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Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel depicts
nothing less than the great clashes between capital and labour, which
arose from rapid industrialisation and problems of trade in the
mid-nineteenth century. But these clashes are dramatized through
personal struggles. John Barton has to reconcile his personal conscience
with his socialist duty, risking his life and liberty in the process.
His daughter Mary is caught between two lovers, from opposing classes –
worker and manufacturer. And at the heart of the narrative lies a murder
which implicates them all.
Elizabeth Gaskell wrote her first novel
about the world in which she lived – Manchester at the height of the
industrial revolution. As the wife of a Unitarian minister she was
solidly middle-class; but she also had close contact with the working
classes around her, sympathised with them, and represented their extreme
distresses in her fiction.