Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life by Elizabeth Gaskell was published in 1848. This is the fifth edition, published in 1854, and it includes two lectures on Lancashire dialect by Elizabeth Gaskell’s husband, the Reverend William Gaskell.
Elizabeth Gaskell wrote the Preface for the novel’s first edition, and it is reprinted here. The ‘circumstances’ that Gaskell says ‘need not be more fully alluded to’ were the illness and death of her baby son, William. In describing how she considered setting her story in ‘some rural scene’ but chose instead to write about the ‘lives of some of those who elbowed me daily in the busy streets of the town in which I resided’, Gaskell sets out her commitment to urban realism and the portrayal of the rapidly-industrialising Manchester of the 1840s. She would return to this subject in her 1854 novel North and South, although there she fictionalises the city as ‘Milton’.
Elizabeth Gaskell has her characters speak in Lancashire dialect throughout Mary Barton. Her decision to give dialect even to her main characters, including to Mary herself, was a bold one. Other Victorian novelists, such as Charles Dickens, often had their protagonists and most virtuous characters speak in Standard English, regardless of their social or regional background.
The two lectures on Lancashire dialect at the end of this edition of Mary Barton indicate Gaskell’s belief that the use of dialect was integral to representing and understanding the lives of the Manchester poor.