Places: Mary Barton

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1848

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1840’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Green Heys Fields

*Green Mary BartonHeys Fields. Open area several miles from the center of the city of Manchester. With its fields, village, and half-timbered buildings surviving, Green Heys symbolizes the life left behind by Manchester’s factory workers–a world to which they hope to return. This is particularly expressed by Alice Wilson throughout the book. All her life she aspires to return to the farm where she lived as a child but never manages to do so. In her final illness, she believes she has returned to the country.

Barton house

Barton house. Home of John Barton in central Manchester, amid an area of half-finished houses erected to accommodate factory workers. The house looks onto a small paved court–in which the washing is hung–a typical arrangement in Victorian towns. Its central gutter indicates that no drainage has been laid. The house is small, with one main room in which the family lives and cooks and a small sculler-cum-pantry leading off it, and also a coal-hole. Upstairs are two small bedrooms. The downstairs room is crowded with furniture that would normally be regarded as a sign of prosperity; however, it is clear that much of the furniture is for show rather than use. The house is clean and bright, an indication that the family, though poor, is respectable.

Alice Wilson’s cellar

Alice Wilson’s cellar. Home of the washerwoman, sick nurse, and herbalist Alice Wilson; a basement room at 14 Barber Street in Manchester. Her single room serves as both bedroom and workroom. Like the Bartons’ house, it is clean and whitewashed, but it is also damp. Alice has fewer possessions than the Bartons, so there is a stark contrast between her bare room and their crowded house.

Legh’s house

Legh’s house. Home of Job Legh and his granddaughter Mary Barton, in a Barber Street apartment above Alice Wilson’s cellar. Legh is an amateur entomologist, and his room is like a “wizard’s dwelling,” crowded with display cases, books, and scientific instruments.


*Manchester. Industrial city in central England. Central Manchester, the oldest part of the town, is the site of Carson’s mill, which is located on a street consisting of public houses, pawnbrokers’ shops, rag and bone warehouses, poor grocery shops, and crowded alleys and back streets. It is a rundown area susceptible to fire.

Davenport’s cellar

Davenport’s cellar. Home of Ben Davenport, a man thrown out of work by the fire at Carson’s mill, on Berry Street. His court is not paved, and the central gutter on his building does not drain as well as that in the Bartons’ court. His cellar is dark, dirty, and not whitewashed, and its windows are broken. The cellar is damp and cold. Davenport, his wife, and several children live in the cellar, and Davenport is dying of typhoid brought on by the place’s unhealthy conditions. His cellar is a stark contrast to Alice Wilson’s cellar.

Carson’s house

Carson’s house. Home of Mr. Carson, the owner of the mill. Located far from the mill, almost in the country, the large house is well decorated and staffed by servants. When Jem Wilson is sent to Carson’s house to get an infirmary order for Davenport, he waits in a kitchen, wherein the life of the house is laid open to him. Even the servants live luxurious lives in comparison to his own, and they are at first unaware that he is starving. Wilson is received by the Carsons at the breakfast table in the well-appointed library, which acts as a counterpoint to his own much less comfortable house.


*Liverpool. Major English port city on the west coast to which Mary goes to find an alibi for Jem Wilson when he is accused of murder. Liverpool is a seafaring city, with the docks in the center of the city. Manchester is compared unfavorably with Liverpool as a “nasty, smoky hole.”

Sturgis’s house

Sturgis’s house. Home of Ben Sturgis in which Mary Barton takes refuge after she is taken out by boat to catch Will Wilson’s ship before it sails; there she recuperates after an illness. The old-fashioned house was built long before the rest of the houses on its street and looks as though it belongs to a country town. The house represents a return to an older, better time, and emphasis is laid once again on light and on cleanliness, with hints of the exotic in the objects brought back from a foreign country by the sailor.

BibliographyBrodetsky, Tessa. Elizabeth Gaskell. Leamington, England: Berg, 1986. The chapter on Mary Barton places the novel within the historic, economic, and social events leading up to the Chartist movement and trade unionism. Brodetsky also examines the theme of miscommunication in the novel and gives an extended analysis of the characters.Easson, Angus. Elizabeth Gaskell. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979. Easson analyzes the novel within the framework of Gaskell’s biography. He points out the contradiction between Gaskell’s organic and Christian view of society and her representation of the social deprivation of the poor. He also briefly describes some of the contemporary reactions to the novel.Lansbury, Coral. Elizabeth Gaskell. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Although Lansbury sees the discrepancy between the novel’s events and the narrator’s attitude of placation as the major difficulty in the novel, she also points out that some of this placation was necessary given the censorship of the time. It was believed that depictions of trade unions and strikes had to be critical, because it was thought that a positive depiction would bring on more social unrest. In these circumstances, Lansbury sees Gaskell’s central focus on the working class as remarkable.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. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1967. Concludes that Gaskell was unwilling to deal with the implications of sweeping social change and fell back on the weak suggestion that mere conversation could reconcile master and servant. Points out that she did, however, succeed in showing the masses as being composed of individuals.Schor, Hilary M. Scheherezade in the Marketplace: Elizabeth Gaskell and the Victorian Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Discusses Gaskell as a woman writer in Victorian England. In the analysis of Mary Barton, Schor explores Gaskell’s use of a romantic plot and a marriage-bound heroine to critique an authoritarian political and social structure.Spencer, Jane. Elizabeth Gaskell. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Provides a good overview of the writer and her works. Points out that Gaskell’s intention in Mary Barton was to provide a voice for the working class and that she was addressing her own group, the largely Unitarian Manchester establishment. Notes, bibliography, and index.Stoneman, Patsy. Elizabeth Gaskell. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. Notes that in Mary Barton the author opposes a working class, with its feminine, nurturing virtues, to a middle class characterized by masculine vices. This anticipates later books that deal specifically with issues of gender. Bibliography and index.Wheeler, Michael. The Art of Allusion in Victorian Fiction. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979. In a chapter on Mary Barton entitled “Dives versus Lazarus,” Wheeler explains the significance of many of Gaskell’s references. The often criticized structure of the novel is justified by Gaskell’s basing her work on the biblical Dives-Lazarus story.Yeazell, Ruth Bernard. “Why Political Novels Have Heroines: Sybil, Mary Barton, and Felix Holt.” Novel 18, no. 2 (Winter, 1985): 126-144. Yeazell examines the interaction between plots of courtship and politics, finding that the events in the political plot give the heroine the ability to speak (even before she is spoken to), whereas the actions of the politically dangerous hero in the political plot give way to those of the sexually passive young woman.
Categories: Places