‘Mary Barton’ as a historical document

Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Mary Barton’ as a historical document

There are three different readings of “Mary Barton”. The first is as a novel. The second, as a tale told by a middle class intellectual woman in the year of the European revolutions, 1848, and the third, as an historical source of the time. The three aspects are intertwined and yet clearly discernible. In this, her first romance, Gaskell managed to create –maybe needing too many pages for that– a credible background to the development of the drama. Her characters, Mary Barton and her family, friends, coworkers and acquaintances, are well built, and yet stereotypical to what a middle class reader would think of the working class, with a few exceptions to denote some sympathy for their pledge. From a literary technique, her point of view is that of a “present I”: the narrator exists, not as a participant, but as an all-knowing protagonist vying to create a rapport with a group of imaginary readers. This was en vogue in literary fiction and common in contemporary authors as Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte or Charles Dickens. The dramatic shift toward the denouement of the book starts with the workers strike in Manchester after the failure of the petition of Chartists to the Parliament, culminates from Harry Carson murder to the end of Jem Wilson acquittal and makes profuse use of tragic binary confrontations: Mary rejects Jem who does not come back, and regrets it, and refuses Harry Carson who insists. John Barton murders Harry Carson but Jem is accused. Esther tries to protect Mary by warning Jem against Harry Carson but just succeeds to create a conflict between both men. Esther assumes an alter ego of a rich matron to hide her condition as “the outcast prostitute” (158) but this alienates Mary into rejecting her. The conclusion of the novel is its weakest part –the strongest being the construction of the drama through the introduction of the different conflicts and explanation of the historical situation- as three of its dramatic peaks sound improbable and unconvincing: the acquittal of Jeb Wilson; the confession of John Barton[1], and the conversion of Mr. Carson into “improvements now in practice in the system of employment in Manchester.” (388)  There is such a lack of credibility in this last part that the figure of Job Legh has to turn, from a lovely, inoffensive and very old grandfather to a religious advocate.

Elizabeth Gaskell had to make “Mary Barton” more moving and telling for her real audience, that of middle class women, largely unaware of the conditions of workers in Manchester. Jeb Wilson has to be acquitted to show the judicial system as a positive channel of possible justice and redress. John Barton has to confess murder in order to Mr. Carson to engage in a soul searching process so Gaskell could justify the existing social order. Across the book she offers contradictory accounts of the class conflict, all of which just show why hers is called the “middle” class, i.e. in between the masters and the workers. She, together with her readers, wish the life of the workers would not be as harsh and are sympathetic to the heroine, but not to the extent of changing the economic system. The system, then, has to be somehow corrected with people the like of Job Legh and Mr. Carson. To say it with irony, classes have to understand and not be so mean to each other. A possible scenario for Mary Barton’s life could have been, then, her soap-opera like ascension from rags to riches, like when she “fell asleep, and dreamt… of the day when she should ride from church in her carriage… to live in a grand house” (80)

Gaskell is a writer of the working class who uses classic structures. Her chapters are preceded with poems, reminding Greek and Renaissance works. There are allusions to Macbeth, to the Lazarus (11), Ruth and Naomi (264) and Absalom (332) of the Bible.  Punishments are “worthy of a Borgia” (169). There is a reference to the Greek Fury Alecto and to Euripides’ Orestes (213), to Kipling’s Lady Geraldine and to Coleridge’s Christabel. (237) There are even humorous paragraphs as when the Doctor changes his diagnosis according to the demands of Mary (272), and clear contrasts between a dramatic Mary Barton and Charley, who tries to show her a tour of Liverpool. (290) In her political views, Gaskell tries to congratulate herself with all sides. She explains very clearly the doctrines of class and the concept of capitalistic exploitation. But the matter of her sympathies remains unsolved.

Indeed, from the beginning of the book Gaskell makes clear hers is not another Communist Manifesto. It is not a denunciation coming from the working class, but about the working class. And for her is not a very attractive group of people. When introducing the women of her book, “they were below the average” for beauty (6), unlike Mary (the mother), who “had the fresh beauty of the agricultural districts” (7). A prototypical woman worker is Sally Leadbitter, “vulgar-minded to the last degree.” (90) Only Mary Barton is beautiful, explicitly by the end of the book, with “her golden hair” (339) Women workers are all but prudent spenders: “That’s the worst of factory work for girls. They can earn so much when work is plenty, that they can maintain themselves anyhow” (9) The workers delegates to negotiations with the masters are “wild, earnest-looking men… little of stature, and their fustian clothes hung loosely upon their shrunk limbs” (182) This happened in times of “ commercial depression” (85), destitution and growing disparities, when desperation reaches such depths as to cause John Barton to “chewing opium” (118)  Gaskell reaches a  zenith in exposing her class origin while describing with almost Marxist precision the mechanism of capitalistic exploitation, only to state, immediately. “I know that this is not really the case, and I know what is the truth in such matters” (24) and “How far his strong exaggerated feelings had any foundation in truth, it is for you to judge” (26)

Another exponent of Gaskell class origin is that she extrapolates from the harshness of the workers lives into killing –as an author- many of her protagonists, to convey with their death an unequivocal sense of disaster associated with their life. There are way too many deaths: Esther, the sister who slipped into prostitution, cannot be redeemed into migrating to Canada with the fortunate couple because of her “sins”. John Burton dies. The twins die. George Wilson too, of “sudden death”. (91)

A fascinating aspect of “Barton” is the reflection of the daily lives of the workers in Manchester across the history of the 1830’s and 1840’s. These are peak years of the Industrial Revolution, years of change and upheaval. The picture drawn by Gaskell is complete. Everything is there: the vernacular English of the weaver John Barton, the expressive figures of language, like “clemming” – starving. Husbands were called “masters”. Women worked until they married, where they “earned between one-third and one-half of what men earned”[2]. In fact, according to Frader, in 1841 they were 26% of all workers in Manufacturing in Britain. In 1852, they were 35%.[3] We do not see children work –but they do starve, like the “Italian boy” (350). Even leaders like John Barton beat their daughters and wives. Class descriptions are abundant: “we’re their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows…” (11) “How comes it they’re rich, and we’re poor?” (64) “I don’t want money child!… I want work, and it is my right” (115) “They’n screwed us down to th’ lowest peg, in order to make their great big fortunes” (66) The urban environment of workers is peculiar, with “half-finished streets, all so like one another” (14), but terribly poor: “…women from their doors tossed household slops of every description into the gutter.” (60) This is a time when trade unions are starting to expand, as an extension of old guilds, and when because the absence of state services, they have to intervene: “He (John Barton) was in a club, so that money was provided for the burial” (22) But this could not be enough for some others, as “by a few weeks’ omission he had forfeited his claim to a sum of money now” (72)

The main components of the story of the working class are here. The massive general strike of 1842 explodes: “So class distrusted class… And the workmen sat silent and stern with folded hands, refusing to work for such pay. There was a strike in Manchester” (172) We see Mr. Carson wondering if John Barton is an “Owenite, all for equality and community of goods and that kind of absurdity” and Job Legh’s vehement denial of it (384). When John is about to depart to London to speak before the Commons, he is told to “do ask’em to make th’master to break th’ machines… Machines is th’ ruin of poor folk”, reflecting the spirit of the Luddites of 1811. Another begs for the cancellation of the law “keeping childer fra’ factory work” because that work was used for the survival of the family. Finally, this quest fails, as “Parliament had refused to listen to the working-men” (98), a very painful deception for Barton, of which “I’ll not speak of it no more” (103), since it justifies his Chartist idea that “our representatives (are) men who are incapable of appreciating our difficulties, or who have little sympathy with them.”[4] According to Frader, a possible result of the failure of the strike is the replacement in the 1840’s of the current machines with “steam-driven power looms” that enabled them to hire “young, unskilled boys or women to supervise the new machines.”[5]

In each of its three different readings, taken separately, “Mary Barton” lacks in poise, coherence, and fluidity. But with the three intertwined, it turns into a relevant, colorful, and moving testimony of hard times for the working class and a momentous era for European capitalism.

Works Cited

Class notes

Chartism: The People’s Petition, 1838.

Gaskell, Elizabeth, Mary Barton. A Tale of Manchester Life. London: Penguin Classics, 1996.

Frader, Laura. “Doing Capitalism’s Work: Women in the Western European Industrial Economy”.

Louis Blanc: The Organisation of Labour, 1840

[1] There is a change in language in the last chapter(s) to a very religious and pompous one. John Barton’s thoughts are “now he knew he had killed a man, and a brother” (366) Suddenly class differences disappear: “…was no longer the employer, a being of another race, eternally placed in antagonistic attitude…” (366)  Finally, before he dies, John Barton “folded his hands as if in prayer” (373)

[2] Frader, 310.

[3] Frader, 302.

[4] The People’s Petition, 3.

[5] Frader, 299.