Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life, Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell
Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell
The following entry presents criticism of Gaskell's novel Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (1848). See also, Cranford Criticism and Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell Criticism.
Gaskell's first novel, Mary Barton, offers a sympathetic representation of the lives of the working class during a period of rapid industrialization and economic depression. Set in the manufacturing hub of nineteenth-century England, Manchester, the work combines the characteristics of a sentimental romance with the features of a social-problem novel—a genre that was at the height of its popularity during this time.
Gaskell, the daughter of a Unitarian minister, was born in London to Elizabeth and William Stevenson on September 29, 1810. Her mother died a year after Gaskell was born, and she was sent to live in rural Cheshire with an aunt. There she attended a school for girls and studied languages and the fine arts. In 1831 Gaskell traveled to Newcastle, Edinburgh, and Manchester, where she met William Gaskell, a clergyman with the Unitarian Church, who later taught literature and history at Manchester New College. They married in 1831 and had six children, two of whom died in infancy. Gaskell apparently began writing Mary Barton as a distraction from the grief she experienced when her second child, William, died of scarlet fever in 1845. Encouraged by the success of the novel, Gaskell went on to write several short stories, two novellas, and four more novels: Cranford (1851-53); Ruth (1853); North and South (1855); and Sylvia's Lovers (1863). In 1857 she produced The Life of Charlotte Brontë, her only attempt at biography; it was far less successful than her fictional work. Financially secure, Gaskell devoted considerable time to various charitable causes and to maintaining an extensive correspondence with other writers such as Brontë and George Eliot. She died in Manchester in 1865 while working on her sixth novel, the unfinished Wives and Daughters (1864-66).
Plot and Major Characters
The title character of Mary Barton is a young woman from a working-class family living in Manchester in 1839, during a time of severe economic distress and political unrest caused by Parliament's rejection of the reform-oriented Chartist petition. Mary's father John, considered by some scholars to be the novel's true main character, is driven to crime by the desperate conditions of life among the workers in the cotton mill.
The novel opens with an outing by the workers to Green Heys Fields, outside the town proper, followed by the return of the Barton family to their humble but well-kept home. The family's fortunes soon decline, however, when Mary's mother dies and her father is forced out of work. The other families of the town share a similar fate, and although the poor try to assist each other, Manchester's wealthy families, particularly the mill owners, are indifferent to the workers' suffering. John Barton is chosen to represent the local trade union in delivering the Chartist petition to London. When he returns, disheartened by the petition's failure, he becomes increasingly bitter and sullen, chewing opium to stave off hunger.
The trade union to which he belongs decides to murder Harry Carson, the son of the mill owner—in retaliation for the death by starvation of one of the worker's children—and it is Barton who draws the lot to perform the deed. Jem Wilson, another worker and one of Mary's suitors, is accused of the crime, and Mary must try to clear his name without implicating her father. Originally a vain and frivolous young girl, Mary matures during the course of the novel into a serious, socially responsible woman. She initially accepts the attentions of Harry Carson, believing marriage to the son of a rich mill owner to be her only chance of escaping poverty and helping her father. Eventually, though, she rejects Carson, who in any event never intended to marry her, and acknowledges her love for Jem. The novel concludes with the revelation of the real murderer, Jem's release, and Mr. Carson's reconciliation with the dying John Barton. Mary and Jem marry and emigrate to Canada to escape the problems of urban industrialization and to start a new life together.
Mary Barton was written at the end of a decade that saw Britain's first major economic depression of the industrial era, and the novel describes in realistic detail the hardships that depression caused for the members of the working class. Gaskell's aim was to alert the middle and upper classes about a situation they generally ignored—out of convenience—and to effect social and economic reform and relief for the poor. Gaskell, in the preface to the work, stated that her intention was to convey information about the state of mind of workers who were “sore and irritable against the rich, the even tenor of whose seemingly happy lives appeared to increase the anguish caused by the lottery-like nature of their own.” Mary Barton also suggests that the rich consider change only out of self-interest—especially to avoid the eruption of violence as a result of those “sore and irritable” feelings, as seen with the murder of Carson's son.
The novel offers two possible responses by the poor to the poverty and destitution they face: resignation, exemplified by Alice Wilson; or rebellion, exemplified by John Barton. Barton's failure to accept his condition makes him seek revenge on the upper class; he wants one of the mill owners to experience firsthand what the poor experience all too often—the death of a child. In fact, the suffering of children as a result of the evils of industrialization is one of the novel's most powerful themes—there are several episodes involving children who are lost, injured, or starving to death. The generosity of the poor toward their fellow sufferers is also apparent in the novel and is best illustrated by the instance in which Mary, despite her preoccupation with her own desperate situation, returns to a Italian street performer to give him the last bit of bread in the house. Similarly, the attempt by John Barton and George Wilson to help the dying Ben Davenport is contrasted with the indifference of the Carson family to their employee's condition. Vivid pictures of the squalor of the Davenport household are contrasted with detailed descriptions of the Carson's luxuriously appointed home, thus illustrating the enormous gap between rich and poor as well as the inability of the rich to understand the desperation of the workers.
Such misunderstandings, silences, and general failures of the members of the two classes to communicate with one another account for much of the suffering that is a main theme of Mary Barton. Additionally, the themes of forgiveness and redemption are apparent in the senior Carson's forgiveness of his son's killer. United by the sorrow they feel for the loss of their loved ones, Carson and Barton abandon their adversarial relationship as the latter is dying at the novel's conclusion. Finally, the theme of hope is manifest in the relocation of Jem and Mary to Canada as well as in the birth of their infant son.
Early reviews of Mary Barton were very favorable, and the novel's immediate success turned the unknown Gaskell into a celebrity. The book was not only popular with readers, but also garnered praise from such literary notables as Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle. A. B. Hopkins suggests that this novel was superior to similar examples of the social problem genre and that it “made the social novel respectable.” Hopkins claims that it “was the first novel to combine sincerity of purpose, convincing portrayal of character, and a largely unprejudiced picture of certain aspects of industrial life.” Critics don't necessarily agree, however, on whether that picture of working-class life is realistic or not. While John Lucas considers Mary Barton an improvement over other social problem novels in terms of realism, he nonetheless believes that Gaskell sidesteps the full implications of the workers' desperate situation by having John Barton commit murder. The murder, and Carson's forgiveness of the act, allowed Gaskell to simplify the social issues raised by the novel, according to Lucas, because it “offered the way out of her problem with Barton, his so awkwardly leading her to the exposure of false hopes she dare not abandon.” As a result Gaskell can conclude the novel with her middle-class liberal belief in the possibility of reform intact. Margaret Ganz agrees, claiming that “the weakest section of the novel is that in which Mrs. Gaskell offers a possible solution for the alienation so dramatically exemplified in John Barton's struggles. The concluding sections of the novel project her conviction, already suggested in earlier chapters, that a basic humanity is the only standard for successful relations between masters and men.”
Scholars have disagreed on the possible sources for the representation of working-class life in Mary Barton; some believe Gaskell drew exclusively on her own observations of Manchester workers, while others, such as Michael Wheeler and Monica Correa Fryckstedt, have suggested that Gaskell's familiarity with earlier industrial fiction also provided inspiration for the novel. Wheeler feels that the influence of earlier literature is one of the work's strong points.
Some critics have suggested that the social problem plot of Mary Barton is weakened by the addition of the romance plot, to which it is apparently unrelated. Jack L. Culross, however, answers charges that the novel lacks unity because of the pairing of the two narrative strands, claiming that “both plots are important because their themes counterpoint each other.” Jem and Mary's migration to Canada, a new land unsullied by the problems associated with Manchester, provides, according to Culross, “a fitting ending to a novel not about industrialism, but about hope.” Patsy Stoneman also believes the domestic plot line is important in order for the novel to develop “a contrast between two ethical systems, that of the working class, based on caring and cooperation, and that of the middle class, based on ownership, authority and the law.” Marjorie Stone believes that scholarly concern with the two plots has implications for gender politics; she maintains that “those who divide the world of Mary Barton into an implicitly or explicitly male political sphere and a female private sphere, or who split the ‘social-problem’ or ‘tragic’ from the ‘romance’ or ‘domestic’ plot of the novel, endorse gender-inflected paradigms that Gaskell's own novelistic practice repeatedly subverts.” Lisa Surridge has studied Gaskell's representations of masculinity in Mary Barton and concludes that although middle-class men in the world of the novel are usually not portrayed as nurturing or represented as “real men,” Gaskell's work is unique in presenting a “pattern of working-class men caring for children,” as well as several male characters acting as nurses to the sick and injured, and proposes a new paradigm for manhood. Pearl L. Brown answers those critics who charge that Margaret Hale, the heroine in Gaskell's North and South, is a more highly evolved female character than Mary Barton. Brown suggests that the years between the publication of the two novels represented, at least in Gaskell's view, a decline rather than a period of progress in the condition of women.
*Life In Manchester. 2 vols. [as Cotton Mather Mills] (short stories) 1848
Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life. 2 vols. [published anonymously] (novel) 1848
†Cranford [published anonymously] (novel) 1851-53
Ruth. 3 vols. [published anonymously] (novel) 1853
Lizzie Leigh and Other Tales [published anonymously] (short stories) 1855
North and South. 2 vols. [published anonymously] (novel) 1855
The Life of Charlotte Brontë (biography) 1857
My Lady Ludlow (novella) 1858
Round the Sofa. 2 vols. (short stories) 1859
Right at Last and Other Tales (short stories) 1860
Cousin Phillis: A Tale (novella) 1863
Sylvia's Lovers. 3 vols. (novel) 1863
‡Wives and Daughters: An Every-Day Story (unfinished novel) 1864-66
The Grey Woman and Other Tales (short stories) 1865
The Works of Mrs. Gaskell. 8 vols. (novels, novellas, short stories, poetry, essays, sketches, and biography) 1906-11
The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell (letters) 1966
*Contains the short stories “Libbie Marsh's Three Eras,” “The Sexton's Hero,” and “Christmas Storms and Sunshine.”
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SOURCE: Hopkins, A. B. “The First Novel.” In Elizabeth Gaskell: Her Life and Work, pp. 67-83. London: John Lehmann, 1952.
[In the following excerpt, Hopkins explores the conditions surrounding the composition and publication of Mary Barton.]
It is unnecessary to assume at this juncture that had it not been for the loss of her child, Mrs. Gaskell might never have become a writer. There are signs that she was interested in authorship before she turned to it as assuagement of her sorrow. But this personal bereavement and her husband's suggestion may have brought into sharper, more immediate focus yearnings which, owing to the domestic responsibilities of her early married life, she may have felt, in a professional sense, scarcely possible of realization. For although a little over a year later, a fresh source of distraction came in the birth of her last child, Julia Bradford, in September of 1846, from the latter part of 1845 on she seems to have turned her attention seriously to composition. In the next two years she must have found periods for absorbing, uninterrupted work in order to have produced three stories and a full-length novel by 1847. Thus William's suggestion that she try to write a novel must have been planted in fertile soil.
It is significant that Mrs. Gaskell's first impulse had been to write of country life, and that she was deflected from this purpose by the pressure...
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SOURCE: Handley, Graham. “Mrs. Gaskell's Reading: Some Notes on Echoes and Epigraphs in Mary Barton.” Durham University Journal 28, no. 3 (June 1967): 131-38.
[In the following essay, Handley examines some of the epigraphs used in Gaskell's novel and their relevance to the meaning of the work as a whole.]
In her first novel, Mrs. Gaskell followed the practice of some of her predecessors and contemporaries in prefixing epigraphs to each of the chapters. This is a commonplace in fiction—certainly it was used by Dorothy Sayers as late as the 1930's—and it also occurs in nineteenth century narrative poetry. Of the eighteenth century writers Mrs. Radcliffe, close on the Romantic period, indulges lavishly in the form, raiding the larder of minor poetry in order to supply herself with appropriate quotations of a morbid or merely scenic value. Since none of the major eighteenth century novelists uses the convention, she would appear to be the precursor of Susan Ferrier and Scott; in the mid-Victorian period, apart from Mrs. Gaskell, we find George Eliot, towards the end of her career, and Hardy, at the beginning of his, employing the epigraph with a varying degree of frequency.
This paper in no sense seeks to give undue weight to the importance of the epigraph. When the history of its usage comes to be written no doubt proper stress will be given to its place in the total scheme...
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SOURCE: Lucas, John. “Mrs. Gaskell and Brotherhood.” In Tradition and Tolerance in Nineteenth-Century Fiction: Critical Essays on Some English and American Novels, edited by David Howard, John Lucas, and John Goode, pp. 141-205. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967.
[In the following excerpt, Lucas attributes the flaws in Mary Barton to Gaskell's failure to deal honestly with the social conditions she was attempting to represent.]
Was it embracing or aiding was most in my mind.
It is probably easier to explain the purpose of this essay than to justify it, for it may well seem to fall between two stools. Basically my subject is the social-problem novel of the 1840s and 1850s, yet though several of these novels come into the discussion it is not really meant to provide a survey account, because of the hundreds of novels that belong to the genre a mere handful repay reading. On the other hand, I am not trying to provide an assessment of one writer in any depth. True, much the largest part of what I have to say is about Mrs. Gaskell, but I say it in what may appear a niggardly manner. It is not only that I have to leave her best work out of account, but that the novels I am concerned with—Mary Barton and North and South—interest me at least as much for their...
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SOURCE: Ganz, Margaret. “The Social Conscience.” In Elizabeth Gaskell: The Artist in Conflict, pp. 49-131. New York: Twayne, 1969.
[In the following excerpt, Ganz discusses the authenticity of Gaskell's representation of working-class problems in Mary Barton.]
I MARY BARTON (1848)
The immediate appeal of Mary Barton is easily demonstrable by the many enthusiastic critical reviews, the large audience of readers, and the accolades of such important literary figures as Dickens, Carlyle, and Walter Savage Landor,1 but the precise reasons for that appeal are not so immediately evident. The work did appropriately appear at the end of a decade of social unrest and, although it rehearsed only the beginnings of that period (the years 1839-42 in particular) its basic appraisal of social problems had not lost its pertinence.2 Sheer timeliness, however, was not fully responsible for its success.
Inevitably led to compare Mrs. Gaskell's work with previous studies of social conditions in fiction, critics generally agree that Mary Barton's special significance, aside from its great authenticity, lay in its capacity not only to stimulate the imagination but to arouse the social conscience of its readers. Obviously Harriet Martineau's Illustrations of Political Economy (1834) could hardly have achieved the same result: such...
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SOURCE: Wheeler, Michael D. “The Writer as Reader in Mary Barton.” Durham University Journal 36, no. 1 (December 1974): 92-102.
[In the following essay, Wheeler investigates the various literary sources that may have provided the inspiration for Gaskell's novel.]
Susanna Winkworth was one of many contemporaries who described Elizabeth Gaskell's devoted commitment to her domestic duties: ‘Her books … were only written when all possible domestic and social claims had been satisfied. Not only was she a devoted wife and mother, but her actual household cares were a positive delight to her. She was more proud of her cows and poultry, pigs and vegetables, than of her literary triumphs, and trained a succession of young women into first-rate cooks. Nor did she ever forget the special duties of a minister's wife.’1 We always think of her as Mrs. Gaskell. However, as Susanna Winkworth noted, the charm of her modest, selfless nature helped to conceal her intellectual powers: ‘All her great intellectual gifts,—her quick keen observation, her marvellous memory, her wealth of imaginative power, her rare felicity of instinct, her graceful and racy humour,—were so warmed and brightened by sympathy and feeling, that while actually with her, you were less conscious of her power than of her charm.’2 All but one of these ‘intellectual gifts’ have often been...
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SOURCE: Lansbury, Coral. “Mary Barton: The Condition of the Working Class in Manchester.” In Elizabeth Gaskell: The Novel of Social Crisis, pp. 22-50. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1975.
[In the following excerpt, Lansbury discusses Gaskell's original version of Mary Barton and the changes she made in response to her publisher's demands.]
From its publication in the revolutionary year of 1848, there was controversy and confusion of interpretation over Mary Barton, a confusion that has not been resolved today. Elizabeth Gaskell was never happy with Edward Chapman as either publisher or correspondent. Most writers found that his acknowledged personal charm did not extend to his business arrangements. He was dilatory both in his correspondence and his payments. With Elizabeth Gaskell, the relationship was uncomfortable from the beginning. She had been irritated when Chapman suggested a preface to the novel, relating its events to the revolutions in Europe. She had lived in Manchester since 1832, through its worst years of hunger, disease and industrial strife. To be told that she had written a ‘relevant’ book seemed absurd: ‘I hardly know what you mean by an “explanatory” preface. The only thing I should like to make clear is that it is no catch-penny run up since the events on the Continent have directed public attention to the consideration of the state of affairs between...
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SOURCE: Culross, Jack L. “Mary Barton: A Revaluation.” Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 61, no. 1 (autumn 1978): 42-59.
[In the following essay, Culross disagrees with earlier critics who considered the romantic plot in Mary Barton unrelated to its social plot and claimed, therefore, that the novel lacked unity.]
Although some few critics have defended Mrs. Gaskell for yoking together a public, social plot with a private, romantic one in her first novel, Mary Barton (1848), the majority of scholars feel that the combination is not a happy one. According to Margaret Ganz, “Critics have rightly judged that sufficient material for two novels is to be found in this work. For besides the psychological study of the harrowing effects of social alienation, there is the more conventional romantic story of the pretty and flighty daughter of John Barton who eventually overcomes her frivolity.”1 This largely unchallenged opinion is particularly strange in a formalist age. In recent years we have seen everything from Beowulf to Beckett subjected to numerous structural analyses, and even the most obtrusive elements—for example, the final section of Huckleberry Finn or the third part of Gulliver's Travels—have been loudly defended as relevant, necessary, and contributory to the unity of their respective works. That similar...
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SOURCE: Fryckstedt, Monica Correa. “The Early Industrial Novel: Mary Barton and Its Predecessors.” Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 63, no. 1 (autumn 1980): 11-30.
[In the following essay, Fryckstedt examines early industrial fiction that inspired Gaskell's novel, particularly the writings of Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Stone, and Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna.]
When Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life was published anonymously in October 1848 the effect was electric. Contemporary writers and reviewers alike stressed the novelty of Mrs Gaskell's undertaking. Carlyle, for one, hailed the book as ‘a real contribution (about the first real one) toward developing a huge subject, which has lain dumb too long.’1 Still, despite such assertions, Mary Barton was hardly the first fictional attempt to render the problems afflicting the rapidly increasing manufacturing population of England. By 1848 there existed already a well-established literary genre of industrial fiction and only by placing Mary Barton against this neglected background can we hope to attain to a full appreciation of Mrs Gaskell's achievement.
The success of Mary Barton has traditionally been attributed to Mrs Gaskell's keen sense of observation, her great imaginative powers and her deep sympathy with the poor. In 1974, however, Michael Wheeler...
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SOURCE: Jordan, Elaine. “Spectres and Scorpions: Allusion and Confusion in Mary Barton.” Literature and History 7, no. 1 (spring 1981): 48-61.
[In the following essay, Jordan discusses literary quotations and allusions in Gaskell's novel, concentrating on elements of Gothic discourse that appear after the murder of Harry Carson.]
Raymond Williams has said of Mary Barton (1848) that it is ‘the most moving response in literature to the industrial sufferings of the 1840s’. But he sees also that there was ‘a point, in its writing, at which the flow of sympathy, the combination of sympathetic observation and of a largely successful attempt at imaginative identification’, was arrested. Mrs. Gaskell has her hero, ‘the person with whom all my sympathies went’, commit murder:
… John Barton, a political murderer appointed by a trade union, is a dramatization of the fear of violence which was widespread among the upper and middle classes at the time, and which penetrated, as an arresting and controlling factor, even into the deep imaginative sympathy of a Mrs. Gaskell … The imaginative choice of the act of murder and then the imaginative recoil from it have the effect of ruining the necessary integration of feeling in the whole theme.1
However John Lucas has suggested that there is interest...
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SOURCE: Brodetsky, Tessa. “The Industrial Scene—First Reactions: Mary Barton.” In Elizabeth Gaskell, pp. 13-28. Leamington Spa, U.K.: Berg, 1986.
[In the following essay, Brodetsky praises Gaskell's novel for its powerful depiction of the poverty and suffering of the working-class inhabitants of Britain's industrial cities in the mid-nineteenth century.]
You may tempt the upper classes With your villainous demi-tasses, But Heaven will protect the Working Girl.
Edgar Smith (1857-1938)
Disraeli's novel, Sybil, subtitled The Two Nations, was published in 1845. It deals with what came to be known as ‘the condition of England question’, and in it he describes the lives of the working-classes of the period. The two nations of the title are the rich and the poor, and Mary Barton, Mrs Gaskell's first novel, is dominated by the same theme, the separateness of rich and poor. These early social novels derived their main force from the exposure of the social problems dividing the nation. Other novels in this genre written during the same period include Coningsby by Disraeli, Yeast and Alton Locke by Charles Kingsley, and many of Dickens's novels (in whole or in part), perhaps most memorably Oliver Twist, Bleak House and Hard Times.
The revolution in agriculture during the last half of the...
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SOURCE: Stoneman, Patsy. “Mary Barton (1848).” In Elizabeth Gaskell, pp. 68-86. Brighton, U.K.: Harvester Press, 1987.
[In the following essay, Stoneman maintains that in Mary Barton, Gaskell creates a dichotomy between working-class ethics, based on mutual aid, and middle-class ethics, based on private property and authority.]
Most critical accounts of Mary Barton begin with the a priori assumption that it falls into a clear category of fiction, the ‘industrial’ or ‘social-problem’ novel, which defines both its proper subject-matter—class relations—and its proper orientation—political and economic. The ‘faults’ which most critics identify stem from this assumption. Firstly, they deplore the presence of ‘extraneous factors’ such as the love story and the murder plot (e.g. Lucas 1966: 162, 173-4), and secondly, they regret Elizabeth Gaskell's inadequate political grasp, taking her disclaimer that she knows ‘nothing of Political Economy’ (MB [Mary Barton]: 38) as a naïve acknowledgement of unfitness for the task she has undertaken. Yet her father's Blackwood's articles on ‘The Political Economist’ (Stevenson 1824-5) make it plain that the term ‘economist’ then meant ‘only those who felt that the market mechanism was the best guide to economic development’ (Fetter 1960: 90). Like her father, Elizabeth Gaskell dissociated...
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SOURCE: Stone, Marjorie. “Bakhtinian Polyphony in Mary Barton; Class, Gender, and the Textual Voice.” Dickens Studies Annual 20 (1991): 175-200.
[In the following essay, Stone discusses Gaskell's use of multiple working-class voices in Mary Barton.]
There's a grim one-horse hearse in a jolly round trot; To the churchyard a pauper is going, I wot: The road it is rough, and the hearse has no springs, And hark to the dirge that the sad driver sings: “Rattle his bones over the stones; He's only a pauper, whom nobody owns!”
“The Pauper's Drive” with its grimly humorous, jolting refrain of “Rattle his bones over the stones …” was published as an anonymous poem that “nobody owns” in the Chartist newspaper The Northern Star in 1842 (Kovalev 39).1 The sardonic voice of “Rattle his bones” is one among multiple working-class voices and texts that Gaskell weaves into the “agony” convulsing the “dumb people” of cities like Manchester in England's “Hungary” Eighteen-Forties (Mary Barton 37-38). Death is an absolute dumbness, but ironically the impoverished classes often speak through death in literary discourse before Gaskell's. Carlyle's Irish widow in Past and Present is a notable example, influencing the depiction of Ben Davenport's death in Mary Barton. Gaskell echoes the “The Pauper's Drive”...
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SOURCE: Clapp, Alisa M. “Texts Which Tell Another Story: Miscommunication in Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton.” Michigan Academician 27, no. 1 (January 1995): 29-37.
[In the following essay, Clapp examines differing levels of miscommunication in Mary Barton, including disjunction between individuals and groups in the novel, as well as between the author and the reader.]
“I have tried to write truthfully …”
Elizabeth Gaskell, Preface to Mary Barton1
Though they are works of fiction, novels have historically been judged by rigorous standards of representational accuracy. Nowhere is this more true than with those works of the early Victorian period which purported to convey factual information of contemporary social issues to the masses, the so-called “industrial novels” of the 1840s and 1850s.2 The debate concerning representational accuracy flourished particularly around one such prominent novel at this time, Elizabeth Gaskell's popular Mary Barton (1848). These debates raise serious questions of a written text's ability to communicate accurately and successfully with its readers. I will argue that this anxiety stems from the novel itself where various kinds of texts all fail to bring about healthy communication.
Gaskell's self-acknowledged goal in Mary...
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SOURCE: Childers, Joseph W. “Mary Barton and the Community of Suffering.” In Novel Possibilities: Fiction and the Formation of Early Victorian Culture, pp. 158-78. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.
[In the following excerpt, Childers explores similarities between Gaskell's novel and Friedrich Engels's The Condition of the Working Class in England.]
Those readers familiar with Friedrich Engels's The Condition of the Working Class in England as well as with Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton may be immediately struck by a peculiar similarity in the opening pages of these two important social texts of the middle nineteenth century. Engels begins with a “Historical Introduction” in which he recalls the intellectual and moral state of workers in the years before the advent “of the steam engine and of machines for spinning and weaving cotton” (9).1 In those years, writes Engels, workers were “righteous, God-fearing, and honest. … Most of them were strong, well-built people” (10). The children grew up “in the open air.” Workers were uninterested “in politics, never formed secret societies, never concerned themselves about the problems of the day, but rejoiced in healthy outdoor sports and listened devoutly when the Bible was read to them” (10-11). They had “no intellectual life and were interested solely in their petty private...
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SOURCE: Recchio, Thomas E. “A Monstrous Reading of Mary Barton: Fiction as ‘Communitas.’” College Literature 23, no. 3 (October 1996): 2-22.
[In the following essay, Recchio discusses the differences in interpretation of Gaskell's novel between working-class students reading it for the first time and academic literary critics.]
‘As I read, however, I applied much personally to my own feelings and condition. I found myself similar yet at the same time strangely unlike to the beings concerning whom I read.’
When Frankenstein's monster relates his history to his creator, he illustrates how reading mediates between his experience and his understanding of it. Plagued by the questions “Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination?” (170), the monster looks for relevance, reassurance, guidance, and personal knowledge. Applying what he reads from myth, history, and romance (Paradise Lost, Plutarch's Lives, and Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther) to his “own feelings and condition,” the monster reads the way my students read and the way I still do when I read for personal rather than professional purposes. Despite the recent emergence of personal or autobiographical criticism whose roots are in feminist, reader response, and...
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SOURCE: Guest, Harriet. “The Deep Romance of Manchester: Gaskell's Mary Barton.” In The Regional Novel in Britain and Ireland, 1800-1990, edited by K. D. M. Snell, pp. 78-98. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Guest examines Mary Barton as a regional novel.]
LIVING IN MANCHESTER
Elizabeth Gaskell's first novel, Mary Barton (1848), might seem to be determinedly regionalised or localised: it claims a local character for itself in its sub-title, A Tale of Manchester Life, and in the copious use of Lancashire dialect, supplemented and weighted with explanatory footnotes.1 Elizabeth Gaskell explained in her Preface that:
Three years ago I became anxious (from circumstances that need not be more fully alluded to) to employ myself in writing a work of fiction. Living in Manchester, but with a deep relish and fond admiration for the country, my first thought was to find a frame-work for my story in some rural scene; and I had already made a little progress in a tale, the period of which was more than a century ago, and the place on the borders of Yorkshire, 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 in which I resided.
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SOURCE: Wildt, Katherine Ann. “Mary Barton: Colors of Alienation and Harmony.” In Elizabeth Gaskell's Use of Color in Her Industrial Novels and Short Stories, pp. 49-74. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1999.
[In the following excerpt, Wildt examines the way Gaskell uses color to evoke mood and to portray moral truth in her novel.]
Gaskell uses color in establishing a moral tone as she constructs the plot, character, and themes of Mary Barton (1848). Jenny Uglow, in her book Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories, points to some of Gaskell's scenes in Mary Barton which are reminiscent of various paintings. She mentions in particular Wilson's and Barton's journey to Davenport's dwelling, which is “like a Bosch painting, where naked children crawl in darkness and a dying man lies on rotten straw, with only sacking to cover his ‘worn skeleton of a body’” (199), and the depiction of Mary Barton in the witness box, which she likens to “Guido's ‘Beatrice Ceni’ [sic], facing the court with ‘mute imploring agony’” (200). Uglow also points to the text of the novel where Gaskell herself refers to Poole's plague picture, in comparing “the dying Davenport to ‘the prophet in the plague picture’” (201-2). Later in the text, Uglow compares Gaskell to Ruskin, stating that
theoretically, Gaskell's model of the writer...
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SOURCE: Surridge, Lisa. “Working Class Masculinities in Mary Barton.” Victorian Literature and Culture 28, no. 2 (2000): 331-43.
[In the following essay, Surridge asserts that Gaskell presents working-class males as models of masculinity who are also caring and nurturing individuals, while mill owners are depicted as deficient in both nurturing skills and in manhood.]
In considering the subject of masculinity in Mary Barton (1848), it is perhaps well to remember that Elizabeth Gaskell conceived the novel as being about a man. “‘John Barton’ was the original title of the book,” she wrote to Mrs. W. R. Greg early in 1849. “Round the character of John Barton all the others formed themselves; he was my hero, the person with whom all my sympathies went …” (Letters 42: 74). Gaskell's letter of 5 January 1849 to Miss Lamont reaffirms this: “‘John Barton’ was the original name, as being the central figure to my mind … in writing he was [?] my ‘hero’; and it was a London thought coming through the publisher that it must be called Mary B” (Letters 39: 70). While the “London” title of Mary Barton focuses on the romance elements of the plot (and, by extension, on the female gender role), Gaskell's original title of John Barton focused on working-class protest (and, by extension, on the male gender role). Indeed, there is much...
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SOURCE: Brown, Pearl L. “From Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton to her North and South: Progress or Decline for Women?” Victorian Literature and Culture 28, no. 2 (2000): 345-58.
[In the following essay, Brown disagrees with those critics who believe the heroine of North and South to be a more skillfully created character than Mary Barton, claiming that Barton is a more independent woman than Margaret Hale.]
Assessments of Elizabeth Gaskell's two novels of social purpose typically conclude that North and South, published in 1855, is a more mature work stylistically and ideologically than Mary Barton, published in 1848. North and South is said to integrate the narrative modes of romance and realism more effectively than Mary Barton (Felber 63, Horsman 284), and to provide a more complicated narrative structure (Schor, Scheherezade 122-23), a more complex depiction of social conflicts (Easson 59 and 93) and a more satisfactory resolution of them (Duthie 84, Kestner 170). North and South is also said to deal with “more complex intellectual issues” (Craik 31). And the novel's heroine, Margaret Hale, has been seen as Gaskell's most mature creation—a woman who grows in self-awareness as she adapts to an alien environment (Kestner 164-166) and, unlike Mary Barton, becomes an active mediator of class conflicts (Stoneman 120), the central...
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Barry, James D. “Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell.” In Victorian Fiction: A Second Guide to Research, edited by George H. Ford, pp. 204-18. New York: Modern Language Association, 1978.
Provides a bibliographic guide to Gaskell's writings and to critical and biographical studies of the author.
Haldane, Elizabeth. Mrs. Gaskell and Her Friends. New York: D. Appleton, 1931, 318 p.
Studies Gaskell's friendships and her correspondence with various contemporaries.
Beer, Gillian. “Carlyle and Mary Barton: Problems of Utterance.” In 1848: The Sociology of Literature, edited by Francis Barker, et al., pp. 242-55. Essex: University of Essex, 1978.
Examines Gaskell's Mary Barton and two works by Thomas Carlyle as attempts to convey to middle-class readers the experiences of the working class.
Chadwick, Mrs. Ellis H. Mrs. Gaskell: Haunts, Homes, and Stories. London: Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, 1910, 472 p.
Provides descriptions of the various geographical locations associated with Gaskell's life and the way those places were represented within her fiction.
Duthie, Enid L. “The Industrial Scene.” In The Themes of Elizabeth Gaskell, pp....
(The entire section is 598 words.)