Elizabeth Gaskell – Mary Barton (1848)

Mary is the daughter of John Barton, a worker that is actively involved in the labor movement and is critical of the current means of wealth distribution. His wife dies (along with all of his other children) in the first few chapters, leaving him with Mary, who becomes the object of Jem Wilson’s affection (anothe honest laborer) and Henry Carson’s affection (the son of Carson, the tycoon that runs the show in Manchester). Esther, the sister of Barton’s wife, returns to warn him to save Mary but he ignores her. Carson won’t marry Mary, and Jem knocks him down. Carson is killed and Jen is arrested on suspicion, but Mary (after seeing the piece of paper with her name on it) realizes that her father committed the crime (he was randomly selected to do so by his quai-anarchist Chartists). She tries to get an alibi and only barley catches Will Ladislaw’s ship before it leaves for another voyage. In court, Will returns just in time and Jem is found not guilty, but Mary swoons and almost does not recover. Eventually Barton confesses to Carson that he killed his son but he explains his motives as part of the poor fighting against the rich. Carson reads the Bible and decides nto to prosecute, and Barton dies in his hands. Jem and Mary get married and move to Canada. Margaret (a friend of Mary and a great singer) gets back her sight and marries Will.

Depiction of the working class from the perspective of the working class. She claims her original impetus in the Preface: “when I bethought me how deep might be the romance in the lives of some of those who elbowed me daily in the busy streets of the town i resided.” To this end, the first half of the novel is devoted to “vivid” portraits of daily life in contrast to the sumptuous excess of the Carsons, while the second half of the novel revolves around the murder plot. There is an insistence on the maternal aspect of the working poor (men themselves must become maternal) as opposed to coldness of bourgeoisie.

Characterization is typical Gaskell, who attempts to create characters that are out of her control. A good example is Mary swooning in the court scene. The attempt to make them “life like” will be taken up in various ways by Eliot in particular, but not so much by Dickens or even James.

The mode of observing the streets at street level is merged with more abstract generalization. The convergence is on what we might call “personally verifiable material”–objective facts gathered through authorial experience. There is this an increased physicality and attention to detail that links her with someone like Engels. All this leads towards the goal of conveying “a sense of the real,” in Gaskell’s own words.

The mob: More prevalent in North and South, but the revolutions of the late 40s certainly registers as being connected to the struggles of the working class poor, and the fear that this will disrupt English stability.

The Chartists made demands fueled by economic hardship and fueled by the Corn Laws, which kept the price of gild high.

In terms of narrative, there is an attention to the interplay between knowing and speaking. Various characters can know things and don’t speak them, while others speak without knowing. Both are dangerous. Gaskell herself admits to knowing nothing about Political Economy, but goes on speaking about. The narrator has the most confident voice, but language itself repeatedly fails–perhaps pointing in the end, to a call for better listening above all.

Brigid Lowe (2005) uses Henry James dictum–the novelist is someone “upon whom nothing is lost”–as a way of locating Gaskell at the beginning of a tradition that stretches past James and into Joyce: the figure of the realist novelist who not only orders materials, but gathers and amasses detail. Woolf would complain about this impulse to focus on the trivial (an imposition of a modernist aesthetic peculiarly masculine according to Lowe), even though Gaskell’s attention to concrete detail is what earned her praise, and admiration from the like of George Eliot. Mary Barton in particular claims that workers are the fit subject for literature, in a way similar (but different) to Dicken’s attempt in Bleak House to look at the Romantic side of ordinary life. Pity is not always called for overtly, but the reader is able to feel poverty’s encroachment. In Mary Barton, there is still the hope that classes will be reunited into a social whole. In North and South, in response to criticisms that her first novel was one-sided or overly optimistic, Gaskell would portray the goal of various innovations (of factory owners) as hopefully softening the violence between classes. But the ending of that novel is not so hopeful, as the owner becomes churned up in the very turbulence of financial misery he sought ameliorate by reform, etc.


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