Banks, Isabella (1821–1887)

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Banks, Isabella (1821–1887)

British author known as the "Lancashire" novelist for her portrayals of Manchester and Lancashire life. Name variations: (pseudonyms) Isabella Varley; Mrs. G. Linnaeus Banks. Born Isabella Varley on March 25, 1821, in Manchester, England; died on May 5, 1887, in Dalston, England; daughter of James and Amelia (Daniels) Varley; educated at Miss Hannah Spray's Ladies' Day School and Rev. John Wheeldon's academy; married George Linnaeus Banks (poet and journalist), in 1846; children: Agnes, Esther, George, and five children who died in infancy.

Selected works:

Ivy Leaves: A Collection of Poems (1844); God's Providence House (1865); (with G. Linnaeus Banks) Daisies in the Grass (1865); The Manchester Man (1876); Caleb Booth's Clerk (1878); Wooers and Winners (1880); Geoffrey Oliphant's Folly (1886); The Bridge of Beauty (1894).

On March 25, 1821, Isabella Varley was born in a house on Oldham Street in Manchester, England, into a family of chemists who had an artistic bent. When Isabella's father, also an amateur painter, was unable to make a living with his experimental work, he turned the ground floor of the house into an apothecary and millinery. James and Amelia Varley often took their four children to local dramatic productions, and Amelia's sister, Jane Daniels , who lived with them, told the children stories and histories of their family and the rapidly booming town of Manchester.

Isabella attended schools local to Oldham Street, including Miss Hannah Spray's Ladies' Day School where, at age ten, she unravelled the mystery of tatting lace. When she showed an early proficiency for sewing and design, Isabella's father sold her lace caps, the newest ladies' fashion, in his store.

When Isabella was 12, the family moved to the Manchester suburb of Cheetham. There, she finished her schooling under the tutelage of a local cleric and, at age 17, established the School for Young Ladies. For nine years, until her marriage in 1846 to George Linnaeus Banks, she operated the small school and wrote poetry. Her verse appeared in local publications (the first, at age 16, was the poem "A Dying Girl to Her Mother") before the 1844 release of her collection Ivy Leaves.

By 1947, George's work as a journalist, speaker, and poet led the couple elsewhere, and Isabella's writing receded to the background. The family, expanding ultimately to three children, though five others were born and died, moved often. In Harrogate, Isabella took advantage of the Mechanics' Institute, an educational center. Membership allowed individuals to attend discussions and use the library. On more than one occasion, Isabella was invited to lecture.

Her one constant through the relocations was needlework. For 45 years, Banks created and published a design monthly. It was not until 1863, when George began to lose his battle with alcoholism, that Isabella turned to writing as a means to support her children. In 1865, the author known as Mrs. G. Linnaeus Banks published her first novel, God's Providence House. More than 50 others were to follow in the next 25 years.

Work became Banks' compulsion. Her letters reflect the constant pressure of being the lone breadwinner. Battling cancer, George used alcohol more than ever to assuage the pain, and he frequently threatened suicide. Meanwhile, Isabella's health, fragile since childhood, suffered. During one period of recuperation, she wrote what would become her most famous work, The Manchester Man, which initially appeared in serial fashion in the magazine Cassell's. Not published in book form until 1876, the work relied heavily on her knowledge of Manchester. The stories her Aunt Jane had told her filled Banks' with an image of working-class neighborhoods she had never visited. Two more books, Caleb Booth's Clerk (1878) and Wooers and Winners (1880), sealed her reputation as the "Lancashire novelist."

On May 3, 1881, George Banks succumbed to cancer, and Isabella stayed on in their suburban London home with an unmarried daughter. Though she frequently staved off attacks of bronchitis, Isabella grew weaker and died at her home on May 5, 1887, at age 66. The Manchester Man remains a widely read depiction of the industrial revolution in Manchester.


Banks, Mrs. G. Linnaeus. The Manchester Man. London: Victor Gollancz, 1970.

Burney, E.L. Mrs. G. Linnaeus Banks. Didsbury, Manchester: E.J. Morten, 1969.

Schlueter, Paul, and Jane Schlueter. An Encyclopedia of British Women Writers. NY: Garland, 1988.

Todd, Janet, ed. British Women Writers. NY: Continuum, 1989.

Crista Martin , freelance writer, Boston, Massachusetts