On March 25th 1821 Isabella Varley was born at 10 Oldham Street, Manchester, overlooking Piccadilly and the Infirmary.
Her father was a pharmacist. In 1846 she married George Banks and is better known by her married name, Mrs.G.Linnaeus Banks.
She became a poet and a novelist.Her best known novel The Manchester Man was first serialised in Cassells magazine. In 1876 it was published in three volumes. It’s still read today.
The book had been mentioned to me at a couple of Archives+ events. The anniversary of Peterloo on August 16th sparked some discussion. It was mentioned again at our recent visit to St Thomas’ Church in Ardwick for a Heritage Open Day. The Peterloo massacre is a key event in the novel’s plot and Ardwick Green is a significant location.
Convinced I had read the book when I was younger, I was inspired to get hold of a copy so I could read it again. To my surprise the story was unfamiliar and all the more compelling because I was so keen to know ‘what happens next’.
Strangely, the descriptions of the places that feature in the story sparked strong images in my imagination. Is it because I read an illustrated edition when I was too young to grasp the plot? Has my exploration of our archive collections of photographs and illustrations given me an alternative and vivid picture of historical Manchester?
Old White Lion, Long Millgate,1875
It’s a novel written in Victorian times, but set in the period between the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the 19th century, and the First Reform Act of 1832. Manchester changed and developed politically and commercially during this time. By following the fortunes of a particular Manchester man through these social changes and the opportunities they opened up, Mrs Banks brings Manchester in the first half of the 19th century to life.
It’s a thoroughly good read with heroes and villains who are not simply caricatures. There’s a moral message of course, but the novel is not a vehicle for a sermon. She is surprisingly modern in her treatment of the psychology of domestic violence.
It’s also a fascinating look at the geography and business culture of Manchester as it grew and changed into one of the leading industrial cities of the time.
Mrs Banks died in 1897 and is buried in Stoke Newington.
Tony Wilson, a Manchester Man, founder of Factory Records and champion of Northern culture, has a quote from the book on his headstone in Southern Cemetery.
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.
There’s a walking tour as part of the Manchester Literature Festival this October. If you can’t make that, take a stroll round the archive images of the places that are the setting for the novel.