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Fictional Philanthropy in Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton and North and South

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 October 2008

Pamela Corpron Parker
Valparaiso University


Among the many anecdotes explaining Elizabeth Gaskell's entrance into the literary marketplace is one circulated by Travers Madge, a leading Manchester philanthropist. Gaskell allegedly told him that “the one strong impulse” to write Mary Barton came after visiting one particularly destitute laborer's cottage:

She was trying hard to speak comfort, and to allay those bitter feelings against the rich which were so common with the poor, when the head of the family took hold of her arm, and grasping it tightly said, with tears in his eyes, “Ay, ma'am, but have ye ever seen a child clemmed to death?” (Hompes 131)

While this anecdote ostensibly explains Gaskell's literary calling as a sacred duty and illustrates her expansive feminine sympathy, it also positions her work within the larger project of nineteenth-century philanthropy. As a lady visitor, she attempts to “speak comfort” and assuage working-class hostility toward the rich, but she finds herself in a discursive struggle with the workman, whose rough vernacular and even rougher hand threaten violence both to the lady and the narrative. Like the Ancient Mariner of Coleridge's poem, the nameless workman compels her to listen and accord him the authority that great suffering demands. He wrests the reader's attention away from the main figure of the anecdote, the benevolent “Mrs. Gaskell,” and renders her speechless — at least for a while. For it is his domestic tragedy which authorizes her literary vocation and enables her to present her work as a form of fictional philanthropy.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1997

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