago I became anxious (from circumstances that need not be
more fully alluded to) to employ myself in writing a work of fiction.
Living in Manchester, but with a deep relish and fond admiration for
the country, my first thought was to find a frame-work for my story
in some rural scene; and I had already made a little progress in a
tale, the period of which was more than a century ago, and the place
on the borders of Yorkshire, when 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 in which 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;
tossed to and fro by circumstances, apparently in even a greater
degree than other men. A little manifestation of this sympathy, and
a little attention to the expression of feelings on the part of some
of the work-people with whom I was acquainted, had laid open to me
the hearts of one or two of the more thoughtful among them; I saw
that they were sore and irritable against the rich, the even tenor
of whose seemingly happy lives appeared to increase the anguish
caused by the lottery-like nature of their own. Whether the bitter
complaints made by them, of the neglect which they experienced from
the prosperous - especially from the masters whose fortunes they had
helped to build up - were well-founded or no, it is not for me to
judge. It is enough to say, that this belief of the injustice and
unkindness which they endure from their fellow-creatures, taints what
might be resignation to God's will, and turns it to revenge in too
many of the poor uneducated factory-workers of Manchester.

The more I reflected on this unhappy state of things between those
so bound to each other by common interests, as the employers and
the employed must ever be, the more anxious I became to give some
utterance to the agony which, from time to time, convulses this dumb
people; the agony of suffering without the sympathy of the happy, or
of erroneously believing that such is the case. If it be an error,
that the woes, which come with ever-returning tide-like flood to
overwhelm the workmen in our manufacturing towns, pass unregarded
by all but the sufferers, it is at any rate an error so bitter in
its consequences to all parties, that whatever public effort can do
in the way of legislation, or private effort in the way of merciful
deeds, or helpless love in the way of "widow's mites," should be
done, and that speedily, to disabuse the work-people of so miserable
a misapprehension. At present they seem to me to be left in a state,
wherein lamentations and tears are thrown aside as useless, but in
which the lips are compressed for curses, and the hands clenched and
ready to smite.

I know nothing of Political Economy, or the theories of trade. I have
tried to write truthfully; and if my accounts agree or clash with any
system, the agreement or disagreement is unintentional.

To myself the idea which I have formed of the state of feeling among
too many of the factory-people in Manchester, and which I endeavoured
to represent in this tale (completed above a year ago), has received
some confirmation from the events which have so recently occurred
among a similar class on the Continent.

OCTOBER, 1848.



Oh! 'tis hard, 'tis hard to be working
The whole of the live-long day,
When all the neighbours about one
Are off to their jaunts and play.

There's Richard he carries his baby,
And Mary takes little Jane,
And lovingly they'll be wandering
Through field and briery lane.


There are some fields near Manchester, well known to the inhabitants
as "Green Heys Fields," through which runs a public footpath to a
little village about two miles distant. In spite of these fields
being flat and low, nay, in spite of the want of wood (the great and
usual recommendation of level tracts of land), there is a charm about
them which strikes even the inhabitant of a mountainous district,
who sees and feels the effect of contrast in these common-place but
thoroughly rural fields, with the busy, bustling manufacturing town
he left but half-an-hour ago. Here and there an old black and white
farm-house, with its rambling outbuildings, speaks of other times and
other occupations than those which now absorb the population of the
neighbourhood. Here in their seasons may be seen the country business
of hay-making, ploughing, &c., which are such pleasant mysteries
for townspeople to watch; and here the artisan, deafened with noise
of tongues and engines, may come to listen awhile to the delicious
sounds of rural life: the lowing of cattle, the milk-maids' call,
the clatter and cackle of poultry in the old farm-yards. You cannot
wonder, then, that these fields are popular places of resort at
every holiday time; and you would not wonder, if you could see, or I
properly describe, the charm of one particular stile, that it should
be, on such occasions, a crowded halting-place. Close by it is a
deep, clear pond, reflecting in its dark green depths the shadowy
trees that bend over it to exclude the sun. The only place where
its banks are shelving is on the side next to a rambling farm-yard,
belonging to one of those old-world, gabled, black and white houses
I named above, overlooking the field through which the public
footpath leads. The porch of this farm-house is covered by a
rose-tree; and the little garden surrounding it is crowded with a
medley of old-fashioned herbs and flowers, planted long ago, when the
garden was the only druggist's shop within reach, and allowed to grow
in scrambling and wild luxuriance - roses, lavender, sage, balm (for
tea), rosemary, pinks and wallflowers, onions and jessamine, in most
republican and indiscriminate order. This farm-house and garden are
within a hundred yards of the stile of which I spoke, leading from
the large pasture field into a smaller one, divided by a hedge of
hawthorn and black-thorn; and near this stile, on the further side,
there runs a tale that primroses may often be found, and occasionally
the blue sweet violet on the grassy hedge bank.

I do not know whether it was on a holiday granted by the masters, or
a holiday seized in right of Nature and her beautiful spring time by
the workmen, but one afternoon (now ten or a dozen years ago) these
fields were much thronged. It was an early May evening - the April
of the poets; for heavy showers had fallen all the morning, and
the round, soft, white clouds which were blown by a west wind over
the dark blue sky, were sometimes varied by one blacker and more
threatening. The softness of the day tempted forth the young green
leaves, which almost visibly fluttered into life; and the willows,
which that morning had had only a brown reflection in the water
below, were now of that tender gray-green which blends so delicately
with the spring harmony of colours.

Groups of merry and somewhat loud-talking girls, whose ages might
range from twelve to twenty, came by with a buoyant step. They were
most of them factory girls, and wore the usual out-of-doors dress of
that particular class of maidens; namely, a shawl, which at mid-day
or in fine weather was allowed to be merely a shawl, but towards
evening, or if the day were chilly, became a sort of Spanish mantilla
or Scotch plaid, and was brought over the head and hung loosely down,
or was pinned under the chin in no unpicturesque fashion.

Their faces were not remarkable for beauty; indeed, they were below
the average, with one or two exceptions; they had dark hair, neatly
and classically arranged, dark eyes, but sallow complexions and
irregular features. The only thing to strike a passer-by was an
acuteness and intelligence of countenance, which has often been
noticed in a manufacturing population.

There were also numbers of boys, or rather young men, rambling among
these fields, ready to bandy jokes with any one, and particularly
ready to enter into conversation with the girls, who, however, held
themselves aloof, not in a shy, but rather in an independent way,
assuming an indifferent manner to the noisy wit or obstreperous
compliments of the lads. Here and there came a sober quiet couple,
either whispering lovers, or husband and wife, as the case might
be; and if the latter, they were seldom unencumbered by an infant,
carried for the most part by the father, while occasionally even
three or four little toddlers had been carried or dragged thus
far, in order that the whole family might enjoy the delicious May
afternoon together.

Sometime in the course of that afternoon, two working men met with
friendly greeting at the stile so often named. One was a thorough
specimen of a Manchester man; born of factory workers, and himself
bred up in youth, and living in manhood, among the mills. He was
below the middle size and slightly made; there was almost a stunted
look about him; and his wan, colourless face gave you the idea, that
in his childhood he had suffered from the scanty living consequent
upon bad times and improvident habits. His features were strongly
marked, though not irregular, and their expression was extreme
earnestness; resolute either for good or evil; a sort of latent,
stern enthusiasm. At the time of which I write, the good predominated
over the bad in the countenance, and he was one from whom a stranger
would have asked a favour with tolerable faith that it would
be granted. He was accompanied by his wife, who might, without
exaggeration, have been called a lovely woman, although now her face
was swollen with crying, and often hidden behind her apron. She
had the fresh beauty of the agricultural districts; and somewhat
of the deficiency of sense in her countenance, which is likewise
characteristic of the rural inhabitants in comparison with the
natives of the manufacturing towns. She was far advanced in
pregnancy, which perhaps occasioned the overpowering and hysterical
nature of her grief. The friend whom they met was more handsome and
less sensible-looking than the man I have just described; he seemed
hearty and hopeful, and although his age was greater, yet there was
far more of youth's buoyancy in his appearance. He was tenderly
carrying a baby in arms, while his wife, a delicate, fragile-looking
woman, limping in her gait, bore another of the same age; little,
feeble twins, inheriting the frail appearance of their mother.

The last-mentioned man was the first to speak, while a sudden look
of sympathy dimmed his gladsome face. "Well, John, how goes it with
you?" and, in a lower voice, he added, "Any news of Esther, yet?"
Meanwhile the wives greeted each other like old friends, the soft and
plaintive voice of the mother of the twins seeming to call forth only
fresh sobs from Mrs. Barton.

"Come, women," said John Barton, "you've both walked far enough. My
Mary expects to have her bed in three weeks; and as for you, Mrs.
Wilson, you know you're but a cranky sort of a body at the best of
times." This was said so kindly, that no offence could be taken. "Sit
you down here; the grass is well nigh dry by this time; and you're
neither of you nesh [1] folk about taking cold. Stay," he added, with
some tenderness, "here's my pocket-handkerchief to spread under
you, to save the gowns women always think so much of; and now, Mrs.
Wilson, give me the baby, I may as well carry him, while you talk and
comfort my wife; poor thing, she takes on sadly about Esther."

[Footnote 1: "Nesh;" Anglo-Saxon, nesc, tender.]

These arrangements were soon completed: the two women sat down on the
blue cotton handkerchiefs of their husbands, and the latter, each
carrying a baby, set off for a further walk; but as soon as Barton
had turned his back upon his wife, his countenance fell back into an
expression of gloom.

"Then you've heard nothing of Esther, poor lass?" asked Wilson.

"No, nor shan't, as I take it. My mind is, she's gone off with
somebody. My wife frets, and thinks she's drowned herself, but
I tell her, folks don't care to put on their best clothes to drown
themselves; and Mrs. Bradshaw (where she lodged, you know) says the
last time she set eyes on her was last Tuesday, when she came down
stairs, dressed in her Sunday gown, and with a new ribbon in her
bonnet, and gloves on her hands, like the lady she was so fond of
thinking herself."

"She was as pretty a creature as ever the sun shone on."

"Ay, she was a farrantly [2] lass; more's the pity now," added Barton,
with a sigh. "You see them Buckinghamshire people as comes to work
in Manchester, has quite a different look with them to us Manchester
folk. You'll not see among the Manchester wenches such fresh rosy
cheeks, or such black lashes to gray eyes (making them look like
black), as my wife and Esther had. I never seed two such pretty women
for sisters; never. Not but what beauty is a sad snare. Here was
Esther so puffed up, that there was no holding her in. Her spirit was
always up, if I spoke ever so little in the way of advice to her; my
wife spoiled her, it is true, for you see she was so much older than
Esther she was more like a mother to her, doing every thing for her."

[Footnote 2: "Farrantly," comely, pleasant-looking.]

"I wonder she ever left you," observed his friend.

"That's the worst of factory work, for girls. They can earn so much
when work is plenty, that they can maintain themselves any how. My
Mary shall never work in a factory, that I'm determined on. You see
Esther spent her money in dress, thinking to set off her pretty face;
and got to come home so late at night, that at last I told her my
mind: my missis thinks I spoke crossly, but I meant right, for I
loved Esther, if it was only for Mary's sake. Says I, 'Esther, I see
what you'll end at with your artificials, and your fly-away veils,
and stopping out when honest women are in their beds; you'll be a
street-walker, Esther, and then, don't you go to think I'll have you
darken my door, though my wife is your sister.' So says she, 'Don't
trouble yourself, John. I'll pack up and be off now, for I'll never
stay to hear myself called as you call me.' She flushed up like a
turkey-cock, and I thought fire would come out of her eyes; but when
she saw Mary cry (for Mary can't abide words in a house), she went
and kissed her, and said she was not so bad as I thought her. So we
talked more friendly, for, as I said, I liked the lass well enough,
and her pretty looks, and her cheery ways. But she said (and at the
time I thought there was sense in what she said) we should be much
better friends if she went into lodgings, and only came to see us now
and then."

"Then you still were friendly. Folks said you'd cast her off, and
said you'd never speak to her again."

"Folks always make one a deal worse than one is," said John Barton,
testily. "She came many a time to our house after she left off living
with us. Last Sunday se'nnight - no! it was this very last Sunday, she
came to drink a cup of tea with Mary; and that was the last time we
set eyes on her."

"Was she any ways different in her manner?" asked Wilson.

"Well, I don't know. I have thought several times since, that she was
a bit quieter, and more womanly-like; more gentle, and more blushing,
and not so riotous and noisy. She comes in, toward four o'clock,
when afternoon church was loosing, and she goes and hangs her bonnet
up on the old nail we used to call hers, while she lived with us. I
remember thinking what a pretty lass she was, as she sat on a low
stool by Mary, who was rocking herself, and in rather a poor way.
She laughed and cried by turns, but all so softly and gently, like
a child, that I couldn't find in my heart to scold her, especially
as Mary was fretting already. One thing I do remember I did say, and
pretty sharply too. She took our little Mary by the waist, and - "

"Thou must leave off calling her 'little' Mary, she's growing up into
as fine a lass as one can see on a summer's day; more of her mother's
stock than thine," interrupted Wilson.

"Well, well, I call her 'little,' because her mother's name is Mary.
But, as I was saying, she takes Mary in a coaxing sort of way, and,
'Mary,' says she, 'what should you think if I sent for you some day
and made a lady of you?' So I could not stand such talk as that to my
girl, and I said, 'Thou'd best not put that nonsense i' the girl's
head I can tell thee; I'd rather see her earning her bread by the
sweat of her brow, as the Bible tells her she should do, ay, though
she never got butter to her bread, than be like a do-nothing lady,
worrying shopmen all morning, and screeching at her pianny all
afternoon, and going to bed without having done a good turn to any
one of God's creatures but herself.'"

"Thou never could abide the gentlefolk," said Wilson, half amused at
his friend's vehemence.

"And what good have they ever done me that I should like them?" asked
Barton, the latent fire lighting up his eye: and bursting forth, he
continued, "If I am sick, do they come and nurse me? If my child lies
dying (as poor Tom lay, with his white wan lips quivering, for want
of better food than I could give him), does the rich man bring the
wine or broth that might save his life? If I am out of work for weeks
in the bad times, and winter comes, with black frost, and keen east
wind, and there is no coal for the grate, and no clothes for the bed,
and the thin bones are seen through the ragged clothes, does the rich
man share his plenty with me, as he ought to do, if his religion
wasn't a humbug? When I lie on my death-bed, and Mary (bless her)
stands fretting, as I know she will fret," and here his voice
faltered a little, "will a rich lady come and take her to her own
home if need be, till she can look round, and see what best to do?
No, I tell you, it's the poor, and the poor only, as does such things
for the poor. Don't think to come over me with th' old tale, that the
rich know nothing of the trials of the poor. I say, if they don't
know, they ought to know. We're their slaves as long as we can work;
we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows; and yet we are
to live as separate as if we were in two worlds; ay, as separate as
Dives and Lazarus, with a great gulf betwixt us: but I know who was
best off then," and he wound up his speech with a low chuckle that
had no mirth in it.

"Well, neighbour," said Wilson, "all that may be very true, but what
I want to know now is about Esther - when did you last hear of her?"

"Why, she took leave of us that Sunday night in a very loving way,
kissing both wife Mary, and daughter Mary (if I must not call her
little), and shaking hands with me; but all in a cheerful sort of
manner, so we thought nothing about her kisses and shakes. But on
Wednesday night comes Mrs. Bradshaw's son with Esther's box, and
presently Mrs. Bradshaw follows with the key; and when we began to
talk, we found Esther told her she was coming back to live with us,
and would pay her week's money for not giving notice; and on Tuesday
night she carried off a little bundle (her best clothes were on her
back, as I said before), and told Mrs. Bradshaw not to hurry herself
about the big box, but bring it when she had time. So of course she
thought she should find Esther with us; and when she told her story,
my missis set up such a screech, and fell down in a dead swoon. Mary
ran up with water for her mother, and I thought so much about my
wife, I did not seem to care at all for Esther. But the next day I
asked all the neighbours (both our own and Bradshaw's), and they'd
none of 'em heard or seen nothing of her. I even went to a policeman,
a good enough sort of man, but a fellow I'd never spoke to before
because of his livery, and I asks him if his 'cuteness could find any
thing out for us. So 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, and we don't know th'
number, and can't trace it no further. I'm sorry enough for the girl,
for bad's come over her, one way or another, but I'm sorrier for my
wife. She loved her next to me and Mary, and she's never been the
same body since poor Tom's death. However, let's go back to them;
your old woman may have done her good."

As they walked homewards with a brisker pace, Wilson expressed a wish
that they still were the near neighbours they once had been.

"Still our Alice lives in the cellar under No. 14, in Barber Street,
and if you'd only speak the word she'd be with you in five minutes,
to keep your wife company when she's lonesome. Though I'm Alice's
brother, and perhaps ought not to say it, I will say there's none
more ready to help with heart or hand than she is. Though she may
have done a hard day's wash, there's not a child ill within the
street but Alice goes to offer to sit up, and does sit up too, though
may be she's to be at her work by six next morning."

"She's a poor woman, and can feel for the poor, Wilson," was Barton's
reply; and then he added, "Thank you kindly for your offer, and
mayhap I may trouble her to be a bit with my wife, for while I'm
at work, and Mary's at school, I know she frets above a bit. See,
there's Mary!" and the father's eye brightened, as in the distance,
among a group of girls, he spied his only daughter, a bonny lassie
of thirteen or so, who came bounding along to meet and to greet her
father, in a manner which showed that the stern-looking man had a
tender nature within. The two men had crossed the last stile while
Mary loitered behind to gather some buds of the coming hawthorn, when
an over-grown lad came past her, and snatched a kiss, exclaiming,
"For old acquaintance sake, Mary."

"Take that for old acquaintance sake, then," said the girl, blushing
rosy red, more with anger than shame, as she slapped his face. The
tones of her voice called back her father and his friend, and the
aggressor proved to be the eldest son of the latter, the senior by
eighteen years of his little brothers.

"Here, children, instead o' kissing and quarrelling, do ye each take

Online LibraryElizabeth Cleghorn GaskellMary Barton → online text (page 1 of 36)