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Elizabeth Gaskell wrote Mary Barton, her novel about working-class life in Manchester, 160 years ago. It was written from the heart, says Sue Wilkes, even though it angered the mill-owners who were her personal friends.

Fire at Marsland's Park Mills, Stockport from the Illustrated London News, 1851 (courtesy of the author)

‘I’ve seen a father who had killed his child rather than let it clem before his eyes; and he were a tender-hearted man …’ Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Mary Barton caused a furore on its publication in October 1848. With its depiction of the vast gulf between the cotton masters and their ‘clemmed’ (starving) mill workers, ‘A Tale of Manchester Life’, as it was subtitled, sparked a furious debate in Cottonopolis. Was it true to life? Did Mary Barton, as its detractors claimed, exacerbate tensions between the classes rather than promote greater understanding?

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