The novel was first published anonymously, but its authorship was widely known within a year.
Early reception of the novel was divided, with some praising its honesty and fidelity to facts and others criticising it for presenting a distorted picture of the employer-employee relationships. The British Quarterly Review said it was a 'one-sided picture', and the Edinburgh Review that the division between employers and employed was exaggerated. They were echoed by the Manchester Guardian and the Prospective Review. On the other hand were the Athenaeum, the Eclectic Review, the Christian Examiner and Fraser's Magazine. The Athenaeum's otherwise positive review raised the question of whether 'it may be kind or wise or right to make fiction the vehicle for a plain, matter of fact exposition of social evils'.
Part of the sensation the novel created was due to the anonymity with which it was published. Gaskell claimed that on occasion she had even joined in with discussions making guesses at the authorship.