Elizabeth Gaskell wrote her first novel, Mary Barton, at the suggestion of her husband - in order to take her mind off of her infant son William's death from scarlet fever in 1845. The plot is based on the real-life murder of a progressive mill owner in 1831. Gaskell relied on inspiration from previously published industrial fiction, her keen observations of Manchester life, and her vivid imagination. The publishing house Chapman and Hall bought the manuscript for a hundred pounds and published the novel, then called "A Tale of Manchester Life", on October 25th, 1848 under Gaskell's pseudonym Cotton Mather Mills. Her true identity came out by 1849. Originally, Gaskell planned to title the novel John Barton, after the man she believed to be the hero of the story.
Gaskell's sympathetic depiction of Manchester factory workers garnered much critical attention from the higher circles of English society. Charles Dickens was impressed with her work and asked Gaskell to contribute to his periodical, Household Words. While critics and literati praised Gaskell's work, public reactions varied greatly, depending on the individual reader's political and social leanings. For instance, many affluent factory owners felt that Gaskell had unfairly represented their class. However, against the backdrop of sentimentalism and social reform, many others applauded Gaskell's pioneering efforts to expose the backlash against the Industrial Revolution. More radical social visionaries believed that the author had risked too little in her exposure of the appalling conditions in which the working masses lived. Whether the reactions were good or bad, one thing was sure. The author of Mary Barton quickly became something of a celebrity.
Mary Barton is an ambitious undertaking, covering the years between 1839-1842 and comprising such diverse themes as romance, mystery and class-conflict. However fantastic the plot may be, the novel is rooted in truth and in fact mirrors many aspects of Gaskell's own experiences as a minister's wife, serving the poor and downtrodden citizens of Manchester. The power of truth drives the plot of Mary Barton, but more importantly, truth is Gaskell's guiding purpose. Gaskell acknowledges her desire for raw realism in the preface, writing, "I bethought me how deep might be the romance in the lives of those who elbowed me daily in the busy streets of the town in which I resided." She writes to give a voice to those who are not heard in order to reveal the common humanity that can serve to unite social classes.