Working on her first novel, which would come to be known as Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell sent an unfinished copy to her friends Mary and William Howitt. The Howitts were a literary and somewhat radical family. William was a published novelist and editor of his own journal (which Gaskell contributed to as ‘Cotton Mather Mills’). Mary translated Hans Christian Anderson into English and wrote poetry. They had great hopes for Gaskell’s novel and wrote:
We were both delighted with it
Upon it’s completion, Gaskell sent it to various publishers. It was returned almost immediately, with the exception of the copy sent to Moxons Publishing House, where it languished before succumbing to the same fate. When the Gaskell’s went down to London for a visit she gave the Howitts the completed version. After reading it, William passed it onto John Forster.
Forster had a great deal of influence in the literary world. He was jovial, unpredictable, and domineering. It’s said he would come ‘swinging into the office [of publishers Chapman & Hall] as though the whole place belonged to him.’ But not without reason, many of the Victorian greats: Anthony Trollope, William Thackeray, Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, and Alfred Tennyson were mentored by him. He saw something special in Gaskell’s style and took the time to sensitively offer criticism, for which she was grateful, if overwhelmed:
I wish people would tell author’s privately and fully what are their real faults. I, for one, should be thankful. I try and find out the places where Mr. Forester said I strained after commonplace materials for effect till the whole book dances before my eyes as a commonplace piece of effect.
He recommended Chapman & Hall publish the work. Gaskell wanted to use a nom de plume but William Howitt encouraged her to use her own name, something none of her comparable female contemporaries had done (George Eliot, Currer Bell). She feared it would weaken her authority as an author but Howitt knew the popularity it would give her and persisted.
Edward Chapman paid Gaskell £100 for the copyright and led her to believe it would be published in the Spring. March came and Gaskell waited with trepidation. When some weeks past she sent a letter, delicately inquiring. Again, no word, her second letter was sterner. Edward Chapman finally replied and requested the title of the novel be changed from John Barton to Mary Barton. She reluctantly agreed but confided to Julia Lamont that:
So many people overlook John B. or see him merely to misunderstand him, that if you were a stranger and had only said that one thing (that the book should have been called John B.) I should have had the pleasure in feeling that my own idea was recognized
It wasn’t published until October of 1848. Her relationship with Edward Chapman would continue to be a difficult one —he repeatedly kept her ignorant of book sales, forthcoming editions, and even published the first two volumes of Ruth without her knowledge (publishing from a manuscript sent to John Forster before she had a chance to make edits). When the second edition of Mary Barton rolled out, he did send her £100, but for the most part she had to insist to be paid:
…August is drawing very near to a close and that you have confessed yourself ‘very much ashamed of the small amount you had to hand over &c ‘ the last time; so that this time I am hoping for some improvement in either you or the undiscerning public…anxiously expecting your answer & £100 note, and regretting the day I was ever deluded into a royalty.
I believe Chapman didn’t take her work seriously. It was only the considerable influence of Forster that made him deign to publish her. Gaskell and Forster became good friends, until he married in 1856, after which they lost touch. Her friend Emily teased,
“Lily is deep in love with Mr Forster, Mr F. himself is little, and very fat and affected, yet so clever and shrewd and good-hearted and right minded”
He introduced her to the London literary circle and gave her advice in dealing with Charles Dickens, who would soon become one of her publishers and which we’ll discuss further in Part Two.