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.