Gaskell House Blogs

The Manchester Woman – Mrs G Linnaeus Banks

17th March 2021
in blog, blogsNnews, Literature, People

Before I was sidetracked by Richmal Crompton, I had wanted to feature the writer of The Manchester Man in our occasional series about other women writers of Manchester. And to celebrate the 200th anniversary of her birth on 25 March 1821, lets explore the life of Isabella Varley, or to use the name she published her books under, Mrs George Linnaeus Banks.

She was born at 10 Oldham Street in the centre of the Manchester above her father’s millinery and pharmacy shop. Her father, James, and her mother, Amelia, were both politically active, and born only two years after the Peterloo Massacre, we can imagine that Isabella heard at first hand accounts of the atrocity that she uses to such dramatic effect in The Manchester Man.

As well as being a literary prodigy, she was a talented embroiderer and her father used to sell her embroidered lace caps in his shop! When she was sixteen, her first published poem, the not especially cheery The Dying Girl to her Mother appeared in the Manchester Guardian on 12 April 1837:

Mother my life is fleeting fast, I wish it not to stay,My happiness has long (…), It came but to decay

Her first collection of poetry Ivy Leaves, was published in 1844 when she was 23.

In 1846, she married George Linnaeus Banks, a rather unsuccessful journalist and editor, and left Manchester, travelling round England with him to his various and ever changing jobs. Some sources suggest that she started writing in the 1860s to manage her grief at the death of her eldest child – an echo of the beginning of Elizabeth Gaskell’s writing career – while others suggest her writing became important as a source of income for the family as George Banks drank more and became less successful. And indeed both may be true.

Her first novel, God’s Providence House: the Famous Story of Old Chester, an energetic tale of love, adventure and highwaymen, was published in 1865. But she is probably best known for her novel The Manchester Man , which was serialised in Cassell’s Family Magazine before being published in three volumes in 1876. A vivid and stirring story of action and romance, it follows the fortunes of our hero, Jabez Clegg, from his humble beginnings as a poor apprentice to his triumphant rise as a wealthy Manchester business man with the newly industrial and booming city of Manchester as both the backdrop to the narrative and as a major character in its own right. When The Manchester Man was followed in 1878 by Caleb Booth’s Clerk and in 1880 by Wooers and Winners, Isabella Banks had consolidated her reputation as The Lancashire Novelist.

The Manchester Man means a lot to us Mancunians! Jabez Clegg was immortalised in the now closed Jabez Clegg pub in Manchester while the Joshua Brooks is still trading on Princess Street. There’s an Isabella Banks Street near HOME, Manchester’s centre for the contemporary arts. Indeed the statue of Friedrich Engels looks down the street from his perch outside HOME. The epitaph on Tony Wilson’s gravestone is a quote from the novel though you’d be forgiven for thinking it had been written by her husband from the attribution – apparently written by G Linnaeus Banks!

Mutability is the epitaph of worlds. Change alone is changeless. People drop out of the history of a life as of a land, though their work or their influence remains.

I wonder if Meta and Julia Gaskell, or indeed William Gaskell, read the book? I can’t find any record that they did, but with a title like The Manchester Man how could they have not! If you have any more information, please let us know…

Lesley – House Volunteer

You may be interested reading about some other Manchester women writers: Richmal Crompton; Dodie Smith; and Frances Hodgson Burnett

Plans are like a card-house-if one gives way, all the others come rattling about your head

Elizabeth Gaskell, 1864