Lancashire Day holds a proud and established history in the county, commemorating the day on which the first-elected representatives called to London by King Edward I in 1295. On 27 November we celebrate its history and how it has shaped the rest of the nation.
In Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel, Mary Barton (1848), John Barton makes the journey down to London as a part of the vast crowd that presents the 1839 Chartist Petition to Parliament, demanding, among other things, the universal right to vote for all men and salaries for MPs. In both the novel and in history, the petition was rejected by Parliament.
A Meaningful Voice
Though representation through voting is denied to the working-class men of Mary Barton and in her other regional novels, Elizabeth Gaskell instead seeks to give these characters meaningful voices through her inclusion of the Lancashire dialect. Responding to a reader’s critique of the character John Barton, Elizabeth writes that ‘There are many such whose lives are magic poems which cannot take formal language’. Where previous dialect writers made their characters’ speech into satirical caricatures, Elizabeth perceives dialect as an opportunity to showcase the rich history and sentiment of her own county.
Both Elizabeth and William Gaskell were keenly interested in the way in which the Lancashire dialect had its roots in Anglo-Saxon and in usage by canonical authors. Mary Barton is filled with footnotes pointing to Chaucer, Lydgate, and Shakespeare, while William Gaskell gave lectures on the way in which Lancashire’s dialect was a truer form of English through its close links to Anglo-Saxon, as opposed to Latinate, words.
Gift of the Gab
The dialect in Elizabeth’s novels is never used for a quick laugh. Rather, she frequently uses dialect as a means to reconcile opposing points of view. In North and South (1854), the southern protagonist Margaret Hale cannot truly understand the dynamics of Milton until she speaks at length with the millworker John Higgins. Elizabeth brings the voice of Lancashire into the popular and respected literary sphere through ‘the gift of the gab’ (Mary Barton). Enjoyed by thousands both then and now, Elizabeth Gaskell’s work challenges her readers to engage with the—often difficult—realities of life in nineteenth-century Lancashire.
Elizabeth and William Gaskell were keen advocates of Lancashire’s history and vibrant present, and they shaped Manchester as a centre of intellectual and artistic prestige. Both during their lifetime and since its reopening in 2014, Elizabeth Gaskell’s House has served as a key cultural space in Lancashire.
To celebrate the rich heritage of the county this Lancashire Day, why not visit the fully-restored house, gardens, and exhibitions at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House?
We are open to visitors on each Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday, with a fantastic programme of online events. Find out more
Georgia Thurston, Volunteer and academic