Mary Barton – Elizabeth Gaskell

Song of the Day: ‘Columbo’ by The Verve

mary-barton-a-tale-of-manchester-life-14681614[1]It is a shame that Elizabeth Gaskell has never had the fame of Jane Austen or even George Elliot, and for many reasons. She has been regarded by many critics as having been a conventional, middle-class Victorian wife and mother who accepted the values of her world and who also happened to write books – a feminine dove among literary eagles, Charlotte Brontë and George Elliot, to borrow Lord David Cecil’s suggestive phrase. These critics, who pre-dominated from the waning years of the nineteenth century till the 1950s, tended to see Cranford (1853) as her most representative and important work. In her own time and for two decades after her death, Gaskell was known mainly as the author of Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (1848), which achieved immediate success upon its publication. In the 1950s Marxist critics re-discovered Gaskell, the social-problem novelist whose most characteristic work engages issues of industrialisation, urbanisation, class hostility, and both political and social change. She was seen by these critics as an incisive social critic who used fiction as a vehicle to expose the gross inequalities of class from which all Victorian social problems were perceived to have grown. 

But who cares what ‘critics’ say, right? Regardless of whether she is famous or not, or famous for the wrong reasons, she was a phenomenal writer who could analyse her society down to a T. Perhaps, the inspiration of her life as the wife of a Unitarian minister (of much significance in the 1800s) and of observing working-class life in Manchester during the industrial revolution gave her novels a wider and more socially abrasive canvas.

Mary Barton is the first and arguably the finest of these – perhaps North and South (1855) (more on it on another day) is the closest contender. In this book, early trade-union radicalism and competition between old industrial methods and new is the background to a powerful, often heart-breaking depiction of real, rather ideal Victorian family life.

Set in Manchester in the 1840s, Mary Barton begins bucolically but don’t be fooled by the scenic and ambient descriptions. The scene is a far cry from a scenic countryside but rather she’s setting the stage for a gritty urban novel. We’re introduced to two working-class families: the Bartons and Wilsons. However, soon enough, there are other principal characters who step in whilst the situation changes and misery starts for the entire working class in the mill city of Manchester.

I would describe more to you, but obviously it would be a shame to spoil the book for you. If anything, Mary Barton is a novel of contrasts. The contrast and conflict between the rich and the poor, the men and the masters, is not conventionally based on envy or even class. The men don’t aspire to wealth, at least then; they simply want to feed their families and enjoy simple comforts. As Gaskell shows us, what keeps the men and the masters apart is not class or money, but a more fundamentally unwillingness to acknowledge the other’s humanity. Powerless as individuals, the men join groups which send delegates like John Barton to London and Glasgow to try and gain government support for their cause. However, as shown on their own, they fail. Neither side is willing to break the communication barrier. Ignoring one of their own who wisely notes, ‘I don’t see how our interests can be separated’, the masters choose to hide the conundrum they face from the men, who are described as ‘cruel brutes … more like wild beasts than human beings’. Even as the omniscient narrator shows the just causes of both groups’ anger towards one another and tries to avoid demonstrating a preference, she can’t resist retorting parenthetically, ‘Well, who might have made them [the men] different?’ It takes a murder and a near miscarriage of justice merely to open the door to redemption for the man in each side’s leading role.

You might be thinking, ‘All this is great, but what does it have to do with Mary Barton?’ Well, our heroine is actually the fulcrum of the characters and the plot, connecting almost every character to another. Through the influence of positive and negative models, she is transformed from a heedless young girl into a courageous woman who is able to withstand the pull of her divided loyalties.

In some ways, Mary Barton lacks some of the psychological depth and nuances that make Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (1866) more interesting and engaging. Despite the ease of characterisations and assumptions, Mary Barton is a surprisingly stark, unvarnished look at the poorer, seamier side of urban industrial life. Gaskell with this accomplishes what the masters and men have failed to do – she recognises the humanity in each of them and hints at its potential if only it were discovered and embraced.

It is a heart-breaking yet uplifting novel to read. But even though there is tragedy, ultimately we also see redemption. A magnificent work that is grippingly told.

Till Next Post!


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