Sunday, February 04, 2007

Gaskell's Mary Barton

[An Entry in the Winter Classics Challenge]

Title: Mary Barton

Author: Elizabeth Gaskell

Copyright: 1848 (public domain, Project Gutenberg offers the full text); I used the Everyman's Library cloth 1994 edition, with introduction by Jenny Uglow).

Genre: Fiction

Length: 390 pages

Summary: Gaskell's novel follows the fortunes of two families, the Bartons and the Wilsons, living in Manchester during the 1830's with the greatest focus on John Barton and his daughter, Mary Barton. England was in a period of economic upheaval and the story references the failed Chartist movement (of which John Barton is a member) and documents the daily struggles of the ordinary working class as they struggle to make do amid scarcity of employment. John Barton doesn't want his daughter serving in the factories and Mary ultimately finds work as an apprentice to Miss Simmonds, a dressmaker. This brings her to the attention of a well-to-do mill owner's son, Henry Carson, while poor working man Jem Wilson also seeks her in courtship. Carson is murdered midway through the book with Jem being accused of the crime. A third family in the tale, Job Legh and his granddaughter, Margaret, play strong supporting roles in the novel. Job is something of an amateur naturalist while Margaret becomes Mary's best friend. Essentially, each of these characters are good people, with the novel's focus being the working out of the problem of unequal distribution of wealth and its consequences. If some have more than others, what does that mean in terms of daily existence, and is the prevailing social model one that is correct and justifiable?

Extract: From Chapter 15,

Four days had Jem Wilson watched for Mr. Harry Carson without success; his hours of going and returning to his home were so irregular, owing to the meetings and consultations among the masters, which were rendered necessary by the turn-out. On the fifth, without any purpose on Jem's part, they met.

It was the workman's dinner hour, the interval between twelve and one; when the streets of Manchester are comparatively quiet, for a few shopping ladies, and lounging gentlemen, count for nothing in that busy, bustling, living place. Jem had been on an errand for his master, instead of returning to his dinner; and in passing along a lane, a road (called, in compliment to the intentions of some future builder, a street), he encountered Harry Carson, the only person, as far as he saw, beside himself, treading the unfrequented path. Along one side ran a high broad fence, blackened over by coal-tar, and spiked and stuck with pointed nails at the top, to prevent any one from climbing over into the garden beyond. By this fence was the footpath. The carriage-road was such as no carriage, no, not even a cart, could possibly have passed along, without Hercules to assist in lifting it out of the deep clay ruts. On the other side of the way was a dead brick wall; and a field after that, where there was a sawpit, and joiner's shed.

Jem's heart beat violently, when he saw the gay, handsome young man approaching, with a light buoyant step. This, then, was he whom Mary loved. It was, perhaps, no wonder; for he seemed to the poor smith so elegant, so well appointed, that he felt the superiority in externals, strangely and painfully, for an instant. Then something uprose within him, and told him, that "a man's a man for a' that, for a' that, and twice as much as a' that." And he no longer felt troubled by the outward appearance of his rival.

Also Relevant: Read hard on the heels of Moonstone and Silas Marner, I would certainly admit that Mary Barton has its faults as a novel. (As Becs reminds me in the comments to this earlier post, Mary Barton was Gaskell's first novel.) The plot, while not a bad one, has points where it creaks with coincidence and moans with melodrama. There is plenty of Victorian piety and period verse (see Didi's entry on that aspect). Having said that, Gaskell's gift for observation and ear for dialogue lifts this above mere sentimental twaddle. In contrast to the costume dramas of television, where much of the impact of any historical period's filth and disease is softened, Gaskell makes sure that we are aware of the foulness of the streets, the dampness of a cellar, and other general suffering in the community.

I like Gaskell's work. Even if ultimately one must concede that Mary Barton is a flawed work, Gaskell has been given short shrift in terms of acknowledging the quality of her work. She is understanding of human nature and realistic in her characterization. Only Henry Carson is shown to be venal in his thinking and that largely due to his understanding of the class gap between his status in society and that of the working class. Mary Barton isn't as passionate in its voice as the contemporary novel, Jane Eyre, but Jane as a heroine cried out against the social forces immediately touching her personal status while Mary is brought face to face with larger social structures that may destroy, not just her own happiness, but the economic and social network of her world.

[My two other blog postings about this book and its author.)