Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865)

Elizabeth Gaskell was born in a well-to-do family of a minister in Cheshire. She was educated in a boarding school at Stratford-on-Avon. Elizabeth started her literary activity with poetry, but it was her prose that made her famous. Gaskell wrote her first novel in 1848 when she was almost forty. The novel was called “Mary Barton”. It is not only her best novel, but it is one of the best novels, describing the events of 1838 when the Chartism was coming into being. The story starts with the vivid description of the life of the working class, the life of poverty, hunger and misery. John Barton is the central character of the novel, an active member of the Trade Union. He believes that the rich cause them all this misery, and he never forgives them. Barton is a typical Manchester factory worker, “rather short and thin, he looked tired, but there was resolution in his face”. Barton has lost his wife, and he becomes gloomy and silent. But he is a tender father to his daughter Mary. The subject which interests John Barton and his friend George Wilson — the relations between the rich and the poor. Barton believes in a peaceful decision of the contradictory questions between the workers and their employers. But Barton is under an illusion to think that the government doesn’t know about the hardships of the workers. Barton’s friend says that the rich “do not want to know about such things”.

On the other hand, Barton is a staunch supporter of the working class, he accepts the revolutionary way of struggle as well.

The story may be divided into two logical parts. In the first part John Barton is shown very vividly, true to life, because he is a popular leader of the Trade Union. He proclaims equality and freedom for the working people. But in the second part the author portrays Barton depressed and exhausted, who gives up fighting because of his narrow-mindness and moral degradation. He becomes ill and dies. During the father’s life Mary Barton is his faithful friend and supporter. She loves him passionately, and the loss of him is a great blow for Mary. After his funeral Mary and her husband leave England for the USA.

The destiny of John Barton, the leader of the Trade Union, reflected the fate of many representatives of the movement who were not united. Some of them believed in peaceful means only; others were the staunch supporters of the violent way of struggle with the rich monopolists and factory owners for freedom and equality. The novel was attacked by the Tory press as being based against employers.

Elizabeth Gaskell became popular not only for her novel “Mary Barton”, but she was a well-known biographer of her time as well. She was the author of “Life of Charlotte Bronte”, published in 1851 in two volumes.

Among the contemporaries of Sisters Bronte, Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell the most famous was William Makepeace Thackeray.

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