24 May 2013

Isabella Banks: The Manchester Man (1976)

The Manchester Man (1876) is a triple-decker novel by 'Mrs. G. Linnæus Banks' according to the cover, although we probably prefer to call her Isabella Banks in a feminist age. This is a regional novel in that the author was born in Manchester and all of the events take place in Manchester or the surrounding area, and Banks self-consciously makes use of her considerable knowledge of local history throughout the novel. Several characters in the book also existed in the 'real' world: the radicals Henry 'Orator' Hunt (1773–1835) and Samuel Bamford (1788–72); the teacher Mrs Broadbent (a presence apparently strongly recognized by at least one ex-pupil); but above all Joshua Brookes (1754–1821), the eccentric clergyman Banks felt she couldn't exclude from this portrait of the Manchester of the early nineteenth century.

The book begins in 1799 with the saving of an orphan baby in the flooded River Irk by the tanner Simon Clegg, who brings him up as Jabez Clegg. Living in a deprived (but loving) environment, Jabez shows great promise and is granted a place at the Blue Coat School, but finds a lifelong enemy in privileged Laurence Aspinall from the neighbouring school, who calls Jabez a 'charity boy'. But within a little more than three decades Jabez – a person of 'lowly' birth who was expected to conform to the limitations of his caste (as class was then considered to be) – rises from an apprenticeship in Ashton's smallware business, through a respected position in the same firm, to a joint partnership with the large, thriving business of Ashton, Chadwick and Clegg: he is of course The Manchester Man. And he marries the two men's daughters: first Ellen Chadwick until she dies, and then (his lifelong love) Augusta Ashton.

What my above summary ignores is the dichotomy between Jabez Clegg and Laurence Aspinall: essentially, Jabez is a self-effacing angel, and Laurence is a juvenile frog-roaster who becomes an alcoholic, adulterous wife batterer. That perhaps sounds a little reductive, but in the first two volumes it is difficult for the reader to identify with the angelic Jabez: for instance, he refuses to identify Laurence as his (very violent) aggressor, and when he marries Ellen it is essentially because she will wilt away without him: only when we see the conflict within him during his first marriage does a more than cardboard version of him begin to emerge. There is, of course, never any question that Laurence will manifest any humanity, apart from by subterfuge.

The shadow of Dickens is very large here, and in some respects this book can be seen as a (weaker) northern version of some of Dickens's novels.

The local history in this book, especially that relating to literature, is interesting. In the 1896 edition of The Manchester Man, in a note in the Appendix about the Sun Inn, Banks states:
'I am not aware of any ancient record of this inn, either as a licensed house or a private abode. It was brought into prominence when Mr. William Earnshaw, a native of Colne, one of my father's old friends, and the father of one of my pupils, migrated from Cheetham to become the landlord, drew round him the literary men of the town, and inscribed the legend on the front, "Poets' Corner." This was in the early forties, when John Critchley Prince was in the ascendant and lived over the way. A glimpse of the inn may be seen through the College Gateway initial, and again, in the larger view of the Old Grammar School, comes a shoulder of antiquarian interest where a narrow strip of window marks the sometime "Poets' Fratorium."
Sadly, as far as I'm aware there is now no evidence of the pub's existence (for instance in the form of a plaque, etc) in this area.

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