Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life, Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell - Essay

Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

The following entry presents criticism of Gaskell's novel Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (1848). See also, Cranford Criticism and Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell Criticism.

Gaskell's first novel, Mary Barton, offers a sympathetic representation of the lives of the working class during a period of rapid industrialization and economic depression. Set in the manufacturing hub of nineteenth-century England, Manchester, the work combines the characteristics of a sentimental romance with the features of a social-problem novel—a genre that was at the height of its popularity during this time.

Biographical Information

Gaskell, the daughter of a Unitarian minister, was born in London to Elizabeth and William Stevenson on September 29, 1810. Her mother died a year after Gaskell was born, and she was sent to live in rural Cheshire with an aunt. There she attended a school for girls and studied languages and the fine arts. In 1831 Gaskell traveled to Newcastle, Edinburgh, and Manchester, where she met William Gaskell, a clergyman with the Unitarian Church, who later taught literature and history at Manchester New College. They married in 1831 and had six children, two of whom died in infancy. Gaskell apparently began writing Mary Barton as a distraction from the grief she experienced when her second child, William, died of scarlet fever in 1845. Encouraged by the success of the novel, Gaskell went on to write several short stories, two novellas, and four more novels: Cranford (1851-53); Ruth (1853); North and South (1855); and Sylvia's Lovers (1863). In 1857 she produced The Life of Charlotte Brontë, her only attempt at biography; it was far less successful than her fictional work. Financially secure, Gaskell devoted considerable time to various charitable causes and to maintaining an extensive correspondence with other writers such as Brontë and George Eliot. She died in Manchester in 1865 while working on her sixth novel, the unfinished Wives and Daughters (1864-66).

Plot and Major Characters

The title character of Mary Barton is a young woman from a working-class family living in Manchester in 1839, during a time of severe economic distress and political unrest caused by Parliament's rejection of the reform-oriented Chartist petition. Mary's father John, considered by some scholars to be the novel's true main character, is driven to crime by the desperate conditions of life among the workers in the cotton mill.

The novel opens with an outing by the workers to Green Heys Fields, outside the town proper, followed by the return of the Barton family to their humble but well-kept home. The family's fortunes soon decline, however, when Mary's mother dies and her father is forced out of work. The other families of the town share a similar fate, and although the poor try to assist each other, Manchester's wealthy families, particularly the mill owners, are indifferent to the workers' suffering. John Barton is chosen to represent the local trade union in delivering the Chartist petition to London. When he returns, disheartened by the petition's failure, he becomes increasingly bitter and sullen, chewing opium to stave off hunger.

The trade union to which he belongs decides to murder Harry Carson, the son of the mill owner—in retaliation for the death by starvation of one of the worker's children—and it is Barton who draws the lot to perform the deed. Jem Wilson, another worker and one of Mary's suitors, is accused of the crime, and Mary must try to clear his name without implicating her father. Originally a vain and frivolous young girl, Mary matures during the course of the novel into a serious, socially responsible woman. She initially accepts the attentions of Harry Carson, believing marriage to the son of a rich mill owner to be her only chance of escaping poverty and helping her father. Eventually, though, she rejects Carson, who in any event never intended to marry her, and acknowledges her love for Jem. The novel concludes with the revelation of the real murderer, Jem's release, and Mr. Carson's reconciliation with the dying John Barton. Mary and Jem marry and emigrate to Canada to escape the problems of urban industrialization and to start a new life together.

Major Themes

Mary Barton was written at the end of a decade that saw Britain's first major economic depression of the industrial era, and the novel describes in realistic detail the hardships that depression caused for the members of the working class. Gaskell's aim was to alert the middle and upper classes about a situation they generally ignored—out of convenience—and to effect social and economic reform and relief for the poor. Gaskell, in the preface to the work, stated that her intention was to convey information about the state of mind of workers who 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.” Mary Barton also suggests that the rich consider change only out of self-interest—especially to avoid the eruption of violence as a result of those “sore and irritable” feelings, as seen with the murder of Carson's son.

The novel offers two possible responses by the poor to the poverty and destitution they face: resignation, exemplified by Alice Wilson; or rebellion, exemplified by John Barton. Barton's failure to accept his condition makes him seek revenge on the upper class; he wants one of the mill owners to experience firsthand what the poor experience all too often—the death of a child. In fact, the suffering of children as a result of the evils of industrialization is one of the novel's most powerful themes—there are several episodes involving children who are lost, injured, or starving to death. The generosity of the poor toward their fellow sufferers is also apparent in the novel and is best illustrated by the instance in which Mary, despite her preoccupation with her own desperate situation, returns to a Italian street performer to give him the last bit of bread in the house. Similarly, the attempt by John Barton and George Wilson to help the dying Ben Davenport is contrasted with the indifference of the Carson family to their employee's condition. Vivid pictures of the squalor of the Davenport household are contrasted with detailed descriptions of the Carson's luxuriously appointed home, thus illustrating the enormous gap between rich and poor as well as the inability of the rich to understand the desperation of the workers.

Such misunderstandings, silences, and general failures of the members of the two classes to communicate with one another account for much of the suffering that is a main theme of Mary Barton. Additionally, the themes of forgiveness and redemption are apparent in the senior Carson's forgiveness of his son's killer. United by the sorrow they feel for the loss of their loved ones, Carson and Barton abandon their adversarial relationship as the latter is dying at the novel's conclusion. Finally, the theme of hope is manifest in the relocation of Jem and Mary to Canada as well as in the birth of their infant son.

Critical Reception

Early reviews of Mary Barton were very favorable, and the novel's immediate success turned the unknown Gaskell into a celebrity. The book was not only popular with readers, but also garnered praise from such literary notables as Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle. A. B. Hopkins suggests that this novel was superior to similar examples of the social problem genre and that it “made the social novel respectable.” Hopkins claims that it “was the first novel to combine sincerity of purpose, convincing portrayal of character, and a largely unprejudiced picture of certain aspects of industrial life.” Critics don't necessarily agree, however, on whether that picture of working-class life is realistic or not. While John Lucas considers Mary Barton an improvement over other social problem novels in terms of realism, he nonetheless believes that Gaskell sidesteps the full implications of the workers' desperate situation by having John Barton commit murder. The murder, and Carson's forgiveness of the act, allowed Gaskell to simplify the social issues raised by the novel, according to Lucas, because it “offered the way out of her problem with Barton, his so awkwardly leading her to the exposure of false hopes she dare not abandon.” As a result Gaskell can conclude the novel with her middle-class liberal belief in the possibility of reform intact. Margaret Ganz agrees, claiming that “the weakest section of the novel is that in which Mrs. Gaskell offers a possible solution for the alienation so dramatically exemplified in John Barton's struggles. The concluding sections of the novel project her conviction, already suggested in earlier chapters, that a basic humanity is the only standard for successful relations between masters and men.”

Scholars have disagreed on the possible sources for the representation of working-class life in Mary Barton; some believe Gaskell drew exclusively on her own observations of Manchester workers, while others, such as Michael Wheeler and Monica Correa Fryckstedt, have suggested that Gaskell's familiarity with earlier industrial fiction also provided inspiration for the novel. Wheeler feels that the influence of earlier literature is one of the work's strong points.

Some critics have suggested that the social problem plot of Mary Barton is weakened by the addition of the romance plot, to which it is apparently unrelated. Jack L. Culross, however, answers charges that the novel lacks unity because of the pairing of the two narrative strands, claiming that “both plots are important because their themes counterpoint each other.” Jem and Mary's migration to Canada, a new land unsullied by the problems associated with Manchester, provides, according to Culross, “a fitting ending to a novel not about industrialism, but about hope.” Patsy Stoneman also believes the domestic plot line is important in order for the novel to develop “a contrast between two ethical systems, that of the working class, based on caring and cooperation, and that of the middle class, based on ownership, authority and the law.” Marjorie Stone believes that scholarly concern with the two plots has implications for gender politics; she maintains that “those who divide the world of Mary Barton into an implicitly or explicitly male political sphere and a female private sphere, or who split the ‘social-problem’ or ‘tragic’ from the ‘romance’ or ‘domestic’ plot of the novel, endorse gender-inflected paradigms that Gaskell's own novelistic practice repeatedly subverts.” Lisa Surridge has studied Gaskell's representations of masculinity in Mary Barton and concludes that although middle-class men in the world of the novel are usually not portrayed as nurturing or represented as “real men,” Gaskell's work is unique in presenting a “pattern of working-class men caring for children,” as well as several male characters acting as nurses to the sick and injured, and proposes a new paradigm for manhood. Pearl L. Brown answers those critics who charge that Margaret Hale, the heroine in Gaskell's North and South, is a more highly evolved female character than Mary Barton. Brown suggests that the years between the publication of the two novels represented, at least in Gaskell's view, a decline rather than a period of progress in the condition of women.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

*Life In Manchester. 2 vols. [as Cotton Mather Mills] (short stories) 1848

Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life. 2 vols. [published anonymously] (novel) 1848

Cranford [published anonymously] (novel) 1851-53

Ruth. 3 vols. [published anonymously] (novel) 1853

Lizzie Leigh and Other Tales [published anonymously] (short stories) 1855

North and South. 2 vols. [published anonymously] (novel) 1855

The Life of Charlotte Brontë (biography) 1857

My Lady Ludlow (novella) 1858

Round the Sofa. 2 vols. (short stories)...

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A. B. Hopkins (essay date 1952)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hopkins, A. B. “The First Novel.” In Elizabeth Gaskell: Her Life and Work, pp. 67-83. London: John Lehmann, 1952.

[In the following excerpt, Hopkins explores the conditions surrounding the composition and publication of Mary Barton.]

It is unnecessary to assume at this juncture that had it not been for the loss of her child, Mrs. Gaskell might never have become a writer. There are signs that she was interested in authorship before she turned to it as assuagement of her sorrow. But this personal bereavement and her husband's suggestion may have brought into sharper, more immediate focus yearnings which, owing to the domestic responsibilities of her early...

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Graham Handley (essay date 1967)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Handley, Graham. “Mrs. Gaskell's Reading: Some Notes on Echoes and Epigraphs in Mary Barton.Durham University Journal 28, no. 3 (June 1967): 131-38.

[In the following essay, Handley examines some of the epigraphs used in Gaskell's novel and their relevance to the meaning of the work as a whole.]

In her first novel, Mrs. Gaskell followed the practice of some of her predecessors and contemporaries in prefixing epigraphs to each of the chapters. This is a commonplace in fiction—certainly it was used by Dorothy Sayers as late as the 1930's—and it also occurs in nineteenth century narrative poetry. Of the eighteenth century writers Mrs. Radcliffe,...

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John Lucas (essay date 1967)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lucas, John. “Mrs. Gaskell and Brotherhood.” In Tradition and Tolerance in Nineteenth-Century Fiction: Critical Essays on Some English and American Novels, edited by David Howard, John Lucas, and John Goode, pp. 141-205. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967.

[In the following excerpt, Lucas attributes the flaws in Mary Barton to Gaskell's failure to deal honestly with the social conditions she was attempting to represent.]

Was it embracing or aiding was most in my mind.



It is probably easier to explain the purpose of this essay than to...

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Margaret Ganz (essay date 1969)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ganz, Margaret. “The Social Conscience.” In Elizabeth Gaskell: The Artist in Conflict, pp. 49-131. New York: Twayne, 1969.

[In the following excerpt, Ganz discusses the authenticity of Gaskell's representation of working-class problems in Mary Barton.]


The immediate appeal of Mary Barton is easily demonstrable by the many enthusiastic critical reviews, the large audience of readers, and the accolades of such important literary figures as Dickens, Carlyle, and Walter Savage Landor,1 but the precise reasons for that appeal are not so immediately evident. The work did appropriately appear...

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Michael D. Wheeler (essay date December 1974)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wheeler, Michael D. “The Writer as Reader in Mary Barton.Durham University Journal 36, no. 1 (December 1974): 92-102.

[In the following essay, Wheeler investigates the various literary sources that may have provided the inspiration for Gaskell's novel.]

Susanna Winkworth was one of many contemporaries who described Elizabeth Gaskell's devoted commitment to her domestic duties: ‘Her books … were only written when all possible domestic and social claims had been satisfied. Not only was she a devoted wife and mother, but her actual household cares were a positive delight to her. She was more proud of her cows and poultry, pigs and vegetables, than...

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Coral Lansbury (essay date 1975)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lansbury, Coral. “Mary Barton: The Condition of the Working Class in Manchester.” In Elizabeth Gaskell: The Novel of Social Crisis, pp. 22-50. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1975.

[In the following excerpt, Lansbury discusses Gaskell's original version of Mary Barton and the changes she made in response to her publisher's demands.]

From its publication in the revolutionary year of 1848, there was controversy and confusion of interpretation over Mary Barton, a confusion that has not been resolved today. Elizabeth Gaskell was never happy with Edward Chapman as either publisher or correspondent. Most writers found that his acknowledged...

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Jack L. Culross (essay date autumn 1978)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Culross, Jack L. “Mary Barton: A Revaluation.” Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 61, no. 1 (autumn 1978): 42-59.

[In the following essay, Culross disagrees with earlier critics who considered the romantic plot in Mary Barton unrelated to its social plot and claimed, therefore, that the novel lacked unity.]

Although some few critics have defended Mrs. Gaskell for yoking together a public, social plot with a private, romantic one in her first novel, Mary Barton (1848), the majority of scholars feel that the combination is not a happy one. According to Margaret Ganz, “Critics have rightly judged that...

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Monica Correa Fryckstedt (essay date autumn 1980)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fryckstedt, Monica Correa. “The Early Industrial Novel: Mary Barton and Its Predecessors.” Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 63, no. 1 (autumn 1980): 11-30.

[In the following essay, Fryckstedt examines early industrial fiction that inspired Gaskell's novel, particularly the writings of Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Stone, and Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna.]

When Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life was published anonymously in October 1848 the effect was electric. Contemporary writers and reviewers alike stressed the novelty of Mrs Gaskell's undertaking. Carlyle, for one, hailed the book as ‘a real contribution...

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Elaine Jordan (essay date spring 1981)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jordan, Elaine. “Spectres and Scorpions: Allusion and Confusion in Mary Barton.Literature and History 7, no. 1 (spring 1981): 48-61.

[In the following essay, Jordan discusses literary quotations and allusions in Gaskell's novel, concentrating on elements of Gothic discourse that appear after the murder of Harry Carson.]

Raymond Williams has said of Mary Barton (1848) that it is ‘the most moving response in literature to the industrial sufferings of the 1840s’. But he sees also that there was ‘a point, in its writing, at which the flow of sympathy, the combination of sympathetic observation and of a largely successful attempt at...

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Tessa Brodetsky (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brodetsky, Tessa. “The Industrial Scene—First Reactions: Mary Barton.” In Elizabeth Gaskell, pp. 13-28. Leamington Spa, U.K.: Berg, 1986.

[In the following essay, Brodetsky praises Gaskell's novel for its powerful depiction of the poverty and suffering of the working-class inhabitants of Britain's industrial cities in the mid-nineteenth century.]

You may tempt the upper classes
With your villainous demi-tasses,
But Heaven will protect the Working Girl.

Edgar Smith (1857-1938)

Disraeli's novel, Sybil, subtitled The Two Nations, was published in 1845. It deals with what came to be known as ‘the...

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Patsy Stoneman (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stoneman, Patsy. “Mary Barton (1848).” In Elizabeth Gaskell, pp. 68-86. Brighton, U.K.: Harvester Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Stoneman maintains that in Mary Barton, Gaskell creates a dichotomy between working-class ethics, based on mutual aid, and middle-class ethics, based on private property and authority.]

Most critical accounts of Mary Barton begin with the a priori assumption that it falls into a clear category of fiction, the ‘industrial’ or ‘social-problem’ novel, which defines both its proper subject-matter—class relations—and its proper orientation—political and economic. The ‘faults’ which...

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Marjorie Stone (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stone, Marjorie. “Bakhtinian Polyphony in Mary Barton; Class, Gender, and the Textual Voice.” Dickens Studies Annual 20 (1991): 175-200.

[In the following essay, Stone discusses Gaskell's use of multiple working-class voices in Mary Barton.]

There's a grim one-horse hearse in a jolly round trot;
To the churchyard a pauper is going, I wot:
The road it is rough, and the hearse has no springs,
And hark to the dirge that the sad driver sings:
          “Rattle his bones over the stones;
          He's only a pauper, whom nobody owns!”

“The Pauper's Drive” with its grimly humorous, jolting refrain of “Rattle his bones over the...

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Alisa M. Clapp (essay date January 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Clapp, Alisa M. “Texts Which Tell Another Story: Miscommunication in Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton.Michigan Academician 27, no. 1 (January 1995): 29-37.

[In the following essay, Clapp examines differing levels of miscommunication in Mary Barton, including disjunction between individuals and groups in the novel, as well as between the author and the reader.]

“I have tried to write truthfully …”

Elizabeth Gaskell, Preface to Mary Barton1

Though they are works of fiction, novels have historically been judged by rigorous standards of representational...

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Joseph W. Childers (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Childers, Joseph W. “Mary Barton and the Community of Suffering.” In Novel Possibilities: Fiction and the Formation of Early Victorian Culture, pp. 158-78. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Childers explores similarities between Gaskell's novel and Friedrich Engels's The Condition of the Working Class in England.]

Those readers familiar with Friedrich Engels's The Condition of the Working Class in England as well as with Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton may be immediately struck by a peculiar similarity in the opening pages of these two important social texts of the middle nineteenth...

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Thomas E. Recchio (essay date October 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Recchio, Thomas E. “A Monstrous Reading of Mary Barton: Fiction as ‘Communitas.’” College Literature 23, no. 3 (October 1996): 2-22.

[In the following essay, Recchio discusses the differences in interpretation of Gaskell's novel between working-class students reading it for the first time and academic literary critics.]

‘As I read, however, I applied much personally to my own feelings and condition. I found myself similar yet at the same time strangely unlike to the beings concerning whom I read.’

(Shelley 125)


When Frankenstein's monster...

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Harriet Guest (essay date 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Guest, Harriet. “The Deep Romance of Manchester: Gaskell's Mary Barton.” In The Regional Novel in Britain and Ireland, 1800-1990, edited by K. D. M. Snell, pp. 78-98. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Guest examines Mary Barton as a regional novel.]


Elizabeth Gaskell's first novel, Mary Barton (1848), might seem to be determinedly regionalised or localised: it claims a local character for itself in its sub-title, A Tale of Manchester Life, and in the copious use of Lancashire dialect, supplemented and weighted with explanatory footnotes.1...

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Katherine Ann Wildt (essay date 1999)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wildt, Katherine Ann. “Mary Barton: Colors of Alienation and Harmony.” In Elizabeth Gaskell's Use of Color in Her Industrial Novels and Short Stories, pp. 49-74. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1999.

[In the following excerpt, Wildt examines the way Gaskell uses color to evoke mood and to portray moral truth in her novel.]

Gaskell uses color in establishing a moral tone as she constructs the plot, character, and themes of Mary Barton (1848). Jenny Uglow, in her book Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories, points to some of Gaskell's scenes in Mary Barton which are reminiscent of various paintings. She mentions in...

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Lisa Surridge (essay date 2000)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Surridge, Lisa. “Working Class Masculinities in Mary Barton.Victorian Literature and Culture 28, no. 2 (2000): 331-43.

[In the following essay, Surridge asserts that Gaskell presents working-class males as models of masculinity who are also caring and nurturing individuals, while mill owners are depicted as deficient in both nurturing skills and in manhood.]

In considering the subject of masculinity in Mary Barton (1848), it is perhaps well to remember that Elizabeth Gaskell conceived the novel as being about a man. “‘John Barton’ was the original title of the book,” she wrote to Mrs. W. R. Greg early in 1849. “Round the character...

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Pearl L. Brown (essay date 2000)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brown, Pearl L. “From Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton to her North and South: Progress or Decline for Women?” Victorian Literature and Culture 28, no. 2 (2000): 345-58.

[In the following essay, Brown disagrees with those critics who believe the heroine of North and South to be a more skillfully created character than Mary Barton, claiming that Barton is a more independent woman than Margaret Hale.]

Assessments of Elizabeth Gaskell's two novels of social purpose typically conclude that North and South, published in 1855, is a more mature work stylistically and ideologically than Mary Barton, published in 1848. North and...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Barry, James D. “Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell.” In Victorian Fiction: A Second Guide to Research, edited by George H. Ford, pp. 204-18. New York: Modern Language Association, 1978.

Provides a bibliographic guide to Gaskell's writings and to critical and biographical studies of the author.


Haldane, Elizabeth. Mrs. Gaskell and Her Friends. New York: D. Appleton, 1931, 318 p.

Studies Gaskell's friendships and her correspondence with various contemporaries.


Beer, Gillian. “Carlyle and Mary Barton: Problems...

(The entire section is 598 words.)