Views & Reviews Medical Classics

Mary Barton

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: (Published 12 January 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:a2721
  1. Neil H Metcalfe, general practitioner, Stillington, York
  1. neilmetcalfe{at}

    Set in the “hungry ’40s,” a decade when the wretchedness of the British working classes was probably at its highest ever, Mary Barton gives a contemporaneous overview of mid-19th century public health issues, occupational conditions, and the health of women as workers.

    Underpinning all aspects of the novel are the living conditions experienced by the family and friends of the eponymous main character. Gaskell’s own experience in distributing soup tickets, food, and clothing in Manchester lies behind sentences such as, “Many a penny that would have gone little way enough in oatmeal or potatoes, bought opium to still the hungry little ones, and make them forget their uneasiness.” Characters are described as living in narrow streets where “never was the old Edinburgh cry of ‘Gardez l’eau!’ more necessary than in this street. As they passed, women …

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