Isabella Varley was born in Oldham Street, Manchester on the 25th March 1821, the daughter of a chemist and amateur artist, James Varley and his wife Amelia Daniels.
As a child she had her eyesight injured by a smoky chimney, but this does not seem to have impaired her too much, publishing her first poem A Dying Girl to Her Mother in the Manchester Guardian at the age of sixteen. In 1843 she published a collection of poems entitled Ivy Leaves.
Initially she had to earn her living running a school at Cheetham in Lancashire, as a result of her father's loss of £10,000 in a lawsuit over a bleaching process he had invented. She gave this up on her marriage to the journalist and poet George Linnaeus Banks on the 12 December, 1846. He had strong Methodist affiliations, but an unfortunate weakness for drink.
After their marriage they led a rather itinerant life (three of their children were born in places as disparate as Dublin, Durham and Windsor) due to George's various job changes. Mrs Banks contributed regular articles at this time to the newspapers that he edited.
According to the census of 1861 they were then lodging at 16 Adelaide Square, Windsor St John, Berkshire, with their son, George aged 4 and daughter, Agnes aged 2. However, by 1864, five of their eight children had died.
They moved to London and Mrs Banks' first book, God's Providence House appeared in 1865. God's Providence House is a house in Chester with a motto over its entryway stating
God's Providence is mine inheritanceThe motto was mounted here because at the time of the plague this was almost the only house in Chester to escape infection. The novel has a gothic plot encompassing slave emancipation and its effect on local trade, and is set in 1790s Chester. Mrs Banks was very concerned about trade and was a member of the Ladies Committee of the Anti-Corn Law League, which campaigned for the Free Trade that was the foundation of Manchester's wealth.
In the same year she published a second volume of poetry Daisies in the Grass, written jointly with her husband. A number of these poems revealed her views on the difficult role of a woman within marriage.
Her second novel was Stung to the Quick, A North Country Story published in 1867. Despite chronic ill-health she continued to produce novels and became known as "The Lancashire Novelist", lamenting the decline of warmth and hospitality in late 19th Century Manchester. Her most famous novel in this vein was The Manchester Man, serialised first in Cassell's Magazine between January and November 1874. It was not published in book form until 1876.
Mrs Banks remembered Manchester before it had been modernised by railways, viaducts and wide roads, and the novel elaborately reconstructs the city at the turn of the century. It also includes a chapter on the Peterloo massacre of 1819. The hero of the novel, Jabez Clegg, is a foundling, discovered Moses-like on the banks of the Irwell. He becomes a textile worker, marries his employer's daughter - after various trials and tribulations - and ends the novel as a prosperous and enlightened master. The whole work is an expression of the author's belief in the ultimate virtue of passive suffering, with Jabez triumphing over the villain by, as Elaine Showalter puts it, "opposing to the irresistible force of sadism an immovable object of masochism."
The Manchester Man went through four editions by 1881 and influenced the novelist Mrs Humphry Ward. A resemblance to it can be seen in David's love dilemmas concerning Lucy Powell, the daughter of his employer and Dora Lomax, the daughter of a vegetarian restaurant owner in the latter's novel, The History of David Grieve (1892).
By the time of the 1881 census George Banks was in hospital and died of cancer shortly afterwards. Isabella, who listed herself as a novelist and poetess was then living in Hackney with her son, George, an artist and designer, and her daughter, Esther, aged 19, who at that time was an art student.
Despite continuing ill-health Mrs Banks continued to write. Two more of her Mancunian novels are Forbidden to Marry (1883), a manufacturing melodrama set during the Napoleonic War, and Bond Slaves (1893), a story of the Luddite riots. Much of her work was published in the Girl's Own Paper and the Argosy.
In 1891 she was awarded a Civil List pension. By the 1891 census she was still living with her daughter, Esther, who had by that time become a dressmaker. Mrs Isabella Varley Banks died in Hackney in 1897.
Her writing is notable for its well-researched and observed local detail and its pacy dialogue. A uniform collected edition of her works was begun in 1881, but never completed. However, she is still remembered today in Manchester, and The Manchester Man was turned into a musical by Mark Goggins, John Goulding, Robert Wall and Peter Birch and performed at the Altrincham Garrick Theatre in October 2000.
The novelist Anne Beale (a contributor to the Girl's Own Paper and writer of numerous novels, including Charlie is My Darling (1891) and The Queen O'the May (1881)), wrote to Isabella Banks in July 1887, thanking her for sending a copy of her novel In His Own Hand:
I am truly obliged to you for sending it to me, and hope to read it when I get home again...You are very kind indeed to think of me, and if I only like "In His Own Hands" as much as I have liked your other books, I know it will give me great pleasure. "Ripples & Breakers" I particularly admire; for your poetry is original & good. I only wish poetry were more popular; but the taste for it sadly wants reviving. This age is too practical & utilitarian...
For Self or For Others? (Girl's Own Paper Feb 5, 1881)
And years afterwards Dorinda Ransome said she never regretted that cold ride in the New Year's snow, since it led her to the safe shelter of a true heart, and enabled her father to distinguish between the crooked policy which was all for self, and the nobler nature which overmastered self in consideration for others.
A Prize in the Lottery (Girl's Own Paper Oct 23, 1880)
If she did marry let us hope she did not fall to the lot of any mere fortune-hunter, but to a man capable of regarding such a girl as a greater prize than her money.
A World Between (Argosy, Vol XXIII, 1877)
But when my dear Alicia came to rule at Tarnbeck, we closed Oscar's room with all its memories, though we never saw his remorseful spirit again after Amy's dower was recovered.
A BRIDAL robe should be
A dress to be worn for the day;
Then laid aside with all perfumes rare,
A treasure to guard with lifelong care,
A relic for ever and aye.
|Reminiscent of Charlotte M Yonge's THE HEIR OF REDCLYFFE, (1853). Amabel's husband of a few weeks, Guy has just died and they are preparing to go to his funeral..."Almost as soon as it was light, Mrs Edmonstone returned, and was positively frightened; for there stood Amabel, dressed in her white muslin, her white bonnet, and her deep lace wedding-veil. All her glossy hair was hidden away, and her face was placid as ever, though there was a red spot on each cheek. She saw her mother's alarm, and reassured her..."...I should like to wear this, if you will let me.""|
SUN AND SHADE
In the summer sunshine
Lilian swings at ease,
In a silken hammock
'Neath umbrageous trees.
Fairest, sweetest blossom
In that bower of bloom,
Care hath never found her,
Naught she knows of gloom,
Scarce has felt the rippling
Of her life's clear stream;
hers the listless languor
Of a first love-dream.
In the sombre midnight
Dora droops alone,
Past and present weighted
By a slab of stone.
In her cheerless attic,
Whence e'en hope hath fled,
Drearily since dawning
Stitching for her bread,
Plying thread and needle
With unflagging speed,
Till they drop unbidden
And she rests indeed.
Shadow and sunshine, light and shade,
Were twinned when day and night were made;
Laughter and weeping, pain and mirth,
Track each other over the earth;
And not till night and day are done
Shall we know the "wherefore" of shade or sun.
GIRL'S OWN PAPER, 1881
Mrs G Linnaeus Banks was highly skilled in embroidery design, producing an original pattern every month for 45 years!
I would love to read the ghostly story The White Woman of Slaith by Mrs G Linnaeus Banks
I would be interested to read a comment by Isabella Banks on Mother Shipton and her Prophecies
Click here to see a list of her works
I would like to read The Manchester Man online on another website