A. B. Hopkins (essay date 1952)

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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 of the misery about her which seemed to offer dramatic possibilities. In the Preface to Mary Barton she says:

… 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 those who elbowed me daily in the busy streets of the town in which I resided.

It would be interesting to know whether this tale with the scene on the borders of Yorkshire was the one that fifteen years later materialized in the novel, Sylvia's Lovers. However this may be, the story was clearly not one of the three that she must have been working on at the same time that she was plotting her novel. These came out before the novel and they do not at all resemble the tale described in the Preface. They were published in William Howitt's newly established organ, Howitt's Journal of Literature and Popular Progress: “Libbie Marsh's Three Eras,” June 15th, 1847; “The Sexton's Hero,” August 28th, 1847; and “Christmas Storms and Sunshine,” January 1st, 1848. They were all printed over the signature, “Cotton Mather Mills.” In thus publishing her stories, Howitt was maintaining his earlier and strongly expressed faith in her talent. Moreover, these three tales were collected and published in book form, in 1848, at whose instance is not known, with the title, Life in Manchester, still under the pseudonym, Cotton Mather Mills.

The choice of this odd pen name may have been dictated by what the author was reading at the time. She may have been looking into the subject of witchcraft persecutions in New England. Some years later this became the theme of her very fine story, “Lois the Witch.” The figure of Cotton Mather could not have failed to stand out in her impression of that dark era, and so she may have joined his name to “Mills,” as...

(This entire section contains 7958 words.)

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indicative of the milieu of two of her tales, to make up a pseudonym that she felt would furnish a safe disguise. But this is mere conjecture. It is true, however, that for the first few years of her authorship Mrs. Gaskell, like other Victorian lady novelists, was chary of having her identity known, even among intimate friends.

The chief claim to notice possessed by these little stories is their revelation of the writer's deep and genuine concern for the lot of the humble people about her. All of this early work bears the imprint of her personal sorrow.1 And, in consideration of the author's upbringing and the Victorian predilection for literature that elevated, it is highly moral. It illustrates the principles of renunciation and reconciliation in a manner that has long since gone out of style. But in both style and spirit it harmonized exactly with the purposes of Howitt's Journal. The editorial address to “Friends and Readers,” printed in the first number, states that the Journal aimed to promote “the entertainment, the good, and advancement of the public. … Above all, it shall be our anxious care that not a word or sentiment shall appear in this Journal which the most refined individual may not read aloud in the family circle, or which we might not freely introduce to our children.” Such claims to merit, Victorian criticism of contemporary fiction is found to advance over and over.

Howitt's Journal was a short-lived precursor of Dickens' far more successful magazines, Household Words and All the Year Round, which also aimed to amuse, inform, and, at the same time, elevate public taste and morals. To these journals Mrs. Gaskell afterwards became a frequent contributor. So if to our a-moral epoch she often seems over-moral, particularly in her early work, it must be remembered that in this respect she was scarcely more at fault than the best of her contemporaries.

It was very natural that while Mrs. Gaskell was at work on her novel, she should look for critical advice to the Howitts. In her autobiography, Mary Howitt writes, apropos of her husband's having received from its author the sketch, “Clopton House,” some years earlier:

This led to the production of the beautiful story of Mary Barton, the first volume of which was sent in MS. to my husband stating this to be the result of his advice. We were delighted with it, and a few months later, Mrs. Gaskell came up to London to our house with the work completed. Everybody knows how rapturously it was received; and from that time she became one of the favourite writers of fiction.

This statement is scarcely an exaggeration. With Mary Barton Mrs. Gaskell leaped into fame, and the Howitts no doubt felt pride in the making of so promising an author. There is no contradiction in the assertion that she began to write novels at her husband's suggestion and that she got her start from the Howitts. Both are true; her head was full of stories, and all she needed was a little encouragement, from whatever source, to set her off. Indeed the Howitts had a more intimate part in the launching of this first novel than Mrs. Howitt admits here. For it was William Howitt who actually sent the manuscript to Chapman and Hall and arranged the business agreement, proposing to the author that if she objected to confiding her name to them “in strict confidence … we must see whether they will be satisfied to have it made in the name of ‘Cotton Mather Mills.’” But as she will, he hopes, write many other works, “it would be well for them to be known as the works of a lady.” Yet whatever the name was that Mrs. Gaskell agreed to for the title-page, it never saw the light, her suggestion reaching the publishers too late to get in. But as Mr. Chapman wrote her on October 23rd, 1848: “… it is a matter of little consequence, for judging from the notices, the book is likely to make its way unassisted by anything but its own merits”—an opinion that must have been immensely reassuring to the naturally anxious author.

Judging from the correspondence between Mrs. Gaskell, her sponsors, and her publishers, Mary Barton seems to have been accepted by the first firm to whom it was offered. Thus there is probably no truth in the old story that the book went the rounds of the London publishers until it found a sympathetic reader in John Forster, then critic for Chapman and Hall.2 On January 9th, 1848, Mary Howitt wrote the author after completing the reading of the manuscript: “We immediately sent it to Chapman and Hall, but we have heard nothing. Publishers are slow. We will, however, ‘poke them up.’”

As a result of this poking up, no doubt, Forster got around to reading the manuscript whose merit he was quick to recognize. He advised his firm to accept it. So Chapman and Hall bought the copyright for the modest sum of £100. And Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life, in two volumes, was issued on October 25th, 1848.

To repeat: with the publication of this novel Mrs. Gaskell, though for some time to be familiar to her readers only as “the authoress of Mary Barton,” at once became a celebrity. Why should this book have brought its writer such immediate applause? In 1848 Elizabeth Gaskell, as an author, was entirely unknown, and the novel as a vehicle for the airing of current social ills, was, in that century, an almost unexplored field. The social novel was looked at rather askance because it dealt with matters of controversy and with subjects that were taboo in the family circle. The Athenaeum, for example, in its issue for October 21st, 1848, in a very favourable review of Mary Barton, raises the question, however, as to “how far it may be kind or wise or right to make fiction the vehicle for a plain, matter of fact exposition of social evils.” But there were intrepid women who thought it both wise and right to use fiction as a means of dragging these ugly subjects into the foreground. In 1840 Mrs. Frances Trollope had attempted it in The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong the Factory Boy, and Mrs. Tonna (“Charlotte Elizabeth”), the same year, in Helen Fleetwood, both unfortunately, with very lame results. In 1845 Disraeli's Sybil had made more of a stir by its meretricious cleverness and the political prestige of its author. As Anne Thackeray Ritchie remarked later, referring to Mary Barton, the novel which had once been a toy, became a sword with which to fight the cause of the oppressed. The role was not a new one for fiction, but a revival, on more realistic lines, of that impulse towards reform in the late eighteenth century that produced an outcropping of sentimental novels of purpose by Day, Inchbald, Godwin, and others, under the banner of Rousseau. The observations of Mrs. Ritchie and the Athenaeum show how completely by 1848 those ardent calls for the redress of human wrongs had been forgotten.

But the advent of Mrs. Gaskell's novel was to prove a happy conjunction of the book and the hour. It is not going too far to say that Mary Barton made the social novel respectable. Mrs. Trollope was vague and uninformed on actual conditions in the factories. Mrs. Tonna, while better informed, injured the cause by explosions of vitriolic rhetoric against the whole industrial system. In both books the characters are wooden and impossible. Sybil, for all its brilliance, betrayed Disraeli's heart as lying in politics rather than in the distresses of the poor as human beings. Dickens' Hard Times was yet to come—an honest effort to plead a just cause, but weakened by gross exaggeration. Mary Barton was the first novel to combine sincerity of purpose, convincing portrayal of character, and a largely unprejudiced picture of certain aspects of industrial life. Modern studies on the Industrial Revolution, when placed beside this book, show that Mrs. Gaskell is, on the whole, trustworthy.

The action covers the years, 1839-42, the period of the “hungry 40's,” a time in which the wretchedness of the working classes probably surpassed any in the history of the nation. Viewed in a hundred years of perspective, the situation presents an appalling paradox. England was at peace with her neighbours, but at home she was the scene of bitter class hatreds and consequent violence. The decades after the Napoleonic wars had left her free to expand her empire, to make notable progress in the extension of political democracy at home, to build up such a body of foreign trade, to perfect so many mechanical inventions as to make her the richest country in the world. At the same time, she was left free to produce a population, the mass of which was living in ignorance, poverty, and squalor.

While destitution afflicted the agricultural labourers of the period who were suffering from the successive Enclosure Acts of the preceding century, which had little by little deprived them of their small holdings, it struck hardest at the proletariat in the centres of industry, who were caught in a network of profound social change, the meaning of which they did not understand. Believing that their only redress was through violence, they began, in some districts, to smash the machines that seemed to be depriving them of their bread and beer. An iniquitous chain of cause and effect was being created. The rapid growth of industry attracted to the towns unemployed farm labourers, driven by want, who helped to swell a population already too large for its quarters. City planning, where it existed, just as today, lagged far behind technological advance. Although today's snarls differ in some respects from those created by the overgrown factory towns of a century ago, there is still the ever-present iniquity of the slum. While the employers lived in the better districts on the edge of congested areas, inadequate transportation facilities obliged the employees and their families to crowd about the mills. The crude dwellings in the narrow, unpaved streets and courts that spawned in the shadow of the factories, with little light and no sanitation, and often underground were “human rabbit-warrens,” infested with dirt, disease, and crime. “Until 1838 neither Manchester nor Birmingham had even functioned politically as incorporated boroughs: they were man heaps … not organs of human association.” While the more intelligent few among the workers found some solace for their drab existence in evangelical religion or scientific interests that led to the establishment of mechanics' institutes, the majority took their diversion in sex and gin.

Both social philosophers and legislators were aware, in varying degrees, of the economic inequalities existing between the upper classes and the proletariat, particularly the gulf between the prosperous manufacturers and their dependent employees. One deterrent to any fundamental amelioration of the intolerable condition was the fatal assumption that the gulf was inevitable. The new capitalistic order which had been growing in strength since the mid-eighteenth century, found powerful justification of its position in the doctrine of laissez-faire or Economic Liberalism. Social, political, and economic phenomena are governed by laws just as the world of nature is controlled. Hence, the natural order should be allowed to prevail in the conduct of human institutions. Production, profit, employment, wages will find their proper level unassisted. Indeed, one of the chief causes of human misery is interference, in the form of restrictions—artificial laws that men insist on injecting into natural economic operations. Remedial legislation, therefore, will not improve the lot of the poor. Any attempt to equalize the distribution of wealth would be offset by the normal disparity between the population increase and the means of subsistence. The “subsistence wage” is the natural wage in industrial society. Any attempt to raise wages would result in a vicious circle: increase of population and inevitable return to poverty and misery. The weight of authority in the pronouncements of such writers as Adam Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, and the Mills, father and son, entrenched these ideas in the minds of many persons, whether they were actuated by self-interest or by an honest belief that they were working for the benefit of society.

Nevertheless, owing to that artificial interference theoretically believed to interrupt natural processes, some remedial measures had been effected; notably, the Reform Bill of 1832 and the Poor Law of 1834. And even during the first half of the century there was factory legislation in regard to inspection of mills, better sanitary conditions, the ten-hour day, and discouragement of child labour. Yet much remained to be done. The inhumanity of the situation was attacked on grounds religious, social, and aesthetic. Catholics and Protestants (both Anglicans and Dissenters) raised their voices against the mechanistic factor in laissez-faire logic that saw the employee as a mere cog in a machine, and against a doctrine that encouraged the increase of wealth in a single class rather than in the entire nation, the majority of whom were living below the subsistence level. Under the banner of Christian Socialism, F. D. Maurice, Kingsley, and Thomas Hughes helped to improve housing conditions in London and to establish workmen's associations and cooperatives. And the sheer ugliness of the Industrial Revolution, as well as its disregard for the worth of the individual, provoked eloquent assaults from Dickens, Carlyle, and Ruskin who fought against the evils of a materialistic society that offered no spiritual compensation.

Mary Barton should be read as a product of this age of transition in which western civilization was gradually turning from an agricultural to an urban basis—perhaps the chief social transformation in human history, before our present age. Though a simple story, it is a faithful mirror of the wretchedness of the industrial masses—their spiritual unrest, their physical discomfort—a wretchedness born partly of their own ignorance, but more of forces beyond their control and largely unintelligible to them. The author, herself, could have realized but dimly the ultimate meaning of the turmoil of her generation. Yet that she was aware of the conflicting currents of political and social thought and some of the remedial achievements is reflected in the colours of her story. It is a tempered study in realism, not a cartoon. In spite of her modest disavowal of an acquaintance with economic theory, in the Preface: “I know nothing of Political Economy or theories of trade. I have tried to write truthfully: and if my accounts agree or clash with any system, the agreement or disagreement is unintentional”—in spite of this denial, there are indications in this book and elsewhere that she was not entirely ignorant of current economic doctrines. What she does mean here is that her concern is not with theories but with facts—the tragic contrast, whatever the cause, between the life of the well-to-do masters and that of the men and their families; what she was seeing with her own eyes, day by day. And she had been observing this disparity for sixteen years. “I told the story according to a fancy of my own,” she wrote a friend, “to really see the scenes I tried to describe, (and they were as real as my own life at the time) and then to tell them as nearly as I could, as if I were speaking to a friend over the fire on a winter's night and describing real occurrences.”

Mary Barton does not take us into the mill but into the workers' dwellings, into the cramped, rickety houses in unpaved courts, into the dismal cellars where the sewage seeps through the walls on to the stone floors, where children are born and die of starvation, and adults, of typhus and tuberculosis. It shows us the impact of the mill as a system on the minds of the operators. It makes articulate the misery of those who believe that repeated rebuff from their masters has left them only the dangerous remedy of violence.

“And what good have they [the rich] ever done me that I should like them?” asked Barton [who can see but one horn of the dilemma] … “If I am sick do they come and nurse me? If my child lies dying (as poor Tom lay, with his white wan lips quivering, for want of better food than I could give him), does the rich man bring the wine or broth that might save his life? If I am out of work for weeks in the bad times, and winter comes, with black frost, and keen east wind, and there is no coal for the grate, and no clothes for the bed, and the thin bones are seen through the ragged clothes, does the rich man share his plenty with me, as he ought to do, if his religion wasn't a humbug? … Don't think to come over me with th' old tale, that the rich know nothing of the trials of the poor; I say, if they don't know, they ought to know. We're their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows, and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds.”

The industrial thread of the story receives its impetus from the Chartists' futile attempt, in 1839, to put their grievances before Parliament. Government, they believed could not know of their plight; else it would do something. Behind this decision lay a three years' business depression which had thrown men out of work and sent soaring the prices of even the barest necessities. “They only wanted a Dante to record their sufferings.” On the eve of departure, the men gather around Barton, a member of the delegation from Manchester, to tell him what to say:

“Well, there's many a thing I'd like yo to speak on to the Parliament people. Thou'lt not spare 'em, John, I hope. Tell 'em our minds; how we're thinking we'n been clemmed [starved] long enough, and we donnot see whatten good they'n been doing, if they can't give us what we're all crying for sin' the day we were born. …”

“Bless thee, lad, do ask 'em to make th' masters to break th' machines. There's never been good times sin' spinning-jennies came up.”

“Machines is th' ruin of poor folk,” chimed in several voices.

“For my part,” said a shivering, half-clad man, who crept near the fire, as if ague-stricken, “I would like thee to tell 'em to pass th' Short-hours Bill.”

And so on. Barton starts off, full of hopes and commissions.

The bitter disillusionment that results from the failure of the march on London aggravates the general, deep-seated distrust of the men for the masters. This feeling is sharpened into actual hatred among the more violent by the announcement of a fresh cut in wages, with no explanation given them for the legitimacy of the action. Fomented by a labour agitator from London, unwise Trades Union leaders call a strike of the power-loom weavers, which is followed by sympathetic strikes among other branches of the cotton industry. The operators promptly call in knob-sticks (strikebreakers) and the turn-outs (strikers) as promptly attack them. A parley of masters and men, because of the irreconcilable tempers of the contestants, results only in failure. The demands of the operatives provoked by the unreason of desperation are extravagant; foolishly, they will not compromise. Their stand serves but to harden the growing antagonism of the operators. During this meeting, the particularly insulting conduct of young Carson, junior partner of his father in one of the principal factories, goads the men to criminal resolve. Lots are drawn, and John Barton gets the assassin's ballot. Thus the logic of events that leads to the murder of Carson becomes plausible.

Into the industrial pattern is effectively woven the love theme. Mary Barton, the assassin's daughter, flattered by the glittering but dishonourable attentions of Harry Carson, saves herself by realizing before it is too late, that her true affection is for Jem Wilson, a young mechanic of her own class who has been devoted to her since childhood. The test for her comes when she is forced to choose between informing on her father, of whose guilt she is aware, or sacrificing her innocent lover. In choosing to save Wilson, she makes a normal and the only reasonable decision. And in the death of her father from natural causes she is spared consequences that otherwise would have been almost unbearably tragic for her. Thus in tying the two plot threads together at a point crucial to them both the author practised a dramatic economy not always to be found in a first novel.

While the writer occasionally reverts to the staple of romance, as in the fire at Carson's mill and the trial of Jem Wilson for a murder he did not commit, these incidents are vividly realized. And the chief characters are for the most part well conceived. The steps in John Barton's deterioration—the succession of defeats that drive him, an honest labourer respected by his neighbours, down the road of embitterment to murder and to his own death from a combination of starvation and remorse—are made inevitable. He is a truly tragic figure. And the titular heroine, in the end, is seen to be a girl not without some complexity. The enchanting prospect of becoming a lady, the wife of Mr. Carson, with all the amenities of social position, for the time being fills her mind with engrossing desire and dulls her sensibilities to the pleadings of a worthier if humbler man. The turn in her feeling, the revelation which shows her where her affections really lie, is analysed simply but with skill. From an apparent trifler, Mary grows into a responsible woman, and in her defence of her lover she shows the stuff she is really made of. The critics who objected to Mary because she is inconsistent and doesn't for some time know her own mind, forgot that human nature is full of inconsistency.

Yet there is a fault in Mary, not a moral but an artistic one, that did not get removed from the final version. Although the title directs that Mary should bear the responsibility of the central figure, she does not step forward in this role until the latter part of the story. It is significant that Mrs. Gaskell had originally given her book the title of John Barton: “Round the character of John Barton,” she wrote a friend, “all the others formed themselves; he was my hero, the person with whom all my sympathies went.” He was the only one drawn from life, she says.3 She put him in different circumstances, “but the character, and some of the speeches are exactly a poor man I know.” And some years later she made the enlightening admission that the title was changed by request of her publishers. Chapman and Hall, taking the safe and conservative position, no doubt felt that a murderer was not exactly what the public, in that day, would look for in the hero of a novel intended for family reading. Confronted with this problem, the author cleverly saw Mary as a key to the resolution. This necessitated some quick shifting of emphasis; Mary had to be pushed more into the foreground. When this happens, Mary becomes alive—in the latter part of the story, when she begins to know her own heart. But the scar left by this major operation remains. Mary in the first part of the book is still a decidedly minor figure, a rather negligible personality, hardly capable of assuming the major role the author was required to make her play in the solution of the tragic issue.

In conceding to her publishers' demands, in this, her first novel, Mrs. Gaskell acted in significant contrast to her way with publishers after she became a seasoned writer. Then, when disagreements on critical matters arose, she often stood her ground, usually with reason. Chapman and Hall should have known that it was dangerous to require a novelist to swap horses in midstream. And it was unfortunate that Mrs. Gaskell felt constrained to sacrifice to expediency her sense of artistic rightness. For she had not named her novel unadvisedly. All her creative impulse had revolved around John Barton. As he was her hero at first, he remains the hero, in spite of the change in title, and always the most interesting of the characters. From the beginning of her career, when she took her writing seriously, Mrs. Gaskell gave it much anxious care, as testified by many letters to her friends and publishers. Notwithstanding this remark in a personal letter, “The whole tale grew up in my mind as imperceptibly as a seed germinates in the earth, so I cannot trace back now why or how such a thing was written, or such a character or circumstance introduced,” she does not mean that she had written in a spontaneous, effortless way, with little attention to plan or revision. She once told Mrs. Ritchie that she always worked out a complete pattern before starting a story. A statement that is borne out, as far as it affects Mary Barton, by an earlier draft of this novel which differs markedly in the names of some of the characters and in the nature of some of the incidents from the forms they take in the final version.

The denouement, as far as it affects Barton, is sometimes objected to by modern critics for what they call its sentimentality: the reconciliation allowed to take place between the murderer and the father of the man he has killed. But in the light of instances of forgiveness accorded to enemies that have been reported during the second world war, the reconciliation between Carson and Barton can hardly be said to falsify human conduct. What the incident does suffer from is multiplication of its theme throughout Mrs. Gaskell's work; she overdoes the reconciliation motif. And the reason is not far to seek. A deep-rooted tenet in her social philosophy was her belief in the capacity of human beings to rise above their passions and meet on a plane of rational intercourse. She believed that Christian ethics could and should be made to work. And so, in censuring Carson's grim determination that the law shall do its worst upon the slayer of his not wholly innocent son, she says: “True, his vengeance was sanctioned by law, but was it the less revenge? Are ye worshippers of Christ? or of Alecto? Oh, Orestes! you would have made a very tolerable Christian of the nineteenth century.” Seldom is she so bitterly ironical.

Barton, who, in committing the murder, had intended “to intimidate a class of men known only to those below them as desirous to obtain the greatest quantity of work for the lowest wages—at most to remove an overbearing partner from an obnoxious firm, who stood in the way of those who struggled as well as they were able to obtain their rights,” when confronted by the elder Carson, sees him for the first time as an individual, a man, like himself, sorrowing for the loss of his only son. “Now he knew that he had killed a man, and a brother—now he knew that no good thing could come out of this evil, even to the sufferers whose cause he had so blindly espoused.”

After Barton's death, when Carson's mind has cleared, the author brings him and Job Legh, the most intelligent of her labour characters, together in a calm interchange of views on their respective grievances. The producer, Mr. Carson explains, using the familiar argument, cannot produce for the sake of giving employment when there is no market for his goods. Under such conditions capital suffers as much as labour. Old Job replies, striking directly at the centre of the trouble as the men see it:

Not as much, I'm sure, sir; though I'm not given to Political Economy, I know that much. … I never see the masters getting thin and haggard for want of food; I hardly ever see them making much change in their way of living, though I don't doubt they've got to do it in bad times. But it's in the things for show they cut short; while for such as me, it's in the things for life we've to stint …

I'm loth to vex you, sir, just now; but it was not the want of power I was talking on; what we all feel sharpest is the want of inclination to try and help the evils which come like blights at times over the manufacturing places, while we see the masters can stop work and not suffer. If we saw the masters try for our sakes to find a remedy,—even if they were long about it … we'd bear up like men through bad times.

Since Mrs. Gaskell is not sentimental here, she does not allow this interview to usher in a complete and immediate regeneration of industrial society in Manchester. Neither Mr. Carson nor Job Legh entirely convinces the other, yet they part with much better feeling than when they met; and the meeting was the beginning of a change:

Many of the improvements now in practice in the system of employment in Manchester owe their origin to short, earnest sentences spoken by Mr. Carson. Many and many yet to be carried into execution, take their birth from that stern, thoughtful mind, which submitted to be taught by suffering.

No discussion of Mary Barton would be complete without mention of some of the minor characters. Old Alice Wilson, the washer-woman, whose sweet serenity and Christian fortitude sustain her in all affliction. Her querulous sister-in-law, Jem's mother, who is at once pathetic and comical. Job Legh, a level-headed, astute observer of events—wearer by trade, a self-taught naturalist by “profession.” We come to know them through their racy Lancashire dialect as they gather together, loyal to each other through thick and thin, enjoying a rare holiday in the fields which they must walk miles to reach, or crowded in their mean dwellings, trying in their simplicity to talk some sense into life's muddles, now submitting in patience, now rebelling in sullen defiance. They are drawn with a blend of pathos and quiet humour, with a sympathy that is, however, tinged with the realization that the blame for the impasse into which men and masters have stepped does not rest wholly with the masters.

But it was just this espousal of the proletarian cause that in the judgment of laissez-faire economy made the book dangerous. Not only is the story told entirely from the workers' point of view, insisted the supporters of capital, but the labourers are all represented as more sinned against than sinning, and the manufacturers as a class are drawn utterly unregardful of their men's rights as human beings. Thus the reading public will get a very false impression of the employer-employee relationship in industry. This was pretty generally the attitude of the conservative press: the Edinburgh Review, the British Quarterly Review, the Manchester Guardian, the Prospective Review. On the other hand, the Athenaeum, the Eclectic Review, Fraser's Magazine, the Christian Examiner, as spokesmen for labour, praised the book unreservedly for its fidelity to the facts in its presentation of the masters and men relationship. But both sides commended the accurate depiction of living conditions among the poor, the British Quarterly, which carried the longest and the most emphatic diatribe against the industrial aspects of the book, admitting, if a little extravagantly, that “the pathos of some of the scenes is hardly excelled by anything that exists in our language.”

The ablest polemic directed against the novel was William Rathbone Greg's article in the Edinburgh Review for April, 1849. While second to none in his admiration of the literary qualities of the book, he attacks with considerable acumen the author's economic position. An apologist for capital and for laissez-faire, in respect to the natural adjustment of wages and the inevitability of poverty, he charges Mrs. Gaskell with the sin of special pleading. The poor, he says, have only themselves to blame for their miseries; their plight results from their own improvidence. Hence the problem is not an economic but a moral one. Mary Barton is, therefore, “pervaded by one fatally false idea which seems to have taken possession of the writer's mind … that the poor are to look to the rich, and not to themselves for relief and rescue from their degraded condition and social misery. An impression more utterly erroneous, or more lamentably mischievous, it is difficult to conceive.”

If the novelist was disturbed at the time by these strictures, she subsequently found much to admire in her censor. In a letter, written in 1854, introducing him to M. Emile Souvestre, she speaks of him as an “old friend of mine,” and explains that he is “a distinguished writer in our Edinburgh Review. … For instance he reviewed and abused Mary Barton, and we are none the less friends.”

In a letter to Miss Ewart, daughter of a Liberal M.P., Mrs. Gaskell makes it quite clear that she had thought she was writing of particular instances, not of conditions in general:

… I can only say that I wanted to represent the subject in the light in which some of the workmen certainly consider to be true; not that I dare to say is the abstract absolute truth.

That some of the men do view the subject in the way I have tried to represent, I have personal evidence. … No one can feel more deeply than I how wicked it is to do anything to excite class against class; and it has been most unconscious if I have done so … no praise could compensate me for the self-reproach I shall feel if I have written unjustly.

Thus she evidently saw that in spite of conscientious efforts to be fair to both sides, in the judgment of some, she had been too biased in favour of industry's victims. In North and South, her next industrial novel, while never losing sight of the claims of poverty, she tells her story from the manufacturers' point of view.

All told, however, the reception of Mary Barton must have been immensely gratifying to the family at 121 Upper Rumford Street. The “fan mail” that reached the author through her publishers, as well as by less direct channels, came from some of the most distinguished of her contemporaries: Landor, Whewell (Master of Trinity), Jowett (Master of Balliol), F. D. Maurice, Ruskin, Kingsley, Mrs. Browning, A. P. Stanley, the Earl of Shaftesbury (noted as a philanthropist), Eliza Cook (editor of the Journal that went by her name), Samuel Bamford (author of Passages in the Life of a Radical), W. E. Foster (active in the colonization movement as a solution for unemployment), the aged Maria Edgeworth (in a letter written just a month before her death)—all, while not overlooking the faults in the book, give it strong endorsement. “My own father,” writes Mrs. Ritchie, “and Dickens, and Carlyle, and Kingsley, and all the leading critics of those days recognised [in Mary Barton] her great gifts at once and with warm plaudits.” Among the tributes most valued by the author must have been this letter from Carlyle; writing from Chelsea in 1848, he says:

Dear Madam,

(For I catch the treble of that fine melodious voice very well)—We have read your book here, my wife first and then I; both of us with real pleasure. A beautiful, cheerfully pious, social, clear and observant character is everywhere recognizable in the writer, which sense is the welcomest sight any writer can show in his books; your field is moreover new, important, full of rich material (which, as is usual, required a soul of true opulence to recognize them as such.) The result is a Book deserving to take its place above the ordinary garbage of Novels—a book which every intelligent person may read with entertainment. I gratefully accept it as a real contribution (about the first real one) toward developing a huge subject, which has lain dumb too long. … Speech or literature … could hardly find a more rational function, I think, at present. You will probably give us other books on the same matter; and Mary Barton, according to my auguries of its reception here, is likely to procure you sufficient invitation. May you do it well and even better! Your writing is already very beautiful, soft, clear, and natural. On the side of veracity, or devout earnestness of mind, I find you already strong. May you live long to write good books.

T. Carlyle.4

Not a little of the sensation created by Mary Barton sprang from mystery surrounding its authorship. Who wrote it? Chapman and Hall and Mrs. Gaskell were in conspiracy to keep this important question dark. “Am I at liberty,” writes Chapman, on the eve of publication, “to tell your name to anyone? Dickens or Carlyle should they ask? I should like to be prepared on this point and will if you wish it, preserve a profound mystery.” Greg and Carlyle detected the feminine hand; Miss Edgeworth hazarded Harriet Martineau. The Athenaeum and the Inquirer assumed it written by a man. It became a topic of drawing-room conversations. Mrs. Gaskell herself must have got much amusement out of thus fooling her public. It is said that soon after the book came out, she was visiting at Knutsford, and when the subject of the authorship was introduced, she innocently took part in the discussion. But in spite of her efforts to keep the secret even from intimate friends, it would leak out: “I did write it,” she acknowledged to Miss Ewart, “but how did you find out? I do want it to be concealed if possible, and I don't think anybody here has the least idea who is the author.” And Emily Winkworth is sure she knows. Writing to her sister, Catherine, on November 3rd, 1848, she says:

What do you think? I'm positive Mary Barton, a Story of Manchester Life, is by Mrs. Gaskell! I got hold of it last night going to bed, and knew by the first few words it was hers—about Green Heys Fields and the stile she was describing to me the other day;—but we haven't talked a word about it yet, and I don't mean to say I guess it, till I have said all I want about it first. The folks here know it I am sure—they all turned so silent when I began to talk about it at breakfast time, and Mrs. Gaskell suddenly popped down under the table to look for something which I'm sure wasn't there. It is exquisitely written, makes one cry rather too much, that is all; the little bits of description perfect; the dialogue, too, extremely clever, humorous here and there. It was finished a year ago the preface says, and begun three years ago—no doubt to help her take her thoughts off her poor lost baby.

Catherine must have read this letter with high interest, because she had already, without knowing the authorship, written a long review of Mary Barton (thirty pages octavo, in manuscript), on the significance of the book both as “an intellectual treat and as a stimulant to moral energy.”

But even after the secret was out, Mrs. Gaskell for some time continued to be known on the title-page of her novels simply as “The Authoress of Mary Barton.” And by this phrase she is often alluded to in the letters and conversations of friends. It became her ticket of admission into liberal and literary circles. Women of social conscience—Mary Cowden Clarke, Eliza Dawson Fletcher, the Swedish novelist (Fredrika Bremer), and others eagerly sought the acquaintance of “the authoress of Mary Barton.” The excitement caused by the novel at home spread across the Channel, not only to Sweden but to France and elsewhere, and over the sea to America. Much of this came after the author's lifetime, the echoes lingering on in the form of reprints and new editions, as late as 1947. But she got enough of the stir to realize that in embarking on the career of a novelist she was making no mistake. Her literary début was a brilliant contrast to that of poor Anthony Trollope, who, in the words of his biographer, Michael Sadleir, had had the chagrin only the year before, of seeing his first novel, The MacDermotts of Ballycloran, “come stillborn from the press.”


  1. An unsigned review of Mrs. Gaskell's work in the British Quarterly Review, 1867, pp. 399-420, is an excellent example of the Victorian conception of one criterion of literary merit and the function of the novel. Starting with a quotation from La Bruyère, to the effect that when an author lifts your spirit and inspires you with noble and courageous feelings, you know that the work is good and made by a master hand, the writer finds this sentiment particularly applicable to the work of Mrs. Gaskell: “Under her guidance we are always taken into cleanly company, and need never feel ashamed to say where we have been.”

    The modern reaction to this piece of sentimentalism is amusingly expressed by Sadleir in his biography, Anthony Trollope, p. 158: “Novels were not mere literature in 1854; they were—or were expected to be—pulpits or lecture desks or fog horns of private prejudice. If since then they have advanced in critical estimation, the credit is as much Trollope's own as that of any other writer … [by] proving that the genuine novel writer should be an artist, and not a governess, a parson or an agitator.” In her later work Elizabeth Gaskell was certainly moving in this same emancipated direction.

  2. The story that Mary Barton was sent to “nearly all the publishers in London” is told by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in a gossipy letter to her friend Miss Mitford. Mrs. Browning found much power in the novel: … “she can shake and she can pierce”, but it offended the poet's artistic taste because it is a “class book” and because it is lacking in beauty. In taking this sentimental view of realism in fiction, the letter is characteristic of its time. (See The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Edited by Frederic G. Kenyon, London, 1897, vol. I, pp. 471-72.)

  3. In spite of Mrs. Gaskell's assertion that John Barton was the only figure intentionally drawn from life, the novelist was accused of dramatizing, in Barton's murder of young Carson, the murder of young Thomas Ashton of Pole Bank, Werneth (name? MS., illegible) on the night of January 3, 1831. The Ashton family blamed Mrs. Gaskell for reviving the incident, declaring that Ashton's sister, Mrs. T. B. Potter, fainted when she read the incident in the novel because she recognized the victim as her brother. When the Manchester Public Library was opened in 1852, Mrs. Gaskell wrote Sir John Potter (son of Mrs. T. B. Potter), who was associated with the founding of the library, that she wanted to give a copy of Mary Barton to the library but before doing so, she wished to know whether the gift would be distasteful to the family. Her sincere expression of regret and her denial of any intention of making capital out of the murder of a manufacturer by a trade unionist (pointing out that similar incidents had occurred in Glasgow about the same time) should have been sufficient, and were, to absolve the novelist from the Potters' charge against her. The correspondence may be found in “Autograph Letters in the Sir John Potter Collection on the Opening of the Manchester Public Library, 2d Series, 1852.” Miss Haldane, Elizabeth Gaskell, etc., pp. 41-42, prints Mrs. Gaskell's letter.

  4. Carlyle's letter in praise of Mary Barton, dated “8th Nov. 1848” is in the John Rylands Library, Rylands English MSS. 730 (14). It is printed by Miss Haldane, Mrs. Gaskell, etc., pp. 47 f.


[Gaskell, Elizabeth.] Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life. In Two Volumes. London: Chapman and Hall. 1848

Haldane, Elizabeth C. H. Mrs. Gaskell and her Friends. London: (80) Hodder & Stoughton, 1931. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1931.


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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Graham Handley (essay date 1967)

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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 of a novel—as in Daniel Deronda, for example. Here the epigraphs often reach intimately into the plots and sub-plots of that remarkable novel, and it can be demonstrated that a simple and brief preface like ‘Vengeance is Mine—And I will Repay’ is sounded with varying effect and resonance throughout the action of Anna Karenina. What I hope to show in this modest examination of three epigraphs in Mary Barton, is that the very usage tends, with Mrs. Gaskell as with George Eliot, to set up a reverberating relevance in the text which adds immensely to our enjoyment of the novel and to our critical appraisal of it.

As far as I am aware, there is no equivalent in the Gaskell papers to the Gutch Memorandum Book, in which one might follow the paths to Monkshaven and Hollingford, though I suggest that Virgil's Georgics merit close attention if one is to discover the source of the animating wisdom which informs Cousin Phillis. In Keats' Craftsmanship M. R. Ridley showed what Keats owed in The Eve of St. Agnes to Mrs. Radcliffe, Shakespeare, The Arabian Nights, and to a French translation of Boccaccio's Il Filocolo1; the poetic imagination drew phrases and situations into the whirl of inspiration which transmutes and expands until the original is forgotten. Thus it is with Keats, and, in small compass, one may show what Mrs. Gaskell derived from Keats, Coleridge and the Corn Law Rhymer, Ebenezer Elliott, in Mary Barton. It was R. W. Livingstone who wrote, ‘Some influences are tyrannous; they impose themselves, they dominate, they enslave. But there is a better and rarer type of influence, which stimulates and inspires yet leaves the poet free to develop his own genius with enlarged horizons and quickened sensibilities’.2 These remarks, definitive in their wisdom, apply as well to the novelist as the poet, and in Mary Barton the influences, far from being tyrannous, are expansive, adding greatly to the imaginative experience of the reader.

Before dealing directly with the three writers named above, I would like to look at two of Mrs. Gaskell's usages in order to demonstrate the effect of some of these influences. Let us consider, for example, the epigraph to Chapter XXI, a quotation from Margaret's song in Faust:

My rest is gone,
          My heart is sore.
Peace find I never,
          And never more.(3)

The words echo the situation of Esther, whose position is not unlike that of Margaret: they also look forward with terrible emphasis to the sufferings of Mary when Jem is tried for murder, and, perhaps more particularly, to the anguish of John Barton, the murderer who is to find peace only in death. Another example of Mrs. Gaskell's use of her reading occurs when Sophy, one of Mr. Carson's daughters, is about to wake him with the news of Harry's death. Mrs. Gaskell inserts into the text the following quotation from Mrs. Hemans:

Ye know not what ye do,
          That call the slumberer back
From the realms unseen by you,
          To life's dim weary track.(4)

The moving simplicity of these lines immediately ensures the reader's sympathy for Mr. Carson, and this is a sudden manipulation of his responses, since at this stage—and later—Mr. Carson is anything but a sympathetic character. In fact it is not until the final—and some would say artificial—reconciliation with John Barton that Mr. Carson completes the forgiveness theme which is such an important aspect of Mary Barton. But the quotation has an additional, oblique force; there is the ‘dim, weary track’ of the poor throughout the novel, and for Carson himself the phrase carries some poignancy after his son's death. It sounds the sombre note which was so fully orchestrated in the early part of the novel—the deaths of Davenport, the Wilson twins, Mrs. Barton in child-birth and, in retrospect, Job Legh's daughter and Barton's boy. In a sense it has a unifying function, for the rich manufacturer is brought to experience what his distant employees know as the commonplace of living—the round of death, the anguished individual suffering which brings man closer to his fellows in spirit, and draws forth from him that practical assistance which John Barton gave to the Davenport family in their hour of need, or the spiritual sustenance, the moral altruism, which Carson shows Barton as he is dying. Mrs. Gaskell's echoes are not always sombre; just before Barton leaves for London to present the operatives' case Mrs. Gaskell speaks of ‘An argosy of the precious hopes of many otherwise despairing creatures’, and on the same page she adds ‘Barton might be said to hold a levée, so many neighbours came dropping in’.5 Shortly afterwards Mary says to her father ‘what a dandy you'll be in London’.6 The choice of words and phrases, strongly ironic, is deliberate, for Mrs. Gaskell is using the kind of language which permeates the silver-fork novels of the period to indicate the simple excitement of the poor in terms normally reserved for the exaggerated effusions of the rich. The effect is of heightened pathos, for the high-flown verbiage is meant to expose by contrast the moral vacuum of the leisured, with the corollary that words cannot fill the stomachs of the poor.

Mrs. Gaskell's use of the epigraph has a varied purpose and effect, and one may begin with an instance of her employment of it for a comparatively simple purpose. Chapter XXII of Mary Barton opens with an epigraph from Keats' Hyperion:

There was a listening fear in her regard,
As if calamity had but begun;
As if the vanward clouds of evil days
Had spent their malice, and the sullen rear
Was, with its stored thunder, labouring up.(7)

In this chapter Mary realizes that her father is the murderer, strives to prove that Jem Wilson has an alibi, seeks to convince Job Legh of Jem's innocence, and tries to gain the confidence of Mrs. Wilson. Just as Hyperion is about the fall of the old immortals, so this chapter in its immediate application stresses the fall of the older generation who have influenced Mary—her father, now fallen from grace because a murderer, Mrs. Wilson, fallen because of Jem's arrest and her own inability to control her reactions, Alice, fallen into the state of innocent babbling which anticipates death, and Job Legh, for all his wisdom and compassion, fallen temporarily into a lack of understanding of Mary. There is nothing particularly subtle about this, though the poignant force of the quotation is somewhat enhanced if we recall the lines which immediately precede those of the epigraph, and which have a peculiar application to Mary in her suffering:

How beautiful, if sorrow had not made,
Sorrow more beautiful than Beauty's self.(8)

What is clear, however, is Mrs. Gaskell's imaginative tendency to use what she read to point a situation in her own writing; and the associative absorption would appear to be so strong in her, that some of Keats' mood seems to have been captured by her and to underlie both the poignancy and the contrast of the generations in this chapter. Undoubtedly Mrs. Gaskell considered the lines particularly apt, probably for the reasons given above; and it seems likely that a much-praised and quoted sequence which occurs shortly afterwards in Hyperion may have precipitated a sudden poetic intrusion of the author in Mary Barton. Perhaps Mrs. Gaskell never forgot the following:

As when, upon a tranced summer night,
Those green-rob'd senators of mighty woods,
Tall oaks, branch-charmed by the earnest stars,
Dream, and so dream all night without a stir,
Save from one gradual solitary gust
Which comes upon the silence, and dies off,
As if the ebbing air had but one wave;(9)

This beautiful interruption of the narrative (also in Chapter XXII) might be placed beside the above:

There was little sympathy in the outward scene, with the internal trouble. All was so still, so motionless, so hard! Very different to this lovely night in the country in which I am now writing, where the distant horizon is soft and undulating in the moonlight, and the nearer trees sway gently to and fro in the night wind, with something of almost human motion; and the rustling air makes music among their branches, as if speaking soothingly to the weary ones, who lie awake in heaviness of heart. The sights and sounds of such a night lull pain and grief to rest.10

Now apart from the obvious common content of trees at night shared by both extracts, an analysis of Mrs. Gaskell's shows how close she is in mood to the Keats of Hyperion. The first two lines, for instance, accurately mirror the state of Saturn in

                              the shady sadness of a vale
Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn.(11)

while the whole of the last part closely follows the description of Thea's approach to Saturn, who does indeed lie awake in ‘heaviness of heart’, as do all the fallen immortals of the poem. Natural beauty such as Mrs. Gaskell describes is constantly found in Hyperion, and often is used as a contrast with the feelings or situation of the immortals, just as this passage, with its freedom and freshness, is an intended contrast with the mood and situation of Mary. This epigraph does not reach widely into the novel, but it does probe deeply into this chapter of it; thus Mrs. Gaskell's creative process, by absorbing the description in beautiful poetry, assures a richer content for her prose.

This is, of course, not remarkable, and if it were an isolated instance of Mrs. Gaskell's transmutation of her reading, it would be unimportant. There are, however, several other interesting sequences which show when an author or authors were running in Mrs. Gaskell's mind, and perhaps the most fascinating of these is the one which looks back verbally and imaginatively to The Ancient Mariner, so that John Barton becomes subtly linked with the Mariner in the mind of a reader who knows Coleridge's poem. Perhaps it is as well to remember that, although Mrs. Gaskell's echoes here may be a subconscious reflex, her own conception of John Barton was central to the novel:

Round the character of John Barton all the others formed themselves; he was my hero, the person with whom all my sympathies went, with whom I tried to identify myself at the time …12

Now just as there is an overwhelming swing of sympathy towards the Mariner as his terrible isolation is felt by the reader, so there is unmitigated compassion for John Barton at the end of Mrs. Gaskell's novel. The Mariner and John Barton are murderers, and although John Barton dies his message is the same as the Mariner's:

He prayeth best, who loveth best,
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us
He made and loveth all.(13)

The Mariner is compelled to live on, whereas John Barton dies regretting that he has forsaken the Christian love which he once had:

All along it came natural to love folk, though now I am what I am. I think one time I could e'en have loved the masters if they'd ha' letten me; that was in my Gospel days, afore my child died o' hunger. I was tore in two oftentimes, between my sorrow for poor suffering folk, and my trying to love them as caused their sufferings (to my mind).14

At the end of the poem and the novel there is this degree of similarity; Mr. Carson, like the Wedding Guest, cannot choose but hear John Barton's tale, and he is a poignantly sadder and wiser man as he holds the body of his son's murderer in his arms.

The epigraph to Chapter XIX is from ‘The Pains of Sleep’, though Mrs. Gaskell does not give the reference.

Deeds to be hid which were not hid,
Which, all confused, I could not know,
Whether I suffered or I did
For all seemed guilt, remorse, or woe.(15)

It is in this chapter that Mary learns of Harry Carson's murder and Jem is arrested on suspicion. The tone of the poem is certainly present here in the novel: ‘Mary felt as though the haunting horror were a nightmare, a fearful dream, from which awakening would relieve her’16; Mrs. Wilson ‘falls into another doze, feverish, dream-haunted, and unrefreshing’, while later her ‘sleep was next interrupted … like a recurring nightmare’.17 There is, of course, a strong connection between this poem and The Ancient Mariner, but perhaps even more significant are certain lines in it which approximate to John Barton's state of mind before the murder (and even Mr. Carson's after it):

Thirst of revenge, the powerless will
Still baffled, and yet burning still!
Desire with loathing strangely mixed
On wild or hateful objects fixed.(18)

Mrs. Gaskell is able to absorb Coleridge's mood, and obviously its strange, mystical, fearful tension, the keen awareness of the evil within, is an area of the consciousness she wished to explore in Mary Barton.

At first the echoes of The Ancient Mariner are the commonplaces of imagery, perhaps even the platitudes of all time. Mary, we are told, ‘reddened like a rose’; ‘The old Hebrew prophetic words fell like dew on Mary's heart’; ‘Deep sank those words into Mary's heart’.19 Esther's return (in a chapter containing an epigraph in verse called ‘Street Walks’) contains a re-iterative irony in an overt reference to the Mariner. When Esther speaks to Jem of Mary we are told:

The spell of her name was as potent as that of the Mariner's glittering eye. He listened like a three-year-child.20

This comes after the chapter called ‘A Traveller's Tales’ (perhaps the introduction of Will Wilson into the story set Mrs. Gaskell's mind working on The Ancient Mariner), and Esther most certainly has a tale to tell—which she subsequently does—a tale as harrowing and bitter as the Mariner's in its conscious acknowledgement of sin. Later Mary feels ‘as if a sudden spring of sisterly love had gushed up in her heart’21, and this would appear to be a direct echo of

A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:(22)

After the epigraph from ‘The Pains of Sleep’ the echoes of The Ancient Mariner in the text are much thicker. The first is particularly significant in its associative suggestion:

And then Heaven blessed her unaware, and she sank from wandering, unconnected thought and thence to sleep, … and once more the dead were alive again in that happy world of dreams.23

There is little need for me to refer to the opening phrase here, but there is a strong and insistent parallel with the Mariner's situation at a certain stage in the poem. That ‘the dead were alive again’ is his fervent wish; ‘wandering, unconnected thought’ is his frequent state. Shortly afterwards we are told of Mary ‘Was she not lonely enough to welcome the spirits of the dead’24, an approximation to the Mariner's inner feelings in his isolation. Coleridge continues to be present in Mrs. Gaskell's mind, and his mystical-religious imaginative predilections, exemplified in a related poem, leads her to Christabel. Thus Esther feels ‘as if some holy spell would prevent her (even as the unholy Lady Geraldine was prevented in the abode of Christabel) from crossing the threshold of that home of her early innocence’.25 Here the omniscient author intrudes, for Esther is the victim snared by natural rather than supernatural sin.

It is when Mary goes to Liverpool, and follows the John Cropper in the pilot-boat, that the verbal reminiscences of Coleridge recur forcefully, and in these verbal images there is sometimes the deeper association of atmosphere and mood. Below is a loosely connected passage which runs over several pages:

When the wind, which had hitherto been against them, stopped, and the clouds began to gather over the sky, shutting out the sun, and casting a chilly gloom over everything … The boat gave a bound forward at every pull of the oars. The water was glassy and motionless, reflecting tint by tint of the Indian-ink sky above. Mary shivered, and her heart sank within her … the same wind now bore their little craft along with easy, rapid motion … the ship began to plunge and heave, as if she were a living creature, impatient to be off … Mary sat down looking like one who prays in the death agony. For her eyes were turned up to that heaven where mercy dwelleth … She arose and followed him with the unquestioning docility of a child.26

Finally, there is the reference at the trial of Jem Wilson to the ‘awful tranquillity of the life-and-death court’, at least a half echo of the ‘Nightmare Life-in-Death was she’ of the poem. Readers of the latter will undoubtedly recognize that the sequence quoted above has its equivalents in the poem, for example

But in a minute she gan stir,
With a short uneasy motion(27)


The harbour-bay was clear as glass
So smoothly was it strewn(28)


Then like a pawing horse let go
She made a sudden bound(29)


Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woeful agony.(30)

Barton is certainly mindful of the ‘curse in a dead man's eye’, but the impressive and moving quality of Mrs. Gaskell's writing, a pervasive sympathetic tension, is heightened by her conscious and perhaps sub-conscious derivations from Coleridge. The message of the Mariner is that of love for one's fellow creatures; the theme of Mrs. Gaskell is movingly the same. The legacy of sin is penance, but it is a penance which knits suffering with reconciliation, so that the sinner moves from isolation to participation in life. Admittedly the Mariner only enjoys ‘the goodly company’ from time to time, but his transfixing of the Wedding Guest is profoundly for good. Esther comes home to die, having shown a great and self-sacrificing love to Mary, and John, as I have said, tells his terrible tale to Mr. Carson. The effect of these echoes is to deepen the imaginative experience of the reader; the texture of the novel is all the richer for their inclusion.

Mrs. Gaskell's main concern in Mary Barton is with the poor and their reaction to the conditions in which they live. She has Job Legh read Samuel Bamford's poem which begins ‘God help the poor’ to Mary and her father, and in successive chapters she uses epigraphs from the Corn Law Rhymer, Ebenezer Elliott. The first (to Chapter IV) fits the blameless existence of Alice Wilson:

To envy nought beneath the ample sky:
To mourn no evil deed, no hour misspent.(31)

and the second, which has a reminiscence of Goldsmith and Crabbe, refers to Job Legh:

Learned he was; nor bird nor insect flew,
But he its leafy home and history knew;
Nor wild flower decked the rock, nor moss the well
But he its name and qualities could tell.(32)

Now in point of fact Mrs. Gaskell and Ebenezer Elliott share a religious and moral concern for the aged and the young in a suffering society. One has only to read the ‘Village Patriarch’ to see where Elliott's heart lies when he contemplates the old and infirm, or ‘Preston Mills’, for example, when he writes of child labour.33 But there would appear to be a stronger connection than that. Having used two epigraphs from Elliott, Mrs. Gaskell describes the terrible ordeal of the Davenport family in the following chapter (being careful too, to include an account of the passing plenty of the Carson family as ironic contrast). The actual situation of the Davenports is given in the ‘Manchester Song’ epigraph to the chapter; it is also given in the following Corn Law Rhyme by Elliott which is set to ‘Robin Adair’:

Child, is thy father dead?
          Father is gone!
Why did they tax his bread?
          God's will be done!
Mother has sold her bed;
Better to die than wed!
Where shall she lay her head?
          Home we have none!
Father clammed thrice a week—
          God's will be done!
Long for work did he seek,
          Work he found none.
          Tears on his hollow cheek
Told what no tongue could speak:
Why did his master break?
          God's will be done!
Doctor said air was best—
          Food we had none;
Father with panting breast,
          Groan'd to be gone:
Now he is with the blest—
Mother says death is best!
We have no place of rest—
          Yes, ye have one!(34)

One sees also that this is the situation of John Barton when his child is dying—one of the powerful retrospective sequences of the novel—for many times he has wished for death. Ben Davenport worked at Carson's before the fire; he gets a fever, almost certainly typhoid, and raves, occasionally obscenely, in delirium before he dies. But he has been a strict Methodist all his life, and Wilson tells us of a letter he wrote to his wife while he was searching for work:

It was as good as Bible-words; ne'er a word of repining; a' about God being our Father, and that we mun bear patiently whate'er he sends.35

This is the acceptance of the ‘God's will be done’ of the poem, and although Carlyle, in a very favourable review of the Corn Law Rhymes, urged the author to ‘lay aside anger, uncharitableness, hatred, noisy tumult; avoid them, as worse than Pestilence, worse than “Bread-tax” itself’36, Elliott's general tone has the compassion, the simple human charity which characterizes Mrs. Gaskell's sustained mood in Mary Barton. Once again, it would seem, Mrs. Gaskell chose her epigraphs, and found the author of them remaining in her imagination, so that in her own plot she used a situation basically the same as one used by the poet. Both, too, were interested in the Chartist movement; Mrs. Gaskell records the rejection of the petition in London as one of the bitterest experiences of Barton's life. She tells us that ‘whole families went through a gradual starvation’ (she is writing of 1839-41), but one of the greatest of nineteenth century historians is more explicit:

In reality Chartism was not a creed. It was the blind revolt of hunger.37

Ebenezer Elliott, and Mrs. Gaskell, who admired him, were both intent on exposing the enforced degradation of the poor.

The associations revealed by Mrs. Gaskell's reading, transformed by her imagination, indicate, I think, the depth of her work. When any author took her attention, she used that attention to enhance the quality of her own writing. There is no suggestion of plagiarism; it is merely that, living in Manchester at a time when she was recovering from the loss of her son, she looked outwards and saw the suffering, past and present, treating what she saw and knew with abiding compassion. So it was with her reading; she responded to beauty and humanity, tracing their associations with her own pen, and these associations must be duly explored when we are considering the nature and status of her achievement as a novelist.


  1. See particularly pages 101-170 (Methuen's University Paperbacks) 1963.

  2. R. W. Livingstone, The Legacy of Greece (1928), p. 287.

  3. Mary Barton, p. 269. (All references are to the Knutsford Edition (ed. A. C. Ward) 1906.)

  4. Mary Barton, p. 239.

  5. Mary Barton, p. 96.

  6. Mary Barton, p. 98.

  7. Quoted at the head of Chapter XXII, Mary Barton, p. 281.

  8. Keats, Hyperion: A Fragment, lines 35-36 (Oxford English Texts Second Edition, ed. H. W. Garrod (1958). All references are to this edition.

  9. Hyperion, lines 72-78.

  10. Mary Barton, p. 286.

  11. Hyperion, lines 1-2.

  12. Mary Barton, Introduction, lxiii. Quoted by A. W. Ward (letter from Mrs. Gaskell to Mrs. Greg).

  13. The Ancient Mariner (The Poems of Coleridge, with an introduction by Ernest Hartley Coleridge, John Lane, N.D.) lines 614-18).

  14. Mary Barton, p. 431.

  15. The Pains of Sleep, lines 27-30.

  16. Mary Barton, p. 253.

  17. Mary Barton, pp. 257 and 258.

  18. The Pains of Sleep, lines 21-24.

  19. Mary Barton, pp. 92, 111 and 157.

  20. Mary Barton, p. 184.

  21. Mary Barton, p. 221.

  22. The Ancient Mariner, lines 285-6.

  23. Mary Barton, p. 268.

  24. Mary Barton, p. 269.

  25. Mary Barton, p. 275.

  26. Mary Barton, pp. 341-348.

  27. The Ancient Mariner, lines 354-5.

  28. The Ancient Mariner, lines 472-3.

  29. The Ancient Mariner, lines 389-90.

  30. The Ancient Mariner, lines 578-9.

  31. Quoted in Mary Barton, Chapter IV, p. 28.

  32. Quoted in Mary Barton, Chapter V, p. 40.

  33. By a strange coincidence, this poem also echoes The Ancient Mariner: ‘Like Death-in-life they smiled’ … ‘a ghastly crew’ … ‘the pang their voices gave.’

  34. The Poetical Works of Ebenezer Elliott, edited by his son Edwin Elliott (1876) Vol. I, p. 381.

  35. Mary Barton, p. 72.

  36. Thomas Carlyle, Critical and Miscellaneous Essays Vol. II (1888), p. 180.

  37. Élie Halevy, A History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century Vol. III (Translated by F. I. Watkin), 1950, p. 323.

Principal Works

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*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.”

†This work was originally published as a series of sketches in the journal Household Works in 1851-53. A complete edition was published in 1853.

‡This work was originally published in serial form in the Cornhill Magazine from August 1864 to January 1866. A complete two-volume edition was published in 1866.

John Lucas (essay date 1967)

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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 failings as their successes. So I cannot hope to push very far my belief that she is a far better novelist than commonly allowed. But at least the claim for her merits can be launched, for, restricted as the scope of my interest is, what follows will, I hope, make clear why Mrs. Gaskell is much superior to the company she keeps as a social-problem novelist. Even her failings are proof of merits that her nearest rivals, Kingsley and Disraeli, quite lack.

Failings, indeed, count for most in this essay. Very briefly, its purpose is to suggest that the flaws inherent in the genre of the social-problem novel are a direct result of the novelists' failure to deal really honestly with the social experiences their novels are intended to portray. Instead they rely on stock political attitudes to bridge all imaginative lacunae. I am not, by the way, wanting to beg any question in saying that the flaws are inherent in the genre, merely making use of a tautologous definition that will need to be explained a little later. But before I do that I want to add rather more about the cause of the flaws.

I said that these result from the failure to deal honestly with social experience, but I ought really to speak of a failure of imaginative honesty. This is the more accurate phrase, and I mean by it the writer's unwillingness to follow the implications of his given situation through to the end. But plainly this covers a multitude of sins. It applies, for example, to the novelist who never even gets started, but who out of sheer ignorance puts all his working-class characters in slums and has them behave like animals. And it applies equally to the writer who goes to the other extreme of showing that all the poor are relatively rich and all the rich are relatively poor, so that they about meet in the middle. What unites such novels is that they are still-born: the dead tissue of stock political attitudes. Different attitudes certainly, but the cases are the same in that the novelists are not really concerned with imaginative exploration so much as diagrams to prove an argument, with the result that their characters have all the human vitality of numbers and straight lines. If anyone doubts the existence of this sort of novel, he might try reading, to go no lower, Jessie Phillips by Frances Trollope; but I am not going to discuss any examples here. For what interest me are not the products of this kind of misguided earnestness, but novels where a halt is suddenly called to the attempt at imaginative honesty, and a political attitude quickly wheeled forward in its place. These are the novels that provide the genre's major works, since, as I shall try to show, it is the very intensity of imaginative honesty that compels a withdrawal to attitude or, as I should like to call it, a retreat from the abyss. And above all others, this is the case with Mrs. Gaskell.

Before I get down to the heart of the matter, however, it is necessary to clear up what I mean by ‘social-problem novel’. In fact, I have borrowed the term from Arnold Kettle1 because it seems to me a very good one, and also has the merit of being far better than all the possible alternatives. To look at the term Raymond Williams uses is to see just why. He and Kettle study very much the same group of novels, but Williams refers to them as ‘industrial novels’2 and so perhaps tries to get round the problem of genre altogether. One can sympathise with this: talk of genre can be a substitute for criticism, and the concept is villainously difficult to handle. Yet just because the term ‘industrial novel’ is so unsatisfactory it becomes clear that the possible fact of genre does have to be faced, and cannot easily be discarded. And Williams' term won't do, because I can see no way of justifying Sybil as an industrial novel as opposed, say, to Bleak House. On the other hand, it is quite clear why Sybil is a social-problem novel as Bleak House is not. For Disraeli's work is the product of certain explicit and recognisable pressures: to recommend a solution to the problems to which it draws attention. It goes without saying that the focus of these novels is nearly always the large industrial centres; but that is because it is there that what are regarded as social problems most obviously exist. To put it briefly: in the industrial centres the facts of unemployment, poverty, disease, and consequent hardening class-consciousness most blatantly show themselves as potential threats to national well-being.

The social-problem novel, then, includes among its definitive concerns a conscious attempt to solve what are seen as problems, and indeed I think you only call something a social problem when you think it allows of solution. Until then the tangle cannot be neatly pulled into shape: to speak of human beings and their lives as problems is to reduce them to a schema. Moreover, to be forced to use these sort of terms at all implies that there is some artistic flaw inherent in the genre, for, as Kettle has rightly suggested, the word ‘problem’ implies a limitation of artistic involvement: ‘To see a living complex of forces and people as a “problem” necessarily implies a standpoint not merely detached in the artist's sense, but in a different way judicial, therapeutic perhaps, and all too easily self-righteous.’ This is a very shrewd remark, but I think it needs to be added that the reduction of the living complex to a problem comes to the fore only when whatever political attitude is implied in the recommendation takes over as a shaping force in the novel. For recommendation is bound to get in the way of the novelist's exploration of his characters' lives and interrelationships; demands will be made on plot and theme which must damage the novel's essential freedom, its integrity. Actually, this is an obvious truth, since recommendation is a substitute for imaginative exploration, a short cut to an end conceived of as ‘solution’; and novels, notoriously, have nothing to do with ends, or solutions—not so far as they are works of art, anyway.

But what chiefly interests me, and it is something Kettle does not so much attend to, is why recommendation takes over. For to use the phrase ‘takes over’ means that, unlike Kettle, I think that not all the novels we agree to recognise as such are initially intended as social-problem novels, but that they tend to turn into this in the process of composition. Of course the reason for this may be very simple. An author can turn away from imaginative exploration simply out of a desire to preach, or to put some sort of a message over. Such novels are very like the diagram type, and like them also will not be mentioned here. The crucial cases are not those, but ones where a recognisable vitality and integrity are betrayed by recommendation, not only in the sense of a substitution's being imposed on the novel, but the more radical one that the substitution contradicts the novel's total import; the short cut heads off in the wrong direction. It is in these cases that we can most fruitfully examine the need for recommendation, and enquire why there is a retreat from the abyss.

It seems tendentious to a degree, this talk of a retreat from the abyss. And yet after all I am referring to a body of work which actually exists, and which needs accounting for. If the case were only hypothetical, then it would perhaps be best to argue that attitude need not cut across free imaginative exploration, but might at most supplement it. Such an argument at least has the appealing realism of denying there is such a thing as the ‘pure’ novelist; it implies, and rightly, that novelists as novelists are inevitably involved in their work politically and socially. But, of course, the case is not hypothetical, and the fact is that more brutally than any other genre the social-problem novel engages the novelist as novelist and as social being. This does not reinstate the ‘pure’ novelist, but it does mean that the social-problem novelist may be very reluctant to admit how deeply his art commits him politically. For the conscious social being in him will want to reject what his art shows to be true, frightened by the degree of involvement the novelist discovers in himself. Consequently the greater the talent the more shocking the rejection will seem, for awareness of the abyss will be profounder, more troubling. But why must this be the case? To answer that question I need to return to a salient fact about the genre: that it draws attention to problems.

I am on fairly safe ground in maintaining that one of the distinguishing features of the 1840s as a decade was a widely shared impulse to draw attention to social problems. And this has, as it were, two phases: first, the desire to dispel ignorance; second, to promote sympathy. Now the normal argument for awakening the public conscience to social problems runs something as follows. Growing class insularity breeds a narrowing circle of interests, and therefore an ignorance of, and indifference to, how others live; once make the facts known, however, and conscience and self-interest will do the rest. The barely cynical appeal to self-interest is, of course, important because it assumes that true self-interest is not the selfishness of class concerns, but the selflessness that surmounts them. In this context the classic statement is undoubtedly Carlyle's, still at this time the dominating voice in social thinking. His recommendation, very simply, is that men should come to recognise that, in spite of artificial class barriers, they are all brothers; and he adds to this the jeremiac note which gives urgency to so much of the social conscience of the decade: that the recognition had better come about before it is too late and England is plunged into violent social anarchy. This is the burden of Chartism (1839), as it is of Past and Present (1843), from which the following quotation comes:

One of Dr. Alison's Scotch facts struck us very much. A poor Irish widow, her husband having died in one of the Lanes of Edinburgh, went forth with her children, bare of all resource, to solicit help from the Charitable Establishments of that City. At this Charitable Establishment and then at that she was refused; referred from one to the other, helped by none;—till she had exhausted them all; till her strength and heart failed her; she sank down in a typhus-fever; died, and infected her Lane with fever, so that ‘seventeen other persons’ died of fever there in consequence. The Humane Physician asks there-upon, as with a heart too full for speaking. Would it not have been economy to help this poor Widow? She took typhus-fever and killed seventeen of you!—Very curious. The forlorn Irish Widow applies to her fellow creatures, as if saying, ‘Behold I am sinking, bare of help: ye must help me! I am your sister, bone of your bone; one God made us: ye must help me!’ They answer, ‘No, impossible; thou art no sister of ours.’ But she proves her sisterhood; her typhus-fever kills them: they actually were her brothers, though denying it! Had human creature ever to go lower for proof.3

That passage, of course, provided a source for Dickens' great imaginative exploration in Bleak House of the vast threats that underlie exclusive class interests, and you have only to think of the consequences of Jo's illness, or the implications of Tom all-Alone's—‘There is not a drop of Tom's corrupted blood but propagates infection and contagion somewhere’—to see what Dickens took from Carlyle, and how he transformed it.

But though Bleak House is the most distinguished work to owe something to Carlyle's vatic pronouncements, it is by no means the first. Indeed, since the 1840s was a decade extremely responsive to recommendation for the transcending of private interest in the cause of national survival, it would be difficult to overestimate the wide appeal of the passage I have quoted. Yet this is too loose; I ought really to say that it was the middle class which at this time was likeliest to take Carlyle's words seriously, and (this is the key-point) the social-problem novelists are almost entirely drawn from their ranks. So for the Manchester Guardian to protest in 1849 against ‘this morbid sensibility to the condition of factory operatives, which has become so fashionable of late among the gentry and the landed aristocracy’, is to make two mistakes. For the fashion was far more significantly present among the middle class; and it was by no means morbid. On the contrary: the cynicism of the Guardian's contributor is remarkably shallow for the reason that it does not occur to him that a sensibility to the condition of the factory operative may well be prompted by self-interest.

Now so far I have suggested that this appeal to self-interest is strongly pessimistic; people had better do something about social distress if they want to save their own skins. This is true, but it is not the whole truth. There is a more optimistic cause for the appeal, and it is an obvious one. For the middle class was chiefly sustained by a belief in progress, which not only amounts to an ideology but is the class's chief raison d'être. At the time I am writing of, not even Carlyle had finally turned his back on the belief, and for those who were less reactionary all that was required was a way of removing the threats to progress, or, to put it rather differently, a way of reconciling a belief in progress with the actual social situation. It is again obviously true to say that the belief in progress had, for the middle class, to be evolutionary, unilinear. In other words, progress needed its safeguards against conflict, and inevitably these were centred on the promotion of class sympathy, and, by extension, on the process of class interabsorption. The aristocracy and middle class had indeed already gone a long way in this process (the marriage of Edith Skewton and Dombey suggests something of the difficulties it had to meet), which left the more problematic task of getting the working class to take its place in the alliance; then the one nation could progress smoothly.

All this is fairly commonplace, but I need to outline the facts because they lead to the main point about the essential failure of the social-problem novel. In the last resort this turns out to be a split between intention and achievement; and achievement so contradicts intention that in the more impressive novels it causes that retreat from the abyss I have already noticed.

There seems little point in setting the matter out at length here. My meaning will, I hope, become clear when I turn to the novels themselves. But it may just be worth saying that the intention of recommending the brotherhood of united interests as a solution to social problems and prime aid to a nation of single-minded purpose frequently looks to be undermined by a guilty recognition that it is solely to the advantage of the class that proposes it. And it does also seem that accompanying the guilt is a fear that those who are made the principal object of this recommendation may reject it in favour of their own. It is as though the middle-class liberal, in saying ‘this is for your good’, anticipates the retort, ‘You mean it is for yours.’ And what is unbearable to him is the implication that the object of his sympathy himself knows what is for his good, because this entirely destroys the calming vision of a single nation which gives his belief in progress its moral justification. Trying to preserve this vision against external probabilities and his own unease is therefore very often the social-problem novelist's most acute difficulty. Kingsley's Alton Locke helps us to see why.

I choose this novel to open with because its failure is so instructive that it makes up for a badness which would be only partly redeemed by comparing it with the ruck of novels similarly predisposed. And Alton Locke certainly has a predisposition, one which is soon named: it favours an awakening of sympathy for the plight of the working class. Not that this in itself is very instructive; what is, is Kingsley's method of drawing attention to the facts of working-class existence, since this is an essential part of his recommendation for brotherhood. The novel's hero is the eponymous chartist tailor who tells his own story. Kingsley, that is, wants to confront his audience directly with a working-class man, in order to show them how like themselves Alton Locke is. For this reason the hero is made a poet, which is not only representatively possible, but has the apparent advantage of showing that chartist tailors are not insensitive lumps. Still, the advantage is only apparent, since Kingsley quite tactlessly includes some of Alton's verse, and this is such weak doggerel that it is difficult to resist the idea that Alton is a lump after all. But that is a trivial matter compared with the implausibility of his life and thought, which suggest an almost staggering naïvety on Kingsley's part. Because, faithful to his intention of making Alton a mirror-image of his audience, Kingsley fashions him, a few peculiarities apart, into a middle-class person; environment counts for nothing. And this interpretation of the concept of brotherhood produces the absurdities which are fairly indicated in Alton's following meditation. It occurs when he has just completed a penniless trudge from London to Cambridge, and is watching an undergraduate boat-race on the Cam:

It was a noble sport—a sight such as could only be seen in England—some hundred of young men, who might, if they had chosen, have been lounging effeminately about the streets, subjecting themselves voluntarily to that intense exertion, for the mere pleasure of toil. The true English stuff came out there; I felt that, in spite of all my prejudices—the stuff which has held Gibralter and conquered at Waterloo—which has created a Birmingham and a Manchester, and colonised every quarter of the globe—that grim, earnest stubborn energy, which, since the days of the old Romans, the English possess alone of all the nations of the earth. I was as proud of the gallant young fellows as if they had been my brothers—of their courage and endurance (for one could see that it was no child's play, from the pale faces and panting lips), their strength and activity, so fierce and yet so cultivated, smooth, harmonious, as oar kept time with oar, and every back rose and fell in concert—and felt my soul stirred up to a sort of sweet madness, not merely by the shouts and cheers of the mob around me, but by the loud, fierce pulse of the row-locks, the swift whispering rush of the long snake-like eight oars, the swirl and gurgle of the water in their wake, the grim, breathless silence of the straining rowers. My blood boiled over, and fierce tears swelled into my eyes; for I, too, was a man, and an Englishman; and when I caught sight of my cousin, pulling stroke to the second boat in the long line, with set teeth and flashing eyes, the great muscles on his bare arms springing up into knots at every rapid stroke, I ran and shouted among the maddest and the foremost.4

To be sure, some of the dafter excesses of that have a great deal to do with Kingsley's belief in the therapeutic value of muscular Christianity, but for its colossal irrelevance to Alton's position not to occur to him is fair proof of the extent to which his hero is a compound of attitude and recommendation. These stretch as far as possible, of course: it is not only that Alton calls himself ‘a man, and an Englishman’—and which reader can deny that element of brotherhood—but also that he refers to Waterloo and to Manchester, two words which, as well as any, symbolise between them a sort of interest that can be taken to unite various class concerns. But this cannot alter the fact that Alton is mostly unbelievable, and is really mobilised so that the novel can issue as a recommendation to Kingsley's own class to consider its class assumptions as comprehensively valid. Alton is always on the side of the middle class.

It would be a pointless exercise to detail all the evidence of this, but one moment has rather more significance than most and perhaps qualifies the absolute severity of what I have said. It occurs when Alton is addressing a group of agricultural labourers (it is another cause for dissatisfaction with Williams' term ‘industrial novels’ that many of them, including Alton Locke, Sybil and North and South, are at least tangentially concerned with problems facing the agricultural worker). Alton has come to ask the labourers to support the charter, but he finds them so unresponsive to anything bar their immediate needs that, carried away by his own powers of oratory, he tells them to take the bread they need, since it is theirs by right. The advice results in the looting of the near-by Hall farm, the appearance of the yeomanry and arrest of Alton himself. This episode is undeniably more impressive than most in Alton Locke, and one reason, it seems to me, is that Kingsley is writing out a scene where strong, if simple, feelings are involved: of pity and protest. Yet, of course, much more than that is intended, for he also wants to suggest that class indifference breeds violence: it is in the landed gentry's own interest to feed their labourers.

But Kingsley's real difficulty in this scene, and for me its chief interest, is to be found in the tussle between his sympathies with the labourers and his fears of the violence he thinks they command. The labourers are not interested in the charter. ‘“Go then,” I cried, losing my self-possession between disappointment and the maddening desire of influence—and, indeed, who could hear their story, or even look upon their faces, and not feel some indignation stir in him, unless self-interest had drugged his heart and conscience—“go,” I cried, “and get bread!”’ The tussle is enacted there in the double parentheses: the loss of self-possession which explains Alton's command is itself explained: ordering violence is inexcusable, since it involves loss of self-possession, but is excused; self-possession is probably a mark of moral torpor. What is so revealing about this is a feeling of the justification of what prompts the violence doing battle with fear of it, which partly rationalises it as unjustifiable. Clearly Kingsley senses a dilemma here, something so at odds with his explicit intention as to threaten to confound it entirely, and his escape from this reveals a great deal: he makes the violence irrational. Alton loses self-possession and as a result so does his audience.

This seems to me almost archetypally a middle-class resolution of the dilemma. Very plainly the implication is that the labourers are incapable of action until goaded into it by an outsider, so that their irrational violence is simply mob action; and indeed from the moment the looting begins Kingsley refers to the labourers as a ‘mob’. The word has a very interesting history, but we do not need to trace it out to see that from the moment Kingsley lights on it he can fend off what most disturbs him in the labourers' action. For mob action is essentially irrational and arbitrary, or, as defined by E. P. Thompson, in the magnificent The Making of the English Working Class, it is ‘the deliberate use of the crowd as an instrument of pressure, by persons “above” or apart from the crowd’.5 Clearly enough this is the mob of Alton Locke, which blindly follows Alton's instructions and indulges in a mindless orgy of destruction.

Yet something troubles this picture. As we have seen, though on the one hand Kingsley denies the justice of the labourers' behaviour, on the other he offers a part justification for it, for he shows them responding to a situation in a manner which he leaves us in no doubt has his sympathy: ‘who could hear their story … and not feel some indignation stir in him’. Are they, then, a mob? Their violence may, after all, not be so irrational as it seems. It is here that Thompson can help us see into the heart of Kingsley's dilemma. He makes a very careful distinction between mob action and riots of a more or less spontaneous, popular and direct action. And of these latter riots Thompson says:

The most common example is the bread or food riot, repeated cases of which can be found in almost every town and county until the 1840's. This was rarely a mere uproar which culminated in the breaking open of barns or the looting of shops. It was legitimised by the assumptions of an older moral economy, which taught the immorality of any unfair method of forcing up the price of provisions by profiteering upon the necessities of the people.

But this, too, seems very near a description of the labourers' riot in Alton Locke. It begins to look as though Kingsley is hopelessly torn between presenting their action as justifiable and at the same time being required to judge it adversely. And this, of course, is the case. What prompts his judgement is a fear of violence which bursts out again in Alton's nightmare much later on in the book. Alton dreams that the poor have risen against the rich ‘crying, “As you have done to us, so will we do to you”; and they hunted them down and slew many of them, and threw their carcases on the dunghill, and took possession of their land and houses, and cried, “We will all be free and equal as our forefathers were, and live here, and eat and drink, and take our pleasure.”’

The fear that the working class might rise against its masters could well be called the middle-class nightmare of the 1840s, and for two good reasons. The first is simply fear of violence in itself, and during the decade this was certain to be sharpened not only by an awareness of what was happening on the Continent but also by the recognition of how unknown a force the working class was. Ignorance always increases fear, and without doubt much of the effort to write about working-class people, including that of Alton Locke, was vitiated by an ignorance which caused a swerving into near panic. Yet such fear is, I think, the shallower reason for the nightmare, and I have no wish to attach undue importance to it. To do so is merely to become ensnared in a straight Marxist interpretation of class antagonism, which labours under the considerable inconvenience of being historically untrue.

All the same, increasing awareness of sharply defined class interests is what underlies the deeper reason for the nightmare. It is this which explains Kingsley's hesitancy about his attitude to the ‘mob’. And I think that what most worries him is not the possibility of actual violence on a large scale, but the guilty fear that the working class may see that there is nothing to be gained from becoming part of the single nation, since, for all the pretences to the contrary, that is really a myth to benefit the middle class. Kingsley does not want to accept the possibility of the working class's treading its own path, yet though he struggles to make his hero a working-class man indistinguishable from a person of the middle class, the fact that it is Alton himself who both sympathises with the labourers and condemns them gives the game away. Kingsley has inadvertently to acknowledge that their action is justifiable, only not from his class standpoint. And that effectively wrecks his concept of brotherhood. So Alton's helpless equivocations suggest why it is that recommendation goes clean counter to whatever elements of imaginative exploration the novel contains. The prospect of working-class autonomy is, at base, Kingsley's deepest fear, though he partly obscures the nature of this from himself by putting it in the crude guise of fear of violence; doing that makes it easier to condemn it, yet cannot put his conscience at rest.

I do not myself believe that Kingsley ever saw very clearly what it was he feared, and Alton Locke's most interesting moments are ones of muddle rather than achievement. For this reason I should not want to be understood as claiming too much for the novel, and the most sympathetic account will not make it into a good one. Yet Kingsley must be given some credit for touching on difficulties that so upset his predisposition, even if it is credit he would hardly be pleased to accept.

It is tempting to argue that the exemplary betrayal of Kingsley's intention is mostly due to the fact that Alton Locke is a post-1848 novel. For it would be easy to imagine that that year gave an ultimate setback to the bright hopes of a smoothly evolutionary progress. Yet the temptation had better be resisted, for though the events of 1848 made the obstacles to an inter-class alliance bulk more hugely than before, it is quite clear that a sense of their hugeness permeated the decade as a whole. The evidence of the social-problem novel itself confirms this, for the possibilities of brotherhood are scarcely more difficult to sustain in Alton Locke than in Sybil, which was published five years earlier, and in which Disraeli certainly did his best to keep alive the hopes of evolutionary progress.

At first sight it may seem odd to make Sybil part of this middle-class ideology, especially since Disraeli is more concerned to cut out that class altogether, and impose a sort of hegemony of aristocracy and working class. Yet the fact is that he, too, is concerned to obliterate every element of conflict from the idea of progress, by uniting the two nations—the rich and the poor—into one. I think it hardly matters here that in detail his dream of the future is not shared by Kingsley or for that matter Mrs. Gaskell. It is enough that they all believe some sort of progress to be a fact, and ostensibly want it safeguarded by a uniting of interests. Nor do I think it greatly matters that Disraeli hoped to eliminate the middle class as a viable force, since his hope for uniting the two nations, coming when it did, is, for all its aristocratic pretensions, essentially middle class, for the very good reason that the middle class stood to gain most by its realisation.

Sybil is not nearly so good a novel as has been the custom to pretend. I am not thinking here of the near illiteracies, although any reader ought to be struck by the frequency with which these occur: ‘she smiled through a gushing vision’, for example, or ‘the deep lustre of her dark orb rested on his peering vision; his eye fled from the unequal contest’; or, more splendid still, ‘“Who told you the truth?” said Morley, springing to her side, in a hoarse voice’.6 Nor am I thinking of the hilariously mismanaged plotting, which frequently requires from Disraeli a tortuous complexity which rivals even Savonarola Brown's. I am not even thinking of the almost total failure to render convincing working-class dialogue, though Disraeli is far worse at this than even Kingsley, and relies on novelettish prose of which the following, spoken by two of the leading working-class characters, is typical:

‘Hah, hah!’ said Morley, with a sort of stifled laugh, ‘Hah, hah! … Did I not warn you, Sybil, of the traitor? Did I not tell you to beware of taking this false aristocrat to your hearth; to worm out all the secrets of that home that he once polluted by his espionage, and now would desolate by his treason?’

‘Of whom and what do you speak?’ said Sybil, throwing herself into a chair.

‘I speak of that base spy, Egremont.’

‘You slander an honourable man,’ said Sybil, with dignity. ‘Mr. Egremont has never entered this house since you met him here for the first time; save once.’

‘He needed no entrance to worm out its secrets,’ said Morley, maliciously. ‘That could be more adroitly done by one who had secret assignations at command with the most charming of its inmates.’

‘Unmannerly churl!’ exclaimed Sybil, starting in her chair, her eye flashing lightning, her distended nostril quivering with scorn.

These are bad errors, but they are partly redeemed by some very sprightly writing, especially in the first half of the novel. Disraeli manages, quite wittily, to reflect the glitter and boredom of society life, and every so often his prose takes on an almost epigrammatic neatness. But you cannot claim very much for Sybil on the basis of this praise, and clearly the larger claims will have to lie elsewhere. I think the point is that you can only allow the novel to have substantial merit if an intelligence, not perhaps naturally a novelist's yet lending itself to novel form, is demonstrably present. And indeed the claim that this sort of intelligence is present is what occasions Dr. Leavis' praise. Disraeli, he says, is not one of the great novelists, but still ‘he is so alive and intelligent as to deserve permanent currency, at any rate in the trilogy Coningsby, Sybil and Tancred: his own interests as expressed in these books—the interests of a supremely intelligent politician who has a sociologist's understanding of civilization and its movements in his time—are so mature’.7 But I think that if Sybil is studied with any degree of careful attention it is much more likely to appear a mostly unintelligent, because badly muddled, piece of work.

First, a very simple point. Disraeli, as is sufficiently attested, relied a great deal on Blue-book evidence. Such reliance is, I think, very inhibiting, though it was probably an inhibition he courted, for it lets him remain so distant from his characters as to help him take up attitudes to them: they are accretions of external facts, and so more easily turned into problems about which recommendations can be made. Even scenes which seem at first to have a measure of vitality, turn out to have this reductive tendency about them. Here, for example, is a conversation in the street market of a northern industrial town.

‘Well, you need not be so fierce, Mother Carey,’ said the youth, with an affected air of deprecation.

‘Don't mother me,’ said the jolly widow, with a kindling eye; ‘go to your own mother, who is dying in a back cellar without a winder, while you've got lodgings in a two-pair.’

‘Dying! She's only drunk,’ said the youth.

‘And if she is only drunk,’ rejoined Mrs. Carey, in a passion, ‘what makes her drink, but toil? Working from five o'clock in the morning to seven o'clock at night, and for the like of such as you.’

‘That's a good one,’ said the youth. ‘I should like to know what my mother ever did for me, but give me treacle or laudanum when I was a baby to stop my tongue and fill my stomach; by the token of which, as my gall says, she stunted the growth of the prettiest figure in all Mowbray.’

My feeling about a passage such as this is that it is only weakened by being cast in a fictional mould. Its intention is purely informative; Disraeli wants to let his readers know how the poor live so as to put them in the right frame of mind to receive the suggested solution to this problem. But fictionally there seems no good reason for Mrs. Carey and Dandy Mick to tell each other what they already know; and in the light of that reflection the documentation of fact begins to lose whatever power it had. This sort of strategic confusion is typical of the novel, though there are far worse examples, and these make it very difficult to understand the claims that have been made for it.

A good deal of the trouble with Sybil springs from the explicit nature of its assertions, which are never really woven into the novel's fabric. It is not difficult to see what Disraeli ‘means’, in a discursive way; and such meaning is frequently made clearer by our knowledge of his attachment to the Young England movement. But Sybil too easily becomes a repository of fragmented manifestos, and Disraeli has hardly any sense of the difficulty George Eliot was to find so acute, ‘of trying to make certain ideas incarnate, as if they had revealed themselves to me first in the flesh’. To take just one instance: there is, in the novel, the repeated assertion of the need for church city missions, in order to carry Christianity into a context of industrialism. Now as a statement of one aspect of the Tractarian movement—to which the Young Englanders owed a good deal—there is nothing much to say for or against the assertion, except that Disraeli clearly wants it to carry part of the novel's burden; national institutions must serve more than class interests if they are to help in uniting the nation. But there is never a chance for this assertion actively to help shape the novel; in no sense can you regard it as modifying it. And very often the assertions in Sybil are extrusive slabs of prose round which the thin life of the novel trickles.

Still, this is not entirely the case, for Disraeli undoubtedly sees other assertions as the source of the novel's life, the proof of which is that he makes its structure spring from them. And to avoid getting trapped into the wrong sort of discussion here, I had perhaps better say that all I mean by ‘structure’ is the sequentially determined complex of narrative, episode, dialogue, and other, similar, resources. It is these that are taxed by some words of Egremont:

‘The new generation of the aristocracy of England are not tyrants, not oppressors, Sybil, as you persist in believing. Their intelligence, better than that, their hearts, are open to the responsibility of their position. But the work that is before them is no holiday-work. It is not the fever of superficial impulse that can remove the deep-fixed barriers of centuries of ignorance and crime. Enough that their sympathies are awakened; time and thought will bring the rest. They are the natural leaders of the People, Sybil; believe me they are the only ones.’

This speech fairly suggests the Disraelian ideal, and indeed Egremont is seen as a paradigm of the new aristocracy, in sharp contrast to his brother, a member of that ‘unworking aristocracy’ Carlyle had attacked in Past and Present. Lord Marney is a hunting, shooting and fishing man, and a harshly repressive landlord who cares very little for his estate; and at the end of the novel he meets a just death at the hands of a rioting mob. Now Disraeli's starting-point in Sybil is the famous one of the two nations, the rich and the poor; and his purpose is to show that they can again become one (it is an unquestioned assumption that there had once been a united, organic community), despite the severe distrust that the deep social splits have created. This is his theme, or, to put it rather differently, it is assertion given a certain structural relevance through the love-affair and eventual marriage of Sybil and Egremont, nobleman and working-class girl. So the adequacy of Egremont's words is to be tested out by the events of the novel, and we must therefore look at those to see how well the theme is realised.

In fact, Disraeli hardly realises it at all. For at the very least we need to have some sense of Sybil as a working-class girl; otherwise we are in no position to measure the weight of difficulties that have to be overcome before her relationship with Egremont can prosper. And these difficulties are not a personal but a class matter; since Egremont and Sybil are inevitably representative figures, we must be made aware of the massing of social pressures—mutual distrust, prejudice and so on—that will do their damnedest to prevent the marriage. Yet since Disraeli cannot at all suggest the power of these pressures, the love-affair is a wild improbability; it remains not even a novelist's, but a politician's, idle dream. And though the gap between the two novelists is so wide as to make extended comparison useless, you have only to think of Dickens' handling of Lizzie Hexam and Eugene Wrayburn to see just how frail and unlikely Disraeli's talent is. It is more than the simple matter of Sybil's speaking as a middle-class girl. The radical fault is that there is never any deep awareness of what she ought to represent, no sense of what working-class life is—except, of course, in those set scenes taken from Blue books which deal statistically with the husk of such life: laudanum and treacle, and so on.

This failure alone seems to me enough to qualify seriously the claims made for Disraeli. But there are others, and the most spectacular again has to do with Sybil. For it turns out that she is not a member of the working class at all. By a piece of creaking plot mechanism, her father is discovered to be the rightful heir to a large estate and to have some sort of ancient, and pure, pedigree. But once this discovery takes effect the whole idea of the rich and poor being reunited goes out of the window. Egremont falls in love with, and marries, a member of his own class. Moreover, the discovery raises a host of problems without, so far as I can see, solving any. It certainly does not solve Disraeli's failure to make convincing his working-class characters who, whatever Sybil's true state, are supposed to be genuine. And I cannot see that it helps much with Sybil herself. After all, how credible is it that her nobility should constantly shine through her misfortunes, and so distinguish her from her associates? ‘Nothing she does or seems, But smacks of something greater than herself.’ Perhaps, but Disraeli's terms of reference are rather different, and you can only swallow the likelihood of Sybil's showing herself too noble for this place if you are prepared to accept that the aristocracy has congenital physical distinctions, or, as Ruskin put it, that ‘the so-called higher classes (are) generally of purer race than the lower’.8 Ruskin's statement is unusually cautious for him, but we can get a hint of what prompted it if we look at a passage in Sybil which voices a fear of the passing of the true aristocracy. It is a description of a person who plays no part in the novel except to have this point made about him. His name is Aubrey St. Lys:

He was distinguished by that beauty of the noble English blood, of which in these days few types remain; the Norman tempered by the Saxon; the fire of conquest softened by integrity; and a serene, though inflexible, habit of mind. The chains of convention, an external life grown out of all proportion with that of the heart and mind, have destroyed this dignified beauty. There is no longer in fact an aristocracy in England, for the superiority of the animal man is an essential quality of the aristocracy. But that it once existed, any collection of portraits from the sixteenth century will show.

That lament recognisably forms part of a line that runs from Carlyle at least as far as Arnold: a lament for the aristocracy, or the barbarians, who have become incapable of fulfilling their destiny to govern: ‘They are the natural leaders of the People.’ And now we know why: it is because they are of purer race. In the preface to Lothair (1870), Disraeli, recalling his famous trilogy, noted that ‘In asserting the doctrine of race, they were entirely opposed to the equality of man, and similar abstract dogmas’. The last hope for recovering this destiny is for the aristocracy to become once more pure. And so at some time—perhaps in the actual process of composition—it must have occurred to Disraeli how misleading it would be to have marriage as the expression of his concept of how the two nations should be united. Hence the need for Sybil to be an aristocrat, for in her marriage to Egremont she will restore a much-needed energy to the nobility. Yet at no point is her aristocratic purity made convincing, and how far the doctrine is mere assertion—the word Disraeli himself uses—one episode will serve to suggest.

The one I am thinking of is where Sybil and her father are arrested after her futile attempts to help him escape a police trap, his plot to commit some sort of violent act against the Government having been discovered (very probably the scene is meant to reassure a worried public about the ability of Government spies to deal with all threats to civil peace: a queer way of helping a novel intended to show the explosive force of class separateness). Sybil's feelings about her father's act and her arrest are predominantly shame and distress; she is ashamed at being thought a criminal and distressed that her father so nearly is one. Such feelings are undoubtedly meant to do her credit, so helping to convince the audience that she is not really a working-class girl; and this is reinforced by the special treatment she gets in prison: Sybil is fully on the side of the law. But the silliness of this is that it shows us nothing of Sybil's integrity, the serene, though inflexible, habit of mind Disraeli saw as essential to the aristocracy. On the contrary, for her to accept the workings of class justice and the immorality of her father's plans argues a lack of integrity the more absurd since on other occasions she is required to exhibit considerable class prejudice and distrust of the aristocracy.

This is not a mere quibble and I would not bring the matter up at all if I thought it was. The fact is that it constitutes a very telling failure of imaginative intelligence on Disraeli's part. For Sybil and her father have previously been shown as convinced of the justness of their cause, and of the injustice of a country ruled by class considerations, and now we see the law operating from a standpoint of class justice. Yet in spite of all this we are meant to approve of Sybil for taking its side. Of course, the aristocracy may support a system which supports it, but for all Sybil knows the system opposes whatever she holds by; shame and distress are feelings that any person of working-class allegiances—and she possesses these whatever her true status—would reject as totally bogus.

And, to compare Disraeli and Dickens again, if we balance Sybil's response to her arrest with the Artful Dodger's, we are bound to sense just how bogus Disraeli is being. ‘This ain't the shop for justice’: for all the element of farce, Dodger's contempt is not devoid of a certain integrity and calm, though inflexible, habit of mind, and it is without doubt expressive of the sense of class separateness as Disraeli's novel never is.

But if Sybil is not expressive of class separateness, it is frequently betrayed into it. Sybil's behaviour after her arrest is a good example of such betrayal, and so is the purpose it serves. For Disraeli wants her as an aristocrat to be naturally on the side of the law, in order to show that the aristocracy will lead the people in a conciliatory, not challenging, fashion. Fear of violence undoubtedly causes this tactic, as it does another, very significant one: the opposing of the true leaders by the false. Here Disraeli has to show that the people's own leaders—mere working-class agitators—are no good, or anyway that where it comes to a choice the people will opt for the aristocrat. They are no good because, in pretending that working-class interests are opposed to, and by, the aristocracy, they plan violent action, and the aristocrat will be preferred since his leadership of the people promises peace, a true reconciliation of interests. But Disraeli's method of showing this is so inept, so ludicrously the result of his need to authenticate his attitudes, that it seems to me conclusively to undermine the claim made on behalf of those ‘so intelligent, so mature’ interests.

The one working-class leader allowed to be admirable is of course Gerard, who turns out to be an aristocrat. In fact, he is linked with Egremont in opposition to Stephen Morley, a working-class radical journalist who is in love with Sybil but rejected for Egremont. He is also opposed to ‘Bishop’ Hatton, the working-class lout who at the end of the novel leads a rioting mob in a destructive orgy. This opposition is schematically shown, since Hatton leads his men to smash up Trafford's factory—Trafford being a benevolent capitalist employer—and Gerard appears on the factory gates to order the men back. Naturally he succeeds: the aristocrat is the natural leader. But the point is that Hatton is so absurd a caricature of a working-class man, so clearly the product of upper-class fears about what the working class is like when left to itself, that he provides the novel's most eloquent betrayal of its assertion that England is split into two nations separated from each other by ignorance.

Not surprisingly the Bishop allows Disraeli to indulge in some nonsense about physical types. So far is he from being distinguished by that beauty of the noble English blood that he is short, fat and very ugly, and extraordinarily brutish. A sort of every child's ogre, he is also the quintessential working-class man as Disraeli conceived him (not consciously perhaps, but Hatton is yet another example of how far Sybil betrays its creator). It is not really surprising that so absurd a figure should lose his followers to Gerard; what is surprising, and not at all explained, is why they followed him in the first place. The people's leader is too easily discredited. And in Morley's case the discrediting is even more inadequate, since it turns largely on the fact that Sybil's dog growls whenever he approaches (it wags its tail at Egremont). In short, Disraeli's version of the working-class agitator is very like C. S. Lewis' version of Milton's Satan because it proves too much; if he is that contemptible how can he represent any threat at all?

Whatever hopes Disraeli had of proclaiming brotherhood triumphant must, at the least, stop short of ‘Bishop’ Hatton. In so far as he is expressive of anything, it is of Disraeli's deep blankness at the real thing strange, and so there is the need to pretend he does not much matter. Brotherhood will triumph in the marriage of Sybil and Egremont. But then this, too, goes wrong because the implications of Disraeli's conception of the hegemonic structure require Sybil herself to be an aristocrat; the aristocracy must be leaders of the people, not, to use a nicely ambiguous word, mates. At whatever point you press, Sybil dissolves into an incoherence which is instructive simply because it involves the contradiction of all Disraeli intended. As he strives to link his two nations, so increasingly are we made aware of how far apart they are. It is the same truth that Alton Locke unwittingly revealed.

If we turn directly from Kingsley and Disraeli's novels to Mary Barton, we encounter so striking a difference that we shall be tempted to overpraise Mrs. Gaskell's first novel. For the strengths of Mary Barton lift it quite clear of the other works, and Mrs. Gaskell rarely falls into the sort of pits Disraeli and Kingsley dig for themselves. She does not repeat Disraeli's mistake of trying to fuse noble labourers with labouring nobility, nor, at her best, is she guilty of the unintelligent sentimentality which allows Kingsley to recommend the working class to a middle-class reading public on the grounds that, contrary to appearances, their interests are the same. The truth is that Mrs. Gaskell is not interested in the idea of brotherhood that Kingsley half dared to believe existed, and which Disraeli probably knew did not. If she can be said to believe in the idea at all, it is not as a conscious thesis to which her characters are bent, but as something which can be sensed in the imaginative exploration that presupposes their autonomous existence. But that, it should be obvious, is a very different sort of brotherhood, one indeed that wrecks the hopes on which the other concept is built.

Since what I am here saying may seem to inflate the novel's reputation dangerously, it is as well to add a note of caution. George Eliot's claim that Mrs. Gaskell is not a classic needs to be challenged, but not on the strength of Mary Barton. In the final reckoning the achievement of this first novel is a fairly modest one; the real wonder is that it should exist at all. For though Mrs. Gaskell is a middle-class liberal who from the evidence of most of her published comments did not consciously chafe at her political creed, her novel really does have to do with working-class individuals and their environment, and not with the middle class or nobility in disguise. At least not at its best. But perhaps inevitably there are moments when she tries to evade the starker implications of her exploration by falling back on comforting attitudes. And yet the very ease with which these moments can be detected is itself proof of her customary integrity; at their truest, her characters are shaped largely by, and exist within, a precisely realised world in which the keynote is provided by grinding toil, poverty, death, and a persistent, scarcely subdued, reek of hopelessness.

The really disturbing centre of the novel, as most commentators have noticed, is not Mary herself but her father. Mary Barton, indeed, seems to owe a great deal of her prominence to the wishes of Mrs. Gaskell's publishers, Chapman and Hall, that the novel should have a love-story running through it. Much of this is detachable and is certainly peripheral to the novel's real concerns, which are well enough indicated by the fact that its first title was John Barton. ‘Round the character of John Barton,’ Mrs. Gaskell told a friend, ‘all the others formed themselves; he was my hero, the person with whom all my sympathies went.’9 The novel's real strengths are clustered around him, and Mrs. Gaskell's triumph with him is the more remarkable in that he challenges all the ideas to which, as a middle-class liberal undertaking a social-problem novel, she holds.

To say that may well appear to beg the question. Did Mrs. Gaskell undertake anything of the kind? On the evidence of her preface to Mary Barton the answer would have to be no, for there she goes out of her way to insist that ‘I know nothing of Political Economy, or the theories of trade’.10 It is enough to convince Mrs. Tillotson. For her ‘the same social conditions, and something of the same anxiety about them, inspired Sybil and Yeast and Alton Locke; but Mrs. Gaskell differs from Disraeli and Kingsley in having no knife to grind’.11 But as we all know now, the important thing is to trust not the teller but the tale, and the undeniable fact is that there are occasions when Mrs. Gaskell retreats from her sensitive exploration of Barton's life to attitudes about him; and such occasions are further marred by a moralising that is strangely superficial, and frequently inapplicable. It may well be that she felt Barton would so soon offend her audience and alienate their sympathies that she forced herself to explain or interpret his behaviour in a manner that damages the fine integrity of his presentation. But there also comes a point where Barton is put beyond even her sympathies, making the possibility of moralising still more explicit. Something else will have to be said about this, but for the moment it is more important to insist on just how splendidly she does manage with Barton.

Essentially he is representative of the working men who during the 1830s and 1840s, as they became increasingly self-conscious of the total condition in which they lived, began to probe for its causes and enquire into its justness. Barton questions the inevitability of his sufferings, and the system that imposes them; and for this he is made to suffer still more. Because of his chartist allegiances he is thrown out of work and blacklegged by all employers: the wages of resistance is poverty and death. Mrs. Gaskell's is by no means a diagrammatic or external statement of what happens to her hero; one of the very best things about Mary Barton is the feel of poverty as its consequences eat into a man, and the sense of the surrounding, ubiquitous city, which imposes hideous conditions on a life from which there is no easy escape. There is then a real temptation for Barton to give in, to accept the system in the hope of living less miserably. So his refusal to do this has a stubborn integrity that is only occasionally upset by Mrs. Gaskell's prim interpolations, asking forgiveness of his sins. Barton's bewilderment at the injustice of the social system in which he finds himself, the gradually hardening knot of his bitterness, and the impulse towards a violent reaction, all spring organically from his situation. And so do his finer qualities. Mrs. Gaskell is very good at showing how difficult it is for any human assertions to struggle against the overwhelming power of poverty, and her art is at its best in the moments which show that the smallest gesture of human decency is, for Barton and his friends, likely to be a considerable triumph over conditions which require selfishness as the best hope for survival.

To put the matter like that is to see just why Barton is the novel's disturbing centre. Certainly it explains why he so disturbed the critics. Indeed, it would be nice to provide a sottisier of reviews of Mary Barton, merely to show the comedy of their attempts to find new and legitimate grounds for the liberal conscience, either by trying to reason with Barton (several reviewers adopt a ‘look here, old chap, this isn't going to get you anywhere’ tone) or by distorting the novel until it fits a picture on which that conscience can bear to gaze. But to do this is beyond the scope of the present essay, and I must restrict myself to two reviews, which suggest well enough the difficulties reviewers found themselves up against. The first comes from The New Monthly Magazine and Humourist:

The authoress professes to have nothing to do with political economy or the theories of trade, she says that she merely wishes to impress what the workman feels and thinks, but she allows the discontented to murmur in prolonged strains without an attempt to chasten the heart or correct the understanding. Barton rails at all capitalists as being so only through the toil of the poor. This would be staunch communism. There surely must be capitalists or the condition of the poor would be worse than ever. We are told in scripture that the poor shall never cease out of the land, but we are also told that their expectation shall not perish, and that those who trust, shall be fed and delivered out of affliction. Further than this we are told that the person of the poor should be no more respected than that of the rich should be honoured, and while it is sinful to oppress and a duty to assist, so also the poor that will not bear rebuke, their poverty is their destruction.12

The riches of this piece are wellnigh inexhaustible, but two points deserve special attention. One is that the review is an extreme example of the unease which the novel caused, and which was principally owing to the imaginative power that went into the presentation of Barton. You can feel the reviewer struggling against being swept away by the power, clutching feebly at the straws of communism and the need for capitalists, and then sensing deliverance as he grasps at scripture. The tone steadies, the sentences lengthen, there is a fine bravura about the last words, and a generous magnanimity in the earlier reassurance: ‘those who trust, shall be fed and delivered out of affliction’. Only, unfortunately, and this is the other point, it is quite irrelevant to the novel, in which the family which dies most horribly in a slum cellar—of typhoid brought on by prolonged starvation—are the Davenports, who are good Methodists. The points are obvious ones, but that is because of the obviousness of the review's evasions.

The other review is an altogether more serious affair. It was published in the Westminster Review, and is the longest and most considered of all contemporary criticisms of the book. It begins by nothing that Mary Barton ‘embodies the dominant feeling of our times—a feeling that the ignorance, destitution and vice which pervade and corrupt our society must be got rid of. The ability to point out how they are to be got rid of, is not the characteristic of this age. That will be the characteristic of the age which is coming.’13 As Mrs, Tillotson rightly says of this:

the reviewer is not being ironical. The necessary step was the tearing of the iron curtain between the two Nations; and this step was within the power, perhaps even was peculiarly the role, of the novelist—as the construction of blueprints for reform was not. The first step was for those who knew the other nation to build up pictures in the comfortable reader's mind, to haunt his imagination and harry the social conscience.

Yet the odd fact is that Mary Barton does construct blue-prints for reform or, since that puts the matter a little too flagrantly, it recommends. And what interests me about the reviewer's comment is that in his total impression of the novel that is quite forgotten. His responsiveness to Mary Barton's embodying ‘the dominant feeling of our time’ is such that he cannot take at all seriously the novel's recommendations; and in this he is right, since without doubt they are mere paper boats, sunk under Mrs. Gaskell's weighty realisation of the industrial world. It is therefore natural that he should concentrate on this, and much the largest part of his article is taken up with a discussion about John Barton. But here again odd things happen to the reviewer's memory.

To begin with, he says of Barton that

In the commencement of the tale he is in full work, with high wages, and possesses a comfortable home. But in possessing that comfortable home, like too many around him (including other portions of society as well as the mere day-labourers), the enjoyment of the present is alone attended to; while the provision for a continuation of even moderate enjoyment for the future, seems to be scarcely heeded.

Now those sentences quite blunt Mrs. Gaskell's sharp insights, and they do it by a mixture of facts which are true to the novel, together with some illegitimate deductions from the facts which are made to seem equally factual by the quasi-paratactical syntax. So though it is quite right to say Barton is in full employment, to add that he gets high wages is a deduction from that true fact, not another fact taken from the novel, even though that is how it reads. And to then state that Barton possesses ‘a comfortable home’ is to make the comfort dependent on his high wages; you tend to read in ‘therefore’. But this is quite improper, as a glance at the novel will confirm. True, the Barton home has a certain comfort, but this is emotional rather than material. The warmth of family feeling manages to minimise the lack of soldier comforts, a far different matter from pretending that a comfortable home is owing to the Bartons being comfortably off.

I don't want to accuse the reviewer of seeking to muddle his audience, rather I think he confuses himself; but the way he does so is highly revealing. For the whole point of the muddle is that it helps him to turn away from the force of Mrs. Gaskell's work, and this becomes startlingly clear when he goes on to reprimand Barton for attending to the present alone rather than providing for ‘even moderate enjoyment for the future’ (if he's comfortably off, of course he can manage that). Here, then, is part of the episode with which the novel opens. The Bartons, out for a Sunday walk, have met the Wilsons, and invite their friends home for tea:

Then came a long whispering, and chinking of money, to which Mr. and Mrs. Wilson were too polite to attend; knowing as they did full well, that it all related to the preparations for hospitality; hospitality that, in their turn, they should have much pleasure in offering. So they tried to be busily occupied with the children, and not to hear Mrs. Barton's directions to Mary.

‘Run, Mary dear, just round the corner, and get some fresh eggs at Tipping's (you may get one a-piece, and that will be five-pence), and see if he has any nice ham cut, that he would let us have a pound of.’

‘Say two pounds, missis, and don't be stingy,’ chimed in the husband.

‘Well, a pound and a half, Mary. And get it Cumberland ham, for Wilson comes from there-away, and it will have a sort of relish of home with it he'll like,—and Mary … you must get a pennyworth of milk and a loaf of bread—mind you get it fresh and new—and, and—that's all, Mary.’

‘No, it's not all,’ said her husband. ‘Thou must get six-pennyworth of rum, to warm the tea; thou'll get it at the “Grapes”. And thou just go to Alice Wilson … and tell her to come and take her tea with us; she'll like to see her brother, I'll be bound, let alone Jane and the twins.’

The reviewer's rebuke to Barton shows very plainly that he is relying on the liberal remedy of thrift to see a person through even the worst situations, and since Mary Barton is pretty firm in showing the hopelessness of this he has to convert the facts before the remedy can apply. But even if it could in Barton's case—and there is no solid evidence of a supply of money that would last any length of time—the fact is that self-help would merely destroy the comfortable home, because it would squeeze out all the decency and generosity of spirit that manage to survive in the Barton household. So the reviewer's advice to all future Bartons is yet another way of trying to hedge round the truths of the novel.

I must, therefore, provide against the ignorance and imprudence of my employer. He may over-engage himself at one time, and subsequently be obliged to dismiss a portion of his labourers, or become insolvent, and be obliged to shut up his works. Folly, similar to his, may prevail among others. My duty to myself commands me to acquire, by saving a capital for myself—a duty which every well conducted labourer can perform.

Mrs. Tillotson says that Mary Barton was reviewed ‘less as a novel than as a document; its truth and justice, its social moral were emphasized’. But what she does not say, though it strikes me as more important, is that the chief reason for the novel's being reviewed as a document is that its truth and justice and social moral could be not only emphasised but questioned. It is easier to argue with a document than a novel, for the truths of the latter are not open to the techniques by which the worth of documents can be examined. That is why the reviewer's advice to Barton must strike us as ludicrously beside the point when we are faced with the scene which presents his attending to the ‘enjoyment of the present’. On the other hand, what the scene does show—and finely—is the struggle there has to be for gestures of human decency to survive. Mrs. Barton's anxiety about money ought to win the reviewer's plaudits, but though we may well feel sympathy for what causes it we are unlikely to think of her caution as virtue overruled by culpable extravagance. And at one point the reviewer himself is forced to acknowledge the imaginative power of Mrs. Gaskell's treatment of Barton:

That John Barton should have had the discontent, engendered by want, increased to hatred towards the class of rich employers, is not strange nor forced. The patience and long-suffering of the industrious poor, left in the ignorance which we see, are more strange than the conclusions to which John Barton arrives, and which lead him, an unwilling agent, step by step, to the crime. …

That moment of insight is not sustained, and before the end of the review there is more haranguing and advice; yet the fact it is there at all suggests how the strength of Mary Barton can break through the most determined resistance. More particularly, it is because Barton is so satisfactory a fictional creation that he is disturbing as neither Alton Locke nor ‘Bishop’ Hatton could be; and only by backing away from what actually is in the novel could reviewers accommodate him to the world of cliché in which Disraeli and Kingsley's workmen move.

There is not the space to examine in detail the justness of the Westminster Review critic's admission that Barton's progress towards hatred ‘is not strange nor forced’. One instance must do, and I choose it because it also suggests where Mrs. Gaskell fails. Barton and Wilson go to the help of the Davenport family, who are living in terrible squalor since the dying husband has been for so many weeks out of work that there is no money for food or medicine. The approach to the Davenport's living quarters is described in this way:

It (the road) was unpaved: and down the middle a gutter forced its way, every now and then forming pools in the road with which the street abounded. … Our friends were not dainty, but even they picked their way, till they got to some steps leading down to a small area, where a person standing would have his head about one foot below the level of the street, and might at the same time, without the least motion of his body, touch the window of a cellar in which a family of human beings lived. It was very dark inside. The window-panes many of them were broken and stuffed with rags, which was reason enough for the dusky light that pervaded the place even at mid-day. After the account I have given of the state of the street, no one can be surprised that on going into the cellar inhabited by Davenport, the smell was so foetid as almost to knock the two men down. Quickly recovering themselves, as those inured to such things do, they began to penetrate the thick darkness of the place, and to see three or four children rolling on the damp, nay, wet brick floor, through which the stagnant, filthy moisture of the street oozed up; the fireplace was empty and black; the wife sat on her husband's lair, and cried in the black loneliness.

As soon as he sees the family's condition Barton goes home and takes his remaining few valuables to pawn; and with the money he buys some necessaries for them.

So far the episode is pretty well a conventional matter. And in addition there are elements of an amateurishness in the initial description suggesting at the very least that Mrs. Gaskell is a little unsure of her audience's response: ‘after the account I have given of the state of the street, no one can be surprised’, reads very much like a defence against charges of improbability. It also makes the description seem little more than factual reportage on the lines of Sybil. True, there are occasional felicities, as that quiet, un-ironic phrase ‘a family of human beings’. Un-ironic, because the note is one of wondering acceptance: it could have been a family of rats, but it is a family of human beings. The addition of ‘human beings’ tells you much more than the word ‘family’ could; don't we expect the family to be human? But answer the question too contemptuously in the negative, and you find yourself implying an ironical attitude which so easily becomes the mark of feeling good about your protest against conditions in an industrial society. Irony in this sort of context is nearly always a defence, a retreat from honest exploration; it is a sealing-off of imagination. It seems to me a test of Mrs. Gaskell's quality that she avoids this, as Disraeli, for example, does not; his descriptions of Wodgate in Sybil frequently make use of an irony to which only a much better work would earn the right.

But when this is said, it still remains true that there is little in what we have so far been given of this episode to distinguish it from conventional treatment. It is only when we consider how it might continue that we begin to see where the difference lies. What we could expect is that Barton's money would see Davenport through his illness and save his family; and the implication would be that working-class people were capable of sufficiently helping each other through an inexhaustible fund of good-natured generosity.

It hardly needs saying that in Mary Barton matters are very different: Davenport does die, and his family continues to suffer, so that Barton's money is wasted (whether the Westminster Review critic ought to regard his action as culpable because he is ‘scarcely heeding’ future needs, is a nice point). In addition, Mrs. Gaskell lets us into how Barton thinks of his action and what caused it: ‘Barton's was an errand of mercy: but the thoughts of his heart were touched by sin, by bitter hatred of the happy, whom he, for the time, confounded with the selfish.’ Later, as he and Wilson watch over the dying man, Barton curses God for being ‘th' masters' father’, and Wilson rebukes him,

‘Eh, John! donna talk so; sure there's many and many a master as good or better nor us.’

‘If you think so, tell me this. How comes it they're rich, and we're poor? I'd like to know that. Han they done as they'd be done by for us?’

But Wilson was no arguer; no speechifier, as he would have called it.

No trace of a thesis there, but a grittily attentive rendering of two men plunged in discussion, one trying to reconcile himself by clichés to an intolerable situation, one in a rage of indignation against it. Their being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is not at stake, what matters is the insight we are offered into how the system they encounter distorts their lives and thoughts; indeed, it is the helpless inadequacy of their words that makes the episode so moving. Neither cliché nor argument will make sense of their experience. It is so even more remarkably in Barton's next speech, where the cliché of argument takes on an especial poignancy; it is revivified by the bitterness of personal utterance. At such moments you realise how fine Mrs. Gaskell's understanding is, not so much of the intricacies of radical thought as of the way in which a man like Barton will cling desperately to its more plangent phrases, hoping that they will somehow light a way through the muddle he finds so bafflingly impenetrable.

‘You'll say (at least many a one does) they'n getten capital an' we'n getten none. I say, our labour's our capital, and we ought to draw interest on that. They get interest on their capital somehow a' this time, while ourn is lying idle, else how else could they all live as they do? Besides, there's many on 'em has had nought to begin wi'; there's Carsons, and Duncombes, and Mengies, and many another, as comed into Manchester with clothes on their back, and that were all, and now they're worth their tens of thousands, a'getten out of our labour; why the very land as fetched but sixty pounds twenty year agone is now worth six hundred, and that, too, is owing to our labour: but look at you, and see me, and poor Davenport yonder; whatten better are we? They'n screwed us down to th' lowest peg, in order to make their great big fortunes, and build their great big houses, and we, why we're just clemming, many and many of us. Can you say there's nought wrong in this?’

‘Well, Barton, I'll not gainsay ye. But Mr. Carson spoke to me after th' fire, and says he, “I shall ha' to retrench, and be very careful in my expenditure during these bad times, I assure ye”; so yo see th' masters suffer too.’

‘Han they ever seen a child o' their'n die for want o' food?’ asked Barton, in a low, deep voice.

It seems to me possible to allow for some flaws here—the last five words, for instance, could be wished away—and still find this an astonishingly fine achievement. Mrs. Gaskell is not putting words into Barton's mouth when she has him say that ‘our labour's our capital’, because the phrase is so properly available to what he wants to communicate—which in the end is not so much an argument as a protest. The word ‘Besides’ introduces not another phase in the argument but another aspect of the grievance he knows is just but not how to justify. He casts around for the right clue, picking up fragments of his experience and one after the other throwing them away because they cannot help him. That is why his appeal to Wilson, ‘Can you say there's nought wrong in this?’ is so touching; all sense of argument has got lost in the deeper, more personal, sense of unaccountable injustice. So with Wilson's answer, and Barton's counter-question. What each says is true, but the two truths do not supplement each other, nor even cancel each other out; they merely make the muddle more overwhelming. It is the anger and bitterness, the sense of muddle which reason cannot cope with and which makes truth seem useless, that force themselves out in Barton's speech, making it credible and moving as no speech in Sybil or Alton Locke could be.

Yet even so there is in this fine scene something that hints at a failure on Mrs. Gaskell's part. It comes out in her mentioning that Barton's thought ‘were touched by sin’; the inadequacy of that comment rivals the inadequacy of some of her hero's. The judgement feels so irrelevant, so trifling; and I think it can be accounted for only if we grasp that Mrs. Gaskell finds the muddle every bit as overwhelming as do Barton and Wilson. Like them she wants to make sense of it, but unlike them she finds the way to understanding made out of liberalism generously tinged with Christianity. In itself this is not remarkable; it was the way many took. But Mary Barton is a remarkable novel because it so powerfully suggests the guilt at which all liberalism must eventually connive, and which therefore requires Mrs. Gaskell to put it behind her with a resoluteness for which few liberals would feel the need: that the happy may be the selfish; that her religion may be for the masters only; that caring for individual freedom may mean caring for the freedom of a relatively few individuals: it is from the shocked recognition of such possibilities that Mrs. Gaskell finally turns away. So it is that trying as honestly as she can to present the denseness and bewildering complexity of the industrial experience, and for that very reason finding it bearable only as it can be accounted for, she produces moments in the novel where interpretation usurps and contradicts imaginative exploration, and the ‘truths’ of liberalism become the novel's lies. Most troublingly this is the case with the murder of the manufacturer Carson's son, and what stems from it.

There can be little doubt that Mrs. Gaskell always intended the murder to happen, even though it would be bound to put great strain upon her claim that Barton was ‘the person with whom all my sympathies went’. And undoubtedly she does her best to make it seem fitting. In particular, she makes the victim the son of a bullying manufacturer and the would-be seducer of Mary; and the Westminster Review critic spotted the implications of this: ‘[Carson's morals] are only of, and for, a class … a beauty in humble life might—without any blot on his class-character, detriment to his station, or remorse to his conscience—be made to serve the purpose of his mere animal indulgence … Class-morality naturally made him thoughtless of the feelings of those not of his rank …’ So in having Barton kill him Mrs. Gaskell closes the circle of moral retribution with a neatness that recalls Carlyle's grim pleasure in pointing out that the widow of the Glasgow slums ‘proves her sisterhood; her typhus-fever kills them: they actually were her brothers, though denying it’. Indeed, so positively does Mrs. Gaskell appear to accept the proof of brotherhood that she has the elder Carson forgive his son's murderer and plan to become a more considerate employer.

So far so good. But, as Raymond Williams has quite rightly noticed, the trouble with the murder is that it is so unrepresentative an act for a novel whose focus is predominantly representative; it is altogether too exceptional. And in addition it seems an excessively crude way of dramatising class conflict. Where I disagree with Williams is in his explanation of why Mrs. Gaskell falls back on the murder: ‘The real explanation, surely, is that John Barton, a political murderer appointed by a trade union, is a dramatisation 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’ (Williams' italics). I think not. True, as we have seen in Sybil and Alton Locke, fear of such violence was widespread, and it may even be the case that Mrs. Gaskell was partly conditioned by it when she came to deal with the murder; but that is not the central reason for the violence. It seems to me that she finds the murder necessary, because by means of it she can simplify a complexity which has become too terrific for her to accept consciously. Her mind shuts out the awareness of a muddle so colossal that it defeats the explanations of her social creeds, and so she attempts to impose order by turning to murder, where a neat pattern can realise itself: class antagonism producing a violence from which springs reconciliation. It is far too simple, principally because the antagonism is reduced to a matter of individual violence, so that though the pattern itself is intendedly representative it is fashioned out of quite arbitrary material.

Mrs. Gaskell may, however, have been additionally persuaded to adopt it, since it has the apparent advantage of disposing of Barton. I put the matter callously, and that is as it should be, for there is something callous in her attempt to write him off. The word seems an odd one to use about her, but her treatment of her hero justifies it. For Williams, ‘she recoils from the violence of murder, to the extent of being unable even to enter it as the experience of the man conceived as her hero’. Again, this seems to me not the whole truth. It is not so much that Mrs. Gaskell is unable to enter the experience as that she sees she does not need to; Barton's act means that she need no longer take him seriously. More and more he has been leading her to an understanding of the limitations of her consciously held beliefs, but now she can stand back and judge him, as she had earlier when she noted that ‘his thoughts were touched by sin’. As soon as Barton commits murder he becomes at best an object of pity; and that phrase fairly suggests the position of superiority to which Mrs. Gaskell retreats. She can now take up an attitude to Barton.

Mrs. Gaskell, then, profits from the murder in two ways, though at the cost of damaging all that is best in her novel. Because of Barton's act she can simplify the issues Mary Barton has been exploring, and she can also dismiss from serious attention its disturbing centre. I do not say that this latter gain had always been intended, in fact I am certain that the murder must have come as a tremendous relief to her, since 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. It is these which are meant to be realised by the consequences of the murder. Carson's forgiveness and vow of reform seem to represent a triumph for the best hopes of liberalism. Mrs. Tillotson, seizing on the detail of Barton's dying in Carson's arms, says: ‘And this points to the book's true theme: not this or that feature of industrial society is being criticised, but its whole principle, excluding any human contact between masters and men; and the hope of betterment lies not in this or that reform, but in the persistence, against all odds, of humanheartedness’. But this is a grotesquely inadequate hope in terms of the novel itself. For one thing, even if Carson's reform is genuine it is a purely individual matter, whereas one side of Mrs. Gaskell certainly hopes it will emerge as a general recommendation. For another, it is only one side of her, and the shallower, interpretive side, at that. The side which is truer to the novel knows that such a resolution is impossible, and indeed at the very end of Mary Barton all the main characters are sent off to Canada to make a fresh start, and so are given a purely fortuitous, and individual, release from a context which had been shown to be so inescapable. As Williams remarks, there is at this point ‘a kind of writing-off, when the misery of the actual situation can no longer be endured’. Human heartedness indeed! If only the matter were that simple, Mrs. Gaskell's liberalism need not have been in conflict with all that is finest in her novel.


  1. It comes from his essay in the Pelican Guide to English Literature, Vol. 6; easily the best essay on the subject.

  2. Culture and Society, London, 1957. But Williams's few pages are of considerable interest.

  3. Past and Present, Works, Vol. 10, London, 1896-9.

  4. Alton Locke, London, 1850.

  5. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, London, 1963, p. 63. Thompson has a splendid discussion of the concept of ‘mob’, pp. 62-78.

  6. All quotations come from the Hughendon edn., London, 1881.

  7. F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition, London, 1947, p. 1. This praise is echoed by Kettle.

  8. Ruskin, Modern Painters, Works, Vol. 7, ed. Cook and Weddeburn, London, 1900-13, p. 343.

  9. See A. B. Hopkins, Elizabeth Gaskell, London, 1952, p. 77.

  10. All quotations come from the 1st edn., London, 1848.

  11. Kathleen Tillotson, Novels of the 1840's, London, 1961, p. 202.

  12. Vol. 84 (part 3 for 1848).

  13. Vol. LI, July 1849.

Margaret Ganz (essay date 1969)

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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.]


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 “pictures of what those principles [of Political Economy] are actually doing in communities”3 as The Hill and the Valley and A Manchester Strike were specifically calculated to appeal not to man's moral but to his rational nature, not to his heart but to his common sense and enlightened self-interest. Though Mrs. Trollope's Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy (1840) has been underrated by critics, both that work and Charlotte Elizabeth's Helen Fleetwood (1841), which seek to evoke pity and indignation regarding social problems and are indeed often moving in their depiction of human suffering, lack the power of Mary Barton. The authors are not only more limited in the scope of their social criticism (both focus on the problem of child labor in the cotton mills) but in artistic execution (Mrs. Trollope's powers of characterization are intermittent, while those of Charlotte Elizabeth are almost nonexistent) and in basic viewpoint (Mrs. Trollope's is belied by the work's artificial conclusion and Charlotte Elizabeth's is so parochial that it must alienate many readers).4

Critics are surely justified in acknowledging only Disraeli as a significant precursor in that attack on social conditions by novelists which would soon enlist not only Mrs. Gaskell's efforts but those of Charles Kingsley in Alton Locke (1850) and Yeast (1851). Yet they basically agree that, for several reasons, even Disraeli's impressive denunciation of the gulf between “the two nations”5 in Sybil (1845) was not as effective as Mrs. Gaskell's treatment of the same focal problem in Mary Barton. Because Disraeli's commentary on social problems had a political raison d'être, its scope and effect were restricted while Mrs. Gaskell's broadly humanitarian appraisal invariably had a wider appeal. Whereas Disraeli's knowledge of social conditions was the result of planned research over a limited period of time, Mrs. Gaskell's grasp of the subject was the fruit of many years of personal experience with poverty in her husband's parish. While the mind of the one deftly exposed social ills with thoughtful indignation and a biting contempt for human exploitation, the heart and conscience of the other movingly dramatized the harrowing inequities of man's social condition.

The general humaneness of Mrs. Gaskell's approach indeed gives her, as Kathleen Tilloston points out, the advantage not only over her politically oriented predecessor but over the writer who would soon become the apostle of Christian Socialism in fiction:

… Mrs. Gaskell differs from Disraeli and Kingsley in having no axe to grind. A wider impartiality, a tenderer humanity, and it may be a greater artistic integrity, raise this novel beyond the conditions and problems that give rise to it.6

Thus her greatest asset is that spontaneous, non-manipulative interest in humanity to which Arnold Kettle does justice in a suggestive comment:

It would not be fair to compare Disraeli's presentation of scenes of poverty with the mode of exhibition—local color and feeding peculiarities included—employed in the reptile house in the London Zoo; but with Mrs. Gaskell such a comparison would never even enter one's head. She has a respect for her characters quite different from the social worker's interest or the responsible intellectual's effort of sympathy.7

Unencumbered then by a specific commitment—be it to a Young England or a Christian Socialist movement—Mrs. Gaskell exemplifies in her work the attempt to counteract Utilitarian rationalism with an appraisal of human needs and desires which makes sentiment the significant nexus of human relations. It is, as Louis Cazamian so aptly says, a “sentimental interventionism” which she preaches. We therefore associate her views with the gospel of Carlyle and, though not directly influenced by Dickens (nor indeed by any earlier writers on social questions), her appeal to the emotions is qualitatively similar to his. Cazamian points to that significant resemblance:

While she was as unfitted as Dickens to erect a new system, to challenge orthodox political economy with new economic principles, she could, as effectively as he, suggest in the face of a pressing and painful reality, the sentiments which would give birth to actions in the present and to new theories in the future.

[italics mine]8

The impact of Dickens' denunciations regardless of their complete accuracy (e.g., his attack on the Poor Laws in Oliver Twist) suggests the force of an appeal to sentiment cast in fictional form. As Edmund Spenser well knew centuries before, humanity prefers to receive its lesson garbed in a story; it is much more disposed to have its emotions roused than its intellect challenged. When that appeal to readers had, as in Mrs. Gaskell's case, the quality of a religious injunction, its effect was further intensified: it challenged Christian consciences to reevaluate standards of earthly conduct in the light of future salvation.

The authenticity of Mrs. Gaskell's descriptions of social conditions in Manchester was of course essential in retaining the interest and sympathy of readers who might justly demand a sufficient correlative for the feelings they were asked to experience. Yet not only did contemporary critics emphasize the accuracy of her portrayal9 but even the formidable W. R. Greg, who severely criticized her for placing the responsibility for such conditions upon the masters, could not challenge the veracity of her descriptions. He was forced to admit that the author “has evidently lived much among the people she describes, made herself intimate at their firesides,” and to grant that her dialogues “approach very nearly, both in tone and style, to the conversations actually carried on in the dingy cottages of Lancashire.”10

In claiming that the vagaries of capitalistic production victimized masters as well as workmen, and that the latter's failure to lead disciplined and abstemious lives largely accounted for hardships in time of retrenchment, Greg revealed that very immunity to sentiment which Mrs. Gaskell was trying to counteract. The self-satisfaction with which he presented an instance (complete with chart) of the “actual progress upwards of a young mechanic” who developed saving habits and postponed marriage until he was solvent indicates that, like Harriet Martineau before him, Greg had brought his mind conscientiously to bear upon social problems while his imagination and heart had largely remained inoperative. (Considering that the average laborer was poorly housed, forced to work very long hours, wretchedly paid, and almost denied any leisure, he would have needed enormous self-control to renounce temporary enjoyments.) Like Mrs. Gaskell, Greg maintained that the basic want of the workers was, as he put it, “moral, not material.” But the apostle of self-sufficiency was mainly criticizing the workmen's lack of moral fiber (“strength,” “sense,” “courage”), which accounted for the precariousness of their lives,11 while Mrs. Gaskell, the “sentimental interventionist,” repeatedly deplored the denial of moral support to the workers. For only the sympathy and the confidence of the masters could help to relieve the physical suffering and sense of alienation of the men.

This conflict of views is interesting not only as a classic illustration of two contrasting viewpoints concerning those social conditions fostered by the Industrial Revolution but as a dramatic instance of the gap between the assumptions, the standards, even the temperamental leanings of Utilitarianism and Social Interventionism. Many critics also suggest that Greg's reproaches were partly responsible for Mrs. Gaskell's far more sympathetic view of masters in North and South. Though she does do justice to their boldness, their inventiveness, and their self-reliance, she has not, however, altered her basic viewpoint in that novel. For the masters' sympathetic understanding of their workmen and their willingness to share business concerns with them are still the sine qua non of successful cooperation in capitalistic enterprise. After all it is in North and South that the master, Mr. Thornton, echoes Carlyle's condemnation of the “cash nexus.”

While Cazamian views Mrs. Gaskell's particular insight into social questions as the logical product of her femininity for “it is feminine natures, more impulsive and tender, who have perceived the connection between the principles of Christian charity and the duties of social solidarity,”12 David Cecil, interestingly enough, believes that very femininity to have been her greatest handicap in the handling of social questions:

It would have been impossible for her if she had tried, to have found a subject less suited to her talents. It was neither domestic nor pastoral. It gave scope neither to the humorous, the pathetic nor the charming. Further, it entailed an understanding of economics and history wholly outside the range of her Victorian feminine intellect. And the only emotions it could involve were masculine and violent ones.13

Yet the conscious purpose of Mrs. Gaskell was precisely not to grapple with “economics and history” but to bring to bear upon social conditions and those very “masculine and violent” emotions which she was well aware they aroused (as her portrayal of John Barton shows) the solution of womanly feelings of sympathy and solicitude which she hoped would, like an antidote, counteract their virulence. In that sense the subject was eminently “suited to her talents,” and she could without qualms deny a knowledge of political economy (though she had read Adam Smith and perhaps other works on the subject14), as she pursued her aim of revealing the bitterness evoked by social conflicts and of suggesting ways to mitigate it. The scrupulosity of her modest intentions is amply demonstrated in her sensitive reaction to the criticism of her aims:

I do think that we must all acknowledge that there are duties connected with the manufacturing system not fully understood as yet, and evils existing in relation to it which may be remedied in some degree, although we as yet do not see how; but surely there is no harm in directing the attention to the existence of such evils. No one can feel more deeply than I how WICKED it is to do anything to excite class against class; and it has been most unconscious if I have done so … no praise could compensate me for the self-reproach I shall feel if I have written unjustly.15

That very absence of tendentiousness in Mary Barton has made it seem a purer work of art than the social novels of her predecessors (we have seen Kathleen Tillotson speak of its possibly “greater artistic integrity”). But it would be a mistake to assume that the breadth of her purpose and the selflessness of her impulse were wholly conducive to a controlled and harmonious artistic expression. For, to begin with, though she was under no compulsion to enjoin specific actions or to promote particular remedies, she was limited by profound moral and religious commitments which distinctly affected the handling of her subject. What Arthur Pollard calls “the moralizing intention of the work”16 does indeed impair its artistic power, while the form which that intention takes is an even more immediate source of weakness. Instead of consistently suggesting her views through the interaction of characters and circumstances alone, she yields to the hortatory impulse; this preaching by doctrine rather than by example minimizes the impact of her dramatic presentation of human conflicts and their possible psychological implications. It is not surprising that Elizabeth Barrett Browning, though certainly committed to social reform, should find the effect rebuffing:

There is power and truth—she can shake and she can pierce—but I wish half the book away, it is so tedious every now and then; and besides, I want more beauty, more air from the universal world—these class-books must always be defective as works of art.17

But it is not didacticism alone that mars the artistic coherence of the work. Her very diffidence and modesty, though in some ways so helpful a guarantee against one-sidedness, mitigate unfortunately, as we shall see, against the force of every deeply felt indictment inspired by her social sympathy.

Her basic theme, as she describes it in her Preface to the novel, seems undeniably promising from an artistic point of view, since it is concerned with the psychological rather than the economic implications of social conflict.18 Her intention is not so much to chronicle a way of life as to convey a particular state of mind, regardless of its justification—that of those sympathetically observed “care-worn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and want,” and who feel (as she has personally discovered from “one or two of the more thoughtful among them”) “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.”19

Her apparent objectivity seems at first fortuitous; since she wants to reveal an ominous moral and psychological phenomenon, the justification for the workers' bitterness may not be as relevant a question as the threatening reality of a rancor which transforms “resignation” into “revenge,” of “a state … in which the lips are compressed for curses, and the hands clenched and ready to smite.” However, her statement that she wishes “to give some utterance to the agony which, from time to time, convulses this dumb people; the agony of suffering without the sympathy of the happy, or of erroneously believing that such is the case [italics mine],” reveals the weakness which underlies her objectivity. She intimates that the masters might be guilty yet immediately retracts the suggestion, seemingly temporizing with the truth. Yet her very refusal to identify herself with the viewpoint of the men indirectly supports her most significant conviction. The workers' possible misjudgment of their employers after all suggests that it is a failure in communication, what she later on in the novel itself calls a “feeling of alienation between the different classes of society,” which is the focal problem in the social relations between masters and men.20

Thus her Preface already reveals the difficulties created by her basic intention not to establish the responsibility for social deprivation but to warn against the dangers of its moral and psychological repercussions. It foreshadows some of the problems actually faced by the author in the novel itself. She will be emotionally incapable of remaining an objective arbiter of disputes while exploring the state of mind of her “care-worn men,” yet morally committed to oppose a rebellion against accepted standards and norms. She will persistently tend to qualify that allegiance with the downtrodden to which her sympathy impels her.

Discerning critics of Mary Barton have understandably singled out for praise the characterization of John Barton, Mary's father. Only in the portrait of the Manchester weaver whose progressive disillusionment and embitterment lead him to commit murder at the behest of his union does Mrs. Gaskell achieve her stated intention of exemplifying the moral and psychological devastation that can be caused by alienation.21 Indeed she carefully suggests the complex interaction of temperament, personal experience, and external circumstances which leads to the downfall of her hero. Early insights into Barton's nature and the quality of his bitterness clearly anticipate his future conflicts. The balance of his moral nature is shown as precarious because of his emotional intensity (his basic characteristic is that of “extreme earnestness; resolute either for good or evil”); moreover, severe mental suffering in one who possesses a “sort of latent enthusiasm” may already have distorted his moral values. At a time when his better impulses still prevail, John Barton can not only be so strongly aroused on the subject of “the gentle-folk” that his recriminations against them rush forth while “the latent fire” is “lighting up his eye,” but his destructive feelings of rancor and hatred toward the rich are intimately related to the positive impulses of love and tenderness toward the child he has tragically lost:

“And what good have they ever done that I should like them? … If I am sick do they come and nurse me? If my child lies dying (as poor Tom lay, with his white wan lips quivering, for want of better food than I could give him), does the rich man bring the wine or broth that might save his life? If I am out of work for weeks in the bad times, and winter comes … and there is no coal for the grate, and no clothes for the bed, and the thin bones are seen through the ragged clothes, does the rich man share his plenty with me, as he ought to do, if his religion wasn't a humbug? … No, I tell you, it's the poor, and the poor only, as does such things for the poor. Don't think to come over me with th' old tale, that the rich know nothing of the trials of the poor; I say, if they don't know, they ought to know. We're their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows, and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds. …”22

The loss of his wife which soon follows this first scene in the novel is an appropriate psychological step in his alienation from “the gentle humanities of earth” for he now lacks a restraining influence on that emotionalism whose positive attributes almost imply negative ones. His very reaction to his wife's death exemplifies his potential for love and hatred and the inexorable connection between the two, for his overwhelming tenderness for the departed soon gives way to a strong vindictiveness against the person he believes responsible for his loss. The very man who is impelled by “a strange curiosity” to look again at “his first gift to her, a bead necklace,” and breaks down in tears when his discovery of “piled-up tea-things” reminds him of “his wife's daily round of duties” unreasonably conjectures that the recent disappearance of his wife's flighty sister, Esther, may have caused that fatal “shock to the system” of Mrs. Barton:

His feelings towards Esther almost amounted to curses. It was she who had brought on all this sorrow. Her giddiness, her lightness of conduct had wrought this woe. His previous thoughts about her had been tinged with wonder and pity, but now he hardened his heart against her for ever.23

Barton's inability to forgive is closely allied to the most dangerous tendency in his nature. Unlike Alice Wilson (the sister of Barton's good friend) who, when confronted with sorrow “would say it were sent, and fall to trying to find out what good it were to do,”24 John Barton is incapable of resignation. His tragedy, like that of so many heroes, has its root in his rebellion against fate, in his obsession with challenging not only the existing realities of social conditions but the basic nature of justice.

His tendency to negate resignation is most dramatically exemplified at the bedside of Davenport, the dying workman whom John Barton and George Wilson have gone to assist. Nor does the author neglect to give Barton a psychological justification for his feeling. The horrifying picture of destitution both in the street piled with loathsome refuse and in the hovel where the dying man “lay on straw, so damp and mouldy, no dog would have chosen it in preference to flags,” with “a piece of sacking, coming next to his worn skeleton of a body” in the fever of a delirium from which “every now and then he started up in his naked madness, looking like the prophet of woe in the fearful plague-picture,” could hardly inspire abnegation. The difficulties of resignation are indeed only too apparent in the behavior of Davenport: that the saintly acceptance of hardships so characteristic of him before his illness must have been sustained at the cost of great mental effort is subtly suggested by the author's comment that in his delirium “he cursed and swore, which surprised Wilson, who knew his piety in health, and who did not know the unbridled tongue of delirium.” It is not surprising that John Barton, confronted with mortal agony under such harrowing conditions, should find the gospel of resignation Davenport had preached in a letter to his wife wholly irrelevant and that he should meet Wilson's praise of this document with bitter cynicism. When Wilson comments that “it were as good as Bible-words; ne'er a word o' repining; a' about God being our Father, and that we mun bear patiently whate'er He sends,” the following dialogue takes place:

“Don ye think He's the' masters' Father, too? I'd be loth to have 'em for brothers.”

“Eh, John! donna talk so; sure there's many and many a master as good or better nor us.”

“If you think so, tell me this. How comes it they're rich, and we're poor? I'd like to know that. Han they done as they'd be done by for us?”25

And Barton continues to denounce the inequities of the capitalistic system which denies to workers “interest” on their own capital—that “labour” which allows the building up of fortunes by the exploitation of the working man. In conclusion Barton clinches his argument by opposing to Wilson's suggestion that “th' masters suffer too” in difficult times the irrefutable argument which had haunted Mrs. Gaskell's mind when years earlier a workman had faced her with it: “Han they ever seen a child o' their'n die for want o' food?”26

In presenting the two final steps toward that ultimate alienation which makes the commission of murder possible, Mrs. Gaskell again strives to do justice to the complexities of Barton's nature—to the clash between possibilities of good and evil—and to the role played by unfortuitous circumstances in fostering his destructive tendencies. It is because he has such constructive feelings toward the Chartist petition, because he so lovingly feels “a really pure gladness of heart” in actively promoting “some grand relief” for the workingmen that he is so bitterly disappointed when he returns from London. What has again impressed him there is his sense of total alienation from the rich, his abiding apprehension of the great gap between two ways of existence and two concepts of what is deemed the significant “business” of life. He tells his friends that, as the procession of Chartists had moved past elegant carriages:

“One o' th' police struck me. ‘Whatten business have you to do that!’ said I.

“‘You're frightening them horses,’ says he, in his mincing way … ‘and it's our business to keep you from molesting the ladies and gentlemen going to her Majesty's drawing-room.’

“‘And why are we to be molested?’ asked I, ‘going decently about our business, which is life and death to us, and many a little one clemming at home in Lancashire? Which business is of most consequence i' the sight o' God, think yo', our'n or them grand ladies and gentlemen as yo think so much on?’

“But I might as well ha' held my peace, for he only laughed.”27

By analyzing Barton's progressive despondency after his return from London, the author appropriately prepares us for his final indignation which will burst out during the strike (when mediation has failed) in the irrepressible “have at the masters!” Again external circumstances abet his tendencies, for the economic crisis which has now hit Manchester further inhibits Barton's better impulses. The physical weakness of hunger, the sense of unreality induced by the opium which staves off craving for food, and the desultoriness of unemployment enhance his tendency to brood and give to discontent the dimensions of an obsession. Mrs. Gaskell's ability to intuit a “state of feeling” to which the term “monomania” might be applied “so haunting, so incessant, were the thoughts that pressed upon him” is demonstrated in the following analogy:

I have somewhere read a forcibly described punishment among the Italians, worthy of a Borgia. The supposed or real criminal was shut up in a room, supplied with every convenience and luxury; and at first mourned little over his imprisonment. But day by day he became aware that the space between the walls of his apartment was narrowing, and then he understood the end. Those painted walls would come into hideous nearness, and at last crush the life out of him.

And so day by day, nearer and nearer, came the diseased thoughts of John Barton. They excluded the light of heaven, the cheering sounds of earth. They were preparing his death.28

There is genuine psychological insight in her realization that Barton's “overpowering thought,” his perpetually reiterated questioning of “why” the “rich and poor” should be “so separate, so distinct, when God has made them all” and “it is not His will that their interests [be] so far apart,” is especially destructive because it leads him away from the particulars of his own state to a questioning of the universal condition of man, to a probing of “the problems and mysteries of life.” In his bafflement at these “mysteries,” he clings to the one abiding reality, a characteristically dual emotion: “the only feeling that remained clear and undisturbed in the tumult of his heart, was hatred to one class, and keen sympathy with the other.”29

The close relationship between “hatred” and “keen sympathy” is again evident in his final commitment to violence after the hopeless outcome of the meeting of masters and workmen during the strike. It is his very tenderness “for the childer, whose little voices are getting too faint and weak to cry aloud wi' hunger,” his realization that the workers' demands for more money are made “not for our own lives … but for the lives of them little ones, who don't yet know what life is, and are afeard of death,” which provokes his anger at the masters' obduracy and his violent indignation at the satiric cartoon of the bedraggled men made by young Harry Carson (the son of Wilson's master). While his solidarity with all workingmen leads him to reprove any violence against the “knobsticks” (scabs) who in their destitution “mun choose between vitriol and starvation,” his alienation from the masters triumphs in the reckless assertion of his personal desire for revenge: “Set me to serve out the masters, and see if there's aught I'll stick at.”30 After the general decision to kill Harry Carson, Barton's act of hybris is requited by nemesis in the drawing of lots. In destroying Carson, he destroys himself, for a man capable of strong feelings of love and loyalty to some of his fellow men is not one to throw off lightly the denial of love even to those from whom he has become fully estranged. Only death can be the appropriate deliverance from that muddle of life which has led Barton to reject the moral principles that could sustain his own humanity.

For in the pathetic speeches that precede Barton's death, the author carefully reminds us that though he has committed a crime, his initial intentions were good, and had become corrupted by his bewilderment at the contradictions between moral injunctions and human behavior. In his youth, he says, he had studied the teachings of the Bible, “but you'd never believe black was black, or night was night, when you saw all about you acting as if black was white, and night was day.” Even the way of resignation had once seemed eminently attractive, “liker heaven than any other bit of earth has been,” until the harsh realities of existence made a commitment to it seem impossible. He could have resisted the arguments of those who urged him, “Stand up for thy rights,” had not a far more personal and direct plea negated his attempt “to live Gospel-wise”: “wife and children never spoke, but their helplessness cried aloud, and I was driven to do as others did,—and then Tom died.” The psychological conflict growing out of the desire to adhere to the gospel of love for his fellow men is dramatically suggested in his confession that “I was tore in two oftentimes, between my sorrow for the poor suffering folk, and my trying to love them as caused their sufferings (to my mind).” To the last we are reminded that for Barton the ways of love and hatred were closely conjoined and that, given the social rift he constantly witnessed, constructive emotions toward some of his fellow men almost inexorably implied destructive ones toward others. When the positive power of the Christian ethos was for him made inoperative by the perpetual spectacle of its negation in human conduct, the natural impulse could only be one of rejection: “And I thought I'd no longer labour at following th' Bible myself.”31

The general lines of John Barton's downfall are thus presented with a certain insight which gives it tragic dimensions and a larger significance, making us feel indeed that his “is the timeless history of how a man full of human kindness is hardened into (and by) hatred and violence,”32 and that “apart from Heathcliff, he is the nearest approach to a tragic hero which the early Victorian novel permitted itself.”33

But that he is only “the nearest approach”—if we may borrow Kettle's terms—is to be accounted for by Mrs. Gaskell's failure to commit herself boldly to her vision of the causes for his agony. Her basic diffidence about challenging the conventions of the status quo, her genuine desire not be “WICKED” in arousing contentious feelings, but rather to function as a “peacemaker” (a term critics so often use in connection with her), her pious commitment to the gospel of resignation—all conspire against the dramatic fulfillment of her conception of Barton's dilemma.

Just as she had done in her Preface, she feels obliged to insist in the novel that there may be no true correlative for the workers' feeling of rancor, even if the reality of this feeling must be coped with. Yet she sympathizes so deeply with John Barton that she often cannot help convincing us of the justice of his feelings. The scene with the policeman in London is a case in point as is also the spectacle of the Carsons' gracious life in which the longing for a hothouse rose contrasts painfully with the craving for bread among the poor. Probably the best example of her identification with Barton's view is that she assigns to him the irrefutable argument that a master never loses a child through starvation which we know to have been so personally meaningful to her. Her sympathy with that view accounts for the reiteration of this very argument in more moderate terms by the sensible friend of John Barton, Job Legh, in his final discussion with Mr. Carson. Yet at other times her desire to remain a moderator in the conflict between masters and men leads to a marked ambiguity in her evaluation, not only of Barton's position, but of his nature. One of the best examples of this ambiguity is the passage which follows the discussion of Barton's painful broodings and of the reaffirmation, growing out of his confusion, of his “hatred” for the rich “and keen sympathy” for the poor:

But what availed his sympathy? No education had given him wisdom; and without wisdom, even love, with all its effects, too often works but harm. He acted to the best of his judgment, but it was a widely-erring judgment.

The actions of the uneducated seem to be typified in those of Frankenstein, that monster of many human qualities, ungifted with a soul, a knowledge of the difference between good and evil.

The people rise up to life; they irritate us, they terrify us, and we become their enemies. Then, in the sorrowful moment of our triumphant power, their eyes gaze on us with mute reproach. Why have we made them what they are; a powerful monster, yet without the inner means for peace and happiness?

John Barton became a Chartist, a Communist, all that is commonly called wild and visionary. Ay! but being visionary is something. It shows a soul, a being not altogether sensual; a creature who looks forward for others, if not for himself.34

The beginning of this passage suggests a flaw in John Barton which W. R. Greg would undoubtedly have accepted as the source of all his conflicts: his love is almost as unconstructive as his hatred because he lacks the education which will enable him to express it wisely. The “widely-erring judgment” born of ignorance will lead him, like Frankenstein's monster, to immoral actions exemplifying the inability to distinguish between good and evil, the absence of a “soul.” This reduction of Barton's psychological state to attributes befitting a robot rather than a man clashes strongly with the previous analysis of his moral and mental turmoil. Yet even this simplified and rather severe judgment of his failures is not allowed to stand as such for in the next paragraph there is a strong suggestion that the responsibility for Barton's shortcomings rests entirely with those who have caused him to be “a powerful monster, yet without the inner means for peace and happiness.” And the last paragraph, to compound the confusion, endows him with the “soul” that has just been denied to him, for it suggests that a commitment to “wild and visionary” action is not only evidence of supra-“sensual” tendencies but allows for a positive expression of his capacity to love.

In such a passage as this her ambiguous feelings not only weaken what has seemed a convincing psychological portrait, but leave us at a loss as to her real convictions about social responsibility and the appropriateness of political action on the workmen's part. At other times, the oscillation is more simply between the presentation of social conditions that would seem amply to justify Barton's view, and the suggestion that they may be misinterpreted by such as he. Intermittently, there is even a swing of the pendulum back again to a near justification of the workmen's outlook, as in the following description of the bewildering contrast seen by a “poor weaver” during an economic depression:

… when he would bear and endure much without complaining, could he also see that his employers were bearing their share; he is … bewildered and (to use his own word) “aggravated” to see that all goes on just as usual with the mill-owners. Large houses are still occupied, while spinners' and weavers' cottages stand empty, because the families that once filled them are obliged to live in rooms or cellars. Carriages still roll along the streets, concerts are still crowded by subscribers, the shops for expensive luxuries still find daily customers, while the workman loiters away his unemployed time in watching these things, and thinking of the pale, uncomplaining wife at home, and the wailing children asking in vain for enough food,—of the sinking health, of the dying life, of those near and dear to him. The contrast is too great. Why should he alone suffer from bad times?35

Such a statement transcends mere objectivity by its emotional force; not the worker alone, but Mrs. Gaskell herself seems to be posing the last question. Determined, however, to do justice both to the masters' plight and to the workers' weaknesses (an impulse not credited by W. R. Greg) she soon tones down the impact of her statements:

I know that this is not really the case; and I know what is the truth in such matters: but what I wish to impress is what the workman feels and thinks. True, that with child-like improvidence good times will often dissipate his grumbling, and make him forget all prudence and foresight.

What immediately follows is an attempt to restore to the workers some of the dignity of which she has divested them (not without a few additional contradictions indicated by my italics):

But there are earnest men among these people, men who have endured wrongs without complaining, but without ever forgetting or forgiving those whom (they believe) have caused all their woe.

Among these was John Barton.36

And though she has emotionally convinced us in the deathbed scene that the masters have set a poor example by their unchristian behavior, she does not even then allow Barton to express his desperation at “trying to love them as caused their [the poor's] sufferings” without immediately adding the saving parenthetical phrase “(to my mind)” to suggest that he may be in error.

What also attenuates her sympathy with Barton's attitude is her abiding sense that an embittered refusal to accept one's suffering is almost equivalent to a religious transgression insofar as it implies a questioning of divine will. Though, as we have seen, she realizes that it is the indifference of rich to poor which makes religion seem “a humbug,” nevertheless the fact that social resentment so often provokes the poor to negate the possibility of divine justice impels her to compare that resentment unfavorably with resignation—which assumes that trouble in the world “is sent for good” and must be accepted.37

John Barton and Alice Wilson function almost symbolically in the novel in charting the two significant ways of coping with “the mysterious problems of life” and if Mrs. Gaskell's spontaneous sympathy goes out to the rebel, all the tendencies of her devout upbringing lead her to exalt the saint. The significance of this particular allegiance to the principles of self-abnegation, self-sacrifice, and resignation can never be overrated. Her commitment to these values is evident in much of her work and had indeed already found expression not only in the one poem of Sketches of the Poor (the selfless woman whose devotion to others prevented her from ever achieving her dream of returning to the country home of her youth anticipates Alice Wilson) but in two of three stories published before Mary Barton (“Libbie Marsh's Three Eras” and “The Sexton's Hero”).38 That this commitment sometimes conflicts with other inclinations should also be firmly kept in mind, for the tensions between its dictates and those of her instinctive feelings deeply affect the texture and coherence of many of her writings.

Though loving care has been expended in characterizing Alice Wilson, the absence of any true conflict in this character denies it dramatic power. Alice's extraordinary virtue, exemplified in her fear of giving the wrong impression that she is repining about her hard life, dehumanizes her. Her principles may be admirable, but we are alienated from the character who practices them. Our interest and sympathy remain with Barton, who exhibits those imperfections and submits to that vulnerability which George Orwell in his “Reflections on Gandhi” calls “the essence of being human,” who, in Orwell's terms “is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals.”39

If resignation is made to contrast sharply with rebellion through the character of Alice Wilson (and that of Margaret Legh, Mary's patient blind friend),40 a sensible acceptance of existing conditions is demonstrated by Margaret's grandfather, the scientifically minded workman, Job Legh. His emotional stability, common sense, and shrewdness enable him to avoid the pitfalls of probing the mystery of inequities in the human condition. The justice of introducing such a character into the novel is unquestionable, for it would be a negation of human variety to suggest that most Manchester men were John Bartons; it is indeed appropriate that these two men represent “different responses to life's hardships.”41 And yet the phenomenon of such self-controlled involvement with social issues as Job Legh exemplifies minimizes the author's original thesis of widespread hostility and alienation, in the absence of other important characters who share Barton's bewilderment and rancor.

When we recall that W. R. Greg attacked the author for seeming to imply that all workmen felt as John Barton did, it seems almost unfair to suggest that one weakness of the book lies in her failure to demonstrate in other characters than John Barton what she had in her Preface called “the state of feeling among too many of the factory-people in Manchester.”42 Diffidence was probably responsible for that failure—an understandable feeling in the light of critical reactions. If one such character was open to misrepresentation, one can imagine the effect of having an explosive point of view represented by other major characters (all we get are glimpses of the anger and sullenness of the Trade Union men). Yet the fact remains that her thesis is greatly weakened by such an omission. For, even though she herself says of John Barton that “such men were not uncommon,”43 she leads us to feel in the novel that Barton may well be an exception—a man as alienated from his friends as from his enemies—and that his tragedy is a very private one.

Indeed more than mere timidity in challenging her public may be responsible for our feeling that Barton cannot represent a consensus among the Manchester poor. The violence of his ultimate downfall suggests the same reluctance to condone rebellious tendencies which affects her earlier treatment of her hero. Such an attitude would have made it very difficult for her to explore other significant instances of behavior morally reprehensible to her without violating probability by again positing a destructive outcome (death or a severe punishment) for the rebels.

For she cannot really conceive of redemptive possibilities in the anger and doubts of her hero. Much as she authenticates that anger, makes those doubts meaningful, means his sufferings to arouse the conscience of those who have refused him sympathy and confidence—the masters—his rebelliousness implies for her an inevitable retribution which must cast him out from his fellow men. Surely a violence born of bitterness need not have eventuated in murder. Yet the author's ambiguous feelings about the right to protest find resolution solely in a judgment against Barton's questionings of the “mysteries of life.” Such questionings, she indirectly suggests, can only lead to the totally destructive action which destines Barton to the fate of most great sinners in fiction.

If an ambiguous treatment of the most significant character in Mary Barton gravely limits its artistic power, the novel is also weakened by the prominent position eventually accorded to what would, from the title, have seemed to be the major character—Mary Barton. 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. Some effort is made to interweave the fates of father and daughter, for the two young men who court her, Harry Carson and Jem Wilson, are each victimized by Barton: Carson is killed and Wilson nearly meets the same fate since he is accused of the murder. Because Mary has guessed her father's guilt, she has the anguishing task of reconciling conflicting duties and loyalties, for she cannot denounce her father and yet must try to save Jem Wilson (to make matters worse, she has recently realized that she loves him and not the frivolous Harry Carson for whom she had earlier rejected Jem).

But if this aspect of the plot seems to preserve and even enhance the continuity of the theme—since Barton's tragic destructiveness is here shown to harm those he most wants to protect—the handling of character and situations lacks the psychological insight which often illumines Barton's problems. The failure resides mainly in the characterization of Mary Barton who does transcend the conventions of fiction by being a workman's daughter but lacks the depth and complexity to be a moving counterpart of her tragic father.44 Even the dangerous frivolity which makes her accept the secret attentions of Harry Carson is not a complex psychological flaw offering a dramatic contrast to her father's dangerous earnestness. The author suggests that instability and rebelliousness may well abet Mary in her infatuation, for if she shares the vanity of her reckless aunt Esther in yearning for wealth and status, she feels thus “perhaps all the more, for her father's aversion to the rich and gentle.” We are even told that Mary's love for the elegant young gentleman is “a bubble, blown out of vanity” which nevertheless “looked very real and very bright.” Yet neither her instability nor her deluded love—which could lead to a disastrous seduction—are ever authenticated. The only clear motivation which Mary has is her hardly complex desire for ease and prosperity. Even the frivolity of her plans to enjoy life when married to Carson (owning a carriage, purchasing elegant gowns) is attenuated by a very worthy impulse; like little Emily in David Copperfield, she very much wishes to be “a lady” in order to improve the lot of others, to supply her father “with every comfort she could devise.”45 Such aspirations, even in the conditions of destitution in which she lives, are hardly very imaginative “Alnaschar visions” (as Mrs. Gaskell terms them); they do not imply that deluded romanticism which Dickens suggests so early in his novel in little Emily's childish dreams of the “sky-blue coat with diamond buttons” in which Mr. Peggotty would undoubtedly astonish the population of Yarmouth.

The unrealistic yearnings, the inner struggles, the ambiguous strivings (as romantic impulses contend with the dictates of duty and loyalty) which Dickens does manage to suggest in Emily before she abandons the humble Ham Peggotty for the dashing Steerforth are absent from Mary's initial conflict between two similarly contrasting suitors. Indeed her lack of insight into her feelings about Jem seems not a potentially tragic delusion but a rather self-satisfied insensitivity to her inclinations:

“I don't care for him, and yet, unless I'm always watching myself, I'm speaking to him in a loving voice. I think I cannot go right, for I either check myself till I'm downright cross to him, or else I speak just natural, and that's too kind and tender by half. And I'm as good as engaged to be married to another; and another far more handsomer than Jem; only I think I like Jem's face best for all that; liking's liking, and there's no help for it.”46

Though meant to anticipate future actions, such a passage lays no meaningful groundwork for the dramatic turning point of Mary's life—the realization of her love for Jem which removes the unsuspected danger of seduction by Carson—because it does not reveal the psychological roots of her contradictory feelings. Accordingly, her decision to reject the erratic Carson for the faithful Jem seems merely a convenient turn in the plot, the more unconvincing because it follows an awkward and unreal scene in which Jem, after his proposal has been rejected, expresses his desperation in terms more appropriate to stage melodrama than to a serious novel (His threats that her “cruelty” may lead him to become “a drunkard, and maybe … a thief, and maybe … a murderer” also appear to be less a revelation of character than a plot device to prepare for suspense when Jem is accused of Carson's murder). Though Mrs. Gaskell tries to justify Mary's swift turnabout after the rejection by saying that “a few moments may change our character for life, by giving a totally different direction to our aims and energies,” Mary's decision is conveyed through a sentimental, artificial rhetoric which negates any psychological authenticity. Now that the rejection “had unveiled her heart to her … had convinced her that she loved Jem above all persons or things,” she finds that the once desired “circumstances of ease and luxury” have become meaningless:

What were these hollow vanities to her, now she had discovered the passionate secret of her soul? She felt as if she almost hated Mr. Carson, who had decoyed her with his baubles. She now saw how vain, how nothing to her, would be all gaieties and pomps, all joys and pleasures, unless she might share them with Jem. … If he were poor, she loved him all the better. … She had hitherto been walking in gropelight towards a precipice; but in the clear revelation of that past hour, she saw her danger, and turned away resolutely, and for ever.47

Even the later realization of the other kind of “precipice” she was nearing has no emotional power; Mary's discovery that Carson had no intention of marrying her comes when she is already invulnerable to his appeal. (The author's eagerness to vindicate her heroine's good judgment and virtue undoubtedly leads her to give Mary that advantage over her base lover.)

Unfortunately, then, Mrs. Gaskell's treatment of Mary's problems is largely made subservient either to the needs of suspense (will Mary be seduced, and can she later save Jem and protect her father from discovery?) or the demands of convention (the heroine remains personally unscathed and triumphs over her dilemma) with little attention to psychological considerations, while the reverse is largely true of her depiction of John Barton's conflicts. In Mary's case the instincts of the storyteller definitely triumph over those of the analyst of character.

That tendency is perhaps even more evident in her handling of Mary's conflict regarding her father's crime than in the treatment of her sentimental difficulties. That a dilemma involving not only divided allegiances but moral transgression had a profound psychological interest for her is evident in later works (Ruth,North and South,Sylvia's Lovers, “A Dark Night's Work”). Again and again she will attempt to analyze the state of mind of those caught in such dilemmas. Here, however, she focuses not on inward conflicts but on external difficulties. Since Mary need not implicate her father if she can obtain an alibi for Jem, the focal question becomes whether Mary, left to her own resources in Liverpool, can reach Jem's cousin whose ship has already left port and who alone can testify to Jem's whereabouts on the fatal day.

Mrs. Gaskell's narrative talents, already suggested by the exciting portrayal of the fire at Carson's mill and by Margaret Legh's lively story of the scorpion, are fully demonstrated in the scene in which Mary, in a small boat chasing Will Wilson's departing ship, is progressively “sickening” under the “nervous fear” of not arriving on time:

Both wind and tide were against the two men, and labour as they would they made but little way. Once Mary in her impatience had risen up to obtain a better view of the progress they had made; but the men had roughly told her to sit down immediately, and she had dropped on her seat like a chidden child, although the impatience was still at her heart.

But now she grew sure they were turning off from the straight course which they had hitherto kept … and after a short time she could not help naming her conviction, as a kind of nightmare dread and belief came over her, that everything animate and inanimate was in league against her one sole aim and object of overtaking Will.

They answered gruffly. … They knew what they were about.48

As the passage suggests, the dramatic power of this incident (and later of Jem's trial) depends not only on the successful generation of suspense but on a subtler aspect of the storyteller's ability: the capacity to suggest with great imaginative power the state of “nightmare dread” that overcomes a mind bent on one purpose and yet overwrought by accumulated anxiety, doubt, grief, and conflict. Mrs. Gaskell intuits and projects states of obsession and of near madness with a dramatic effectiveness which approaches that of Dickens. We have seen one example in her treatment of John Barton's brooding—though she handles that with far greater artistic restraint and psychological subtlety. Mary Barton's eerie sensations at the trial (when, her testimony over, she no longer needs to fight for self-control) suggest a mental and emotional upheaval which many of the characters in her short stories experience, for it is in these works, as we have said, that her fascination with unusual states of mind and feeling is particularly expressed. Here Mary's former anxious experiences at sea and the image of the guilty father absent from the proceedings blend in nightmarish fashion with the reality of the court's proceedings:

Mary never let go her clutched hold on the rails. She wanted them to steady her, in that heaving, whirling court. She thought the feeling of something hard compressed within her hand would help her to listen, for it was such pain, such weary pain in her head, to strive to attend to what was being said. They were all at sea, sailing away on billowy waves, and every one speaking at once, and no one heeding her father, who was calling on them to be silent, and listen to him.49

Even though Mrs. Gaskell undermines the impact of her central theme by her undue emphasis on suspenseful action in the latter part of the novel, her ability to weave an exciting story seems in itself remarkable in such an early work, particularly since two of her earliest stories, “Libbie Marsh's Three Eras” and “Christmas Storms and Sunshine,” show very few signs of such inventiveness. It is also in Mary Barton that she first truly displays that flair for humor soon to find its full scope in Cranford. The whimsical story of the predicament of Job Legh and his father-in-law who years ago, while bringing the orphaned Margaret Legh back to Manchester, exhausted their ingenuity to soothe the fretful “babby” during the long journey shows a playful, tender, and imaginative appreciation of incongruity. But the effectiveness of her humor in counteracting sentimentality is even more evident when it deals with the novel's central concerns, suggesting the at once comic and touching naïveté arising from the workers' ignorance of and alienation from the world of the rich—and specifically of the London aristocracy. In the meeting preceding the departure of the Chartist delegation for London, as John Barton's visitors name the particular grievances they want redressed, their bewilderment regarding their plight is suggested not only by pathetic self-defeating wishes for the destruction of machinery and the removal of restrictions on child labor but also by the comically naïve suggestion of one workman for stimulating the economy. Members of Parliament are to be asked to emulate the practice of Sir Francis Dashwood to whose family the workman's mother was an “under-laundry maid”:

“… when we were little ones, she'd tell us stories of their grandeur: and one thing she named were, that Sir Francis wore two shirts a day. Now he were all as one as a Parliament man; and many on 'em, I han no doubt, are like extravagant. Just tell 'em, John, do, that they'd be doing the Lancashire weavers a great kindness, if they'd ha' their shirts a' made o' calico; 't would make trade brisk, that would, wi' the power o' shirts they wear.”50

In a similar vein, John Barton's description of fashionable life in London is an at once amusing and pathetic illustration of the limitations of his own insularity while it also serves the author as a deft satirical denunciation of the idle rich:

“Well, them undertaker folk are driving a pretty trade in London. Well nigh every lady we saw in a carriage had hired one o' them plumes for the day, and had it niddle noddling on her head. It were th' Queen's drawing-room, they said, and th' carriages went bowling along toward her house, some wi' dressed-up gentlemen like circus folk in 'em, and rucks o' ladies in others. Carriages themselves were great shakes too. Some o' th' gentlemen as couldn't get inside hung on behind, wi' nosegays to smell at, and sticks to keep off folk as might splash their silk stockings. I wonder why they didn't hire a cab rather than hang on like a whip-behind boy; but I suppose they wished to keep wi' their wives, Darby and Joan like.”51

Even the author's objections to factory work for married women are voiced in part through Mrs. Wilson's touching yet absurd conviction that the problem could be easily resolved by those in power if only it were brought close to home—the royal home:

“I say it's Prince Albert as ought to be asked how he'd like his missis to be from home when he comes in, tired and worn, and wanting some one to cheer him; and maybe, her to come in by-and-by, just as tired and down in th' mouth; and how he'd like for her never to be at home to see to th' cleaning of his house, or to keep a bright fire in his grate. Let alone his meals being all hugger-mugger and comfortless.”52

Thus her humor sometimes functions to sustain her vision of the estrangement of the poor and humble from the values and mode of life of the rich and great; the former's defenselessness and proneness to embitterment are but enhanced by their incongruous innocence of the complexity of social issues, of political life, of wealth and power.

Predictably, 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. Unfortunately the desire to dramatize the beauty and effectiveness of a feeling of brotherhood leads her to oversimplify the difficulties of a complete change of values in the deathbed reconciliation of Mr. Carson and John Barton. Each has been shown to nurture hatred; indeed Mr. Carson's initial eagerness to revenge his son has provoked Mrs. Gaskell to exclaim “Oh, Orestes! you would have made a very tolerable Christian of the nineteenth century!” Admittedly it is an apt illustration of her theme of alienation that both should begin to repent of their feelings when actual contact reveals to them human considerations which distance had obliterated. As John Barton witnesses Mr. Carson's sorrow for his son, a sorrow reminiscent of his own loss, he perceives him for the first time in human terms:

The mourner before him was no longer the employer, a being of another race, eternally placed in antagonistic attitude; going through the world glittering like gold, with a stony heart within, which knew no sorrow but through the accidents of Trade; no longer the enemy, the oppressor, but a very poor and desolate old man.53

By the same token, his employer's personal encounter with the reality of John Barton's sufferings breaks the barrier of alienation; as Carson, after refusing to forgive Barton, muses sadly over his own bereavement, his humanity asserts itself above all other claims:

In spite of his desire to retain the revengeful feeling he considered as a duty to his dead son, something of pity would steal in for the poor, wasted skeleton of a man, the smitten creature, who has told him of his sin, and implored his pardon that night.54

A thoughtful reading of the Gospel enables his better feelings to triumph over his destructive ones, and the words he speaks before Barton expires are characteristic: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us.”

Yet touching as the spirit of this reconciliation is, it seems to suggest what the author was far too perceptive really to believe, that the substitution of the Christian ideal of charitable interdependence for that principle of energetic self-reliance so dear to the Political Economists could be easily achieved if men but recognized that (in those words of the poet Samuel Bamford which she frequently quoted) “we have all of us one human heart.”

She does attempt in a later scene to suggest the difficulties such a change of values entails, but the didactic means she chooses do not aptly convey the humaneness of her approach to social conflicts. Thus Mr. Carson is more fully enlightened on his moral duties, yet not through the drama of additional experiences as an employer or further psychological conflicts about his personal loss but through a didactic discussion. Job Legh, the enlightened, commonsensical representative of the workman's viewpoint, has the task of explaining to an employer not only the reasons for John Barton's former grievances but the general causes of that alienation which victimizes all workers. In this discussion the author not only rehearses some points previously made more tellingly by analyzing Barton's feelings, but also manages to suggest that, despite Mr. Carson's charitable forgiveness of the dying John Barton, he still clings to many of his former views. The values of the political economist confront those of the Christian interventionist as Carson answers Job's assertion that the divinely enjoined “duty of the happy is to help the suffering to bear their woe,” with the seemingly indefensible argument that “facts have proved, and are daily proving, how much better it is for every man to be independent of help, and self-reliant.” Job's counterrefutation, though emotionally appealing, does not really come to grips with the problem Mr. Carson has earnestly posed:

“You can never work facts as you would fixed quantities, and say, given two facts, and the product is so and so. God has given men feelings and passions which cannot be worked into the problem, because they are for ever changing and uncertain. God has also made some weak; not in any one way, but in all. … Now, to my thinking, them that is strong in any of God's gifts is meant to help the weak,—be hanged to the facts!”55

Though we discover that, despite some outward “sternness,” Mr. Carson eventually not only recognizes the necessity of a relationship between masters and men governed “by the ties of respect and affection, not by mere money bargains alone” but acts upon it through “improvements … in the system of employment in Manchester,”56 the charting of the course which has led to such convictions is, unfortunately, left to our imaginations.

It is perhaps because Mary Barton was most effective in suggesting the realities of an experience which Mrs. Gaskell's sympathy and close knowledge could authenticate—the trials of John Barton—that she was accused of exclusively presenting the workman's point of view. That point of view is not neglected in North and South, but she also tries to deal more realistically with the assumptions and basic values of someone in Carson's position and to accomplish what she had failed to do in Carson's case, trace the possible evolution of the convictions of a political economist toward an acceptance of interventionist principles. The difficulties of such a task would be made abundantly clear in her second attempt to deal with the conflicts between capital and labor.


  1. For details on the favorable reception, see Ward, “Introduction to ‘Mary Barton,’ Etc.,” pp. lvii-lix. How much Carlyle's sympathetic praise meant to her is evident in Mrs. Gaskell's reference to it in her letter to Miss Lamont (January 5 [1849]): “… when I am over-filled with thoughts arising from this book, I put it all aside, (or try to put it aside,) and think of his last sentence. “May you live long to write good books, or do silently good actions which in my sight is far more indispensable.” Parrish Collection. [39]

  2. The unfortunate social conditions prevailing in Lancashire in the years immediately preceding the publication of Mary Barton are clearly indicated by the following statement from Donald Read's study, “Chartism in Manchester” (in Asa Briggs, Chartist Studies, London, 1959): “During the latter part of 1846 and throughout 1847 the trade depression which had returned in the summer of 1845 became increasingly severe. In May 1847 the Manchester Examiner calculated that 84,000 operatives were working short-time and that 24,000 were unemployed. Only 77,000 were working full-time. … Cholera too was spreading. Altogether, the year 1847 was a terrible one.” Pp. 61-62.

  3. Harriet Martineau, “Preface,” Illustrations of Political Economy (London, 1843), I, xii.

  4. Mrs. Trollope's consistent liveliness and shrewdness of observation compensate for her weaknesses, and she manages to sustain suspense with an ingenuity worthy of Dickens; indeed she creates a heroine far more clever and sophisticated than most Dickensian ladies. In comparison with Charlotte Elizabeth (Mrs. Tonna) and even Mrs. Trollope, Mrs. Gaskell seems quite liberal in her attitude to social agitation. Whereas she could write sympathetically of John Barton who “became a Chartist, a Communist,” the author of Helen Fleetwood inveighed against Socialism as “the moral Gorgon upon which whomsoever can be compelled to look must wither away … the last effort of Satanic venom wrought to the madness of rage by the consciousness of his shortened time” (The Works of Charlotte Elizabeth [Tonna], New York, 1849, I, 628) and Mrs. Trollope decided not to continue the career of her workman hero beyond his youth at a time “when those in whose behalf she hoped to move the sympathy of their country are found busy in scenes of outrage and lawless violence, and uniting themselves with individuals whose doctrines are subversive of every species of social order” (“Preface,” The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy, London, 1840, p. iv).

  5. Mrs. Gaskell was to use almost the very same terms in Mary Barton in her reference to “two worlds.” As Kathleen Tillotson points out, the dire sense of separateness between classes had already been suggested much earlier by Carlyle's reference in Sartor Resartus to “two Sects” who “will one day part England between them,” to “two contradictory, uncommunicating masses.” Novels of the Eighteen-Forties (London, 1961), p. 82.

  6. Tillotson, p. [202].

  7. Arnold Kettle, “The Early Victorian Social-Problem Novel,” From Dickens to Hardy, ed. Boris Ford (London, 1958), p. 179.

  8. Louis Cazamain, Le Roman Social en Angleterre (1830-1850) (Paris, 1904), pp. 388, 385. I have supplied English versions of Cazamain's text since the work has never been translated.

  9. Thus, although doubtful of the appropriateness of using “Fiction” as “the vehicle for a plain and matter-of-fact exposition of social evils,” the critic of the Athenaeum (writing on October 21, 1848) could not deny the accuracy of the portrayal: “But we have met with few pictures of life among the working classes at once so forcible and fair as ‘Mary Barton.’ The truth of it is terrible.” P. 1050. On the appearance of a third edition, the reviewer of Fraser's Magazine dramatically announced that if readers wished to be enlightened on such burning questions of the day as “why poor men, kind and sympathising as women to each other, learn to hate law and order, Queen, Lords and Commons, country-party, and corn-law leaguer, all alike,” “what can madden brave, honest, industrious North-country hearts, into self-imposed suicidal strikes, into conspiracy, vitriol-throwing, and midnight murder,” “what drives men to gin and opium,” his advice (repeated with rhetorical fervor at the mention of each significant issue) was “let them read Mary Barton.” XXXIX (April 1849), 430.

  10. W. R. Greg, “Mary Barton,” Mistaken Aims and Attainable Ideals of the Artizan Class (London, 1876), p. 113. The article originally appeared in The Edinburgh Review, April 1849.

  11. Ibid., pp. 135-37, 139.

  12. Cazamian, p. 382.

  13. Cecil, p. 181.

  14. Ward, “Introduction to ‘Mary Barton,’ Etc.,” p. lii.

  15. Letter to Miss Ewart. Quoted by Haldane, pp. 46-47.

  16. Arthur Pollard, “The Novels of Mrs. Gaskell,” Bulletin of The John Rylands Library, XLIII (March 1961), 410.

  17. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Letter to Miss Mitford, December 13, 1850, The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ed. Frederic G. Kenyon (New York, 1897), I, 472.

  18. Indeed the initial impulse, as expressed in her Preface, does not even suggest any didactic intention: she tells us that, despite a previous intention of expressing her “deep relish and fond admiration of the country” in a story, “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.” “Preface to the Original Edition of 1848,” I, lxxiii.

  19. Ibid.

  20. Ibid., p. lxxiv; Mary Barton. A Tale of Manchester Life, p. 95.

  21. Mrs. Gaskell has herself testified to the meaningfulness of the character of John Barton. In the unfinished draft of a letter to the sister-in-law of W. R. Greg, she thus attests to his focal position in the novel: “Round the character of John Barton all the others formed themselves; he was my hero; the person with whom all my sympathies went, with whom I tried to identify myself at the time, because I believed from personal observation that such men were not uncommon, and would well reward such sympathy and love as should throw light down upon their groping search after the causes of suffering, and the reason why suffering is sent, and what they can do to lighten it.” Quoted in Ward, “Introduction to ‘Mary Barton,’ Etc.,” I, lxiii. She is even more explicit regarding the importance of the character in her letter to Miss Lamont, January 5 [1849]: “‘John Barton’ was the original name, as being the central figure to my mind; indeed I had so long felt that the bewildered life of an ignorant thoughtful man of strong power of sympathy, dwelling in a town so full of striking contrasts as this is, was [sic] a tragic power, that in writing he was [one word illegible] hero; and it was a London thought coming through the publishers that it must be called Mary B. So many people overlook John B or see him merely to misunderstand him, that if you were a stranger and had only said that one thing (that the book shd have been called John B.) I should have had pleasure in feeling that my own idea was recognized.” Parrish Collection. [39]

  22. Mary Barton, pp. 4, 8.

  23. Ibid., pp. 22, 20-21, 20, 22.

  24. For, Margaret Legh (Mary's friend) who is here speaking goes on to say, “Every sorrow in her mind is sent for good.” Ibid., p. 50. Such a providential view of suffering is of course essentially alien to Barton's temperament.

  25. Ibid., pp. 68, 71, 72.

  26. Ibid., p. 73.

  27. Ibid., pp. 96, 114. For details on the rise of the movement which incorporated in a “People's Charter” (May 8, 1838) its six demands for social reform (manhood suffrage, voting by ballot, salaried Members of Parliament, abrogation of property requirements for Members, electoral districts of equal population, and yearly elections) and its first great defeat by the Parliamentary rejection of the Charter (July 12, 1839), see Elie Halevy, A History of the English People, 1830-1841, trans. E. I. Watkin (London, 1927), pp. 295-335. Donald Read's specific study of Chartist agitation in Lancashire indirectly vindicates the accuracy of Mrs. Gaskell's portrayal of the conflict between masters and men in the difficult years 1839-42. The following characterization of the operatives' mood could serve as an appropriate footnote to John Barton's tragedy: “The mood of despair prevailed throughout. Despair spurred the operatives to take up Chartism in the hope of improving their conditions, but despair with Chartism itself quickly undermined whatever prospects of success the movement might have had.” “Chartism in Manchester,” in Briggs, Chartist Studies, p. 42.

  28. Mary Barton, pp. 219, 194-95.

  29. Ibid., pp. 195, 195-96.

  30. Ibid., pp. 217, 219.

  31. Ibid., pp. 430, 431.

  32. Tillotson, p. 211.

  33. Kettle, p. 181.

  34. Mary Barton, p. 196.

  35. Ibid., pp. 23-24.

  36. Ibid., p. 24.

  37. Her tendency to relate the phenomenon of social discontent with the impulse to question and negate divine injunction is partly conveyed in that letter to Mrs. Greg in which she also stresses the importance of John Barton. Having indicated as part of her conception the effect of “the seeming injustice of the inequalities of fortune,” which “must bewilder an ignorant man full of rude, illogical thought, and full also of sympathy for suffering which appealed to him through his senses,” she goes on to point out: “I fancied I saw how all this might lead to a course of action which might appear right for a time to the bewildered mind of such a one, but that this course of action, violating the eternal laws of God, would bring with it its own punishment of an avenging conscience far more difficult to bear than any worldly privation.” Quoted in Ward, “Introduction to ‘Mary Barton,’ Etc.,” p. lxiii.

  38. See Chapter 5 [of this text] for a discussion of this motif in the short stories.

  39. George Orwell, A Collection of Essays (New York, 1954), p. 182.

  40. Margaret Legh endures her blindness without repining and cautions Mary of the need for “being patient,” pointing out that “waiting is far more difficult than doing … but it's one of God's lessons we all must learn, one way or another.” Mary Barton, p. 164.

  41. Tillotson, p. 221.

  42. “Preface,” Mary Barton, p. lxxiv.

  43. Letter to Mrs. Greg. Quoted in Ward, “Introduction to ‘Mary Barton,’ Etc.,” p. lxiii.

  44. The difference between Mary and the standard heroines of fiction was acclaimed by one critic: “Compare Mary Barton with the Evelinas, Cecilias and Belindas which superseded the Romances of the Forest, the Children of the Abbey, and the Haunted Towers of the age which preceded theirs! Mary Barton is no heiress, nursed in the lap of luxury, living upon the produce of other people's labour … refined, generous, capricious, indolent, dying first of ennui, then of love, and lastly falling a prey to a fortune-hunter, or a military swindler. No; Mary Barton is one of Labor's daughters—heiress of all the struggles, vicissitudes and sufferings consequent upon the ignorance and prejudices of the society into which she was born.” Westminister and Foreign Quarterly Review, LI (April-July 1849), 48. The difficulty of moving the focus away from John Barton in accordance with the publisher's preference for a novel entitled Mary Barton may partly account for the limitations of the portrayal of Mary and even for structural weaknesses. Annette Hopkins, who feels that once “pushed in the foreground,” the character “becomes alive,” notes that nevertheless “the scar left by this major operation remains.” P. 77.

  45. Mary Barton, pp. 90, 131, 90.

  46. Ibid., p. 89.

  47. Ibid., pp. 148, 149, 150.

  48. Ibid., pp. 340-41.

  49. Ibid., p. 380.

  50. Ibid., pp. 98-99.

  51. Ibid., pp. 113-14.

  52. Ibid., pp. 137-38.

  53. Ibid., pp. 247, 425.

  54. Ibid., p. 429. As a manuscript entitled “Conclusion yet to be written” indicates, the author had originally conceived of a far more obdurate Carson who “gave him [Barton] in charge to the police” and was only “softened by the agony which ended in death” as Barton was being taken to prison. Only “as the breath fled” after Barton's “last penitent cry” for divine forgiveness did Carson become capable of forgiving. The Forster Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum. The final version enabled her to convey far more appropriately her conviction of the essential brotherhood of man.

  55. Ibid., p. 448.

  56. Ibid., p. 451.

Selected Bibliography

Primary Sources

Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life. 2 vols. London, Chapman and Hall, 1848. (Published anonymously)

Letters of Mrs. Gaskell in Manuscript: Brotherton Collection, University of Leeds. British Museum. Victoria and Albert Museum. Central Library, Manchester. Berg Collection, New York Public Library. Yale University Library. Morris L. Parrish Collection, Princeton University Library.

Secondary Sources

Briggs, Asa. Chartist Studies. London, Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1959.

Cazamian, Louis. Le Roman Social en Angleterre (1830-1850). Paris, Société nouvelle de librairie et d'édition, 1904.

Cecil, David. Early Victorian Novelists. Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1948.

Elizabeth, Charlotte [Mrs. Tonna]. Helen Fleetwood. The Works of Charlotte Elizabeth. Volume I. New York, M. W. Dodd, 1849.

Greg, W. R. Mistaken Aims and Attainable Ideals of the Artizan Class. London, Trübner & Co., 1876.

Haldane, Elizabeth. Mrs. Gaskell and Her Friends. London, Hodder and Stoughton Limited, 1931.

Halevy, Elie. A History of the English People, 1830-1841, trans. E. I. Watkin. London, T. Fisher Unwin Limited, 1927.

Hopkins, A. B. Elizabeth Gaskell. Her Life and Work. London, John Lehmann, 1952.

Kettle, Arnold. “The Early Victorian Social-Problem Novel,” in From Dickens to Hardy, ed. Boris Ford. Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1958.

The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ed. Frederic G. Kenyon. 2 vols. New York, The Macmillan Company, 1897.

Martineau, Harriet. Illustrations of Political Economy. 9 vols. London, Charles Fox, 1834.

Mary Barton. A Tale of Manchester Life.” Anon. rev., Athenaeum, No. 1095 (October 21, 1848), 1050-51.

Mary Barton. A Tale of Manchester Life.” Anon. rev., British Quarterly Review, IX (February 1, 1849), 117-36.

Mary Barton. A Tale of Manchester Life.” Anon. rev., Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review, LI (April-July 1849), 48-63.

Pollard, Arthur. “The Novels of Mrs. Gaskell,” Bulletin of The John Rylands Library, XLIII (March 1961), 404-23.

Tillotson, Kathleen. Novels of the Eighteen-Forties. London, Oxford University Press, 1961.

Trollope, Frances. The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, The Factory Boy. London, Henry Colburn, 1840.

Ward, A. W. “Introductions” in The Works of Mrs. Gaskell. 8 vols. London, Smith, Elder & Co., 1906. [The Knutsford Edition].

Further Reading

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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. 64-87. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980.

Examines Gaskell's treatment of the effects of industrialization on England's poor.

Easson, Angus. “Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1855): Industry and Individual.” In Elizabeth Gaskell, pp. 47-96. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.

Discusses Gaskell's portrayal of the individual worker caught up in the changes brought about by rapid growth and industrialization in Manchester.

Felber, Lynette. “Gaskell's Industrial Idylls: Ideology and Formal Incongruence in Mary Barton and North and South.CLIO 18, no. 1 (fall 1988): 55-72.

Praises Gaskell's novels as among the best of the British social protest literature that emerged after the depression of the 1830s.

Fryckstedt, Monica Correa. Elizabeth Gaskell's “Mary Barton” and “Ruth”: A Challenge to Christian England. Uppsala, Sweden: Uppsala University, 1982, 213 p.

Stresses the importance of Gaskell's religious background in the composition of Mary Barton and Ruth.

Graziano, Anne. “The Death of the Working-Class Hero in Mary Barton and Alton Locke.JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory 29, no. 2 (spring 1999): 135-57.

Compares the final fate of John Barton in Gaskell's novel to that of the title character in Kingsley's Alton Locke.

Krueger, Christine L. “Witnessing Women: Trial Testimony in Novels by Tonna, Gaskell, and Eliot.” In Representing Women: Law, Literature, and Feminism, edited by Susan Sage Heinzelman and Zipporah Batshaw Wiseman, pp. 337-55. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994.

Analyzes trial scenes in Mary Barton and three other nineteenth-century women's novels.

Parker, Pamela Corpron. “Fictional Philanthropy in Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton and North and South.Victorian Literature and Culture 25, no. 2 (1997): 321-31.

Discusses the relationship between Gaskell's fiction and nineteenth-century charity work.

Smith, David. “Mary Barton and Hard Times: Their Social Insights.” Mosaic 5, no. 2 (winter 1972): 97-112.

Compares Gaskell's and Dickens's treatment of individual working-class characters.

Uglow, Jenny. “Exposure: Mary Barton.” In Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories, pp. 191-213. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1993.

Discusses Gaskell's handling of labor unrest and the growing rift between the rich and poor in her novel.

Wyke, Terry. “Authenticating the Text: A Footnote in Mary Barton.Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 80, no. 1 (spring 1998): 103-23.

Analyzes the footnotes in Mary Barton in an attempt to determine the way that Manchester and contemporary events within the town were used in the novel.

Additional coverage of Gaskell's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers, Vol. 5; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1832-1890; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 21, 144, 159; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules, Most-Studied Authors; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 5, 70, 97; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 25; and Twayne's English Authors.

Michael D. Wheeler (essay date December 1974)

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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 discussed by her critics. The ‘naked sensibility’ view of Mrs. Gaskell dominates most criticism of her work, both past and present. John Geoffrey Sharps's monumental study of Mrs. Gaskell's Observation and Invention (1970)3 epitomizes this view, and, indeed, concentrates on two of the often recognized ‘intellectual gifts’ mentioned by Miss Winkworth: ‘her quick keen observation’ and ‘her wealth of imaginative power’. The one gift which has been largely ignored is ‘her marvellous memory’ for books.

No reader of the Letters of Mrs. Gaskell (1966), edited by Professors Chapple and Pollard,4 can fail to notice that the novelist was a great reader. A glance at the Literary Index shows that her reading was extremely varied. Throughout her life she lent and borrowed books with the enthusiasm of one always thirsty for more. In the letters we find her asking for books from friends, reading reviews, looking forward to new publications, joining in literary debates, and, after 1849, gratefully accepting complimentary copies of works by her many literary colleagues. The Gaskells' house in Plymouth Grove, Manchester, contained a sizeable library.5 Elizabeth's reading bore fruit in her work: the novels teem with literary allusions.

In spite of all the evidence, the important question of Mrs. Gaskell's reading has often been ignored or glossed over in critical studies of her works, including Mary Barton. Many scholars and critics have upheld the view that this first novel was the product solely of her experience among the Manchester poor, missing the clues furnished by the mottoes, and by quotations in the text, which point to several important literary sources. Too many readers have been deceived by the disarming modesty of the Preface to the first edition of Mary Barton: ‘Living in Manchester … 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. … I know nothing of Political Economy, or the theories of trade. I have tried to write truthfully; and if my accounts agree or clash with any system, the agreement or disagreement is unintentional.’6 In fact we know that she read Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations.7 The main point of the Preface—that the author wrote about what she saw around her, and tried to give an accurate account of a distressing and potentially dangerous situation—helps to strengthen the view of those who like to think of Mrs. Gaskell as a gifted novelist who wrote from observation, unencumbered with preconceived ideas gleaned from books. Adolphus Ward, editor of the famous Knutsford Edition of her works, and an acquaintance of her daughters, claimed that ‘No literary influence seems to have in any appreciable degree co-operated with this experience—for, though the condition of the working classes, and of the factory operatives and their families in particular, was beginning to attract widespread attention, and to be discussed in many literary forms, the topic was only beginning to find its way into fiction, and it was Mrs. Gaskell whose example suggested to Dickens his much later effort in that direction’ (MB, liii). In 1910, four years after the publication of Ward's edition, The Inquirer published an article on ‘Mrs. Gaskell and Her Social Work Among the Poor’, by ‘a Manchester Correspondent’, identified by Aina Rubenius as Miss Mat Hompes.8 The reviewer argues that Mrs. Gaskell's social work in Manchester supplied her with material for Mary Barton: ‘It was not for nothing that the poor in Manchester pronounced her name with blessing on their lips. It was not out of empty second-hand information, culled from books and reports, that Mary Barton sprang.’9 In trying to defend Mrs. Gaskell from what she sees as the damning accusation of bookishness, the reviewer spoils her argument by taking up an extreme position, claiming that the only source of the novel was personal observation. Similarly, Yvonne Ffrench mentions Frances Trollope's Michael Armstrong, Disraeli's Coningsby and Sybil, and Harriet Martineau's Illustrations of Political Economy, and claims that

… there is no evidence that Mrs. Gaskell had read any of these early examples, or that she had been influenced by their dawning efforts at reform. What is certain is that Sketches Among the Poor was an independent though still, small voice, and that in Mary Barton Mrs. Gaskell followed a line of her own based on conclusions reached from personal experience and observation. Hers is the first voice to plead the cause of humanity solely for humanitarian ends.10

Her first statement is correct: on inspection, the works cited seem to have had no influence on Mary Barton. However, other works did influence the novel. A careful comparative reading of Mary Barton (1848), and of Caroline Bowles's Tales of the Factories (1833), Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (1833-34), Chartism (1839) and Past and Present (1843), Caroline Norton's A Voice from the Factories (1836), ‘The Dream’ (1840) and The Child of the Islands (1845), ‘Charlotte Elizabeth's’ The Wrongs of Woman (1843-44), and Elizabeth Stone's William Langshawe (1842) and The Young Milliner (1843), suggests that these earlier works were all read by Mrs. Gaskell, and all influenced her first novel.

Ward, Miss Hompes and Yvonne Ffrench all defend Mrs. Gaskell's powers of observation by attacking the hypothesis that she read and was influenced by earlier social-problem literature. Both defence and attack are unnecessary. Mrs. Gaskell observed the poor areas of Manchester in her social work, but was also deeply moved by accounts of deprivation and degradation which she read before writing Mary Barton. Indeed, it is this exceptional combination of intelligent reading and close contact with the realities of urban poverty which makes the novel one of the finest studies of working-class life in the mid-nineteenth century.

The aim of this article is to examine Mrs. Gaskell's imaginative response to works by just two of the writers listed above—Caroline Bowles and Caroline Norton—and to make some tentative comments on the way in which her ‘marvellous memory’ stored and sifted material from those works.

In February 1833, Caroline Bowles wrote to Robert Southey, her future husband, enclosing the manuscript of one of the Tales of the Factories: ‘Dear friend, will you be at the trouble of looking over the accompanying verses? I have been reading accounts of the factory atrocities, and proofs of them in minutes of evidence taken before the House of Commons, that worked me up to a fever of indignation, which vented itself in verse—…’.11 The Tales were written only a few months before the Factory Bill of 1833 was presented to parliament.

‘The Father's Tale’ and ‘The Grandmother's Tale’ are short, morbid, pseudo-dramatic sketches in which the horrors of the factory system are discussed by those who have lost children in the factories, either through malnutrition and disease, or through the brutality of the overlookers and the dangers of unboxed machinery. It is the third Tale, ‘Pestilence—What May Be: A Dramatic Scene’, which seems to have influenced Mrs. Gaskell's first novel. Although there is no external evidence to suggest that Mrs. Gaskell read the Dramatic Scene, the similarity between one incident in it and a crucial scene in Mary Barton is too close to be coincidental.

In ‘Pestilence—What May Be’, Mr. Harrington, a ruthless factory owner, has lost his wife and all but one of his children in a terrible plague. The factories of the manufacturing town are all closed; some have been burnt down by angry operatives. Although Martha Vane's ‘last boy’ was crippled in Harrington's factory, and now lies in the Dead-Cart with his father, she refuses to join the hands who threaten to murder Harrington. Instead, she forgives him, and offers to nurse his last dying daughter, Gertrude. Now that the plague has forced him to review his past life, Harrington is haunted by the idea that he has sinned against God in his business affairs. Fetching the Family Bible, which he has never before had time to read, he ‘begins reading in the New Testament’.12 However, the words mean nothing to him:

God help me! I see letters, words, and lines,
But take not in the sense. My brain seems seared,
And my heart withered, palsied, turned to stone.

(TF, 38)

He then turns to the family register in the Bible:

                                                                                Here's the register,
Kept by that saint in heaven, who was my wife,
Of all our children's births; name after name,
Inscribed so fair by that maternal hand,
Down to the little baby's, who died first
At her dead bosom—down from hers, who lies
Still between life and death—…

(TF, 39)

Hearing Gertrude and Martha Vane discussing his reputation among the exploited operatives in his factory, he enters the bedroom, and finds his daughter praying for him:

                                                                      And oh, Our Father!
If thou art angry with him, as they say,
Forgive him for the sake of Jesus Christ!

As the little girl falters out the last words, her Father, no longer able to control his emotion, bursts into a passion of tears, and falling on his knees, extends his arms towards his daughter, burying his face in the bedclothes as he exclaims,

My blessed child! the stony heart is touched!
That prayer has mounted to the Mercy-seat.

(TF, 43)

Although the catalyst in Mr. Carson's conversion is not similar to the daughter's prayer in ‘Pestilence—What May Be’, other details in Mary Barton are reminiscent of Caroline Bowles's Dramatic Scene. Returning home from John Barton's house, having refused to forgive his son's murderer, Carson, the mill owner, witnesses an act of forgiveness which makes a deep impression on him. A little girl, knocked over by a ‘rough, rude errand-boy’, asks her nurse not to have him punished: ‘“He did not mean to do it. He did not know what he was doing, did you little boy?”’ (MB, 428). The words italicized by Mrs. Gaskell have ‘some association’ with Carson:

… he had heard, or read of that plea somewhere before. Where was it?

‘Could it be—?’

He would look when he got home. So when he entered his house he went straight and silently upstairs to his library, and took down the great, large handsome Bible, all grand and golden, with its leaves adhering together from the book-binder's press, so little had it been used.

On the first page (which fell open to Mr. Carson's view) were written the names of his children, and his own.

‘Henry John, son of the above John and Elizabeth Carson.

Born, Sept. 29th, 1815.’

To make the entry complete, his death should now be added. But the page became hidden by the gathering mist of tears. …

Then he roused himself from his reverie, and turned to the object of his search—the Gospel, where he half expected to find the tender pleading: ‘They know not what they do.’

(MB, 428-30)

At the end of the Gospel, the ‘awful End’, he finds the words for which he is searching. The following morning, he returns to Barton's house, where he prays for his forgiveness:

And when the words were said, John Barton lay a corpse in Mr. Carson's arms. So ended the tragedy of a poor man's life.

(MB, 432)

We do not know when Mrs. Gaskell read ‘Pestilence—What May Be’. Did she remember the Bowles scene in detail, or, less likely, was she unaware that her imagination was working upon something she had read, in the same way that an event in the distant past can re-emerge in one's consciousness years later, half-formed, imperfectly remembered, but nevertheless undeniably present? Whichever is the case, Mrs. Gaskell's imagination worked on the apparently intractable material of Caroline Bowle's stiff, lifeless Dramatic Scene, and created something new. Mr. Harrington's vague dipping into ‘the New Testament’ becomes a specifically directed search for a crucial text by Mr. Carson. Carson's Bible is described in detail: it is ‘large’ and ‘handsome’, ‘all grand and golden’, as a rich man's Bible would be. It is also unread, ‘its leaves adhering together from the book-binder's press’. The relevant section of his family register is actually quoted, adding a poignancy which is altogether absent from the Harrington scene.13 Mrs. Gaskell's ‘wealth of imaginative power’ often relied upon her ‘marvellous memory’ for its raw material.

It is difficult to guess when Mrs. Gaskell met the Hon. Mrs. Caroline Norton for the first time. It was not until after the publication of Mary Barton that she went to London to meet some of the leading literary figures of the day, including Carlyle, Dickens, Rogers, and F. D. Maurice. She may have met Mrs. Norton at the home of Samuel Rogers, whom she visited more than once during this trip to London, in 1849.14 It is certain that they knew each other in the 1850s.15 The John Rylands Library, Manchester, holds two letters from Caroline Norton to Mrs. Gaskell, dated February and April, 1859.16 However, it is unlikely that they met before the publication of Mary Barton.

In her writings on the Condition of England Question, Mrs. Norton was mainly concerned with the casualties of a new industrial society. How were the physical conditions of the urban poor to be improved, and the level of their spiritual and moral development raised? The first part of the Question had to be answered in Westminster; the second was the responsibility of poets and novelists, preachers and sages.

Caroline Norton took up the challenge of the second part of the Question in A Voice from the Factories (1836). She makes three basic points in the poem. First, ‘Excessive labour works the soul's decay’.17 Second, the rich would not be so indifferent to the state of English factories if their own children had to work in them (VF, 32). Third, although ‘Men rarely set Authority at naught’, they will revolt if pushed beyond the limits of their endurance (VF, 38). Her view of the Condition of England Question is similar to Carlyle's in many respects, and Mrs. Gaskell would have sympathized with A Voice in the same way that she sympathized with Carlyle's work.

In the poem, the reader's attention is focused on pathetic individual cases of deprived children, each with his or her own marks of exploitation or rejection. The adult is shocked when his comfortable illusion of childhood innocence and security is shattered by the realities of life faced by the children of the poor:

          And therefore when we hear the shrill faint cries
          Which mark the wanderings of the little sweep;
          Or when, with glittering teeth and sunny eyes,
          The boy-Italian's voice, so soft and deep,
          Asks alms for his poor marmoset asleep;
          They fill our hearts with pitying regret,
          Those little vagrants doomed so soon to weep—
          As though a term of joy for all was set,
And that their share of Life's long suffering was not yet.

(VF, 15)

The ‘boy-Italian’ reappears in Mary Barton.

Having heard about Jem's imprisonment on suspicion of murder, Mary staggers home in a daze, passing vendors ‘crying halfpenny broadsides, giving an account of the bloody murder, the coroner's inquest, and a raw-head-and-bloody-bones picture of the suspected murderer, James Wilson’ (MB, 265). She longs to reach home, where she can hide and ‘vent her agony’:

As she neared that home, within two minutes' walk of it, her impetuous course was arrested by a light touch on her arm, and turning hastily, she saw a little Italian boy, with his humble show-box,—a white mouse, or some such thing. The setting sun cast its red glow on his face, otherwise the olive complexion would have been very pale; and the glittering tear-drops hung on the long curled eyelashes. With his soft voice, and pleading looks, he uttered, in his pretty broken English, the words—

‘Hungry! so hungry.’

And as if to aid by gesture the effect of the solitary word, he pointed to his mouth, with its white quivering lips.

Mary answered him impatiently, ‘O lad, hunger is nothing—nothing!’

And she rapidly passed on. But her heart upbraided her the next minute with her unrelenting speech, and she hastily entered her door and seized the scanty remnant of food which the cupboard contained, and she retraced her steps to the place where the little hopeless stranger had sunk down by his mute companion in loneliness and starvation, and was raining down tears as he spoke in some foreign tongue, with low cries for the far distant ‘Mamma mia!’

(MB, 265-66)

Again, Mrs. Gaskell has borrowed an idea, and made it her own. The unmistakable verbal parallels lead one to suspect that she may have read or reread A Voice from the Factories shortly before writing her novel: the ‘glittering teeth and sunny eyes’ and ‘The boy-Italian's voice, so soft and deep’ of the Norton passage are echoed in ‘the glittering tear-drops’ and the ‘soft voice’ of Mary Barton. But whereas Caroline Norton's little boy briefly touches the corporate conscience of adult society—‘They fill our hearts with pitying regret’ [my emphasis]—Mrs. Gaskell's beggar draws a complex response from the heroine of the novel. The reader sympathizes with the imperfect Mary, and understands her initial reaction to the boy. The latter thus becomes more credible. A passing incident in Mrs. Norton's poem becomes a part of the fabric of Mrs. Gaskell's novel.

The parallels between Mary Barton and ‘The Dream’ (1840) are less specific. In this later poem, Mrs. Norton once again portrays the life of the poor:

‘The poor—the labouring poor! whose weary lives,
          Through many a freezing night and hungry day,
Are a reproach to him who only strives
          In luxury to waste his hours away,—
The patient poor! whose insufficient means
          Make sickness dreadful, yet by whose low bed
Oft in meek prayer some fellow-sufferer leans,
          And trusts in Heaven while destitute of bread; …’(18)

One is reminded of George Wilson and John Barton in the Davenports' cellar (MB, 65-73), and of Jane and Alice Wilson, Margaret Jennings, and Mary Barton faithfully ‘watching’ over their fellow poor in sickness (MB, 83, 249, 251). The theme of the poor's generosity to the poor is developed more fully in The Child of the Islands (‘Autumn’, XLIII; ‘Winter’, LXXXVIII).

In ‘The Dream’, Mrs. Norton emphasizes the heavenly reward awaiting the faithful poor and the oppressed:

‘There, shall the desolate heart regain its own!
There, the oppress'd shall stand before God's throne! …
                    Then shall be Lazarus of the earth have rest—
The rich man judgment—and the grievous breast
Deep peace for ever. Therefore look thou not
So much to what on earth shall be thy lot,
As to thy fate hereafter,—to that day
When like a scroll this world shall pass away,
And what thou here hast done, or here enjoy'd,
Import but to thy soul:—all else destroy'd!’(19)

The parable of Dives and Lazarus has a special significance for John Barton, who gloats over the idea of the rich suffering after death for their selfish indifference to the state of the poor in life (MB, 8, 112).

Of course, there are numerous references to Lazarus in the social-problem literature of the period, and ‘The Dream’ is not the only work of literature before Mary Barton to describe the generosity of the poor. However, in the light of Mrs. Gaskell's response to Caroline Norton's other work, it is likely that she read and was moved by ‘The Dream’, a part of her imaginative ‘experience’.

Mrs. Norton's third poem under discussion, The Child of the Islands (1845), provided Mrs. Gaskell with a motto for chapter IX in Mary Barton (MB, 109). There can thus be no doubt that Mrs. Gaskell read and was impressed by the poem. Not only are its general themes very similar to those of the novel—both writers emphasize the need for understanding, benevolence, and faith in their studies of the rift between rich and poor—but there are also many similarities of detail between the two works.

The Child is a long poem, divided into six sections—‘Opening’, ‘Spring’, ‘Summer’, ‘Autumn’, ‘Winter’, ‘Conclusion’—and written in stanzas of nine lines (ABABBCBCC). In each section of the poem, Mrs. Norton reminds the ‘Child of the Islands’—the Prince of Wales, born in 1841—that he will enjoy all the seasons of the year, and all the years (or ‘seasons’) of his life, while the lives of the poor are often little more than prolonged and unrelieved misery. The seasonal schema is best illustrated by quoting extracts from the ‘Argument’: ‘Spring. The Delights of Spring—Its Value to those who seldom taste its Pleasures—The Sempstress—The Trapper in the Mines—…’; ‘Summer. Its Pleasures and Toils—The Woodlands—Moonlight by Land and Sea—Gipsey Girl in Prison—…’; ‘Autumn. Its Beauty—The Moorlands of Scotland—The Heather Brae—A Sabbath Morning on the Hills—… Harvest-Home—Plenty and Privation—…’; ‘Winter. The Snow on the Graves in the Churchyards of England—The Snow in Affghanistan—The Soldier's Glory—… The Worn-out Veteran—The Blind Man's Winter—… “The Child of the Islands”—His Share of what Winter brings’.20

In her constant appeals to the young Prince of Wales, Mrs. Norton stresses the important role which the monarchy could play in the fight against working-class enslavement. She follows a line similar to that of Disraeli—a close personal friend21—in Sybil: or, The Two Nations (1845). In the Preface to her poem, Mrs. Norton writes, ‘I selected the Prince of Wales as my illustration, because the innocence of his age, the hopes that hallow his birth, and the hereditary loyalty which clings to the throne, concur in enabling men of all parties, and of every grade in society, to contemplate such a type, not only without envy or bitterness, but with one common feeling of earnest good-will’ (CI, xi-xii). The Opening of the poem is addressed directly to the Child:

                    Bend to the lowly in their world of care;
                    Think, in thy Palace, of the labourer's cot;
                    And justify the still unequal share
By all thy power to aid, and willingness to spare!

(CI, 16)

In criticizing the ruling classes for their indifference, Mrs. Norton does not condemn them. Three years after the publication of The Child, she wrote a pamphlet entitled Letters to the Mob, in which she defended the aristocracy, while admitting that certain of its members, like certain members of the working-class, were bad apples.22

In the stanza quoted as a motto in Mary Barton, Mrs. Norton writes what a poor man imagines the rich say about the poor:

          ‘A life of self-indulgence is for Us,
                    A life of self-denial is for them;
          For Us the streets, broad-built and populous,
                    For them, unhealthy corners, garrets dim,
                    And cellars where the water-rat may swim!
          For Us, green paths refreshed by frequent rain,
                    For them, dark alleys where the dust lies grim!
          Not doomed by Us to this appointed pain,—
God made us, Rich and Poor—of what do these complain?’

(CI, 31)

In the next stanza, the question is answered:

                    Of what? Oh! not of Heaven's great law of old,
                    That brightest light must fall by deepest shade;
                    Not that they wander hungry, gaunt, and cold,
                    While others in smooth splendours are arrayed;
                    Not that from gardens where they would have strayed
                    You shut them out, as though a miser's gem
                    Lay in the crystal stream or emerald glade,
                    Which they would filch from Nature's diadem;
But that you keep no thought, no memory of them.

(CI, 32)

These two stanzas are crucially important in their context, as they immediately follow Mrs. Norton's story of the ‘pallid weaver’, which influenced Mrs. Gaskell's novel:

                    So sits the pallid weaver at his loom,
                              Copying the wreaths the artist-pencil drew;
                    In the dull confines of his cheerless room
                              Glisten those tints of rich and living hue. …
… And if he quit his loom, he leaves his gains—
          That gorgeous, glistering silk, designed with so much pains!
                    It shall be purchased as a robe of state
                    By some great lady, when his toil is done;
                    While on her will obsequious shopmen wait,
                    To shift its radiance in the flattering sun:
                    And as she, listless, eyes its beauty, none
                    Her brow shall darken, or her smile shall shade,
                    By a strange story—yet a common one—
                    Of tears that fell (but not on her brocade,)
And misery weakly borne while it was slowly made.

(CI, 25-26)

The weaver pawns the silk in order to buy food for his starving family (CI, 27). Justice pursues ‘her course’, and the robe is made up by a ‘different hand’ (CI, 28). Ignorant of its history, the lady who buys the dress has an audience with the Queen:

… Careless of all conditions but her own,
          She sweeps that stuff along, to curtsey to the throne.
          That dumb woof tells no story! Silent droops
                    The gorgeous train, voluminously wide;
          And while the lady's knee a moment stoops
                    (Mocking her secret heart, which swells with pride,)
                    No ragged shadow follows at her side
          Into that royal presence, where her claim
                    To be admitted, is to be allied
          To wealth, and station, and a titled name,—
No warning voice is heard to supplicate or blame.

(CI, 29-30)

The Norton motto in Mary Barton (‘A life of self-indulgence is for us’) heads chapter IX, in which John Barton returns to Manchester after the disappointing Chartist rally (MB, 109). The inhabitants of the cellars and ‘unhealthy corners’ of the motto, Barton's neighbours, are fascinated by his account of the West End: ‘We had to walk slowly, slowly, for th' carriages an' cabs as thronged th' streets. I thought by-and-by we should maybe get clear on 'em, but as the streets grew wider they grew worse, and at last we were fairly blocked up at Oxford Street’ (MB, 113). Barton describes ‘the streets, broad-built and populous’ of the motto. When the marchers come into contact with a stream of carriages, the contrast between ‘them’ and ‘us’ is obvious: ‘It were th' Queen's drawing-room, they said, and th' carriages went bowling along toward her house, some wi' dressed-up gentlemen like circus folk in 'em, and rucks o' ladies in others’ (MB, 113-14). Barton and his fellow Chartists, held up by a stream of carriages heading for the palace, remind one of Mrs. Norton's lines quoted above: ‘No ragged shadow follows at her side / Into that royal presence.’ The aristocrats in the carriages leave the ‘ragged shadows’ in the street. Once again, Mrs. Gaskell develops an idea which she has borrowed.

There is another possible source for this incident in Mary Barton. A comparative reading of the novel, and of Elizabeth Stone's novel, The Young Milliner (1843), suggests that Mrs. Gaskell was influenced by the latter, which antedated The Child of the Islands (1845).23 Ellen Cardan, the Young Milliner, collapses under the strain of overwork in Madam Mineau's work-room. Madame Mineau is preparing for ‘the last Drawing Room of the season’.24 Outside the work-room, on the day of the Drawing Room, ‘All the streets and avenues leading to the palace were … thronged, either with carriages bound thither, or with spectators crowding to see the show’ (YM, 349). The noise of the crowds milling around St. James's reaches the ears of the exhausted apprentices in the work-room. While Ellen swoons, the crowd roars in delight at the sight of a favourite aristocrat's carriage (YM, 353-54). Ellen never fully recovers from the strain of preparing for the Drawing Room, and dies of consumption (YM, 387).

Mrs. Gaskell made remarkably good use of two different sources, taking up Mrs. Norton's idea of the ‘ragged shadow’ and Elizabeth Stone's idea of carriages passing through thronging crowds on their way to a Drawing Room, while the suppliers of luxury suffer from starvation and overwork nearby.

One other detail in Mary Barton is reminiscent of the ‘pallid weaver’ story in The Child. Mrs. Norton describes ‘some great lady’ purchasing the dress, and adds that nobody will darken her brow by telling her of ‘tears that fell (but not on her brocade)’. This is one of three possible sources25 for a passage in which Mary Barton learns of the murder of Harry Carson at Miss Simmonds', her place of work:

Then each began to communicate to Miss Simmonds the various reports they had heard.

Suddenly she burst out—

‘Miss Barton! as I live, dropping tears on that new silk gown of Mrs. Hawkes'! … if you must cry’ (seeing her scolding rather increased the flow of Mary's tears, than otherwise), ‘take this print to cry over. That won't be marked like this beautiful silk’, rubbing it, as if she loved it, with a clean pocket-handkerchief, in order to soften the edges of the hard round drops.

Mary took the print, and, naturally enough, having had leave given her to cry over it rather checked the inclination to weep.

(MB, 253)

Mrs. Gaskell picked up a passing reference (or several passing references) to a weaver or milliner taking care not to cry over some fine material, and brought the idea to life: the final touch of the offered print is particularly imaginative.

Finally, Mrs. Gaskell may have been influenced by a more general passage from the Conclusion to The Child, in which Caroline Norton summarized the argument of the poem:

                    God hath built up a bridge 'twixt man and man,
                    Which mortal strength can never overthrow;
                    Over the world it stretches its dark span,—
                    The keystone of that mighty arch is woe!
                    Joy's rainbow glories visit earth, and go,
                    Melting away to Heaven's far-distant land;
                    But Grief's foundations have been fixed below:
                    pleasure divides us:—the Divine command
Hath made of sorrow's links a firm connecting band.

(CI, 188)

In Mary Barton, Barton's crime is intended to be seen as the inevitable result of the ‘gulf’ which yawns between Dives and Lazarus in earthly life: ‘pleasure divides us’. In the closing chapters of the novel, the conversion of Mr. Carson senior is crucial; at last the rich and the poor are united, and the ‘keystone of that mighty arch is woe’:

… as Mr. Carson was on the point of leaving the house with no sign of relenting about him, he was again stopped by John Barton, who had risen once more from his chair, and stood supporting himself on Jem, while he spoke.

‘Sir, one word! My hairs are grey with suffering, and yours with years’—

‘And have I had no suffering?’ asked Mr. Carson, as if appealing for sympathy, even to the murderer of his child.

And the murderer of his child answered to the appeal, and groaned in spirit over the anguish he had caused.

‘Have I had no inward suffering to blanch these hairs? Have not I toiled and struggled even to these years with hopes in my heart that all centred in my boy? … He was my sunshine, and now it is night! Oh, my God! comfort me, comfort me!’ cried the old man aloud.

The eyes of John Barton grew dim with tears. Rich and poor, masters and men, were then brothers in the deep suffering of the heart; for was not this the very anguish he had felt for little Tom, in years so long gone by, that they seemed like another life?

(MB, 424-25)

It is after this that Mr. Carson returns home, and undergoes a dramatic conversion. The following day, John Barton dies in his arms (MB, 432). As Caroline Norton wrote, ‘pleasure divides us:—the Divine command / Hath made of sorrow's links a firm connecting band’. A Child of the Islands and Mary Barton share this central theme.

In all the examples discussed above, Mrs. Gaskell's imagination, quickened by the work of other writers, made something new of borrowed material. Her ‘marvellous memory’ was not simply a bank of stored ideas. It had the kind of life described by Sammy Mountjoy in William Golding's novel, Free Fall (1959): ‘… time is not to be laid out endlessly like a row of bricks. That straight line from the first hiccup to the last gasp is a dead thing. Time is two modes. The one is an effortless perception native to us as water to the mackerel. The other is a memory, a sense of shuffle fold and coil, of that day nearer than that because more important, of that event mirroring this, or those three set apart, exceptional and out of the straight line altogether.’26 The ‘days’ and ‘events’ of Mrs. Gaskell's reading can be seen in the same way. Her creative use of source material in Mary Barton is a product of the ‘shuffle fold and coil’ of her memory.


  1. Margaret J[osephine] Shaen, ed., Memorials of Two Sisters: Susanna and Catherine Winkworth (London: Longmans, Green, 1908), pp. 24-25.

  2. Shaen, Memorials, p. 24.

  3. John Geoffrey Sharps, Mrs. Gaskell's Observation and Invention: A Study of Her Non-Biographic Works (Fontwell: Linden, 1970).

  4. J[ohn] A[lfred] V[ictor] Chapple and Arthur Pollard, eds., The Letters of Mrs Gaskell (Manchester: Manchester U.P., 1966).

  5. Following the death of Miss Margaret Emily Gaskell (1837-1913)—Mrs. Gaskell's second daughter—the contents of 84 Plymouth Grove, Manchester were put up for auction by George H. Larmuth & Sons. The sale catalogue included ‘about 4000 vols. of Books’. The Sixth Day's Sale, devoted to these books, was made up of 662 lots of books, and four lots of bookcases. Although many of the entries are vague, it is obvious that William and Elizabeth Gaskell owned a large number of these books. At least 300 of the 662 titles actually listed were of books almost certainly published before Mrs. Gaskell's death in 1865. Unfortunately, one cannot be sure that the auctioneer made up his lots methodically. The seven ‘others’ in lot 650, for example, (Pope, ‘Homer’, 2 vols., and seven others) may well not have been other works by Pope, but rather those volumes which happened to be next to the Homer on the Gaskells' shelves. An unmarked copy of the sale catalogue is now housed in Box 4 of the Gaskell Collection, Manchester Central Library. Mr. G. F. Driver of Oldham informs me that Larmuth's business ceased in 1939 due to bankruptcy, and that all old records were destroyed in that year. There is thus no chance of finding the auctioneer's marked copy of the Gaskell Sale Catalogue.

  6. A[dolphus] W[illiam] Ward, ed., The Works of Mrs. Gaskell (Knutsford Edition), 8 vols. (London: Smith, Elder, 1906), vol. 1. (‘Mary Barton’ and Other Tales), pp. lxxiii-lxxiv. All further references are to this edition, cited as MB in the text.

  7. In a letter to her daughter Marianne, dated [7 April 1851] by Chapple and Pollard, Mrs. Gaskell writes, ‘I think we should read together Adam Smith on the Wealth of Nations. Not confining ourselves as we read to the limited meaning which he affixes to the word “wealth”’ (Letters, p. 148). Mrs. Gaskell refers to the book with obvious familiarity.

  8. Aina Rubenius, The Woman Question in Mrs. Gaskell's Life and Works (Upsala: Lundequistska Bokhandeln, 1950), p. 385.

  9. The Inquirer, 69 (1910), p. 656.

  10. Yvonne Ffrench, Mrs. Gaskell (London: Home, Van Thal, 1949), pp. 17-18.

  11. Edward Dowden, ed., The Correspondence of Robert Southey with Caroline Bowles; To Which Are Added: Correspondence with Shelley, and Southey's Dreams (Dublin: Dublin U.P., 1881), p. 265.

  12. [Caroline Bowles], Tales of the Factories (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1833), p. 38. Hereafter cited in the text as TF.

  13. Curiously, Mrs. Gaskell chose the anniversary of her own birthday for the late Harry Carson. She was born on 29th September, 1810.

  14. Chapple and Pollard, Letters, pp. 79-80.

  15. Although there are reference to ‘the Nortons’, ‘Ann(e) Norton’ and ‘Mrs. Norton’ in several of Mrs. Gaskell's letters written in the 1850s, one cannot be sure that they all refer to Caroline Norton and her family: Chapple and Pollard, Letters, pp. 239, 304, 471, 472, 837.

  16. Rylands English MSS 731/79 (Postmark: Fe. 4 59 Edinburgh) and 731/80 (Postmark: Ap. 23 59 London).

  17. [Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton], A Voice from the Factories: In Serious Verse (London: Murray, 1836), p. 18. Hereafter cited as VF in the text.

  18. [Caroline Elizabeth Sarah] Norton, The Dream and Other Poems (London: Colburn, 1840), pp. 63-64.

  19. Norton, The Dream, pp. 64-65.

  20. [Caroline Elizabeth Sarah] Norton, The Child of the Islands: A Poem (London: Chapman, Hall, 1845), pp. xv-xvi. Hereafter cited as CI in the text.

  21. See Alice Acland [i.e. Anne Marreco], Caroline Norton (London: Constable, 1948), pp. 38-39, 74.

  22. ‘Libertas’ [i.e. Caroline Norton], Letters to the Mob (London: Bosworth, 1848), pp. 5, 7, 17.

  23. Elizabeth Stone's novel, William Langshawe, the Cotton Lord (1842) provided the basis for a remarkable number of characters and plot motifs in Mary Barton: the similarities between the two novels are unmistakable. It is hardly surprising to find that Mrs. Gaskell was also indebted to several passages in The Young Milliner, published one year after William Langshawe.

  24. [Elizabeth] Stone, The Young Milliner (London: Cunningham, Mortimer, 1843), p. 348. Hereafter cited as YM in the text.

  25. In ‘Charlotte Elizabeth's’ The Wrongs of Woman (London: Dalton, 1843-44; Part 1, p. 30) and in Elizabeth Stone's The Young Milliner (p. 31), young needlewomen are rebuked for dropping tears on their material. Mrs. Norton herself may have read these two works before writing The Child.

  26. William Golding, Free Fall (1959; rpt. London: Faber, 1968), p. 6.

Coral Lansbury (essay date 1975)

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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 the Employers, & their work-people’ (G.L. [Letters of Mrs. Gaskell, ed. by J. A. V. Chapple and A. Pollard, Manchester, 1966] 27). The novel was, she thought, self-explanatory. To her it was amazing that thinking people could have ignored for so long the new and troubled society in the industrial cities of England. Certainly, the problems of Manchester were not those of Paris or Berlin, and to conflate them would involve a distortion of fact. It would also encourage the reader to look abroad for the instigators of riot and strike in Manchester. This was not her intention.

The original title of the novel was A Manchester Love Story, but at Chapman's suggestion this became Mary Barton, subtitled A Tale of Manchester Life. Critics have indulged themselves at the expense of the novel because of a statement Elizabeth Gaskell later made that her initial idea had been to compose a tragic poem about a working man, John Barton. It was to the wife of William Rathbone Greg, the Unitarian industrialist, that she recalled having first decided to write a work around ‘an ignorant man full of rude, illogical thought’ (G.L. 42). The letter refers not so much to the novel as it later became, but to the antagonistic review Greg had written about her delineation of industrial life in Manchester.1 Elizabeth Gaskell wanted to placate Greg who was, after all, one of the more enlightened cotton manufacturers. It was always her hope that more manufacturers would see that it was in their own interest to make concessions to their workers, to understand that the sharing of labour in a mutual enterprise was essentially a co-operative undertaking. Nevertheless, in her letter to Mrs Greg she would not abandon her belief in the moral justification of her theme. Manchester may have been the marvel of the manufacturing world, but its wealth was spun from the lives of men, women and children, as well as from cotton. John Barton is not a rude or illogical man in the novel, and his tragedy is that not even courage, intelligence and great determination can withstand a famine of the body and the spirit imposed by a capitalist society.

As was customary in all Elizabeth Gaskell's major works, although its original conception may have been the story of a man—just as ‘Mr Harrison's Confessions’ (1851) is a tentative prelude to Wives and Daughters (1864)—it became, in the course of development, the story of a young woman. Mary the child becomes Mary Barton the woman, who acquires an understanding of herself and society from misfortune and death. It is Mary who redeems both Jem and her father, by saving one from the gallows and the other from committing a double crime, of murder and allowing an innocent man to hang. This redemptive power is not the passive grace exerted by the angel in the house, not the mellifluous goodness of Agnes Wickfield who taught David Copperfield the meaning of domestic love. Instead, Mary confronts society at every turn and eventually overcomes it. Whether she is running in delight to the local shop as a child, proud in her possession of the money to buy the tea for her parents and the Wilsons, or racing against time and tide to bring Will Wilson back to Liverpool assizes to give evidence on Jem's behalf, she is the active force in the novel. It is her actions for good or ill that provide the catalyst for events. Her flirtation with Harry Carson causes Jem to be suspected of his murder, but it is her flight to Liverpool that leads to his rescue.

The emphasis upon Mary Barton does not eclipse the significance of her father. An able, quick-witted and conscientious working man, Barton is driven to opium addiction and murder by the oppression of a social system that denies him work and eventually life itself. As Adam Smith cogently remarked, slaves were better treated than workers because replacing a slave meant an expenditure of capital whereas workers, in time of depression, could be hired or dismissed at the owner's pleasure. They were not even dignified by a title of status, lowly as that of slave might be. Instead they were ‘hands’, truncated objects of labour to be retained or discarded at the whim of the employer. John Barton is not an object; he thinks and feels, and when deprived of all hope, he will kill for bread and justice. It is a novel of two narrative themes. Love and courage do eventually surmount disease and death, but the victory is won at the price of a certain loss. Jem and Mary emigrate to the simpler world of Canada. In one sense they have triumphed, but in a deeper sense it is Manchester that has defeated them by destroying John Barton, and by driving the two lovers out of its darkness into the serene light of a Canadian forest. The myth of Eden is reversed. Manchester will not tolerate those who have transgressed its iron laws. The punishment it metes out is death or exile. Like the workmen marked down at every mill because they are trades-unionists, Jem is driven out because he has broken the law of the city and survived.

Elizabeth Gaskell had already written about Manchester before she began Mary Barton. With her husband she had composed Sketches among the Poor (1837), which she stated to be in the style of Crabbe, but with a ‘more seeing-beauty spirit’. The qualification is important. Crabbe's poetry, as Raymond Williams observes,2 was blunted by the ambiguities of his moral and social position, domestic chaplain to the Duke of Rutland and priest to a congregation that included the destitute farm labourer as well as the landowner. But no matter how deeply Crabbe felt for the poor he could not forget his stipend was paid by the Duke of Rutland and that fact alone placed bounds upon his sympathies. Elizabeth Gaskell was never troubled by these restrictions. Her problem was one of eliciting her readers' sympathies for the poor without alienating them with her belief that poverty was not a natural condition but a state engendered by a capitalist society. Her solution was a narrative strategy of considerable subtlety. The poor are never objectified in her work, either by pity or the declamatory reforming zeal of the writer—they speak for themselves, and often at variance with the narrative commentary. Elizabeth Gaskell herself assumes the narrative stance of what may be described as a concerned middle-class reader. In effect she assumes the role of the reader, so that the characters may reveal themselves. Their individuality is preserved because the narrative voice so often contradicts the characters' thoughts and actions. The result is what Elizabeth Gaskell desired: her own voice becomes fiction, while the fictional characters assume reality. The tension is deliberately induced and becomes her most typical narrative technique.

The novel begins in the traditional mood of arcadian retrospect made fashionable by Carlyle and Disraeli. ‘There are some fields near Manchester, well known to the inhabitants as “Green Heys Fields”, through which runs a public footpath to a little village about two miles distant’ (Ch. 1). It is the landscape of a lost world that can be visited only on holidays and in the dreams of nostalgia. Elizabeth Gaskell appreciated that an industrial society walked forward while looking back to an imaginary golden age of rural simplicities. The romantic poets had endowed nature with a visionary quality that illuminated the prophecies of Carlyle and Disraeli. Both saw the ideal age as a restoration of a ‘merrie England’, a medieval, feudal Eden where stalwart yeomen stood in pride on their ancestral acres and charitable squires looked to the needs of their tenants. Having spent her childhood in the country and being well acquainted with village life, Elizabeth Gaskell did not follow the contemporary vogue for judging the present by appeals to an imperfectly recollected past. Memory, as she shows with Alice Wilson, can be a web of illusions, particularly when those memories are derived from childhood experience. Certainly she could not accept the myth of a happy peasantry. The peasantry she remembered had more in common with Crabbe's than Kenelm Digby's rustic yokels in The Broadstone of Honour. Disraeli, who knew less of country life than most writers, never failed to recall the days when ‘the people were better clothed, better lodged, and better fed just before the war of the roses …’ (Sybil, or the Two Nations, Bk 3, Ch. 5). In Coningsby the problems of an industrial society are apparently resolved by a marriage between the aristocratic hero and the daughter of Millbank, the manufacturer. Unfortunately it is always memory, deceptive or actual, that helps to shape man's vision of the real world. Elizabeth Gaskell had no need to recall the Lake Poets or novelists like Digby and Disraeli when she wrote of the town and the country. Both were part of her own experience.

For the workers, the quality of their daily life in the factory or the mill would always be measured against the country that now existed for them as a place of holidays and infrequent leisure. In Green Heys Fields, the town is only half-a-mile away, but workers can walk and play there, and ‘Here in their seasons may be seen the country business of hay-making, ploughing, etc., which are such pleasant mysteries for townspeople to watch’ (Ch. 1). There is a note of irony punctuating the noncommital prose. It always is pleasant to watch other people working, particularly when the work seems quaint, jovial and linked with the traditions of one's own past. Country labour now seemed part of the whole holiday atmosphere for the city worker, much as tourists find peon labour in South America a picturesque subject for photographs. Popular fiction still extolled rural virtues and deplored the vices of the city. The country as a place of work had passed beyond the experiential understanding of most readers. The rural landscape portrayed in the early novels of Dickens, or by Disraeli, lacks the visionary quality of a Renaissance pastoral but shares its basic unreality. Elizabeth Gaskell never used the country in this way. It is never a stick to belabour the city. She is always aware of the beauty of trees and flowers, the changing of the seasons, but she also knew that Caliban toiled on an island that seemed a paradise to strangers.

Critics of the city and its problems were caught in the dilemma of wondering what standard of values could be applied. Frequently there are contradictions in their own writings that point more directly to an appeal to fiction than to demonstrable facts. Peter Gaskell wrote of the stability of country life, of generations living in the same village, frequently as ‘one great family’,3 of children growing up under the watchful care of parents engaged in domestic manufacture, and stressing the essential unity of the family as the priceless jewel of the golden age. It was, like most discussions of family structure, a fiction bearing less relation to life than most. In his evocation of rural life he was troubled by death rates that were often higher than those of the city, but offset them against the city worker's life that was, in his opinion, one long disease. He admitted the sexual licence of many rural areas but declared that premarital intercourse was always sanctioned by a later marriage. In the city among industrial workers he could discern only the grossest immorality and sexual promiscuity resulting from the dissolution of family life. Peter Gaskell was an honest and reliable witness to events. As a doctor he had practical experience of city life in poor areas, but his attempt to draw statistical evidence from the past was based more on wishful thinking than historical evidence. On the size of families, Adam Smith was closer to the truth when he wrote that in the Highlands of Scotland it was not uncommon for a woman to bear twenty children and see only two live to be adults.4 Elizabeth Gaskell makes plain in Mary Barton that although death could strike the city in holocausts of famine and disease, life could still, given steady employment, be infinitely richer than the existence of the country labourer.

It was, however, Peter Gaskell's vision of country life that prevailed, given added force by Friedrich Engels's The Condition of the Working Class in England, written in Germany in 1844 after twenty months spent in Manchester. Engels was inspired by Peter Gaskell and Carlyle, both social catastrophists, both predicting the imminent collapse of industrial society in revolution. The full impact of Engels's work did not reach the United States and England until 1887 and 1892 when translations first appeared in those countries. By that time Peter Gaskell's works and Kay and Ridgeway's studies of industrial Manchester were all out of print, and Elizabeth Gaskell had become the Mrs Gaskell of Cranford. Peter Gaskell was absorbed by Engels's work, but the links between the two are obvious. Engels borrowed from the former his view of rural society living at peace under the ‘free, the balmy, and the uncontaminated breath of heaven’, a way of life producing ‘a sluggish mind in an active body’5 and proceeded to summarise it in the line: ‘They vegetated happily and but for the Industrial Revolution would never have left this way of life, which was indeed idyllic.’6 Making good use of Peter Gaskell's denunciation of sexual promiscuity, Engels described the libidinous city workers taking refuge from their toil in drink and sex. It would seem from Engels that a virtuous woman in the cotton mills was as rare as a flower in a furnace, an attitude determined, perhaps, by the fact that Engels's mistress at this time was a millworker.

Elizabeth Gaskell accepted neither her kinsman's nostalgia for the past nor his belief in a catastrophic end to industrial society. And she rejected his denunciations of indiscriminate working-class immorality. What led strangers to draw false conclusions, she implies, was the free and open manner of the women workers. Against the background of an arcadian past in the first chapter of Mary Barton the millworkers laugh and play on a holiday that may have been granted by the employers, but may equally well have been taken by them as ‘a right of nature and her beautiful spring time’. These are not mindless drudges despite the arduous work and long hours. The women reflect the independence that comes from being wage-earners in their own right: ‘Groups of merry and somewhat loud-talking girls, whose ages might range from twelve to twenty, came by with a buoyant step. … Their faces were not remarkable for beauty; indeed, they were below the average, with one or two exceptions: they had dark hair, neatly and classically arranged, dark eyes, but sallow complexions and irregular features. The only thing to strike a passer-by was an acuteness and intelligence of countenance, which has often been noticed in a manufacturing population’ (Ch. 1). And when Jem steals a kiss from Mary Barton he receives a resounding slap, a blow she regards as the correct response to impertinence, and no cause for repentance, as Eleanor Bold regretted slapping Mr Slope's face in Trollope's Barchester Towers. Unlike Eleanor, Mary's natural instincts had never been blunted by the need to behave like a lady. In John Barton's view, ladies were a plague to themselves and everyone else, and the desire to become one the reason why Mary's aunt had run away from home. When he recalls how Esther had promised to make Mary a lady one day, his anger is voiced in a biblical cadence: ‘“I'd rather see her earning her bread by the sweat of her brow, as the Bible tells her she should do, ay, though she never got butter to bread, than be like a do-nothing lady, worrying shopmen all morning, and screeching at her pianny all afternoon, and going to bed without having done a good turn to any one of God's creatures but herself”’ (Ch. 1).

Mary has, however, never forgotten her aunt's promise and she knows instinctively how a good-looking shopgirl can become a lady. She must sell herself at the altar to a gentleman, and the transaction need not be as grim and heartless as Edith's marriage to Mr Dombey when the lover is young and handsome like Harry Carson. Her virginity has a price and it must not be sold for less than marriage. Nothing, as Mary knows, was more reckless than to live with a man in the hope that marriage would follow in due course. She is reason and commonsense, and tough shrewdness of Lancashire that prefers ‘brass’ to stardust and dreaming. Mary knows precisely what she wants from marriage with young Carson and love is a secondary consideration. She can even convince herself that she will be able to play Lady Bountiful to her friends and her family when she is Mrs Carson. As for Jem, her faithful lover, he too may share in her good fortune with something profitable in the business line being put in his way. Her dreams are of riding from the church in finery, to take up ‘her astonished father, and drive away from the dim work-a-day court for ever, to live in a grand house, where her father should have newspapers, and pamphlets, and pipes, and meat dinners, every day …’ (Ch. 7). It is not an idle dream, not a little milliner longing for a prince, but Mary Barton, dressmaker's apprentice, who is fully aware that Harry Carson's parents worked in a mill like her father, and that, in effect, Mrs Carson's place in working-class society had been rather lower than her own. It is clear to her that her father will never be able to give up his radical pamphlets, his Chartist petitions, but she sees no reason why he should not combine them with a few luxuries provided by his daughter.

John Barton cannot break free from the prison of industrial society. It is only when he has tried every means possible that violence becomes his only recourse. For Mary, there is the escape possible for a woman, a marriage chosen for its material benefits. It was the escape planned by Esther, her aunt, who leaves Manchester with a young army officer, but instead of insisting upon marriage becomes his mistress and gives birth to a child. When her lover is posted to Ireland, Esther is left with the child and £50. Poverty forces her onto the streets and Esther becomes a prostitute and an alcoholic. There is no sense of a fall from virtue in Esther, she has simply tried to improve her position in society by the only method she knows, and she fails. Mary, on the other hand, is quite prepared to marry for money and a modicum of affection, but not when she finally knows that Jem is the man she loves. Harry Carson has no intention of marrying Mary, but is prepared to bargain, ‘feeling that at any price he must have her, only that he would obtain her as cheaply as he could’ (Ch. 11). The ‘cash nexus’ affected the relationship between employer and worker less intimately than it did young lovers from different social ranks. Sally Leadbitter, the self-appointed matchmaker, is delighted when Harry Carson is forced to propose and Mary refuses him. Sally takes great pleasure in reminding him what had led Mary to think that he was planning a proposal of marriage from the very beginning. Harry explains:

‘My father would have forgiven any temporary connexion, far sooner than my marrying any one so far beneath me in rank.’

‘I thought you said, sir, your mother was a factory girl,’ reminded Sally, rather maliciously.

‘Yes, yes!—but then my father was in much such a station; at any rate there was not the disparity there is between Mary and me.’

(Ch. 11)

And when Harry consoles himself with the notion that women always have second thoughts and that Mary will return to him, there is the final gratifying thought: ‘“Mind! I don't say I shall offer her the same terms again.”’ In a society of cash transactions, Mary's innate shrewdness tells her that there are some human relationships that are best not defined by money.

Elizabeth Gaskell, as a prison visitor and social worker, knew more about prostitution than most writers of the day. It was not innate virtue that saved a working girl from the streets but commonsense and intelligence. Esther, like Ruth Denbigh, is a simple soul whose yearnings do not extend beyond fine clothes and a release from factory work. She is seduced, not so much sexually as socially. It is for this reason that John Barton cannot forgive her. To try to become a lady is to desire all that he despises most in life. Bedraggled and forlorn, Esther is known to the local police as ‘the Butterfly’, being picked up regularly for disorderly vagrancy. But stupidity is not, in Elizabeth Gaskell's canon, a crime meriting punishment. So in her novels a young girl who is seduced does not meet the same fate and is not delineated in quite the same fashion as the ‘fallen woman’ of Victorian fiction.

Mary's most remarkable attribute as a woman in Victorian literature is her independence. From the night of her mother's death in childbirth she has been mistress of the house, and a breadwinner as well. Engels saw working women disrupting family life, an attitude he shared with Peter Gaskell, but Elizabeth Gaskell saw a woman deriving strength and dignity from the ability to earn her own living. This is not stated in the narrative commentary but through Mary herself, using her own money to run the home and buy food for her father, capable of making decisions without recourse to advice from others. Far from families being broken by city life they are fortified by the ability of all adult members to find work. Unlike Engels and Peter Gaskell she saw the fragmentation of family life brought about by rural conditions. In the country it had always been customary to place young children in service, or to send them out to earn their livings as soon as they reached adolescence. George Wilson and his sister Alice indicate this in the novel. Tom Wilson left the family farm first and found work in Manchester. Then, as Alice continues, he ‘“… sent word what terrible lots of work was to be had, both for lads and lasses. So father sent George first … and then work was scarce out toward Burton, where we lived, and father said I maun try and get a place. And George wrote as how wages were far higher in Manchester than Milnthorpe or Lancaster …”’ (Ch. 4). The pattern of rural migration to the city was dictated not only by the impoverishment of farm life but by the attraction of high wages and the vitality of urban culture. The loneliness of the country labourer can be far more acute than that of the city worker. A man ploughing an empty field does not know the companionship of the factory, but often hungers for it. It is intellectualised romanticism to argue otherwise.

In the city, families lived in small units unless forced by extreme poverty to share dwelling-places. Alice Wilson lives alone until her brother dies; she then moves in with her sister-in-law, but even with young Jem Wilson, it is still only a family of three. Demographers would approve Elizabeth Gaskell's representation of family size. The comparison is drawn sharply between the workers' homes and families, and the household of Carson with four adult daughters, a son, and a flock of servants living under the same roof. It is emphasised that in Manchester the working-class population was effectively regulated by disease and death. But families among the workers were not confined to near relations; there was no sense of alienation, rather a feeling of mateship, which binds John Barton to George Wilson and sends them both to the bedside of Davenport, the Methodist millworker dying of typhus. ‘The poor mun help the poor’ is the creed of these men, and they can and do stand by each other. Elizabeth Gaskell understood the nature of working-class solidarity long before most socialist theorists. Families were united by mutual adversity and friends often became closer than family. When Sturgis, the old boatman, picks up the bemused Mary Barton from the dockside in Liverpool and takes her home to his wife, she immediately suspects that Mary may be a prostitute, but even this does not cast out compassion: ‘“Well-a-well! It's the bad ones as have the broken hearts, sure enough; good folk never get utterly cast down, they've always getten hope in the Lord: it's the sinful as bear the bitter, bitter grief in their crushed hearts, poor souls; it's them we ought, most of all to pity and to help”’ (Ch. 31). The old couple take Mary in and treat her like a daughter. The virtues of friendship and sympathetic generosity were not attributes of country life denied the city dweller.

It is in Alice Wilson that Elizabeth Gaskell subtly reveals the relationship between town and country for the poor. Living in a cellar under No 14, Barber Street, a short distance from the Wilsons and the Bartons. Alice has devoted her life to the care of others and to the recall of her childhood. It is after Mary's probing questions that certain discrepancies are disclosed in her story. All her life in Manchester Alice has dreamed of the farm where she grew up, but there were always reasons why she could not go back, reasons that partially obscure the real one. When Mary touches upon this, Margaret, Job Legh's granddaughter, immediately intervenes. Alice speaks of the time when as a domestic servant she had to look for another place.

‘Well, but,’ interrupted Mary, ‘I should have thought that was the best time to go home.’

‘No, I thought not. You see it was a different thing going home for a week on a visit, may be with money in my pocket to give father a lift, to going home to be a burden to him. Besides, how could I hear o' a place there. Anyways I thought it best to stay, though perhaps it might have been better to ha' gone, for then I should ha' seen mother again;’ and the poor old woman looked puzzled.

‘I'm sure you did what you thought right,’ said Margaret, gently.

(Ch. 4)

Alice was forced to leave home because the farm could not support three adults. Her father was pleased when George wrote from Manchester and Alice was ‘all agog to go’. Only her mother silently grieved to see her leave home. But the reason was there in the idyllic countryside that Alice remembers every waking hour of her life. To the two girls she describes a scene that has become like a coloured etching in her mind.

‘Well, and near our cottage were rocks. Eh, lasses! ye don't know what rocks are in Manchester! Gray pieces o' stone as large as a house, all covered over wi' moss of different colours, some yellow, some brown; and the ground between them knee-deep in purple heather, smelling sae sweet and fragrant, and the low music of the humming-bee for ever sounding among it. Mother used to send Sally and me out to gather ling and heather for besoms, and it was such pleasant work! And then mother would make us sit down under the old hawthorn tree (where we used to make our house among the great roots as stood above the ground), to pick and tie up the heather. It seems all like yesterday.’

(Ch. 4)

The landscape Alice describes so rapturously is a barren waste. The Wilson farm was on a shaded hillside, stone covered and eroded, where heather flourished but not crops or cattle. And two children spent their days making gorse brooms. It is a scene of bleak poverty, but in memory it can become a lost paradise. Wisely, Alice always found excuses for not returning to test the dream against reality. This is not made apparent through narrative commentary, but in dialogue. The voice of the narrator describes a romantic fiction, and Alice in her own words shows how memory can translate hardship and rejection into a treasured sanctuary of the mind. It can also, as Mary perceives, provide an effective barrier to action. She, all commonsense and reason, has her own dreams, but they are ones that seem well within her grasp. A proposal of marriage from the infatuated Harry Carson does not seem improbable. Alice Wilson is neither shrewd nor quick witted, and in a lifetime of domestic drudgery it is only the reverie of the Burton farm that has provided meaning to her life. But this deliberate retreat to the past, this cherished memory, has never permitted her to become an adult. She is still a child, and when she dies it is with appeals to her mother and babbled talk of a linnet's nest and a hawthorn tree. The narrator intrudes awkwardly, affirming Alice's deep faith in God and then provides the Nunc Dimittis for the old washerwoman. The profusion of Christian sentiments point to the narrator's embarrassment that Alice should die without recourse to formal religious phrases. The apologetic tone of the narrative gives added point to the psychological and social implications of Alice Wilson. The best and most devoted people may well be seeking atonement for a passage in their lives that has passed beyond their rational comprehension. Alice Wilson's abiding grief was that she did not go back to see her mother before she died, that she did not even attend her funeral, and again, the reasons she gives are confused and inconsistent. But as she dies, she does not call upon God to forgive her, but her mother. This is what Mary understood when Alice explained why she could not go home, and what Margaret would not let her make known.

The narrative commentary has two functions in Mary Barton; it is descriptive and analytic, or homiletic. The latter occurs when an event has to be extenuated or excused—the Nunc Dimittis for Alice Wilson, for example—and the former when a social condition is examined or a character's emotions are observed. The homiletic voice uses religious references to pacify and appease; the analytical voice frequently reveals religion as a radical and revolutionary force in people's lives. Religious conformity could call upon a congregation to pray that all men should be kept in their proper stations, but the voice of radical dissent could seek to know whether those stations should be determined by God or man. In Manchester, Engels failed to observe that while Methodism could well comfort the millowner in the acquisition of wealth and authority, it could also inspire the millworker to rebellion. The links between religion and trades-unionism are forged from the experience of the past in England. The Levellers and Diggers who sought a new society in the days of the Commonwealth were succeeded by the Methodist preachers in the Kentish Weald who served as agents for the labourers in the Captain Swing risings.7 John Barton's religious faith is grounded in certain texts that castigate the rich and condone his determination to change the condition of the poor. It is in Green Heys Fields that the pattern of social action is established, and it is expressed in biblical terms. As Wilson says, John Barton never ‘could abide the gentlefolk’. They had never been benign or paternalistic to him. In consequence Barton feels that the owners have denied the workers the basic right to live, common to all humanity.

‘Don't think to come over me with the old tale, that the rich know nothing of the trials of the poor. I say, if they don't know, they ought to know. We are their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows; and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds; ay, as separate as Dives and Lazarus, with a great gulf betwixt us; but I know who was best off then,’ and he wound up his speech with a low chuckle that had no mirth in it.

(Ch. 1)

It is not John Barton's intention to wait for the next world to rectify this situation. His passionate resolve to demand change has grown from a lifetime of frustration and death. He knew he was a man when, as a child, he had enough strength to conceal his own hunger so that his younger brothers and sisters might eat. For John Barton the religion of the rich is a pious humbug, but his faith is a confirmation of social change. His words echo Rainborough's in the debate at Putney: ‘“I would fain know what the soldier hath fought for all this while? He hath fought to enslave himself, to give power to men of riches, men of estates, to make him a perpetual slave.”’8 Slavery is the condition of life that John Barton will not accept. And like John Middleton in ‘The Heart of John Middleton’, he can justify his rebellion from the Bible. But a pacifying narrative voice intervenes to assure the reader that Barton's rage was not aroused by society but by the death of his wife. It is this voice that speaks for middle-class conservatism and is self-condemnatory. Too many voices have been heard, too much evidence has been given to the contrary to make it seem credible. The dimensions of reality and fiction are sharply defined as between the characters and the narrator, whose veracity has been weighed and found wanting. Yet it is this voice that expresses contemporary opinion and is, in a sense, like a mirror turned to reflect the reader.

It is over the deathbed of Ben Davenport, the Methodist millworker, that John Barton most succinctly sets out the philosophy of labour. Carson's mill has burnt down, conveniently so, for it was a slack season, and his workers have been left idle. Among them is the devout Ben Davenport now dying of typhus in a cellar with a sick wife and starving children. His faith may have sustained him in life but now, in delirium, Davenport curses and swears until his frenzy passes into exhaustion. George Wilson goes to fetch an infirmary order for the dying man from Carson, who lives some distance from the town in a suburban villa. Carson signs the order readily enough and young Harry Carson, eager to be off and away in the chance of seeing Mary, even gives Wilson five shillings for Davenport and his family. It is precisely the amount that John Barton received from the pawnbroker when he put his coat and silk pocket handkerchief in pledge, using the money to buy food and medicine. The contrast is drawn as starkly as it appears to Barton.

The rural labourer seldom had the opportunity of evaluating his worldly goods by comparison with the landowner's. The country poor were not encouraged to visit the manor house. But John Barton is constantly made aware of his own poverty and the wealth of the owners. When his son was dying,

He thought it would be no sin to steal and would have stolen; but he could not get the opportunity in the few days the child lingered. Hungry himself, almost to an animal pitch of ravenousness, but with the bodily pain swallowed up in anxiety for his little sinking lad, he stood at one of the shop windows where all edible luxuries are displayed; haunches of venison, Stilton cheeses, moulds of jelly—all appetising sights to the common passer by. And out of this shop came Mrs Hunter! She crossed to her carriage, followed by the shopman loaded with purchases for a party. The door was quickly slammed to, and she drove away; and Barton returned home with a bitter spirit of wrath in his heart, to see his only boy a corpse!

(Ch. 3)

Hunter was Barton's employer who had closed his gates a few weeks earlier, giving notice of impending bankruptcy. Business failures, like fires, did not always operate to the detriment of the owner. Barton knew that what may appear as a temporary reverse to the employer could well lead to eventual profit, while for the worker it meant starvation.

From this continuing disparity of fortune, Barton derives the philosophy that makes him a trades-unionist and a militant Chartist. If he should falter he can always walk down those crowded streets where the rich go to shop and the poor to feed their eyes and imagination. Barton knows that he can never hope to achieve Carson's status as a millowner. Rags had a tendency to remain rags in the 1830s and 1840s. In the early years of the century it was common enough for the cotton men to begin modestly, buying a few mules, knocking down the inner walls of a cottage to make a factory, perhaps employing six or seven helpers. This was how Carson began, but now it required a minimum capital investment of £5,000 to establish the smallest mill. It is for this reason that Barton does not dream of becoming a capitalist. He knows that he must accept the wage system; he asks only that he be given the opportunity to work and a just wage. Wilson, amiable and good-natured, reminds his friend that God is their provider and the father of all men, to which Barton replies: ‘“Don ye think he's th' masters' father, too? I'd be loath to have 'em for brothers”’ (Ch. 6). Unlike the ‘rude, illogical man’ that may have been Elizabeth Gaskell's first conception, Barton can reason with all the logic of a confirmed Socialist:

‘You'll say (at least many a one does), they'n getten capital an' we'n getten none. I say, our labour's our capital and we ought to draw interest on that. They get interest on their capital somehow a' this time, while ourn is lying idle, else how could they all live as they do? Besides, there's many on 'em as had nought to begin wi'; there's Carsons, and Duncombes, and Mengies, and many another, as comed into Manchester with clothes to their back, and that were all, and now they're worth their tens of thousands, a' getten out of our labour; why the very land as fetched but sixty pound twenty year agone is now worth six hundred, and that, too, is owing to our labour: but look at yo', and see me, and poor Davenport yonder; whatten better are we? They'n screwed us down to the lowest peg, in order to make their great big fortunes, and build their great big houses, and we, why we're just clemming, many and many of us. Can you say there's nought wrong in this?’

(Ch. 6)

And Wilson can only equivocate.

Elizabeth Gaskell presents a spectrum of working-class life in Mary Barton that is as varied as it is clamorous in its demands. Men and women speak for themselves, frequently in argument over what is required to ameliorate their condition, but it is their hunger and their want that makes a union not only necessary but inevitable. It was easy in the 1830s and 1840s to translate a religious assembly into union organisation. At the early Owenite union meetings chapters were read from the Bible vindicating the rights of the poor and praising the strength of union. Oaths were taken and socialism was preached with all the confidence of a new faith.9 John Barton becomes a follower of Feargus O'Connor and his paper, The Northern Star, the most radical journal of the Chartist press. But he is not a dupe of conniving political agents. He always assesses what he reads and hears against his own experience. Thus, he approves an article in The Northern Star calling for shorter hours by his recollection of an episode at the infirmary where he had been given the task of sorting the surgeon's papers. Examining the admission sheets he soon realised that the greatest number of factory accidents occurred in the last two hours of work (Ch. 8).

Mary Barton is an unwilling witness to meetings of union delegates who come to the house planning the presentation of the Charter in London. John Barton now believes that since all appeals to the owners have failed, they must march to Westminster and demand justice from the queen and parliament. Because of his union activities he has been refused work at the few mills remaining open and he is being supported by Mary's meagre earnings. Slowly starving, he begins to chew opium to still the pangs of hunger and once in despairing rage he beats Mary and throws her out of the house. Every incident, every action indicates a man being driven to violent crime. Murder was not uncommon in Manchester, and Elizabeth Gaskell knew the story of young Ashton, the son of one of the principal cotton manufacturers, who had been shot during the strike of 1831-32. Peter Gaskell left a record of it10 and Elizabeth Gaskell used the incident and the circumstances in the death of Harry Carson. But whereas Peter Gaskell regarded the crime as brute assassination, she saw it as the anguished consequence of misery. All hope rested with a petition to parliament. And in the year 1839 John Barton is chosen as one of the delegates to present the case for the poor of Manchester to the legislators. Every man and woman has a particular wish to be fulfilled, a need to be answered. One wants machines done away with, another wants a short hours' Bill, and Mrs Davenport wants the restrictions against child labour repealed so that her thirteen-year-old son can get work in the factory instead of roaming the streets. Peter Gaskell and Engels both predicted that children would be the major working-force in the factories, but Elizabeth Gaskell had seen the inspectors regulating child labour and knew how effective they were. She also knew how bitterly many parents resented this restriction of their authority over their own children. The advice to Barton runs from the ludicrous to the sage, but everyone holds firm to the conviction that, as Barton says, ‘“yo see now, if better times don't come after parliament knows all”’ (Ch. 8).

John Barton returns to Manchester from London to learn that his old friend George Wilson is dead and there is no hope of redress from parliament. The poor will remain poor and those who are starving will die. London has been a grotesque nightmare for Barton in which the postilions seemed like gentlemen wearing parsons' wigs and the horses were sleeker than the delegates from the manufacturing towns. When Barton tried to cross Oxford Street he was knocked back by the police who accused him of frightening the horses. In despair, he says to his daughter: ‘“Mary, we mun speak to our God to hear us, for man will not hearken; no, not now, when we weep tears o' blood”’ (Ch. 9). Having little acquaintance with a God of loving kindness, Barton calls upon the Lord of Hosts, and knows there is sufficient biblical writ to sanction violence. It is when parliament, the voice of the people, remains mute that the trades-union becomes a militant force in society.

Determined to break the union's resistance the owners advertise for labour, but at lower rates than had ever been previously offered. There is a demand, even for starvation wages, from the country labourers. ‘Foot-sore, way-worn, half-starved looking men they were, as they tried to steal into town in the early dawn, before people were astir, or late in the dusk of evening’ (Ch. 15). These are the knobsticks, strike-breaking weavers from the country areas; they are waylaid by the Manchester unionists and many of them beaten and burned with vitriol. Every means of intimidation is used to keep cheap labour out of the city and to hold out against the owners. It is John Barton who sees the futility of attacking men poorer than themselves when it is the masters who should be forced to yield. A meeting between the workers and the owners has led to an obdurate refusal on Carson's part to compromise. When some of the owners are prepared to conciliate, he insists that no member of a trades-union or affiliated society should be employed by any Manchester mill. And every delegate at the meeting is a unionist. Exacerbating them even further, Harry Carson sketches a cartoon of the workers that is passed around amongst the owners with amused approval. It is ‘the jesting picture’ that makes the young artist the chosen victim. The cartoon is torn up, one piece is marked, and each member of the union draws. It is John Barton who is elected the murderer.

The crime committed, John Barton flees from the city, while the police arrest Jem Wilson. The evidence points to him; it was his gun found near Carson's body, and a police spy disguised as a working-man has already ascertained this from Jem's mother. But Mary knows the identity of the murderer from the scrap of paper her aunt Esther found in the hedge near the spot where the gunman stood. She must save Jem, not only because he is her lover, but in order to spare her father from the guilt of having a second murder laid to his account. When she returns to Manchester, she finds her father sitting by the cold grate, a dying man. John Barton calls for Carson and confesses, but although the narrator stresses his repentance and grief, there are certain facts that Barton does not reveal. He makes no mention of the union or the oath taken by its members to commit murder, and he does not try to clear Jem Wilson until after the court has acquitted him. Not even Job Legh will enlighten Carson on the union's part in the murder. When Carson questions him after Barton's death, demanding to know if his son was murdered in consequence of the part he had played in the strike, Job answers slowly: ‘“Well, sir … it's hard to say: John Barton was not a man to take counsel with people; nor did he make many words about his doings. So I can only judge from his way of thinking and talking in general, never having heard him breathe a syllable concerning this matter in particular”’ (Ch. 37). Repentance did not extend to the implication of fellow workers in a crime, nor could Barton confess without involving the union. So his silence was unbroken, even though it meant sacrificing the life of a man he had come to regard as a son. Elizabeth Gaskell knew how strong the sense of loyalty could be within a union, but she reveals it by implication, not statement.

It is Jem Wilson who can shoulder his way through the new society much as John Carson did at an earlier time. The cotton magnates were being challenged as leaders of industry by the engineers in the 1830s. Textiles were yielding to the revolution in transport with railroads making the demand for iron seem insatiable. And the increasing complexity of machinery required trained workmen who were often inventors in their own right. Jem Wilson as overseer of the open hearth at Duncombe's has patented a new crankshaft for which he received a handsome royalty. When his father is thrown out of work Jem's earnings keep the family, but he cannot return to his old job with the suspicion of a murder trial still lingering about him. Duncombe suggests that he take a post in Canada, and Jem's only fear is that Mary may still want to remain in Manchester, ‘the old smokejack’.

In ‘Libbie Marsh's Three Eras’, written in 1847, a year before Mary Barton, the workers on holiday in Dunham Park had looked back towards Manchester:

Far, far away in the distance, on that flat plain, you might see the motionless cloud of smoke hanging over a great town, and that was Manchester—ugly, smoky Manchester; dear, busy, earnest, noble-working Manchester; where their children had been born, and where, perhaps, some lay buried; where their homes were, and where God had cast their lives, and told them to work out their destiny.

(‘Era’ 2)

That the destiny of the city worker need not have been one of unrelieved misery was apparent to all those who enjoyed the high wages that were paid in the mills when trade was prosperous. Power-loom weavers were the highest-paid industrial workers of the day. Archibald Alison and James Kay were both agreed that it was not enclosures that were driving people from the country, but the attraction of good wages in the city. Industry brought with it a revolution of rising expectations, a cornucopia of manufactured household goods and the railroads to provide cheap transport across England. Jem and Mary can both recall the days when the Barton home was brightly furnished and a tea of eggs and Cumberland ham was served in front of a red-hot coal fire (Ch. 2). In ‘Libbie Marsh's Three Eras’, Mrs Dixon thought nothing of adding eggs to thicken the cream and rum to warm the tea (‘Era’ 1). In good times the millworkers enjoyed a luxury of material things that was unknown in a country village. Jem knows that he could make a reasonable living in Manchester, but emigration is forced upon him after his acquittal. There was only one man more despised in a workshop than a knobstick and that was a convict. It is enough for Jem's mates to know that he has stood in the shadow of the gallows to shun his company. It was a situation that Elizabeth Gaskell knew from the experience of her friend Thomas Wright, the prison reformer and foreman of an iron foundry. When an ex-convict was discovered in the workshop the men demanded his dismissal, and Wright only secured his employment by depositing £20 with the owners as security for the man's good behaviour. For Jem, there was no Thomas Wright, and emigration or ostracism are his only alternatives. The choice is not an easy one and the young lovers do not leave Manchester without regret.

Death walks more closely with life in Mary Barton than in most novels of the period. As a social realist, Elizabeth Gaskell knew that death took the children first, but seemed indiscriminate in its choice of grown men and women. George Wilson dies suddenly in the street but his wife, crippled by a factory accident in her youth, lives on to accompany Jem and Mary to Canada. It is the wanton destruction of life that records most faithfully actual conditions in Manchester. Typhus and cholera were regular visitors to the slums of Ancoats and Ardwick, while the Medlock often seemed like the Styx oozing between charnel houses. It is made quite clear in the novel why Carson chooses to live two miles from his factory and the tenements of his workers. Manchester was already becoming the home of those not rich enough to live beyond its confines. Children were always the first to die in epidemics, and it is children, lost and injured, who punctuate the narrative of Mary Barton. They are the small accusing consciences of society: the Italian boy starving near Mary's home, the lost child that John Barton guides on his way, and the little girl who unconsciously echoes Christ's message from the cross to Carson.

All too often death does not accompany childbirth, age or chronic disease; it is not an act of God, but the sentence of a morally irresponsible society upon the weak and defenceless. Death was the not unnatural consequence of starvation in houses that were like foetid caves in a morass of ordure and stinking garbage. When Elizabeth Gaskell describes the Davenports' cellar she is engaging in her customary pictorial restraint. The reports of the sanitation commissions were less reticent and more detailed. As Asa Briggs has noted, ‘Literature is much more revealing than economic data for the understanding of the attitudes of contemporaries to the social gulfs of the 1840s.’11 Undoubtedly Elizabeth Gaskell was as much concerned with the subjective representation of events as she was with social attitudes. Peter Gaskell and Kay, commissions of enquiry and medical reports could all provide statistics for typhus and housing standards; Elizabeth Gaskell wanted to express the feeling of poverty, the hopeless anger at being out of work and unable to feed a family. The definition of external reality, the analysis of the form and movement of society is given deeper significance by her exploration of the psychological motivation of social and individual behaviour.

The workers of Mary Barton are not cartoon figures in varying attitudes of defiance and despair, and they have little in common with the Carlylean mob. They do not, like Stephen Blackpool in Hard Times, feel that society is ‘“aw a muddle! Fro' first to last, a muddle!”’ Elizabeth Gaskell's workers think and reason, and above all, they respond passionately to social injustice. Within the context of an industrial society demanding conformity, they retain their individuality and their personal tastes range widely from Job Legh's etymological research to John Barton and George Wilson's contests at the shooting gallery. It is the complexity of human response that Elizabeth Gaskell reveals in the constant recall of the past, as the mind is drawn back in time even as the clock of conscious time moves forward. It is seen in John Barton after his wife's death, listening to a neighbour blundering about for soap and water as she lays out his wife's body upstairs; then there is a rush of memory that makes all physical action on his part impossible (Ch. 3). Or Mrs Wilson's reaction when Mary assures her that some means will be found to prove Jem's innocence, that the law will never hang him. ‘“But I tell thee they will,” interrupted Mrs Wilson, half-irritated at the light way, as she considered it, in which Mary spoke; and a little displeased that another could hope when she had almost brought herself to find pleasure in despair’ (Ch. 22). It is these ambivalences of thought and feeling that give reality to the characters and make the narrative voice seem so inconsequential.

Honesty was Elizabeth Gaskell's touchstone for literature as it was for Matthew Arnold. And this honesty required a certain creative humility, particularly when Arnold insisted that the main function of the critic and writer was ‘to see the object as in itself it really is’. For Arnold, to see was also to experience, to know the sense of being as well as to appreciate the actuality of vision. For the middle-class writer composing a novel of the working class, the desire for truth generally resulted in a tone of sympathetic patronage, the note that constantly jars a working-class reader in Charles Kingsley and Disraeli. Elizabeth Gaskell had lived amongst the poor of Manchester, she had seen her son die, but not of hunger, and while she had observed, she had certainly not experienced the famine years of the hungry Forties in Manchester. What she desired most was that, in her novel, the Mancunian workers would be able to speak for themselves; she wanted people to hear the resonant cadence of their speech and to give some impression of men and women who could sing as well as curse. The poor in Mary Barton are never poor in spirit. They can laugh at Job Legh's indignation as Will Wilson spins out his seafaring yarns of mermaids and other wonders, and they can listen rapt as Margaret sings the traditional laments of the city. They are shown to have a culture and a capacity for pleasure that is more refined than the Carson girls yawning over their piano. Who would not prefer to spend an evening with Job Legh and his friends rather than with the Carsons?

Only once does the restrained persona of caution break, and Elizabeth Gaskell speaks in a voice that is a call to action, a clear statement of the difference between acts of God and social crimes:

Of all trite, worn-out, hollow mockeries of comfort that were ever uttered by people who will not take the trouble of sympathising with others, the one I dislike the most is the exhortation not to grieve over an event, ‘for it cannot be helped’. Do you think if I could help it, I would sit still with folded hands, content to mourn? Do you not believe that as long as hope remained I would be up and doing?

(Ch. 22)

Elizabeth Gaskell had buried her son but not her grief. The suffering she saw around her could be alleviated; there was no need for children to die of hunger when the city shops displayed every variety of food. If her own child could not be saved then it was possible for others to grow up in health and comfort. Mary Barton is not an elegy to the dead but an accusation of guilt.

It is not weakness but the deliberate evasion of the truth that reduces Mary to nervous hysteria after Jem has been acquitted. She knows she has certain proof that her father murdered Harry Carson and, by saving Jem from the gallows, she may lead to her father's conviction. So her illness is a refuge from a reality that has become unendurable. In Manchester, despite all her repugnance for her father, she chooses to send Jem away and nurse him in his last days, protecting him from arrest. It is, as Elizabeth Gaskell first stated, a love story in which a girl grows into a woman who can save in turn her lover and her father. Mary Barton's silence, her rejection of friends and betrothed, permit John Barton to die in his own home and not in prison. Barton's death is melodramatic, a tableau of industrial reconciliation, but Mary Barton's character and behaviour at this time are not. And Mrs Wilson's reaction is typically one of pettish annoyance that Jem could not have paid more attention at the death bed:

‘Jem!’ she was saying, ‘thou might'st just as well never be at a death-bed again, if thou cannot bring off more news about it; here have I been by mysel' all day (except when oud Job came in), but thinks I, when Jem comes he'll be sure to be good company, seeing he was in the house at the very time of the death; and here thou art, without a word to throw at a dog, much less thy mother: it's no use thy going to a death-bed if thou cannot carry away any of the sayings!’

(Ch. 36)

The sentimentality dissolves when characters complain like this with the grit of Lancashire in every syllable.

Elizabeth Gaskell was concerned with more than reproducing a dialect in Mary Barton; she wanted to give the richness of Lancashire speech and justify the pride Mancunians felt in their own tongue. Mary Barton shows Manchester looking at London, and finding it, as Mr Openshaw did in ‘The Manchester Marriage’, a city of fine, lazy people keeping late hours and ruining good English. Just as it is Manchester and not London that has the quality of historical place in the novel, the language of its people is more vibrant and resonant than the commonplace English of the narrative. John Barton was laughed at in London for his accent because dialect always had a comic or rustic connotation. Lancelot's reaction to the speech of the local farmers in Kingsley's Yeast was the customary one:

To his astonishment he hardly understood a word of it. It was half articulate, nasal, guttural, made up almost entirely of vowels, like the speech of savages. He had never before been struck with the significant contrast between the sharp, clearly defined articulation, the vivid and varied tones of the gentleman, or even of the London street-boy when compared with the coarse, half-formed growls, as of a company of seals, which he heard round him.

(Ch. 13)

It is, of course, typical of Kingsley that he does not record the reaction of those farmers to Lancelot's own impeccably modulated vowels. Elizabeth Gaskell not only gives the quality of Mancunian speech, but her husband carefully footnoted regional words and phrases, tracing them to sources in Chaucer and Skelton. The conclusion is obvious. As Mr Openshaw knew, Manchester spoke good Saxon, London a bastard Norman, and if London did not care for the comparison then it could lump it.

The contemporary criticism of Mary Barton was that Elizabeth Gaskell had been partial, and indeed prejudiced, in favour of the working classes in her novel. Lady Kay-Shuttleworth had written to her, gently deploring the absence of any socially responsible millowners in the novel and complaining that there was a complete absence of middle-class concern for the condition of the poor. Elizabeth Gaskell replied with some asperity:

In the first place whatever power there was in Mary Barton was caused by my feeling strongly on the side which I took; now as I don't feel as strongly (and as it is impossible I ever should,) on the other side, the forced effort of writing on that side would end in a weak failure. I know, and have always owned, that I have represented but one side of the question, and no one would welcome more than I should, a true and earnest representation of the other side. I believe what I have said in Mary Barton to be perfectly true, but by no means the whole truth; and I have always felt deeply annoyed at anyone, or any set of people who chose to consider that I had manifested the whole truth; I do not think it is possible to do this in any one work of fiction.

(G.L. 72)

If the novel was fiction then Elizabeth Gaskell meant it to have more serious intent than was commonly accorded the term. John Barton was not a creation of her imagination, as she assured her dear friend Eliza Fox, but an actual person whose character and speech she had attempted to reproduce (G.L. 48). Like the historian seeking a veridical imitation of reality by continual reference to known characters and events, Elizabeth Gaskell was determined to achieve the same measure of reality by means of a combination of representational and fictional types that embodied the quintessence of an historical period. She was writing a history of the common people, before it became a popular subject with historians.

There were failures of technique in Mary Barton which arose from her insistence on recording feeling and thought in a literary form that was increasingly dominated by the spectacular visual tableaux of Thackeray and Dickens. There are dissonances between the sequential movement of thought in her work and the logical order of event. Elizabeth Gaskell always saw character inwardly and in Mary Barton her plight was one of attempting to express this externally. The visual aspects of her characters, like their names, tend to waver. They are known to the reader not by appearance, but by idiosyncracies of mind and speech. It is difficult to recall what John Barton looked like, but one knows exactly how he thought and felt.

The conclusions to be drawn from the novel were disturbing for most readers. Carson's reformation was hardly credible and certainly inconsistent with the man who had embarked on a struggle with the workers as though preparing for a battle with the enemy. There was an alternative society, and Carson saw Barton as its representative: ‘“You mean he was an Owenite; all for equality, and community of goods, and that kind of absurdity”’ (Ch. 37). Robert Owen's Grand Consolidated Trades Union had collapsed in 1832, but Owen's social philosophy endured to mould the whole labour movement in England. Socialism—and the term was probably first used in Owen's Cooperative Magazine in 1827—was to become an active force in English life. The creation of a welfare state was eventually accomplished not only by militant trades-unionists, but by the group that Elizabeth Gaskell had ignored in Mary Barton—middle-class reformers and capitalists shrewd enough to know that compromise is more profitable than revolution. George Watson quotes William Cunningham, later Archdeacon of Ely and professor of economic history, writing in 1879 that it is ‘not as remedy for the miseries of the poor, but rather as an alleviation of the cares of the rich, that socialism is coming upon us’.12 Thornton of North and South was the new man of business just as Carson represented the methods of an earlier time. And in North and South Elizabeth Gaskell completed the examination of industrial society that she began in Mary Barton. It is a study of social compromises, of middle-class people becoming aware, for reasons both altruistic and self-interested, that if capitalism were to survive, it had to be civilised. Peter Gaskell, Engels and Carlyle had all predicted imminent revolution, but Prince Kropotkin saw the nature of English socialism being qualified by ‘the considerable number of middle-class people who gave it their support, in different ways, some of them frankly joining it while others helped from outside’.13 It was never difficult for the English to find a middle road between Christianity and Socialism.14 As Elizabeth Gaskell herself said, one part of her was a true Christian, ‘only people call her socialist and communist’ (G.L. 69). The solution was not a restoration of past values that Carlyle and Disraeli discussed with varying degrees of fervour, but a new relationship between conflicting groups in contemporary society and the awareness that profits won at the cost of social justice will always be a dangerous short-term investment.


  1. W. R. Greg, ‘Mary Barton’, The Edinburgh Review, LXXXIX (1849).

  2. Raymond Williams, The Country and the City, New York, 1973, p. 92.

  3. P. Gaskell, Esq., The Manufacturing Population of England. … London, 1833, p. 27.

  4. Quoted in Household and Family in Past Time ed. Peter Laslett and Richard Wall, Cambridge, 1972, p. 172.

  5. Peter Gaskell, p. 26.

  6. Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England tr. and ed. W. O. Henderson and W. H. Chaloner, Oxford, 1958, p. 12.

  7. E. J. Hobsbawn and George Rudé, Captain Swing, London, 1969, p. 216.

  8. Puritanism and Liberty ed. and intr. A. S. P. Woodhouse, London, 1950, p. 71.

  9. W. H. Oliver, ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs and Trade Union Oaths’, Labour History, 10, May 1966.

  10. Peter Gaskell, p. 299.

  11. Asa Briggs, The Age of Improvement, London, 1960, p. 298.

  12. George Watson, The English Ideology, London, 1973, p. 221.

  13. Memoirs of a Revolutionist, London, 1899, p. 179.

  14. European socialists were shocked by the combination of religious and social optimism. Trotsky recalled: ‘One Sunday I went with Lenin and Krupskaya to a Social Democratic meeting in a church, where speeches alternated with the singing of hymns. The principal speaker was a compositor who had just returned from Australia. He spoke of the social revolution. Thereupon everybody rose and sang: “Lord Almighty, let there be no more kings or rich men!” I could scarcely believe my eyes or ears.’ Leon Trotsky, My Life, London, 1930, p. 127.

Jack L. Culross (essay date autumn 1978)

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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 justifications do not exist for Mary Barton suggests, of course, the obvious, that the two plots are unlike in many ways. But it suggests more as well. It suggests that critics have not really tried, have not really brought to the book the full spectrum of ingenious arguments for unity because they have never really believed that it is unified. It is as though they knew the fight was lost before the bell ever rang and so they threw in the towel rather than take a senseless beating.

And, in fact, the critical tradition of Mary Barton has fostered an a priori conviction that the book is irredeemably disunified, for it has passed along several widely held beliefs about both the appropriate critical approach to the novel and its genesis. These beliefs have, as it were, led critics to the conclusion that the two plots are not integrally related and that given the way in which Mrs. Gaskell wrote the novel it could not be anything other than disunified. However, when one does take time to re-examine this critical tradition, he finds a series of claims which he should be wary of too readily accepting. Once he begins to distrust them, he can analyse the novel unhampered by predispositions. He can approach the book with an open mind, willing to accept whatever Mrs. Gaskell wrote as potentially important. Only then will he find that Mary Barton is unified by the theme that the author developed contrapunctually in the public and private plots.


One misleading item of the book's critical tradition is the assumption that it is a social novel and, therefore, that the public plot must be pre-eminent. Certainly the book contains social material. The public plot does represent Mrs. Gaskell's view of the industrial workers' plight during the late 1830s and early 1840s, and it does argue against the callous laissez-faire philosophy by which masters ignored widespread starvation and death among the workers and their families. However, the public plot is not the entire novel. It constitutes only about one-half of Mrs. Gaskell's creative endeavour, but it is this one-half alone which has provided critics with the book's generic label and many of the claims they make regarding its realized intention. Myron F. Brightfield, for example, apparently never even acknowledges the private plot when he states that the purpose of books like Mary Barton is “to explore … some problem or evil affecting the interests and the well-being of … the manual laborers or working classes”.2 This belief in the public plot's primacy helps, too, to explain the narrowness of Edgar Wright's claim that “The whole emphasis of the novel is in its account of the way of life of one class, and its feeling of insecurity and isolation.”3

For much the same reason, critics emphasize the role of John Barton, protagonist of the public plot. Arthur Pollard, for example, states that Barton is “always well to the forefront of the story”,4 even though in fact he disappears entirely for some seventeen consecutive chapters, over forty per cent of the total number in the book. Kathleen Tillotson makes a similar claim in her distinguished Novels of the Eighteen-Forties. There she says that Barton “is central both to the mere narrative, and to the theme of class antagonism”.5 This conviction leads her in turn to discover “the book's true theme: not this or that feature of industrial society is being criticized, but its whole principle, excluding any human contact between masters and men; and the hope of betterment lies not in this or that reform, but in the persistence, against all odds, of humanheartedness”.6 These comments suggest critics who have not really noticed that half the book is not at all social and does not focus on John Barton.

The graphic realism of the public plot would be perhaps sufficient reason why critics insist on its pre-eminence, but in fact they have what appears to be a much more convincing reason for doing so—Mrs. Gaskell herself. In some of the comments she made in print after she had completed the novel, she implied that only the social issues had been important to her as she wrote and that accordingly her novel was “about” the industrial situation. One significant source of this impression has been the Preface she added to the book just prior to its publication late in 1848. There she described the genesis of Mary Barton. She had begun, she explained, to write a rural tale when she was struck by the fact that the real story to be told was that of the operatives all around her in Manchester. Thus, she turned her efforts to this new subject and attempted “to give some utterance to the agony which, from time to time, convulses this dumb people; the agony of suffering without the sympathy of the happy, or of erroneously believing that such is the case”.7 If this statement does reflect Mrs. Gaskell's full intention, critics certainly seem justified in emphasizing the public plot as they do.8 A second source, moreover, appears to have been even more influential. This is the well-known letter Mrs. Gaskell wrote to Mrs. Samuel Greg some six months after the novel was published. Here she described the specific artistic means by which she sought to achieve her intention: “‘John Barton’ was the original title of the book. Round the character of John Barton all the others formed themselves; he was my hero, the person with whom all my sympathies went.”9 A number of critics see this remark as a key to the book.10 Thus, when they stress the public plot and the role of John Barton, they are not just arbitrarily ignoring the second half of the book; they are attempting to bring to the novel a critical approach, the sociological, consonant with Mrs. Gaskell's own statements of her intention.

This approach, however, can hardly account for the private plot, a romantic melodrama without social content. It shifts the book's focus to the title character and away from John Barton, the character around whom, according to the author, “all the others formed themselves”. Because Mary's story seems extraneous to the fulfilment of the author's stated intention, critics either ignore it altogether or accord it second-class status as a subplot. They do so not because it is any less developed than the public plot but simply because it does not help fulfil Mrs. Gaskell's intention, as they understand that intention. On the other hand, when they do acknowledge its existence, critics see this private plot as the cause of the novel's disunity; after all, this is the part of the novel that wanders away from the important social materials of the first half. Thus, for example, once Mrs. Tillotson seizes upon “the book's true theme”, she quickly concludes that Mary's “relation to its theme seems too weakly developed”.11 In much the same fashion, Miss Ganz criticizes the novelist's “undue emphasis on suspenseful action in the latter part of the novel”. It is “undue”, she argues, because it “undermines the impact of her central theme”, the alienating effects of social destitution depicted in the first half.12 Still another scholar, Raymond Williams, offers similar criticism of the disunity created by the two plots but in addition calls special attention to the conclusion, one that he finds “devastating”. In allowing Mary and her new husband, Jem, to emigrate to Canada and escape the industrial evils of Manchester, Williams contends, Mrs. Gaskell turned her back on “the situation which she had set out to examine”.13 Behind all these criticisms, of course, lie the assumptions, stated or implied, that it is the public plot which is central to the novel, that only this plot really matters, and that Mrs. Gaskell destroyed the unity of her novel when she introduced the private plot that is neither relevant nor adequately subordinated to the social material.

When critics discover that the completed novel is at odds with the author's stated intention, perhaps they should reconsider their critical approach, an approach originating with that intention. They do not do so, however, because one final tenet of the critical tradition surrounding Mary Barton seems to account for the contradiction. This widely accepted hypothesis explains why Mrs. Gaskell abandoned the public plot in the second half. In accounting for the private plot's existence so neatly, however, this explanation effectively discourages critics from trying to find a unifying principle for the novel, for it suggests that Mrs. Gaskell was not free to write the novel she wanted to write and that the book she wound up writing could not possibly be unified.

This explanation was first proposed by Annette B. Hopkins in 1948. It focuses on Mrs. Gaskell's claim that John Barton had been her original title, a fact she mentioned to Mrs. Greg. Actually, she had given a fuller version of the story some six months earlier in reply to an acquaintance, a Miss Lamont, who felt that the father's name would have made a more appropriate title than did the daughter's. Mrs. Gaskell replied:

“John Barton” was the original name, as being the central figure to my mind; … he was my “hero”; and it was a London thought coming through the publisher that it must be called Mary B. So many people overlook John B or see him merely to misunderstand him, that if you were a stranger and had only said that one thing (that the book shd have been called John B) I should have had pleasure in feeling that my own idea was recognized; how much more am I pleased then when the whole letter comes from one whom I so much liked and admired in our few & far between glimpses as I did you.14

Miss Hopkins may not have known this version, but she was aware of the letter to Mrs. Greg in which the novelist had stated simply that her original title had been John Barton. Moreover, she herself located a third reference to the earlier title, a comment in Mrs. Gaskell's handwriting inscribed in a copy of the novel in the Manchester Central Library: “‘This story was first entitled John Barton, but at the publisher's request the name was changed to that which it at present bears.’ E. C. Gaskell, May 3rd, 1861.”15 In this thrice-repeated story of the title change, then, the critic saw a reason why Mrs. Gaskell shifted her focus away from John Barton, why she let a subplot come to dominate the second half of the book. “It is significant”, she wrote,

that Mrs. Gaskell had originally given her book the title of John Barton. … And some years later she made the enlightening admission that the title was changed by request of her publishers. Chapman and Hall … no doubt felt that a murderer was not exactly what the public, in that day, would look for in the hero of a novel intended for family reading. Confronted with this problem, the author cleverly saw Mary as a key to the resolution. This necessitated some quick shifting of emphasis; Mary had to be pushed more into the foreground. … But the scar left by this major operation remains.16

In other words, Mrs. Gaskell had intended the father to be the focus and accordingly had used his name for her title. When some fifty per cent of the book was written, however, her publisher forced her to adopt the title of Mary Barton. Thus, she then moved the focus from John Barton to his daughter and completed the book; but in the process what was originally meant to be a subplot mushroomed until it became as prominent as the main plot.

Understandably, Miss Hopkins's theory has influenced later critics, those concerned with structure, who feel no need to question their socially oriented approach even though it ignores one-half the novel. These critics believe that the heart of Mary Barton is its social first half and that the second half was added, against her will, to give meaning to the title that was forced upon her. With such external pressure, the author could not possibly produce the unified novel she had intended.17 Thus, they largely ignore the private plot and try to describe the novel only in terms of what they feel Mrs. Gaskell wanted to write and would have written had she been allowed to do so.


The oft-repeated argument summarized above rests finally on a single point, the conviction that the private plot is not important to the book because it was not important to the author. However, not everything Mrs. Gaskell wrote supports the theory that the private plot was for her the functionless excrescence later critics have taken it to be. Several statements she made before the book was published, including some that were part of the serious business correspondence between publisher and novelist, imply that to Mrs. Gaskell the private plot was fully as important as the public, that it was, in other words, an integral part of her novel.

Mrs. Gaskell's letters, for example, raise serious doubts regarding Miss Hopkins's theory that the title change caused the author to shift her focus, for they indicate precisely when the change occurred. On 21 March 1848, seven months before the novel appeared as Mary Barton: a Tale of Manchester Life, Mrs. Gaskell wrote to Edward Chapman concerning “the MS in your hands” for she was “naturally a little anxious to know when you are going to press”.18 She apparently received no immediate reply, for on 2 April she wrote again to inquire “as to the probable time, when my MS (a Manchester Love Story,) would be published”. She explained her anxiety by reminding Chapman that he had told her in January the novel “would be published in two or three months from that time”.19 These letters establish that Chapman had the manuscript in the Spring of 1848, and they suggest that he must have had the completed version for several months had he been able to predict in January a March or April publication. However, Mrs. Gaskell did not agree to change the title until two weeks later. In a letter dated “April 17, 1848”, she wrote to Chapman, “Thank you for your suggestions; you will see that I have adopted the additional title of ‘Mary Barton’, a Manchester Love Story”.20 Thus, these business letters suggest that the title change occurred after Mrs. Gaskell had completed her novel and had sent it to the publisher, not while she was still writing. The change could hardly have affected the way in which she developed the private plot.

At least two of her later comments support such a suggestion. In the Preface dated “October, 1848”, Mrs. Gaskell wrote that her tale was “completed above a year ago”,21 or at least six months before she agreed to Chapman's suggestion about a title change. And in the letter to Mrs. Greg referred to above, she wrote:

The tale was originally complete without the part which intervenes between John Barton's death and Esther's; about 3 pages, I fancy, including that conversation between Job Legh, and Mr Carson, and Jem Wilson. The MS. had been in the hands of the publisher above 14 months, and was nearly all printed when the publisher sent me word that it would fall short of the requisite number of pages, and that I must send up some more as soon as possible. I remonstrated over and over again—I even said I would rather relinquish some of the payment than interpolate anything. …22

Now, even if these “3 pages” were added as late as October, the month of publication, fourteen months earlier would have been August 1847. Thus, Chapman and Hall apparently had the completed novel at least eight months before Mrs. Gaskell's letter to Chapman gives her assent to the change of title. Furthermore, in addition to acknowledging that she was very opposed to interpolating anything into her completed novel (let alone an entire plot), this comment points out that the material she was forced to add did not fill out the private plot. In fact, the conversation she mentions represents an important discussion of the industrial situation, material of the public plot.

These remarks also call into question Mrs. Gaskell's later claim about what the original title actually was. Before it was published she never mentions her novel as John Barton, but on two separate occasions she refers to it as “a Manchester Love Story”. She first uses the phrase, with capital letters, to identify for Chapman “my MS.” Two weeks later she repeats the phrase. On this occasion, underlining, which Mrs. Gaskell normally used for emphasis, suggests that the author was agreeing to add “the additional title of ‘Mary Barton’” to her own original title, “a Manchester Love Story”. These references suggest that perhaps the fledgling author had titled her first book simply A Manchester Love Story, a title emphasizing the private plot, and not John Barton as she later claimed. If such is the case, Chapman very likely knew that her innocuous title would help bury the book in anonymity, so he proposed the more distinctive main title under which it was published, a fitting title for one plot if not the other. This explanation logically accounts for the change. Miss Hopkins's hypothesis, on the other hand, fails to explain satisfactorily Chapman's reasons for changing the title, whether potentially objectionable or not, from the name of the central character to that of one who was hardly developed in the portion supposedly written by that time, one who, according to the theory, never emerged until after she became the title figure.

The title, however, is not the only evidence that raises doubts concerning Mrs. Gaskell's intention. The “Original Rough Sketch” from which presumably she wrote her novel also questions that intention, for it suggests that the author never intended John Barton to be the central figure or focal character and that from the first the private plot was an important part of her design. The sketch has recently been reproduced by Edgar Wright who makes the interesting claim that it substantiates the author's “comment that the plot was originally built round John Barton”.23 In fact, it seems to do quite the opposite. The sketch contains forty-two separate entries divided up for a three volume novel. Allowing for Mrs. Gaskell's later decision to change around the names of the characters, only eight entries refer specifically to the character who became John Barton. At most ten more seem to describe incidents connected with the depiction of industrialism. No fewer than eighteen entries, however, unequivocally describe events developed in the private plot, incidents unconnected with the industrial situation. Moreover, the private plot completely dominates the proposed second and third volumes. Barton is mentioned but once in the thirteen entries for the second volume and then only with regard to the love triangle, with regard to Esther's attempt to warn him of Mary's flirtation with Harry Carson. The focus is on Mary throughout; eight of the thirteen entries develop the romantic triangle from which the girl must extricate herself. Similarly, Mrs. Gaskell planned to continue telling Mary's story in the last volume as the girl was to discover the real murderer of her rejected lover and to try to get her friends to help prove Jem Wilson innocent. As in the completed novel, John Barton completely disappears when the focus shifts to Mary, and he does not reappear until the antepenultimate entry, where he comes home to die. Thus, when Mrs. Gaskell compressed her novel into two volumes, she reduced proportionately her treatment of the private plot. If either plot became more prominent than she had intended, it was the public plot, that which came to take up half the book rather than a third, as she had originally planned.

Therefore, some evidence, particularly earlier comments, suggests a disparity between Mrs. Gaskell's actual intention as she wrote her book and what she later recalled of that intention, suggests that the private plot was originally a much more integral part of Mary Barton than she was later to indicate. Such a possibility is not surprising when one recalls the immediacy and topicality of the industrial issue in 1848. The problems on the Continent during the Spring brought the subject back to the public's attention; in fact, it was for this very reason that Mrs. Gaskell had hoped that the book would appear in March as Chapman had led her to believe it would.24 Just before its October publication, Chapman requested that the author add a Preface. She agreed to do so but indicated to him that all she had left to say was that she had completed her book prior to the troubles of that year, that she was not simply writing a “catch-penny run up since the events on the Continent have directed public attention to the consideration of the state of affairs between the employers, & their workpeople”.25 Thus, in the Preface she commented only on the genesis of the public plot, not necessarily because she felt that it was the only important part of the book but because there was no need to explain anything about a plot which in no way reflected existing social conditions. Similarly, after the book appeared, it was the public plot that stirred controversy and discussion, the public plot that brought such fame to its author, while the romantic story went virtually unnoticed. Accordingly, Mrs. Gaskell may well have followed the lead offered her by her readers and may have played up the portion of the novel that interested them. When one such reader suggested that the book should have been titled John Barton, Mrs. Gaskell perhaps agreed and praised her acquaintance's perceptivity in the bargain by stating that she too had wanted to name the book after the father but that she had been prevented from doing so by the publisher. Several months later, again when discussing the social implications of the book, she perhaps remembered her earlier story and repeated it to Mrs. Greg, for, after all, the publisher had requested that the title be changed to Mary Barton. By 1861 when she wrote the description in the flyleaf, Mrs. Gaskell very likely had come to believe that John Barton actually was the original title.

Such speculations, of course, can never be verified; but as far as the book itself is concerned, they are not really very important. What is important is the simple fact that some evidence calls into question the traditionally held view that the public plot alone was important to Mrs. Gaskell, was necessarily the focus of the entire novel. This evidence is particularly significant because it reminds us of what we never should have forgotten in the first place. It reminds us that the first source of information about Mary Barton should be the text itself. Outside sources may tell us much, but critics should not, as they have done, allow such sources to become substitutes for the novel that Mrs. Gaskell actually wrote.


When we turn to that novel unbiased by the author's comments and the critical tradition, we discover a book with two separate plots, both of which legitimately command our serious consideration. Finding unifying relation between the two is certainly difficult, for they seem to have little in common. However, they do share one notable characteristic. They both portray characters whose dramas and conflicts are played out largely in their minds. The public plot is social, to be sure; but, as Miss Ganz puts it, it is “concerned with the psychological rather than the economic implications of social conflict”.26 Thus, both plots focus on what happens inside a person rather than outside. More specifically, each portrays a character's struggle to retain hope. Barton must continue to believe that the masters will eventually alleviate the workers' suffering, and Mary must not lose hope that she can prove Jem Wilson innocent of murder. Barton becomes tragic precisely because he loses all hope while Mary succeeds because she does not. Thus, not only do the plots themselves “counterpoint each other”, as Arthur Pollard has pointed out27; but the themes these plots develop do so as well.

The social plot explores two aspects of this theme of hope. Barton both loses hope that a solution to the workers' problems will be found, and he rebuffs the charitable attempts of his friends to bolster his own failing hopes.

The former aspect is the more obvious. From the time he is first introduced into the book, Barton is rankling at the masters and the abuses of laissez-faire capitalism: “We're their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows, and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds; ay, as separate as Dives and Lazarus, with a great gulf betwixt us. …”28 Later he joins the Chartists and is chosen to help carry the Charter which they will present to Parliament: “He hoped largely, but vaguely, of the results of his expedition. An argosy of the precious hopes of many otherwise despairing creatures, was that petition to be heard concerning their sufferings” (p. 96). When Parliament refuses even to hear the Chartist delegation, Barton's spirit is crushed, and over him “Despair settled down like a heavy cloud” (p. 128). He resorts finally to murder, killing the son of his former employer and, unknown to him, the suitor recently rejected by Mary. But because he has a soul (p. 196), Barton's act of murder is tantamount to the ultimate act of despair, suicide. He stays away from home for a month, and when he finally returns it is only to die a victim of “The Destroyer, Conscience” (p. 410). His face, like that of the Red Crosse Knight in Orgoglio's dungeon, is “sunk and worn—like a skull, with yet a suffering expression that skulls have not!” (p. 411). He lives just long enough to explain why he was driven to kill: “At last I gave it up in despair”, he tells Job Legh and Mr. Carson, “trying to make folks' actions square wi' th' Bible; and I thought I'd no longer labour at following th' Bible mysel’” (p. 431).

After Barton dies, Job, the philosophical worker, uses Barton's tragedy to explain to Mr. Carson the plight of the workers in the face of the masters' apparent unconcern. Job's explanation represents one of Mrs. Gaskell's most important statements regarding the necessity of hope:

… what we all feel sharpest is the want of inclination to try and help the evils which come like blights at times over the manufacturing places, while we see the masters can stop work and not suffer. If we saw the masters try for our sakes to find a remedy,—even if they were long about it,—even if they could find no help, and at the end of all could only say, ‘Poor fellows, our hearts are sore for ye; we've done all we could, and can't find a cure’,—we'd bear up like men through bad times. No one knows till they have tried, what power of bearing lies in them, if once they believe that men are caring for their sorrows and will help if they can.

(pp. 449-50)

Job's explanation suggests an important aspect of Mrs. Gaskell's theme that is illustrated by Barton's story. Hope is dependent on others, Mrs. Gaskell suggests; it can survive only when others nurture it and give one reason to hope. The message is directed to manufacturers, Parliamentarians, and political economists, precisely those who could and should provide the workpeople with some foundation for hope. Barton, however, has no such foundation, for he sees no help forthcoming from the class above him. To compound his difficulty, his own passionate intensity prevents those of his own class from even trying to sustain his hopes during times of trouble. After his wife dies, the gloomy portion of his nature seems to triumph over the more sociable elements, and his “gloom and his sternness became habitual instead of occasional” (p. 22). When he loses his job because of his Chartist affiliation and the economic recession, he sits alone all day in his miserable home, attempting to ward off hunger pains with the opium his daughter can afford to buy. The drug, however, merely feeds his brooding thoughts. His mind becomes “soured and morose. … It was no longer elastic, as in the days of youth, or in times of comparative happiness; it ceased to hope. And it is hard to live on when one can no longer hope” (p. 194). Barton takes on a “repellent power” which keeps all but his closest and most understanding friends at their distance: “People did not care to enter the doors of one whose very depth of thoughtfulness rendered him moody and stern” (p. 414). Thus, as Edgar Wright puts it, “In growing embittered he becomes as a natural consequence more isolated in his community; both humanity and faith lose their power to guide him.”29 In other words, Barton's own bitterness further weakens his hopes by turning away those who might comfort him and minister to his spiritual needs as his wife did before her death. Ironically, he acquiesces in the policies of non-interventionism, the same inhumane ideals that make him such a malcontent in the first place. He cuts himself off from those around him and becomes a prisoner of his own diseased and morbid mind. This self-imposed isolation demonstrates Mrs. Gaskell's belief in man's need for the charity of those around him, if for no other reason than because this charity can give one a reason to hope. But like Esther, Barton's outcast sister-in-law who tells Jem Wilson in “accents of deep despair” (p. 188) that she is beyond help, John Barton unconsciously refuses the help of those around him, and like Esther's his refusal dooms him.

Thus, the public plot demonstrates what can happen when all hope is lost and how one can come to lose hope. It develops negatively the author's theme of hope. The positive aspects of this same theme are depicted, in a non-social context, in the private plot, for Mary Barton retains her hope and refuses to despair.

Mary's is a maturation story, and her growth is dramatized to a large extent in terms of her developing awareness of the nature of hope. Mrs. Gaskell initially characterizes the girl as shallow by describing her selfish and materialistic hopes. Mary eagerly anticipates marrying the rich Harry Carson not for love but because she looks forward to the day “when she should ride from church in her carriage, with wedding-bells ringing … and drive away from the old dim work-a-day court for ever, to live in a grand house” (p. 89). She is vaguely aware that she prefers Jem Wilson to Carson, but she suppresses this feeling so incompatible with her “castles in air” and “Alnaschar-visions” (p. 91). When Carson is murdered and Jem charged with the crime, and when Mary learns that her own father is the murderer, she is plunged into a “sickening despair” (p. 283) similar to his after Parliament ignored the Charter. Unlike her father, however, Mary retains some of the elasticity of mind necessary to produce positive action rather than merely nihilistic despair: “But in the desert of misery with which these thoughts [of her father's crime] surrounded her, the arid depths of whose gloom she dared not venture to contemplate, a little spring of comfort was gushing up at her feet, unnoticed at first, but soon to give her strength and hope” (p. 284). Mary's comfort is her knowledge that Jem must be innocent and that she alone can save him. Thus, while Barton loses hope and does nothing, Mary retains hope and the capacity for action. Accordingly, the narrator interrupts the story at this point to offer an important statement of the novel's theme: “Something to be done implies that there is yet hope of some good thing to be accomplished, or some additional evil that may be avoided; and by degrees the hope absorbs much of the sorrow. … Do you not believe that as long as hope remained I would be up and doing?” (p. 284). With her resolve to free Jem, Mary substitutes for her original shallow hopes a “high, resolved purpose of right-doing” (p. 285).

To demonstrate that hope can be passed on to others and help sustain them, Mrs. Gaskell sends Mary in search of help. Enlisting aid is no easy task, however, because of the overwhelming amount of circumstantial evidence which convinces everyone of Jem's guilt. Job Legh, for example, is embarrassed by the girl's earnestness in an obviously futile cause. But Mary's hopes are so firm that soon he too is enthusiastically planning a means to save Jem: “Oh! surest way of conversion to our faith”, says the narrator, “whatever it may be … is when it is beheld as the actuating principle, from which we never swerve!” (p. 301). Mary's hopefulness has a similar effect on Jem's mother. Convinced that her son will be convicted and taking an actual “pleasure in despair” (p. 291), she too begins to hope that Jem will be acquitted after she talks with the girl.

To emphasize further that hope can be passed to others and strengthened precisely by its transmission, Mrs. Gaskell performs an interesting turnabout. Mary enthuses others with the hope that she can prove Jem innocent, but when she must actually travel to Liverpool, secure an alibi, and get the court to listen to it, her own hopes begin to falter. However, Mary is not moody and aloof like her father; consequently, others step in to sustain her. Job, whose own hope for Jem came originally from Mary, checks the girl's growing despair and tells her, “Pooh! pooh! wench; don't lose heart, just as I am beginning to get it” (p. 307).

In Liverpool, Mary's hopes are again sustained by others, by strangers who aid the increasingly despondent girl. She learns that the John Cropper has already sailed and that on it has gone Will Wilson, whose testimony was to have proven Jem innocent. At first Mary is crushed at the news, but she is partially reanimated by Charley Jones, the young son of Will's landlady, who tells her, “Don't give it up yet … ; let's have a try for him. We are but where we were, if we fail” (p. 333). Charley's remark, it should be noted, is thematically significant, for, as the narrator suggests, “The sympathetic ‘we’ gave her heart and hope” (p. 333). The boy takes Mary to the Liverpool docks and sends her after Will's ship in a rented boat and with the slim chance that the John Cropper will have to wait for the tide in order to clear the harbour. Because there is no wind, the boatsmen have to row, and their slow progress further weakens the girl's rapidly failing hopes. The rowers, however, who are complete strangers and initially cynical of the bewildered girl, soon soften in the face of her obvious sincerity and become “Full of the spirit of the chase” (p. 341). Thus, in both Manchester and Liverpool, among friends and strangers alike, Mary's own original hopes spread out from her and nourish others, and when her hopes begin to fail, she in turn is sustained by others. And precisely because she is never allowed to lose hope, she does succeed in proving Jem innocent.

Once the reader recognizes that both plots are important because their themes counterpoint each other, he can appreciate the thematic implications of the novel's conclusion. Mary and Jem migrate to Canada, what Williams refers to as the “uncompromised New World”.30 But the very fact that it is “New” and “uncompromised” offers the couple hopes for their future. Thus, it provides a fitting ending to a novel not about industrialism, but about hope. Nor is Canada Mary and Jem's only hope at the end of the book. Johnnie, their infant child, is yet another hope that the present generation has for the future. Throughout the novel parents' fondest hopes are lodged in their children—Mr. Carson's in Harry, Mrs. Wilson's in Jem, and Alice Wilson's in Will, her “bairn”. This investment of hope in one's children, however, is best seen in Job Legh's struggle to bring his granddaughter Margaret back from London. The long story Job tells of his attempts to retrieve and care for the baby, criticized by J. McVeagh as an irrelevant digression, is anything but that. As Mrs. Tillotson herself points out, the story “stands for hope”.31 And at the end of Mary Barton, a novel about hope, Johnnie also “stands for hope”.

Critics have no doubt been correct in seeing the private plot of Mary Barton as conventional and excessively melodramatic, and to that extent they are justified in preferring the realism of the public plot. But mimetic judgements are not the same thing as, nor should they be the basis for, judgements of artistic structure and form. The latter can be based only upon a complete and honest attempt to see the relations existing among the parts of a work, and so long as critics blindly accept the tenets of a tradition that virtually ignores the private plot, they are in no position to judge either the scope of Mrs. Gaskell's design or the unity of her novel. When they do accept the legitimate claim made upon them by the private plot, a claim based not on that plot's realism but simply on the extent to which the author developed it, they can begin to see the theme of hope growing out of the two juxtaposed plots and can begin to appreciate the formal unity of this fine first novel.


  1. Elizabeth Gaskell: The Artist in Conflict (New York, 1969), p. 69.

  2. “Introduction”, Mary Barton (New York, 1958), p. v.

  3. Mrs. Gaskell: The Basis for Reassessment (Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 11; my italics.

  4. Mrs. Gaskell: Novelist and Biographer (Manchester University Press, 1965), p. 41.

  5. Novels of the Eighteen-Forties (Oxford University Press, 1954), p. 211.

  6. Ibid. p. 212.

  7. “Preface to the Original Edition of 1848”, Mary Barton, in The Works of Mrs. Gaskell (The Knutsford Edition, 1906), I. lxxiv.

  8. Among the critics who quote at least a portion of this statement are Tillotson, [Novels of the Eighteen-Forties,] p. 205; Pollard, [Mrs. Gaskell: Novelist and Biographer,] p. 36; Wright, [Mrs. Gaskell: The Basis for Reassessment,] p. 30; and Ganz, [Elizabeth Gaskell: The Artist in Conflict,] p. 56.

  9. The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell, ed. J. A. V. Chapple and Arthur Pollard (Manchester University Press, 1966), p. 74.

  10. Among critics who quote Mrs. Gaskell's remark are A. W. Ward, “Introduction to ‘Mary Barton’, etc.”, in Works, I. lxiii; A. B. Hopkins, Elizabeth Gaskell: Her Life and Work (London, 1952), p. 77; Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, 1750-1950 (New York, 1958), p. 88; Pollard, p. 60; and Ganz, p. 265, n. 21. Mrs. Tillotson refers to but does not quote the remark (op. cit. p. 211, n. 1).

  11. Tillotson, p. 213.

  12. Ganz, pp. 73, 55-56.

  13. Williams, p. 91.

  14. Letters, p. 70.

  15. Annette B. Hopkins, “‘Mary Barton’: A Victorian Best Seller”, The Trollopian, iii (June 1948), 11, n. 14.

  16. Ibid. pp. 10-11. Miss Hopkins repeated the theory in her critical biography, Elizabeth Gaskell: Her Life and Work, pp. 76-77.

  17. Ganz clearly indicates that she believes the story regarding the change (p. 266, n. 44); Williams ascribes the plot shift to the publisher's influence but confusedly asserts that the title change occurred after the direction of the story was changed (pp. 88-89); and Tillotson merely implies that she accepts Miss Hopkins's theory (p. 213, n. 2).

  18. Letters, p. 54.

  19. Ibid. p. 55.

  20. Ibid. p. 56.

  21. Works, I. lxxiv.

  22. Letters, p. 75. Even though Mrs. Gaskell must have added considerably more than three pages, her comment here makes it clear that she did not double the length of an already completed novel by adding the entire private plot to fit the title forced upon her.

  23. Wright, pp. 265-7.

  24. Letters, pp. 54-55.

  25. Ibid. p. 58.

  26. Ganz, p. 55.

  27. Pollard, p. 43.

  28. Mary Barton, in Works, I. 8. Subsequent references to the novel will be to this edition and will be noted internally by page number.

  29. Wright, p. 31. Wright's term “faith” stands for much the same quality I have called hope; however, he does not discuss this virtue with regard to the structure of the novel.

  30. Williams, p. 91.

  31. Tillotson, p. 217; McVeagh considers Job's narrative as but one example of “the author's incomplete grasp of the importance of structural unity” (“Notes on Mrs. Gaskell's Narrative Technique”, EIC [Essays in Criticism], xviii (October 1968), 464-6).

Monica Correa Fryckstedt (essay date autumn 1980)

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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 demonstrated that the novel not only sprang out of Mrs Gaskell's own observations in Manchester, but was also the product of her wide reading, stored in an unusually retentive memory:

A careful comparative reading of Mary Barton (1848), and of Caroline Bowles's Tales of the Factories (1833), … Caroline Norton's A Voice from the Factories (1836), ‘The Dream’ (1840) and The Child of the Islands (1845), ‘Charlotte Elizabeth's’ The Wrongs of Woman (1843-44), and Elizabeth Stone's William Langshawe (1842) and The Young Milliner (1843), suggests that those earlier works were all read by Mrs Gaskell, and all influenced her first novel.2

Despite his accurate insight about Mrs Gaskell's relation to earlier novelists, Wheeler chose to concentrate wholly on the impact that the verses of Caroline Bowles and Caroline Norton had on Mary Barton. The aim of this essay is to examine how Mrs Gaskell drew on her familiarity with earlier industrial fiction. It will focus on Harriet Martineau's ‘A Manchester Strike’ (the first germ of Mary Barton), on Elizabeth Stone (to whom Mary Barton was actually attributed by the Mancunians on its publication), and on Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna (whose Helen Fleetwood is the only true forerunner of Mary Barton), and endeavour to show that it is Mrs Gaskell's greater artistry that places her in a category beyond her many predecessors.


The first writer to attempt to use fiction to illustrate the complex problems of the new industrial society had been Harriet Martineau. Her twenty-three tales in Illustrations of Political Economy (1832-4) were designed to popularize political economy by bringing it directly to the readers who ‘wanted the book; and … should have it’.3 In ‘A Manchester Strike’ (1832) she explores the scene that Mrs Gaskell was to make celebrated in Mary Barton. For this tale, greatly admired by the Edinburgh Review,4 she received the impetus from the Manchester workers themselves; they ‘were eager to interest me in their controversies about Machinery and Wages; and it was from them that I received the bundles of documents which qualified me to write “A Manchester Strike”.’5 Though ‘A Manchester Strike’ aims at exposing the devastating effects of strikes for masters as well as men, it also sketches the rich and loving relationship between the protagonist William Allen and his daughter Martha, suggesting the mutual love and respect between Mrs Gaskell's John Barton and his daughter Mary, and introduces the plight of child workers, here anticipating novels like Frances Trollope's Michael Armstrong (1839-40) and Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna's Helen Fleetwood (1839-41). In the midst of propounding the principles of wages and capital, Harriet Martineau succeeds in drawing scenes loaded with sympathy for human suffering similar to those for which Mrs Gaskell was to be celebrated. The eight-year-old Martha, for instance, whose knees are so swollen from all the standing in the mill that ‘her mother must bandage the joints while the child was at her work’,6 is subjected to working the night shift. At the factory, ‘sighing at the thought of the long hours that must pass before she could sit down or breathe the fresh air again’ (MS, 64), Martha is exposed to dust, heat and ‘the incessant whizzing and whirling of the wheels’ (MS, 65). Harriet Martineau deplores the crippling effect that mechanization has on factory children; even when released by the strike, they are unable to enjoy their newly acquired freedom:

It would have amused some people and made others melancholy to watch the sports of these town-bred children. … They could not throw a ball five feet from them, or flung it in another's faces so as to cause complaints and crying-fits … they were the worst runners that could be conceived.

(MS, 110-11)

But it is her handling of the relations between masters and men that makes ‘A Manchester Strike’ so relevant to Mary Barton. The scene in which Mrs Gaskell's Wilson vainly seeks help for the fever-stricken Davenport at the millowner Carson's house, is anticipated in a scene in ‘A Manchester Strike’ in which two workers call on the millowner Mr Elliott. In Mary Barton, Henry Carson, the industrialist's son, displays his indifference to the plight of the mill-hands:

Meanwhile, the younger Mr. Carson had ended his review, and began to listen to what was going on. He finished his breakfast, got up, and pulled five shillings out of his pocket, which he gave Wilson as he passed him, for the ‘poor fellow’. He went past quickly, and calling for his horse, mounted gaily, and rode away. He was anxious to be in time to have a look and a smile from lovely Mary Barton, as she went to Miss Simmonds'.7

By having Henry Carson give a coin to Wilson, Mrs Gaskell makes him at once less of a stereo-type than Harriet Martineau's Elliott and yet also paradoxically more culpable in his too-ready evasion of misery. Mrs Gaskell thus complicates Harriet Martineau's similar portrayal of Elliott:

As soon as they approached Mr. Elliott's house, they perceived that gentleman mounted on his favourite hunter, … He was too much occupied with his own affairs to see them coming, for the most important part of his morning's business was setting off for his ride; and he had eyes for little less while he was admiring the polish of his boots, adjusting his collar … and patting his horse's neck.

(MS, 28-9)

Elliott contemptuously dismisses the petition for an equalization of wages presented to him by the two delegates, Allen and Hare:

Elliott glanced his eye over it as well as the restlessness of his horse would permit, and then struck it contemptuously with his riding-whip into the mud, swore that that was the proper place for such a piece of insolence, rode up against the men and pranced down the street without bestowing another look or word upon them.

(MS, 29)

That Mrs Gaskell drew on her familiarity with this passage is evident from her rendition of still another scene in which she, like Harriet Martineau, contrasts the earnestness of the workers, now a delegation of ‘five, wild, earnest-looking men’, and the insolence of the millowners ‘rather affronted at such a ragged detachment coming between the wind and their nobility’ (MB, 16:233). In this second scene, the soon-to-be-murdered Henry Carson even surpasses Elliott in cruelty when he takes out ‘his silver pencil’ and draws ‘an admirable caricature of them—lank, ragged, dispirited, and famine-stricken’ (MB, 16:235). Still, Mrs Gaskell differs greatly from her predecessor. Whereas Harriet Martineau objects to the behaviour of Elliott on purely economic grounds, by stressing his disregard for his own interests and those of the country at large, Mrs Gaskell's criticism is based on moral principles: she skilfully portrays class differences that screen masters from workmen and prevent the former from treating their hands ‘as brethren’ (MB, 16:232).

Harriet Martineau's William Allen anticipates Mrs Gaskell's John Barton. Persuaded against his will to accept the chairmanship of the strikers' Union, Allen is unable, once the strike is over, to find employment; he, the reasonable strike-leader, highly esteemed by the masters, is reduced to a street-cleaner toiling ‘with his water-cart in summer and his broom in winter; enduring to be pointed out to strangers as the leader of an unsuccessful strike’ (MS, 133). Though never approaching the tragic stature of John Barton, Allen nonetheless possesses a grain of tragedy. Despite their identical integrity of mind, perseverance, intelligence and honesty—qualities cherished in the Lancashire race by Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Stone and Mrs Gaskell—both characters fall due to flaws inherent in their characters. With its Manchester setting, its emphasis on the lack of communication between masters and men, and its portrayal of an energetic, intelligent worker suggesting John Barton, ‘A Manchester Strike’ is the first piece of industrial fiction that can be called a forerunner of Mary Barton.

Although Mrs Trollope was eager to make ‘the facts stated in her book authentic and accurate’,8The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy (1839-40) ‘never became’, as her eldest son says, ‘one of the more popular of my mother's novels.’9Michael Armstrong, which the author herself deplored that few cared ‘much for … except the Chartists’,10 possesses little affinity with Mary Barton. Yet it incited two writers to compose novels refuting Mrs Trollope's picture of mills and millowners: Frederic Montagu and Elizabeth Stone. Of these, Montagu's Mary Ashley, the Factory Girl: Or Facts upon Factories (1839), a deservedly forgotten novel of whose existence few critics seem to be aware, bears little resemblance to Mary Barton.11 The year 1839, however, was also to witness the appearance of a third industrial novel, Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna's Helen Fleetwood. Other contributions would establish the genre more firmly: Elizabeth Stone wrote William Langshawe, the Cotton Lord (1842), Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna resumed her exposition of the evils of child and female labour in The Wrongs of Woman (1843-4), and Disraeli published Sybil: or the Two Nations (1845).

Whereas the relation of Mary Barton to the works of Elizabeth Stone and Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna requires a fuller treatment in subsequent sections of this article, the relation between Sybil and Mary Barton can be quickly sketched. In Gerard Walter, Disraeli introduces a noble, thoughtful man full of enthusiasm for the rights of the poor, a man of exceptional integrity. It is his concern for his fellow-men not his self-interest that induces him to undertake a dangerous course of action, and in this Walter resembles Harriet Martineau's William Allen as well as John Barton. The total alienation between rich and poor is emphasized in Sybil, where Disraeli observes that ‘“atween the poor man and the gentleman there never was no connection”.’12 For Disraeli, the lack of communication between the ‘two nations’ is ‘the vital mischief of this country’ (Sybil, III:I:166), responsible for many evils in society. This ‘want of sympathy that unquestionably exists between Wealth and Work in England’ (Sybil, V:I:336), can be ascribed, says Sybil, to the ‘mutual ignorance between the classes’ (Sybil, V.I.336). Here Sybil undoubtedly prepares the reader for Mary Barton.13 John Barton was, as Job Legh explains to Mr Carson at the end of the novel, ‘“sadly put about to make great riches and great poverty square with Christ's Gospel”’ (MB, 37:455), yet it was the total lack of concern that crushed Barton—the rich ‘cared not whether he was bound for heaven or hell’ (MB, 37:456). Thus, just as in Sybil, the reader finds in Mary Barton a strong belief that ignorance was largely to blame for the lack of understanding between rich and poor.


When Mary Barton appeared anonymously in 1848 there was a general rumour that the author was Mrs Elizabeth Stone, with whose novels Lancashire readers were already familiar. Scholars have not asked themselves, however, why Mancunians should erroneously have thought Mary Barton to be a product of Mrs Stone's pen.14 By examining William Langshawe, the Cotton Lord (1842) as well as her The Young Milliner (1843)—a social but not an industrial novel—I hope to show why Mancunians should have been misled in 1848.

Mrs Stone was the first Manchester resident to write a novel about the manufacturing districts. In William Langshawe, almost entirely neglected by scholars,15 with her first-hand knowledge of Manchester society, she conveys a vivid picture of the rising Lancashire cottonocracy. Her acute observations of the cotton-lords resemble, as far as accuracy and familiarity are concerned, Mrs Gaskell's descriptions of Manchester workers. It is, however, mainly in dialect, naming, characters and plot motifs that William Langshawe foreshadows Mrs Gaskell's novel. The early reader of Mary Barton held in his hand a novel whose outward appearance and disposition largely resembled that of William Langshawe. Both novels were published in two volumes, had chapters preceded by epigraphs taken from Crabbe, Wordsworth and Shakespeare, and both novels were pioneers in rendering the Lancashire dialect, although Mrs Stone's attempt is limited to very few characters in her novel. Furthermore, there are similarities in the naming of the fictional characters; just as Mrs Stone's working-class lover Jem Forshawe was to find his counterpart in Mrs Gaskell's Jem Wilson, so her Henry Wolstenholme, a millowner's son, undoubtedly anticipates Mrs Gaskell's Henry Carson.

Still, characters and plot motifs constitute more relevant resemblances between the two novels. Mrs Stone's working-class girl Nancy Halliwell and her two lovers was to find a parallel in Mary Barton, where Mary is torn between the flattery of Henry Carson and the genuine love of Jem Wilson. Nancy, whose mother is Mrs Langshawe's first cousin, is pretty ‘and her countenance betrayed none of that want of energy or intellect which characterized her lover's, for there was self-will and a consciousness of beauty written in every line of it’.16 In the same manner, Mary Barton ‘knew she was very pretty’ (MB, 3:62) and ‘with this consciousness she had early determined that her beauty should make her a lady’ (MB, 3:62). Nancy's attitude to Jem Forshawe is cool because of her aspirations to rise in life like the Langshawes. Once she had spent a week with them:

This mistaken indulgence was most prejudicial to Nancy. Ideas were then awakened in her mind, which, though they lay dormant for some time, had only wanted exciting: … She was now really attached to Jem Forshawe, but ambition and love waged severe warfare within her; and it was always an unpropitious hour for her lover's suit when any thought of ‘Cousin Langshawe’ crossed her mind.

(WL, I, 116)

In Mary Barton love vanquishes ambition. Having turned down Jem's proposal she finally grasps the nature of Henry Carson's flattering attention and the true state of her own feelings:

… it had unveiled her heart to her; it had convinced her she loved Jem above all persons or things. But Jem was a poor mechanic … While Mr Carson was rich, and prosperous, and gay, and (she believed) would place her in all circumstances of ease and luxury, where want would never come. What were these hollow vanities to her now, now she had discovered the passionate secret of her soul?

(MB, 11:176-7)

Mary Barton keeps her ambitious plans to herself, thinking of the day ‘she should ride from church in her carriage … and take up her astonished father, and drive away from the old dim work-a-day court for ever’ (MB, 7:121), dreaming, when scolded by her employer Miss Simmonds, of ‘when she should drive up to the door in her own carriage, to order her gowns from the hasty tempered, yet kind dressmaker’ (MB, 7:121). Nancy shares Mary's dreams, but being of a less reticent nature she openly asks her rich lover: ‘“And, perhaps,” said she, when they were going to part, and her lover's flatteries had wrought her vanity to the highest pitch, “perhaps, then, next Christmas, I may be riding in my own carriage, like my grand cousin?”’ (WL, I, 165). Nancy Halliwell is, no doubt, a forerunner of Mary Barton; the idea of delineating a humble girl torn between a rich and a poor lover, dreaming of rising in society and driving around in her own carriage was not original with Mr. Gaskell, yet her creation of Mary, portraying her inner thoughts and actions, is very much her own.

Moreover, Mrs Stone's attitude to trades unions anticipates Mrs Gaskell's; she resents their oppressive power and the violence used against ‘knobsticks’ (strike-breakers). Jem Forshawe is persuaded to join the Union and in an ominous scene he swears the oath blind-folded to participate in ‘the ASSASSINATION of oppressive or tyrannical masters’ (WL, II, 172), the impact of which weighs so heavily on him as to dement him; he is taken to an asylum. John Barton, with a strong and passionate nature, and hardly comparable to Jem Forshawe, has ‘seen enough of what comes of attacking knob-sticks’ and will ‘ha nought to do with it no more’ (MB, 16:240). The ominous atmosphere of the clandestine Union meeting is there in both novels, yet in Mary Barton, when the workers meet to decide who is to murder Henry Carson, Mrs Gaskell creates a dense atmosphere unparalleled in William Langshawe:

Then came one of those fierce terrible oaths which bind members of Trades' Unions to any given purpose. Then, under the flaring gaslight, they met to consult further. … The gas was extinguished; each drew out a paper. The gas was relighted. Then each went as far as he could from his fellows, and examined the paper without saying a word. … He who had drawn the marked paper had drawn the lot of the assassin!

(MB, 16:241-2)

The Athenaeum rightly observes that Mrs Stone's satire is directed against ‘the worship of money’.17 Her criticism of money as the sole end in life foreshadows Mrs Gaskell, constituting another reason why she should have been mistaken for the author of Mary Barton. William Bladow, a hermit, laments Edith Langshawe's future marriage:

… oh, there is sin, and crime, and misery,—misery so sad, so deep; and what causes it, Miss Langshawe—what induces to crime? and what leads to misery?—Money. What makes a man overreach his neighbour?—Money. What tempts him to murder a fellow-creature?—Money. What shuts his heart to affection, and his ears to every cry of virtue and honour?—Money. What makes a father sacrifice his child at the altar?—Money—money—money.

(WL, II, 185)

Towards the end of Mary Barton, Mr Carson forgives John Barton, his son's murderer; by reading the Bible he realizes that all men, rich and poor, are brethren, that it is our duty to forgive others, and finally the futility of worldly riches dawns upon him: ‘… he contemplated the desire after riches, social distinction, a name among merchant-princes amidst whom he moved, and saw these false substances fade away into the shadows they truly are, and one by one disappear into the grave of his son’ (MB, 7:451). This scene has an obvious parallel in William Langshawe, when Mr Ainsley, feeling sympathy with his nephew Frank Walmsley and his consumptive teenage wife Bianca, reflects on the futility of worldly goods:

The coffee came; and, as he sipped it in a desponding mood, Mr. Ainsley was led, for the second time in his life, to reflect on the utter inutility of magnificence and wealth as cordials to the heart when it wants solace.

… The second time was now, as he left a yet more melancholy couch, that of his young, beautiful, cherished, but, as he too surely felt, doomed niece, Bianca Walmsley. In his bitter burst of feeling, he looked on the magnificent appointments of his drawing-room, and on the splendid silver and rich china of his tea equipage, as it glittered under his eye, with almost a feeling of loathing ‘I have toiled and struggled for a lifetime,’ thought he, ‘I have known neither rest nor respite till I obtained these things; and to what good? What can they obtain for me, for my heart?—Nothing.’

(WL, II, 267)

Similarity of incidents does not, of course, place Mrs Stone and Mrs Gaskell on the same level as novelists. The last common plot motif we shall examine may help explain why only one edition appeared of William Langshawe, why it was not widely reviewed, and why Elizabeth Stone is entirely forgotten by literary historians and bibliographers alike, whereas Mrs Gaskell and her works attract more and more attention. The mirthful Christmas games of the Wolstenholmes, with whom the Langshawes spend the holiday, are interrupted some time after the son, Henry Wolstenholme, has gone down to the mill:

It might perhaps be about ten minutes after his departure, that a sudden knock was heard at the hall door. We all know how readable raps at the door are; how we arrange ourselves to welcome an aristocratic visitor, or assume an easy air of indifference for the reception of a ‘snob’, according to the intelligence given by the knocker; how all our nerves are strung to expectation by the postman's twofold rap, and how intensely anxious we are for a letter, although two minutes previously not one of our ‘charming correspondents’ was in our thoughts. But if an unexpected rap comes, unmarked by any of the characteristics we have mentioned, how everybody listens and wonders what it can be. So it was now. The knock was a sharp, sullen heavy knock, such as made everybody start and listen; conversation ceased in a moment, for it was an unaccountable knock at a strange time. The door was opened, and a voice was heard inquiring for ‘the young master.’

‘He is gone out,’ said the servant.

Mr. Wolstenholme darted into the hall.

‘Whom do you want, my good man?’

The man stepped into the hall, and moving his hat respectfully, asked, in a hurried manner, ‘for the young master.’

‘My son Henry is gone to the factory, not ten minutes ago; if you want him you had better wait a little while.’

The man looked distressed, first at the ladies, who had crowded into the hall, and then turning to Mr. Wolstenholme, said, in a low voice:

‘If the young master did go out, sir, I'm afeard he is down in the loan, much hurt.’

At this moment, and before Mr. Wolstenholme could make any reply, a bustle was heard outside the door, which was instantaneously opened. A crowd of people appeared, and as they partly divided to enter the hall, Mrs. Wolstenholme, who had nervously pushed foremost, saw her eldest son, Henry, borne in by the men—a corpse.

Pass we this.

(WL, II, 303-5)

This scene, in which Henry Wolstenholme, like Henry Carson in Mary Barton, is brought home a corpse, though not devoid of suspense, is marred by Mrs Stone's circumstantial way of telling it. The long explanation about different types of knocks and our response to them prevents it from becoming as powerful as the corresponding scene in Mary Barton. It would have fared differently under Mrs Gaskell's pen and she would hardly have concluded it by ‘Pass we this’. The contrast is striking when Sophy Carson breaks the news to her father about her brother's death:

‘Papa,’ said she, softly. He did not stir.

‘Papa!’ she exclaimed, somewhat louder.

He started up, half awake.

‘Tea is ready, is it?’ and he yawned.

‘No! papa, but something very dreadful—very sad has happened!’

He was gasping so loud that he did not catch the words she uttered, and did not see the expression of her face.

‘Master Henry is not come back,’ said nurse. Her voice, heard in unusual speech to him, arrested his attention, and rubbing his eyes, he looked at the servant.

‘Harry! oh no! he had to attend a meeting of the masters about these cursed turn-outs. I don't expect him yet. What are you looking at me so strangely for, Sophy?’

‘Oh, papa, Harry is come back,’ said she bursting into tears.

‘What do you mean?’ said he, startled into an impatient consciousness that something was wrong. ‘One of you says he is not come home, and the other says he is. No that's nonsense! Tell me at once what's the matter. Did he go on horseback to town? Is he thrown? Speak, child can't you?’

‘No! he's not been thrown, papa,’ said Sophy, sadly.

‘But he's badly hurt,’ put in the nurse, desirous to be drawing his anxiety to a point.

‘Hurt? Where? How? Have you sent for a doctor?’ said he, hastily rising, as if to leave the room.

‘Yes, papa, we've sent for a doctor—but I'm afraid—I believe it's of no use.’

He looked at her for a moment, and in her face he read the truth. His son, his only son was dead.

(MB, 18:259-60)

These two lengthy quotations show how Mrs Gaskell's talent for intimating feelings, her powers of conveying an atmosphere loaded with suffering and her insight into human nature, making Mr Carson gradually perceive the truth, place her in a category of novelists outside the reach of Mrs Stone.

In Mrs Stone's The Young Milliner we find two characters which anticipate Mary Barton: Ellen Cardan, the young milliner, resembles Mary Barton in one respect, and Bessy Lambert, a shirtmaker who finally becomes a prostitute, brings to mind Mrs Gaskell's Esther. Ellen Cardan possesses exceptional beauty, which is remarked upon when she puts on a bonnet at the request of her customer: ‘“Look at Miss Cardan in that bonnet; really you should pay her a premium to stand in your shew-room—all your wax dolls would be at discount; no one would buy anything which had not been seen on her!”’18 Her beauty suggests Mary Barton's. John Barton would have found it easier to apprentice his daughter ‘had he known that if Mary had accompanied him the case might have been rather different, as her beauty would have made her desirable as a showwoman’ (MB, 3:63).

In Bessy Lambert the readers of Mary Barton had already met a tentative sketch of a prostitute. Ellen Cardan, a frequent visitor of the Lamberts, has been prevented by work from seeing her ‘friends.’ One day she runs into Bessy in the street, ‘so beautifully dressed, that she did not at the moment know her’ (YM, 293)—a Bessy who ‘looked wretchedly ill’. After some time Ellen is stopped one day by someone in Regent Street, someone who says:

‘Ellen, won't you speak to me?’

Ellen turned in haste, for well she knew that voice; but she gazed in horror on the face which the glare of the lamp exposed fully to view. Every trace of Bessy's beauty was gone; but that was nothing, health and shame seemed to be gone also; her features were pinched, and sharp, and miserable, her eye hollow, her cheek flushed; and as for her dress and appearance, even Ellen, inexperienced as she was, could not doubt the vocation of the exposed wretch before her.

(YM, 341)

Bessy has left her lover and when Ellen Cardan asks her: ‘“Where did you go, Bessy?” Bessy gave an agonized glance, as she said, “Don't ask me that silly question, but ask yourself where I could go”’ (YM, 343). The similarities between Bessy and Esther are unmistakable. Esther, whose ‘glaring paint’ (MB, 10:169) aroused the contempt of John Barton, accosts Jem Wilson in the street. Jem, who does not recognize her at first, innocently asks her where she lives—‘She laughed strangely’ and says ‘“do you think one sunk as low as I am has a home?”’ (MB, 14:214). Unlike Bessy, a minor character, Mrs Gaskell's Esther is a tragic character of significance whose feelings of despair and degradation are carefully delineated. Notwithstanding the fact that both William Langshawe and The Young Milliner foreshadow Mary Barton, they do so only in incidents, characters and dialect, lacking the religious tone and challenge inherent in Mrs Gaskell's novel, acknowledged by journals like Fraser's Magazine, which ‘would placard its sheets on every wall, and have them read aloud from every pulpit, till a nation calling itself Christian began to act upon the awful facts contained in it, not in the present peddling and desultory manner, but with an united energy of shame and repentance proportionate to the hugeness of the evil’.19


For a parallel to the religious message which is central to Mary Barton we must turn to Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna. Through her social work among the poor Irish in St. Giles, one of the worst London slums, she had first-hand experience of misery, squalor, ignorance and drunkenness, which aroused her indignation. In 1839-41 the Christian Lady's Magazine published its editor's Helen Fleetwood, a tale of Manchester workers.20 In depicting human relationships in an industrial society she is a pioneer suggesting Mrs Gaskell, who, though of a totally different religious background, would still have shared many of Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna's ideas about the divisions between masters and men, rich and poor and true Christians and hypocrites.

Mrs Green visits the millowner Mr Z's house in a scene that anticipates Mary Barton. Having left the squalor of her miserable abode, Mrs Green enters his house:

after treading with some wonder the chequered marble that graced the spacious hall, and passing between two rising platforms of rare and fragrant exotics that breathed perfume through the house, and crossing a circular space where the light from a lofty dome of glass streamed down on some fine antique statuary, she found herself in an apartment teeming with what to her rustic apprehension appeared the gorgeous magnificence of royalty. It was, indeed, a large and very handsome room, fitted up with no lack of either taste or cost; … From a folding door, the partial opening of which showed a table glittering with cut glass and silver plate, the accompaniments of the family luncheon, Mr. Z. advanced, and took his station before the fire-place, …21

Rubenius' theory, that Mrs Gaskell both read Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna's works and was influenced by them seems very likely when we compare this passage with Wilson entering Mr Carson's house in Mary Barton. Just like Mr Z's house, ‘Mr Carson's was a good house, and furnished with disregard to expense. But in addition to lavish expenditure there was much taste shown, and many articles chosen for their beauty and elegance adorned his rooms’ (MB, 6:105). Mr Z's lunch table is paralleled by the breakfast table of the Carsons: ‘In the luxurious library, at the well-spread breakfast-table, sat the two Mr Carsons, father and son’ (MB, 6:107). It is to this scene that Wilson, ‘the gaunt, pale, unwashed, unshaven weaver was ushered in’ (MB, 6:109). Just as Mr Z's house appeared to have the ‘gorgeous magnificence of royalty’ to the rustic Mrs Green, so Wilson is also dumbfounded by the luxury of the Carson residence: ‘There he stood at the door, sleeking his hair with old country [my italics] habit, and every now and then stealing a glance round at the splendour of the apartment’ (MB, 6:109).

The theme of Dives and Lazarus is of paramount importance to Mary Barton, combining as it does the theme of rich and poor with that of religion. John Barton, an embittered man, has lost faith in the rich as well as in religion:

‘If I am sick, do they come and nurse me? If my child lies dying … does the rich man bring the wine or broth that might save his life? … No, I tell you, it's the poor, and the poor only, as does such things for the poor. … We are their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows; and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds; ay, as separate as Dives and Lazarus, with a great gulf betwixt us: but I know who was best off then, …’

(MB, 1:45)

During his visit to London, Barton is struck by the great diversity of wealth displayed in the capital and his thoughts return to the subject of rich and poor: ‘“They are having their good things now, that afterwards they may be tormented.” Still at the old parable of Dives and Lazarus! Does it haunt the minds of the rich as it does those of the poor?’ (MB, 9:142).22 The implied answer is, of course, no. So it is in Helen Fleetwood, where Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna's implication of the Dives and Lazarus theme, vested as it is in laboured and propagandist prose, foreshadows Mrs Gaskell. Mrs Green reflects on Mr Z:

There sat a fellow mortal, as frail a child of earth and of sin as herself; one who had worked his way, not by the labour of his own hands, but by the toil of others, to the possession of such wealth. … This, however, she felt was the fruit of enterprise and perseverance; … but these riches had hardened his heart, had stifled the pleadings of humanity, and made him not only cold and proud, but cruel. … He wants me to look round, to admire his glittering toys, to draw a painful contrast between this palace and my own miserable home; … ‘Does he want me to covet? would he tempt me to steal?’ Such cogitations were passing through the mind of the widow, and she felt them to be the suggestions of a wrong spirit, yet would not stifle them until the scripture recurred to her mind, ‘Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him; but the just shall live by his faith.’ All was now changed: the contrast that struck her was no longer that of a haughty rich man, glorying in his possessions over a despised, impoverished fellow-creature, who groaned beneath the pressure of present difficulty and anticipated want: but that of a wretched being, who had his portion here, the good of this world having blinded his mind, lest the light of the glorious gospel should shine into it—one to whom the summons might come, ‘This night shall thy soul be required of thee; then whose shall those things be which thou has provided?’—one of those rich men to whom the Apostle's awful apostrophe was addressed, ‘Go to now; weep and howl’—yes, the contrast was between such a one and herself, poor in worldly goods, but rich in faith, and an heir of the kingdom of heaven; brought through much tribulation to seek, to know, to love the Lord; having her treasure laid up where neither moth, nor rust, nor thief could touch it; and knowing that, whatever might be her losses on earth, she had in heaven a better and more enduring substance.

(HF, 557-8)

This lengthy quotation shows that the resemblance between Helen Fleetwood and Mary Barton is, as far as religious ideas are concerned, undeniable.

With South, one of Mrs Green's neighbours, as her spokesman, Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna challenges the clergy for not showing concern with the poor; ‘for the quiet way in which the clergy look on while the poor are destroyed around them, shows how little they care about them, bodies or souls.’ (HF, 605). This idea recurs with great force in Mary Barton, where Mrs Gaskell, although a minister's wife, does not spare the clergy itself from her religious challenge. The sufferings of the poor made them suspect ‘that their legislators, their magistrates, their employers, and even the ministers of religion, were, in general, their oppressors and their enemies; and were in league for their prostration and enthralment’ (MB, 8:126).

Helen Fleetwood is the only industrial novel before Mary Barton in which the reader is confronted with such a thorough analysis of the effects of factory work on family life and with the shocking idea that the ‘Christian’ millowners, ‘church-going people’ who ‘pay all the outward respect’ (HF, 564) to religion, neglect their moral duties. Nevertheless, Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna never succeeded in arousing the large novel reading public as did Mrs Gaskell.23 The language, more appropriate to religious pamphlets than to a tale of Manchester workers, partly explains why Helen Fleetwood lacks the authenticity of Mrs Gaskell's novel. It is, however, the only industrial novel to develop the religious ideas which I take to be the core of Mary Barton and can, consequently, be regarded as its only true forerunner.

It is highly likely that for the composition of Mary Barton Mrs Gaskell also drew on her familiarity with The Wrongs of Woman (1843-4), another attack on woman and child labour by Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna. More than any preceding industrial fiction ‘The Forsaken Home’, one of the four tales which constitute The Wrongs of Woman, endeavours to analyse the evil effects on family life caused by women and children being employed in the mills rather than men. John and Alice Smith and their five children move to a factory town where they are appalled to find that only women are employed in the screw manufactories. Unwillingly John gives in, and Alice begins to work in a mill where

she sees several infants brought in by idle-looking, half-starved, or half-drunken men, and by children much too young for such a charge, to be nourished at the breast during this short cessation of labour. The wretched appearance of these babies wrings her heart: squalid, filthy, pallid, emaciated;—and with a general aspect of unnatural stupor for which she knows not how to account.24

Alice, resolute to keep up a neat home and prevent her unemployed husband from taking to drink, is gradually worn down by hard toil. Not only is she confronted with women who have become demented from having had to leave their new born babies, but, when her own baby dies from neglect, she begins to give way. Her home and children become indifferent to her, her husband drinks heavily, and she, a former paragon of female virtue, joins a club where she drowns her sorrows in beer. Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna's disapproval of factory work for women was to find a parallel in Mary Barton, where Mrs Gaskell regrets that married women work in the mills. Jane Wilson tells Mary Barton how ‘there never was such a born goose at house-keeping’ (MB, 10:164) as she, which is hardly surprising since she had ‘been in the factory sin' five years old a'most’ and ‘knew nought about cleaning, or cooking, let alone washing and such like work’ (MB, 10:164). Furthermore, the mill-workers in ‘The Forsaken Home’ very much suggest the families described by Mrs Gaskell's Mrs Wilson who

‘… could reckon up’ (counting with her fingers) ‘ay, nine men I know, as has been driven to th' public-house by having wives as worked in factories; good folk, too, as thought there was no harm in putting their little ones out at nurse, and letting their house go all dirty, and their fires all out; and that was a place as was tempting for a husband to stay in, was it? He soon finds out gin-shops, where all is clean and bright, and where the fire blazes cheerily, and gives a man a welcome as it were.’

(MB, 10:165)

By its religious fervor and lightly disguised propaganda, however, ‘The Forsaken Home’ constitutes a far less effective challenge to the average reader than that voiced in Mary Barton; yet the ideas found in it are of interest since they constitute part of the literary tradition preceding Mary Barton.25


By 1848 there existed a well-established genre of industrial fiction foreshadowing Mary Barton. Nevertheless, ‘A Manchester Strike’, Michael Armstrong, Mary Ashley, Helen Fleetwood, William Langshawe and Sybil all attempt, as we have seen, to portray the problems of the manufacturing districts. To succeed in this undertaking would have required a writer of a totally different calibre—a novelist whom William Rathbone Greg had not yet encountered when he reviewed Sybil in 1845:

A novelist who should depict all this with a faithful and courageous pencil unhampered by conventional ideas of verisimilitude,—who should draw his figures from actual life, and whose pictures would be the matured product of inquiry, as well as observation, would be a hitherto unseen phenomenon, and might do immeasurable service both to the class of whom, and the class for whom, he writes. … Indeed, duly to execute such a work as we have suggested, would require two qualifications so rarely found in combination—great powers of delineation, and intimate and prolonged acquaintance with the working classes—that we despair of its accomplishment till some one shall arise among those classes themselves …26

The despair of the Westminster Review was brought to an end in 1848 when Elizabeth Gaskell appeared as a novelist on the literary scene. She was, indeed, the ‘hitherto unseen phenomenon’, the first novelist writing of the manufacturing poor to possess both ‘great powers of delineation’ and ‘intimate and prolonged acquaintance with the working classes’. It would certainly be a mistake to consider Mary Barton as a phenomenon appearing in a literary vacuum. It was, however, the first successful contribution to the industrial novel, towering above earlier attempts, and, in order to do Mrs Gaskell justice, Mary Barton should therefore be regarded as the first peak in a mountain ridge of novels, preceded by ‘foothills’ like Helen Fleetwood and William Langshawe and succeeded by other peaks like Hard Times and North and South.


  1. Letter from Carlyle to Mrs Gaskell reprinted in A[nnette] B. Hopkins, Elizabeth Gaskell: Her Life and Work (London, 1972), p. 82, and in Winifred Gérin, Elizabeth Gaskell. A Biography (Oxford, 1976), p. 89.

  2. Michael D. Wheeler, ‘The Writer as Reader in Mary Barton’, Durham University Journal, lxvii (1974-5), 93-4. In 1950 Aina Rubenius had suggested that Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna was read and used by Mrs Gaskell in The Woman Question in Mrs Gaskell's Work (1950; rpt. New York, 1973), pp. 281-3, a theory also subscribed to by Ellen Moers, Literary Women (Garden City, 1976), p. 39, and by Ivanka Kovačević and S. Barbara Kanner, ‘Blue Book Into Novel: The Forgotten Industrial Fiction of Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna’, Nineteenth Century Fiction, xxv (1970), 162, n. 10.

  3. Maria Weston Chapman, ed., Harriet Martineau's Autobiography (Boston, 1877), I, 122.

  4. Edinburgh Review, lvii (1833), 26.

  5. Martineau's Autobiography, I, 163.

  6. Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy (London, 1834), III, 64. Page references hereafter given in the text, e.g. (MS, 64).

  7. Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970), ch. 6, p. 109. All page references are to this edition, as it is more readily available than the Knutsford edition, and will hereafter be given in the text, e.g. (MB, 6:109).

  8. Thomas Adolphus Trollope, What I Remember, 2nd ed. (London, 1887), II, 8.

  9. Ibid. II, 7.

  10. Frances Eleanor Trollope, Frances Trollope. Her Life and Literary Work (London, 1895), I, 301. Mrs Trollope was right. The journals so eager to review her travel books ignored Michael Armstrong with the exception of the Athenaeum, which published a most scathing review. (10 Aug. 1839, pp. 587-90).

  11. Two scholars mention Montagu's Mary Ashley: W. H. Chaloner, ‘Mrs Trollope and the Early Factory System’, Victorian Studies, iv (1960), 165, and Dora Rayner, ‘Mrs Gaskell's North and South’, Diss. Bedford College, London, 1968, p. 23. Frederic Montagu is ignored by standard sources of information. By the courtesy of Mr R. Walker, Librarian of Lincoln's Inn Library, the following information has been made available: ‘Frederic Montagu was admitted to Lincoln's Inn in 1830, “aged 20, Sixth son of Basil Montagu of New Square, Lincoln's Inn Barrister”.’ Since Montagu was never called to the bar, Lincoln's Inn has no further information about him.

  12. Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil: or the Two Nations (London, 1881), bk. III, ch. I, p. 166. Page references hereafter in the text, e.g. (Sybil, III: I: 166).

  13. Sir William Adolphus Ward's statement that, before beginning Mary Barton in 1845, Mrs Gaskell ‘had remained quite unacquainted with both Coningsby and Sybil’, is generally accepted by scholars. See Gérin, p. 86, n. 19. Although Mrs Gaskell was not influenced by Sybil, this novel is still part of the literary genre preparing the reading public for Mary Barton.

  14. Mrs Gaskell confuses Mrs Stone's married name and her maiden name when she writes to her publisher Edward Chapman: ‘I find every one here has the most convincing proofs that the authorship of Mary Barton should be attributed to a Mrs Wheeler, née Miss Stone, an authoress of some book called the “Cotton Lord”’ (J. A. V. Chapple and Arthur Pollard, eds., The Letters of Mrs Gaskell (Manchester, 1966), p. 63). Mrs Stone dedicates William Langshawe to her father John Wheeler, proprietor of the Manchester Chronicle. Not included in any standard reference work, Mrs Stone was a writer of educational works, and on the titlepage of William Langshawe she is introduced as the ‘Authoress of “The Art of Needlework”.’ Kathleen Foster, Language and Literature Librarian of the Central Library in Manchester, assures me that their catalogue as well as that of the British Museum confuses this Elizabeth Stone with an Elizabeth Stone, active between 1865 and 1880, who wrote under the pseudonym Sutherland Menzies. This assumption is based on a review of Stone's God's Acre, which states that it has been announced as the author's last work (Athenaeum, 19 June 1858, p. 781).

  15. Rayner devotes three widely typed pages to William Langshawe in her unpublished dissertation. This is, to the best of my knowledge, the only discussion of the novel. Wheeler (p. 100, n. 23) states that ‘Elizabeth Stone's novel … provided the basis for a number of characters and plot motifs in Mary Barton: the similarities between the two novels are unmistakable. It is hardly surprising to find that Mrs Gaskell was also indebted to several passages in The Young Milliner. …’

  16. Elizabeth Stone, William Langshawe, the Cotton Lord (London, 1842), i, 108. Page references hereafter given in the text, e.g. (WL, I, 108).

  17. Athenaeum, 1 Oct. 1842, p. 846. This is a negative review, perceiving the novel as an attack on ‘the social circles of Manchester,’ denouncing her satire on ‘the taste for ostentatious display, and the coarseness of manners’ as ‘absurdly exaggerated.’ The reviewer fails to grasp that Mrs Stone's satire is blended with sympathy and understanding. A somewhat more positive review appeared in the Examiner, 5 Nov. 1842, pp. 709-10.

  18. Elizabeth Stone, The Young Milliner (London, 1843), p. 114. Page references hereafter given in the text, e.g. (YM, 114). This novel was reviewed by the Athenaeum on 6 May 1843, p. 437. The reviewer holds that it ‘will neither travel far, nor do much good or harm’.

  19. Fraser's Town and Country Magazine, xxxix (1849), 429.

  20. Scholars have wrongly given the date for the serialisation of Helen Fleetwood as 1839-40. See Kathleen Tillotson, Novels of the Eighteen-Forties (1954; rpt. Oxford, 1956), p. 118; Kovačević and Kanner, p. 160; and Ellen Moers, p. 24. The novel appeared in the Christian Lady's Magazine from September 1839 to March 1841.

  21. The Works of Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna with an Introduction by Mrs H. B. Stowe, 5th ed. (New York, 1847), I, 557. All page references to Helen Fleetwood are to this edition and are hereafter given in the text, e.g. (HF, 557).

  22. Mrs Gaskell alludes to Abraham's words to Dives: ‘“Remember, my child, that all good things fell to you while you were alive and that all the bad to Lazarus; now he has his consolation here and it is you who are in agony”’ (Luke 16:25).

  23. Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna did not address herself to the average novel reader. In her Personal Recollections (1841) (New York, 1858), p. 78, she relates how her meeting with Captain Phelan—her future husband—in London saved her, when in straitened financial circumstances, from the snares of becoming a novel writer. She would strongly have objected to being called a novelist; in her opinion she wrote a tale embodying certain religious ideas.

  24. The Works of Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna (New York, 1846), ii, 425. ‘The Wrongs of Women’ (American title) can be found in vol. 2, pp. 397-502. All page references are to this edition and hereafter given in the text. The four tales were also published separately.

  25. Parts I, ‘Milliners and Dressmakers’, III, ‘The Little Pin-Headers’, and IV, ‘The Lace-Runners’, bear little resemblance to Mary Barton and, despite the literary merits of Parts III and IV, fall outside the scope of this essay.

  26. Westminster Review, xliv (1845), 146.

Elaine Jordan (essay date spring 1981)

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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 and pleasure in Mrs. Gaskell's novels beyond the integrating flow of sympathy:

The fact is that there is a marvellously anarchic force at work in Mrs. Gaskell's fiction. The official side of her, liberal, pious, incuriously middle-class, pleads for a very complacent notion of reconciliation, and tries to fashion art so as to reveal its pattern. But an endlessly rewarding unofficial side keeps pushing this pattern away, revealing different patterns of inevitability, of antagonisms, misunderstandings, hatred.2

I want to look at this ‘side’ of Mary Barton not as a single ‘point’ at which the flow of sympathy is arrested but as the irruption into the text of discourses other than that of sympathetic observing realism. There are very many quotations and allusions in the text which have been well studied in Michael Wheeler's The Art of Allusion in Victorian Fiction3: the association of the working-class characters with Burns, popular ballads and radical poetry and of Harry Carson with Shakespearean tags; and in particular the excessive reliance on biblical allusions, most marked in the modulation of both Barton and the elder Carson from Old Testament vengefulness to New Testament charity. I wish, in that respect, only to draw attention to one odd but important biblical allusion he has missed: ‘the Scorpion’. But my first and more extended concern is with the ‘Gothic’, as a discourse arguably more alien to a realistic presentation of nineteenth-century Manchester: as Michael Wheeler says, the ‘steady flow’ of biblical allusions ‘serves as a kind of continuo in the novel’. In a recent study of Mrs. Gaskell, Angus Easson draws a contrast between her ‘not uncritical’ sympathy for the trades unions and the representation of them by other novelists as secret societies consolidated by skull and dagger initiation rituals: ‘she is … aware that industrial problems are not a matter of skulls and oaths but of flesh and blood’.4 Professor Easson's reading of the novel in terms of coherent realistic character study and development makes little of the generally felt change in mode after Harry Carson's death, the mode announced by the face of the Carson's servant in chapter eighteen: ‘It was blanched to a dead whiteness; the lips compressed as if to keep within some tale of horror; the eyes distended and unnatural. It was a terror-stricken face’. I wish to trace the emergence of this mode in the earlier part of the novel, noting discrepancies precisely in terms of treating the working-class response to industrial problems not only realistically but as a matter of skulls and oaths; a matter of terror.

Before his journey to London as a delegate to present the Chartist National Petition, John Barton, though always impressively stern, is relatively chatty and open. Chapter eight presents a nicely observed little scene of domestic comedy: Jem Wilson, come to court Mary, is entertained by her father instead, with talk of wages, unions and industrial accidents. Comic realism provides an effective forum for Barton's sense of the need for action to control ‘the masters’, and for the facts which make his case:

‘… by far th' greater part o' th' accidents as comed in, happened in th' last two hours o' work, when folk getten tired and careless. Th' surgeon said it were all true, and that he were going to bring that fact to light.’

Jem was pondering Mary's conduct; but the pause made him aware he ought to utter some civil listening noise; so he said,

‘Very true’.

‘Ay, it's true enough, my lad …’

A different way of presenting Barton is foreshadowed on his return from London in chapter nine. Mary, alone at home, hears a fumbling at the door: ‘There stood—could it be? yes it was, her father.’ Her lonely anxious situation and the moment of suspense, so crudely handled, suggest that ‘it’ might just as well have been a Gothic spectre. This possibility is strengthened in chapter ten, as a contrast with chapter eight shows. Then, Barton had been presented with realistic specificity ‘smoking his pipe by the fire while he read an old Northern Star borrowed from a neighbouring public house.’ We may presume that his seat, his pipe, his paper were habitual, but there we see him quite clearly, on one characteristic occasion. In chapter ten he is again ‘near the fireplace (from habit)’ but we may now see him either ‘smoking or chewing opium’. The clear picture is blurred by the alternative choice of image. I shall return later to this seat by the fireplace, from which both the realistic Barton and the fire are significantly removed in the course of the novel. What follows has the recurrent unspecific suspense of Gothic fiction:

Oh, how Mary loathed that smell! And in the dusk, just before it merged into the short summer night, she had learned to look with dread towards the window, which now her father would have kept uncurtained; for there were not seldom seen sights which haunted her in her dreams. Strange faces of pale men, with dark glaring eyes, peered into the inner darkness, and seemed desirous to ascertain if her father were at home. Or a hand and arm (the body hidden) was put within the door, and beckoned him away. He always went. And once or twice, when Mary was in bed, she heard men's voices below, in earnest, whispered talk.

They were all desperate members of Trades' Unions, ready for any thing; made ready by want.

The influence of the tale of terror on Mrs. Gaskell's presentation of John Barton is confirmed by two allusions in chapter fifteen, neither of which is very clearly remembered or acknowledged. At the beginning of this chapter Barton is described as suffering ‘a long period of bodily privation; of daily hunger after food’, while he is also mentally mortified: the rejection of the Chartist petition has destroyed his hopes for government intervention to alleviate the suffering of the Manchester poor. The analogy Mrs. Gaskell chooses for his ‘monomania’ is extraordinary:

… so haunting, so incessant, were the thoughts that pressed upon him. I have somewhere read a forcibly described punishment among the Italians, worthy of a Borgia. The supposed or real criminal was shut up in a room, supplied with every convenience and luxury; and at first mourned little over his imprisonment. But day by day he became aware that the space between the walls of his apartment was narrowing, and then he understood the end. Those painted walls would come into hideous nearness, and at last crush the life out of him.

And so day by day, nearer and nearer, came the diseased thoughts of John Barton. They excluded the light of heaven, the cheering sounds of earth. They were preparing his death.

The analogy between the pressing in of the walls and the pressing in of obsessive thoughts is straightforward enough: the inappropriateness of the context, ‘supplied with every convenience and luxury’ as against ‘daily hunger’, seems not to occur to the writer. What makes it even stranger is that she has herself supplied this inappropriate convenience and luxury; it is not in the half-remembered source. Harvey Peter Sucksmith has shown that this was probably William Mudford's The Iron Shroud, published in Blackwood's Magazine in 1830, and reprinted in Glasgow, possibly in 1840, as The Iron Shroud; or Italian Revenge.5 At one point in this tale the prisoner is provided with a different pitcher and rather better food, but this is hardly ‘luxury’. Mr. Sucksmith thinks it unlikely that Mrs. Gaskell had read Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum, which had Mudford's story as its source: it was published in 1843 but not included in his 1845 Tales. However, Poe's prison does have ‘painted walls’, like Barton's imaginary one and unlike Mudford's which is of iron; but it is in Spain not Italy, and squalid not luxurious.6 This specific if misremembered allusion supports the hints in the style, that even before the murder Barton is beginning to be associated with Gothic terror; and that when she is using this mode Mrs. Gaskell is concerned with effect not consistency, that she is dominated by vague fears rather than successful imaginative identification. Although it is implied that Barton's mental suffering makes his condition worse than the bodily privation which he shares with others of his class, my earlier quotation from chapter ten should indicate that the Gothic mode is not merely used as a correlative for Barton's consciousness, his obsession and later his guilt. It is also a way of feeling about ‘desperate members of Trades' Unions’.

The confusion of sympathy and fear, of the real and the fantastic, is very marked in the second textual allusion in chapter fifteen, which follows closely on the Italian torture chamber analogy. It is preceded by an argument addressed by the writer to the reader, on the topic of reality and dream:

It is true, much of their [Barton's thoughts] morbid power might be ascribed to the use of opium. But before you blame too harshly this use, or rather abuse, try a hopeless life, with daily cravings of the body for food. Try, not alone being without hope yourself, but seeing all around you reduced to the same despair, arising from the same circumstances; all around you telling (though they use no words or language), by their looks and feeble actions, that they are suffering and sinking under the pressure of want. Would you not be glad to forget life, and its burdens? And opium gives forgetfulness for a time.

It is true they who thus purchase it pay dearly for the oblivion; but can you expect the uneducated to count the cost of their whistle? Poor wretches! They pay a heavy price. Days of oppressive weariness and langour, whose realities have the feeble sickliness of dreams; nights, whose dreams are fierce realities of agony; sinking health, tottering frames, incipient madness, and worse, the consciousness of incipient madness; this is the price of their whistle. But have you taught them the science of consequences?

John Barton's overpowering thought, which was to work out his fate on earth, was rich and poor; why are they so separate, so distinct, when God has made them all? It is not His will, that their interests are so far apart. Whose doing is it?

And so on into the problems and mysteries of life, until, bewildered and lost, unhappy and suffering, the only feeling that remained clear and undisturbed in the tumult of his heart, was hatred to the one class and keen sympathy with the other.

But what availed his sympathy? No education had given him wisdom; and without wisdom, even love, with all its effects, too often works but harm. He acted to the best of his judgement, but it was a widely-erring judgement.

Barton's use of opium is appropriate both to the Gothic mode and to social realism: it was the anodyne of the working-class poor as well as of De Quincey. It is for and about the poor, represented by Barton, that Mrs. Gaskell engages in argument with ‘you’, the reader, who is assumed to be neither an opium addict nor in want and despair. The use of opium is provoked by circumstances and should not be blamed ‘too harshly’ by those who are not in such circumstances; it gives forgetfulness. But the price of opium is a confusion of reality and dream: ‘Days … whose realities have the feeble sickliness of dreams; nights, whose dreams are fierce realities of agony’. This dissolution of the boundaries of reality and dream has the effect, in Barton, of producing his monomania: one single clear idea, the separation of rich and poor. His ‘hatred to the one class and keen sympathy to the other’ is seen as unwise and ‘widely-erring’, part of the ‘incipient madness’ brought on by opium.

There's one contradiction here: what is said to be a merging of boundaries produces a very clear sense of a boundary. There's another contradiction, clearer and more important, between this argument and the whole text. Much of the emotive force of Mrs. Gaskell's narrative comes from her own intense consciousness of unjust separation; the consciousness she attributes to Barton. The effect of chapter six, coping with the miserable death of the pious Methodist Davenport, is achieved by the way it moves continually from the lives of the poor to the lives of the rich: the structuring of the episode makes a point about injustice which needs no exterior affirmation. If she had not, as narrator, shared Barton's obsession, she could not have rendered it with such force. To say this is to reassert the contradiction between ideology and the presented narrative reality which appears so clearly in chapter three: ‘I know that this [what she has presented] is not really the case; and I know what is the truth in such matters’ [which, however, she does not present]. In her argument in chapter fifteen she presents Barton's consciousness as in the grip of fantastic horror and monomania, and thereby herself dissolves the boundaries between class-consciousness and mental illness. The allusion to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), which follows, suggests that her own class-consciousness has moved her from reality and realism to a more fantastic way of feeling and writing, even while she pretends to argue reasonably:

The actions of the uneducated seem to me typified in those of Frankenstein, that monster of many human qualities, ungifted with a soul, a knowledge of the difference between good and evil.

The people rise up to life; they irritate us, they terrify us, and we become their enemies. Then, in the sorrowful moment of our triumphant power, their eyes gaze on us with a mute reproach. Why have we made them what they are; a powerful monster, yet without the inner means for peace and happiness?

The change from the earlier ‘you’ addressed to the reader, to the first person plural, indicates how unmisgivingly Mrs. Gaskell identifies herself and her readers as belonging to the same class. ‘The people’ are not ‘us’, they are monstrous, Other. Again her memory is at fault: clearly she had not read Frankenstein recently or at all. Her participation in the common error of calling Frankenstein's creature by its creator's name awakens, as Mrs. Gaskell did not intend but Mary Shelley did, a doubt as to who it is that is truly monstrous—the creature with its discourse on its own development and education (rational and enlightened, at least in the author's intention), or the idealistic scientist whose supposed high intelligence and scrupulous attention to detail did not extend to any provision for post-natal care.

Mrs. Gaskell's intention is clearly to argue that however unthinking ‘we’ may have been, ‘we’ do have souls and therefore ought now to take responsibility for the urban poor, the soulless monster created (as she claims) by industrial capitalism. The implications of the image in terms of Barton himself are less clear. The analogy between ‘Frankenstein’ and the uneducated, whom Barton represents, arose out of the claim that his class sympathies showed mistaken judgement, affected by an opium addiction which brought him close to madness. If the analogy holds good then Barton has no soul, no ‘knowledge of the difference between good and evil’. The argument continues, immediately:

John Barton became a Chartist, a Communist, all that is commonly called wild and visionary. Ay! but being visionary is something. It shows a soul, a being not altogether sensual—a creature who looks forward for others, if not for himself.

The turns in reasoning are as upsetting as a switchback. The wild and visionary quality which Mrs. Gaskell attributes both to Barton's consciousness and to his political affiliations belongs to her presentation of and attitude to him: impassioned and inviting imaginative sympathy. The reason which she denies to Barton and implicitly attributes to the middle class seems deficient in herself. In the next paragraph this wild and visionary soulless soul is said to have ‘a sort of practical power, which made him useful to the bodies of men to whom he belonged’, a rough eloquence coming from the heart, and ‘a pretty clear head at times, for method and arrangement’. Underlying all these intelligent, heart-felt, practical and socially responsible qualities is an absolute unselfishness, the prerequisite for ‘great and noble men’. And it is Barton's commitment to Chartism which is the occasion for the practice of his abilities and virtues. All this (the last sentence is deduced from the context) is said by Mrs. Gaskell: the insertion of ‘at times’ looks like a momentary awareness of how far she has gone in subverting her Gothic image of Barton, and an attempt to repair the damage. It could be argued that the contradictions revealed here in the author's presentation of John Barton are in fact realistic: expressing the multiplicity of character, the complexity of psychological states and behaviour. I do not think this argument is adequate. A Gothic way of imagining the character is supervening on the realistic one: they collide here; and the Gothic mode continues to be used to withdraw sympathy from Barton and the strikers.

If Mrs. Gaskell is not fully in control of herself when she argues or imagines or feels, she is in control of her plot. The combination of working men to which Barton commits himself assigns to him the murder of Harry Carson, son of one of the employers. This episode, in chapter sixteen, reveals again the shift in sympathy and mode. During the interview between employers and the strikers' representatives Harry Carson has drawn a caricature of the half-starved ragged men. One of them goes back to get it: ‘There's a bit on a picture up yonder, as one o' the gentlemen threw away; I've a little lad at home as dearly loves a picture; by your leave I'll go up for it’. The strikers' enjoyment of the sketch, followed by anger, is drawn with lively detail and sympathy, mainly in direct speech. But the decision to murder, and the drawing of lots to choose the murderer, is shifted to indirect reporting, which returns the realistic individuals to the set of spooks they had first appeared as in chapter ten:

And so with words, or looks that told more than words, they built up a deadly plan. Deeper and darker grew the import of their speeches, as they stood hoarsely muttering their meaning out, and glaring, with eyes that told the terror their own thoughts were to them, upon their neighbours. Their clenched fists, their set teeth, their livid looks, all told the suffering their minds were voluntarily undergoing in the contemplation of crime, and in familiarising themselves with its details.

Then came one of those fierce terrible oaths which bind members of Trades' Unions to any given purpose.

The shift in mode marks a blackening of the trades' union by association with murder; and Mrs. Gaskell's own murder of her relatively realistic and sympathetic character, John Barton, decreating him to a spectre, a shadow, an automaton. His act as assassin is absent from the text, although just before it may be presumed to take place Barton tenderly guides a lost child home; the kind of display of benevolence which the monster in the Frankenstein films makes. Barton himself is then absent, except as an occasional thought in the minds of others, for fifteen chapters. The questions raised by his absence are given no consideration in the text, as if there were no longer any interest in his character, psychology, motivation: why had he not been aware that he would incriminate Jem Wilson by borrowing his gun and throwing it away near the scene of the crime? Why did he take no action to clear Jem—as a newspaper reader he would surely know of the arrest and trial, even walking to Glasgow on union business, which has taken him off the scene? The kind of explanations which would be essential to realistic characterization are no longer relevant to John Barton.

He returns in chapter thirty-three as a slow and heavy foot-fall, a form gliding in the shadows:

A foot-fall was heard along the pavement; slow and heavy was the sound. Before Jem had ended his little piece of business, a form had glided into sight; a wan, feeble figure, bearing, with evident and painful labour, a jug of water from the neighbouring pump. It went before Jem, turned up the court at the corner of which he was standing, passed into the broad, calm light; and there, with bowed head, sinking and shrunk body, Jem recognised John Barton.

No haunting ghost could have had less of the energy of life in its involuntary motions than he, who, nevertheless, went on with the same measured clock-work tread, until the door of his own house was reached. And then he disappeared, and the latch fell feebly to, and made a faint and wavering sound, breaking the solemn silence of the night. Then all again was still.

Mrs. Gaskell's account of Jem's reactions can be read as a confession of her own perplexed half-reasons, half-feelings, the entanglement of her ‘real motives’, as well as an apology for the perplexity she may be putting her reader in by what she is doing to her character. Mary, delirious after her exertions at the time of the trial, has split Barton into two—her father and ‘the blood-shedder’. Aware of this, Jem decides to behave as if he has not seen Barton, as if he were a shadow or supernatural visitation:

If you think this account of mine confused, of the half-feelings, half-reasons, which passed through Jem's mind, as he stood gazing at the empty space, where that crushed form had so lately been seen,—if you are perplexed to disentangle the real motives, I do assure you it was from such an involved set of thoughts that Jem drew the resolution to act as if he had not seen that phantom likeness of John Barton; himself, yet not himself.

‘I do assure you it was …’ The novelist's earnest assurance of her reader has earlier marked an insistence on ideology as opposed to what her narrative presents; here the anxiety (protesting too much) may be associated with the shift in narrative mode.

The picture of Barton in chapter thirty-four marks the third phase in his presentation: the first exemplified in chapter eight, with fire, pipe and newspaper; the second in chapter ten, chewing opium or smoking by the fire-place without a fire; the third, sitting by the grate: ‘Some dull, grey ashes, negligently left, long days ago, coldly choked up the bars. He had taken the accustomed seat from mere force of habit, which ruled his automaton-body’. His face is ‘like a skull’. He is a lifeless shadow of himself, as dead as the fire, as empty as the room. Of course my account of a presentation of Barton split into two—realistic character and spectre-automaton—has so far ignored the final phase; the pity appealed for, the ultimate Christian reconciliation with Carson. That is because what dominates the imagination is the ‘crushed form’ in ‘empty space’: the space in which Mrs. Gaskell might have sustained a realistic and sympathetic study of a representative of the first working-class political movement.

John Barton is called a Chartist, but Mrs. Gaskell empties the label of full historical content. The progressive silencing of him—which can be traced throughout the text as his speech is replaced by a Gothic imagination of him—can be read as a covert acknowledgement of this. When we read, in chapter fifteen, that Barton ‘became a Chartist’ we may well assume that this is the point at which he became one; but he had already joined the movement after his wife's death, in chapter three. This is of course why he goes to London, as a delegate to present the National Petition (presented to Parliament in 1839 and rejected)—though Mrs. Gaskell is as likely as the reader to have forgotten the fact since she nowhere gives Barton specifically Chartist views, nor does she mention the Charter's six points of political reform: universal male suffrage, equal electoral districts, removal of property qualification for M.P., payment of M.P.s, the secret ballot, and annual general elections. The assumptions behind these proposals about the causes and cures of working-class misery are ignored. In spite of the intellectual power, austerity and authority attributed to him, Barton's notion of the petition is presented both as utopian and as a child's cry for pity from neglectful parents, to procure charity: ‘some grand relief, by means of which they should never suffer want or care any more’. He speaks humbly, with none of the Chartist sense that what was necessary was a working-class voice in government: ‘“… what I think on, is just speaking out about the distress, that they say is nought … and when they hear o' all this plague, pestilence, and famine, they'll surely do something wiser for us than we can guess at now. …”’ (Chapter 8) When Mrs. Gaskell attempts in her own person to account for the causes of misery, she mingles it with her sense of the ‘impossibility’ of describing that misery adequately:

Even philanthropists who had studied the subject, were forced to own themselves perplexed in the endeavour to ascertain the real causes of the misery; the whole matter was of so complicated a nature, that it became next to impossible to understand it thoroughly. … It is so impossible to describe, or even faintly to picture, the state of distress. …

(Chapter 8)

Yet she has described the misery, with the moving effect to which Raymond Williams testifies, and she has given an account in chapters three, five and six, of certain clear major causes: the capitalist market economy and more immediately the continuing severe weather which by making the purchase of summer clothes unnecessary depressed the home clothing market. With such causes, the Christian charity or otherwise of the employers is irrelevant.7 The passage quoted, with its perplexity and doubt about ‘the real causes’, foreshadows in its diction Mrs. Gaskell's account of Jem Wilson's reactions to the Gothic John Barton, an account which reflects her own evasion of a realistic presentation of the man. However much she may have felt that Chartism oversimplified, there must surely have been a case, since she has chosen to call her hero a Chartist, for presenting the Chartist view?

Her silencing of the Chartist voice is balanced by an attack on contemporary government more satirical than any speech she gives Barton:

They could not believe that the government knew of their misery; they rather chose to think it possible that men could voluntarily assume the office of legislators for a nation, ignorant of its real state, as who should make domestic rules for the pretty behaviour of children, without caring to know that those children had been kept for days without food.

(Chapter 8)

Her angry and moving, detailed and general, account of this ‘misery’ as the context of the petition, does in fact endorse a modern historian's account of the genesis and persistence of Chartism: ‘A movement like Chartism in Britain would collapse time and again, under its political weakness. Time and again sheer hunger—the intolerable burden which rested on millions of the labouring poor—would revive it.’8

Nevertheless, Barton returns from London silenced, as Parliament had silenced the petition: he grimly refuses to tell ‘what happened when yo' got to th' Parliament House’, and the space which that might have taken in the text is filled by Job Legh's pathetic and comic anecdote of his own trip to London and back. It may be significant that in the first outline of the novel Job Legh, a reluctant union member in the completed text, was himself a Chartist who instigated Barton (then Wilson) to join a Chartist Club.9 Just as this affiliation is suppressed between outline and text, so Legh is used in the text to replace Barton's potential speech, both in chapter nine and in the penultimate chapter, chapter thirty-seven, where he accounts for Barton's motives to Mr. Carson in total ignorance of ‘the real causes’.

This pattern of displacement—a patient Job Legh substituted for a Chartist Job Legh, a silent spectre-automaton for an articulate John Barton—is most obviously enacted in the plot and form of the novel. Mrs. Gaskell's angry documentation and her labelling of Barton as a Chartist create expectations of a political novel, in which Barton might finally speak out and defend himself as a Chartist. These expectations are disappointed. The sensational murder story withdraws attention from the outcome of the strike and is merged with the love story as Mary Barton's suitor Jem Wilson is charged with the murder of Harry Carson, who has been pursuing her. This merger leads to a detective novel, with first Esther, Mary's prostitute aunt, and then Mary herself as early female detectives; and finally to courtroom drama with a last-minute vindication, when Jem Wilson stands trial in place of John Barton. Edmund Wilson credited Dickens with the creation of a new genre, ‘the detective story which is also a social fable’. In Bleak House (1852-3) ‘the solution of the mystery is to be also the moral of the story and the last word of Dickens's social “message”’.10Mary Barton may have influenced Dickens but in it Mrs. Gaskell uses the detective story and the court-room drama to evade political analysis, and to divert attention from her own ‘social message’.

I have used the allusion to Frankenstein, and the traces of the tale of terror associated with it, to claim that Mrs. Gaskell was almost consciously avoiding the realistic satisfaction of certain expectations which the novel creates. I now want to suggest that the ‘biblical’ scorpion, which I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, can be seen as a similar case. It appears in Margaret Jennings's account of her grandfather Job Legh's entomological studies in chapter five. Just as the scientific hobby (introduced as part of Mrs. Gaskell's elevation of the working-class man as worthy of her reader's respect) may have been a substitute for political engagement, so this anecdote like many others crowds out for its duration any other sort of story she may be telling. I should note here that to say this is not to disapprove: Mrs. Gaskell's passion for gossip and story-telling is both egalitarian and one of the pleasures of her text. A contribution by David Musselwhite to the 1977 Essex Conference on the Sociology of Literature, ‘The Novel as Narcotic’, interprets the scorpion as an ‘image of a dormant class roused by the heat of anger and despair, an irreconcilable creature which has to be drugged to death in gin, totally narcoticized’. (In fact it is boiled to death in the kettle before being preserved in gin:—‘What on earth is he doing that for?’ wonders Margaret as Job gets the kettle. ‘He'll never drink his tea with a scorpion running free and easy about the room.’) Along with the other fauna in the novel it offers, David Musselwhite claims, a ‘shadow’ of ‘the text's “ideological ambition”’: the argument between Will Wilson and Job Legh about mermaids and flying fish offers the possibility that if flying fish are possible then so are mermaids, so that contradictions may be resolved. Just as Will pacifies Job by offering him a cat without a tail, a Manx cat, so the novel itself becomes a scorpion without a sting: the potentially political novel becomes a less offensive entertainment.

That is one way of attributing significance to the apparently random choice of a scorpion. It can be misleading to insist upon the full parallelism of allusions in Mrs. Gaskell's work, as Professor Easson reminds us.11 (If we did so with Carson's conversion by his recollection of Luke 23.34, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do’, we would find ourselves equating Harry Carson with Christ.) But a search for a relevant background for this superficial anecdotal scorpion reveals how deeply it was embedded in the imaginative resources on which she drew for this novel. It emerges again in a more serious context in chapter ten. Writing of the scope and long-term effects of extreme poverty, she notes how pious and traditional sayings have lost their power to console and reconcile, and herself appeals at once to the Old Testament:

The people had thought the poverty of the preceding years hard to bear, and had found its yoke heavy; but this year added sorely to its weight. Former times had chastised them with whips, but this chastised them with scorpions.

The allusion is to I Kings 12. 11 and 14. Michael Wheeler insists that our interest in such allusions should be restricted to the moment of publication, to their probable effect on the reader rather than to any evidence they might offer about the moment of creation.12 A thoroughgoing application of this principle would suppress a curious fact about Mary Barton: that the scorpion which emerges in chapters five and ten lies beneath the structure of chapters fifteen and sixteen. The whole chapter in I Kings underlies the presentation of the employers in those chapters.

The story in Kings is that Rehoboam reigned over all Israel after the death of Solomon. The exiled Jeroboam returns to plead for the people: ‘… now therefore make thou the grievous service of thy father, and his heavy yoke which he put upon us, lighter, and we will serve thee.’ Rehoboam consults with the old men, his father Solomon's counsellors, who recommend that he should ‘serve’ the people, ‘and answer them, and speak good words to them’. But Rehoboam follows instead the advice of the young men, to outdo his father: ‘My father made your yoke heavy, and I will add to your yoke: my father also chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.’ The result is rebellion: all the tribes but one refuse the rule of Rehoboam. So in chapter fifteen some at least of the old men are for conciliation, whereas all of the young men are behind Harry Carson:

Some of the old, whose experience had taught them sympathy, were for concession. Others, white-headed men too, had only learnt hardness and obstinacy from the days of the years of their lives, and sneered at the more gentle and yielding. The young men were all for an unflinching resistance to claims urged with so much violence. Of this party Harry Carson was the leader.

I am arguing that the whole of I Kings 12 was on Mrs. Gaskell's mind, even though the only linguistic reminder of the Old Testament here is in the phrasing of ‘the days of the years of their lives’. In chapter ten the vicious lashing with scorpions is attributed very generally to hard times and not to any specific human agency; in chapters fifteen and sixteen the continuing though submerged presence of the biblical allusion suggests decisive human responsibility—the responsibility of the young men, in the present and presumably in the future. The vicious effect of their hard line as an exacerbation of misery is not directly confessed: lashing with scorpions doesn't emerge in the text at this point. But we can see quite clearly that it was in Mrs. Gaskell's consciousness as she produced the text, once we correlate the assertions in chapter fifteen, and their enactment in chapter sixteen, with the allusion in chapter ten: the policy adopted by the employers is responsible for the misery suffered by the employees and, moreover, is liable to lead to disaster in the future, on the analogy of the fates suffered by Rehoboam (loss of power) and Harry Carson (loss of life).

This note of warning is reinforced by another unstressed allusion in chapter sixteen, where the masters look ‘as like as they could, to the Roman senators who awaited the irruption of Brennus and his Gauls’. Stephen Gill's footnote, in the Penguin English Library edition of Mary Barton, informs us that the Gauls under Brennus plundered Rome, besieged the Capitol for six months and only departed after payment of a ransom.

As in the Gothicizing of John Barton we see here the emergence of that spectre, fear of violence. It is because of this fear that Mrs. Gaskell wants to see the averting of violence as something within the power of the middle class but independent of the economic system which makes them dominant. She wants charity as taught in the New Testament to be capable of resolving the dangerous situation. In this traceable but not fully articulate reasoning she is prepared to blame her own class morally for working-class misery. The scorpion has been the instrument of the middle class; it is to be rendered harmless by charity, sympathy, concession, as Carson's vindictiveness (‘Let my trespasses be unforgiven so that I may have vengeance for my son's murder’, chapter thirty five) melts into penitence, mercy and love. Mrs. Gaskell's readiness to attribute guilt, her creation of oppressors and victims in terms of the Hebrew tribes and their rulers, parallels that division into rich goats and poor sheep, Dives and Lazarus, with which she endows Barton and which clearly moved her strongly. The economic determinants of the situation she has described in Manchester do not permit such simple oppositions and resolutions; she resorts therefore to other genres, other discourses, with terms that can be resolved.

The employment of the tale of terror works against the conciliatory conclusion, however. Refusing a realistic presentation of John Barton as a convinced Chartist (which might easily have been accompanied, in Carlyle's manner, by counter-arguments as to the unworkability of Chartism), the Gothic allusions and their encroachment on the realistic text present Barton as monstrous and Other, a spectre with which no human accommodation could be made. This collision of sympathetic, authentic realism with imaginative terror affords, in Mary Barton, an image of Mrs. Gaskell's own psycho-historical condition. Its value as literature resides in this ultimate authenticity which betrays its contradictions.


  1. R. Williams, Culture and Society (Penguin Books, 1961), Chapter 5, pp. 99-103.

  2. J. Lucas, ‘Mrs. Gaskell and the Nature of Social Change’, Literature and History, 1, March 1975, p. 12.

  3. M. Wheeler, The Art of Allusion in Victorian Fiction, (Macmillan, 1979), Chapter 4.

  4. A. Easson, Elizabeth Gaskell, (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979).

  5. H. P. Sucksmith, Nineteenth Century Fiction, 29, 1974-75.

  6. A colleague, Dr. John Coombes, suggests that the convenience and luxury which is so inappropriate to Barton's condition signals the reconciliation between Barton and Carson, with its basis in the ideological assumption of an ultimate universality of suffering shared by rich and poor; in later chapters Carson does suffer with equal obsession while ‘supplied with every convenience and luxury’.

  7. Carlyle mocked the middle-class resort to ‘impossibility’, as a way of evading such issues while showing concern, in Past and Present; see Gillian Beer, ‘Carlyle and Mary Barton: Problems of Utterance’, Essex Conference on the Sociology of Literature, 1977, pp. 242-255; and also Carlyle's Chartism (1839) for his insistence on the need for ‘speech and articulate inquiry’ about Chartism.

  8. E. J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1962), 11, ii.

  9. See J. G. Sharps, Mrs. Gaskell's Observation and Invention (Fontwell, Sussex, 1970), pp. 554-62, and Mary Barton, (Penguin English Library), ed. Stephen Gill, appendix I.

  10. E. Wilson, The Wound and the Bow ((1941), Methuen University Paperbacks, 1961 pp. 32-33).

  11. A. Easson, op.cit., p. 23.

  12. M. Wheeler, op.cit., p. 8.

Tessa Brodetsky (essay date 1986)

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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 eighteenth century brought about the enclosure of open fields and commons. The larger farms thus created, together with improved, more scientific methods of farming, resulted in much greater yields of crops, especially corn; during the French wars, from 1793 to 1815, farmers, encouraged to produced food for the nation, enjoyed great prosperity, for there was a ready market for all the corn they could produce. However, the majority of small landholders and cottars lost what living they previously had from the land, and either worked for the large landowners for low wages, or wandered into the expanding industrial towns in search of work and a higher standard of living. In the main, however, they were disappointed, for in the towns there was much unemployment, especially as many women and children were employed in the factories and mills for long hours and very low wages, thus providing a supply of much cheaper labour than the men did. The desperate shortage of work, and therefore of money, led to a great deal of unrest, culminating in such events as the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 in Manchester. A large crowd had assembled in St Peter's Field in Manchester to listen to a well-known radical speaker, ‘Orator’ Henry Hunt, but the local magistrates, fearing a riot, sent in mounted yeomanry to arrest Hunt. The yeomanry charged the crowd with sabres and, as a result, eleven people were killed and over four hundred injured. Four days after Peterloo, The Times published the following:

The more attentively we have considered the relations subsisting between the upper and the labouring classes throughout some of the manufacturing districts, the more painful and unfavourable is the construction which we are forced to put upon the events of last Monday. … The two great divisions of society there, are—the masters, who have reduced the rate of wages; and the workmen, who complain of their masters for having done so. Turn the subject as we please, ‘to this complexion it must come at last’.1

In 1815, at the end of the war with France, the price of corn fell and, to protect the farmers, the government passed the first Corn Law. This (followed by another in 1828) protected the income of the English farmer by prohibiting the import of corn until home-produced corn cost eighty shillings a quarter. This exacerbated the difficulties of the poor, for it resulted in much dearer flour and bread, and led to a long campaign for the repeal of the Corn Laws. This campaign reached a climax as living conditions worsened during the decade which came to be known as ‘the hungry forties’, and in 1845 the Corn Laws were finally repealed after occasioning much hardship and bitterness.

The unrest caused by hunger, lack of work and appalling living conditions among so many of the workers found other outlets also, one of the most important being the Chartist movement. Whereas the mainspring of the Anti-Corn Law League was economic, the Chartist movement was in addition motivated by political aims. In 1832 the first of the great Parliamentary Reform Acts had been passed, and had done much to lessen the inequalities of the political system and to introduce greater democracy into parliamentary representation. However, there was still a long way to go, and a number of politically-conscious groups, strengthened by the discontent and frustration of many working men, because their plight was largely ignored by the politicians, joined together to form the Chartist movement. In 1838 a ‘People's Charter’ was drawn up. There were six points embodied in it, all concerned with the reform of the parliamentary system: universal male suffrage, equal electoral districts, the removal of the property qualification for members of parliament, payment of MPs, a secret ballot and annual general elections. In 1839 delegates from all over the country converged on the House of Commons to present a petition putting forward the six points. The point of the march and the National Chartist Convention, as it was known, was confused in the minds of many, who saw it as a means of informing members of parliament of the dismal facts of their situation. They were sure this would result in an immediate amelioration of their condition, and therefore, when the House of Commons refused to accept the petition, the disappointment was more intense than a rejection of the political demands alone would have occasioned. An important episode in the novel Mary Barton deals with the hopes aroused by the presentation of the petition, and the effects of its rejection.

It is against this background of social discontent and deprivation, of disappointment and failure, that Mary Barton is set:

The whole tale grew up in my mind as imperceptibly as a seed germinates in the earth, so I cannot trace back now why or how such a thing was written, or such a character or circumstance introduced,

wrote Mrs Gaskell. She went on to say that:

‘John Barton’ was the original title of the book. Round the character of John Barton all the others formed themselves; he was my hero, the person with whom all my sympathies went, with whom I tried to identify myself at the time, because I believed from personal observation that such men were not uncommon, and would well reward such sympathy and love as should throw light down upon their groping search after the causes of suffering, and the reason why suffering is sent, and what they can do to lighten it.

(L. [The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell] 42)

It was apparently due to pressure from the publishers that the title was changed to Mary Barton, with the subtitle A Tale of Manchester Life.

The change of title alters the emphasis from that originally intended by the author, for while John's main driving force, his raison d'être, centres round the struggle between the rich and the poor, between masters and workers, which is central to the book, Mary is only marginally involved in this:

… but it was hardly likely that a girl of Mary's age (even when two or three years had elapsed since her mother's death) should care much for the differences between the employers and the employed …

(p. 59)

The struggle obviously impinges on her, both in her relationship with her father and in the contrast between the circumstances and attitudes of her two lovers, Harry Carson, the son of a prosperous mill-owner, and Jem Wilson, a mechanic from a poor background similar to Mary's. However, she does come increasingly to dominate the action, so it can be argued that the change of title was reasonable, and it was obviously considered a more attractive one.

The story is concerned with the terrible problems experienced by the working-classes during the period around 1840. It starts happily enough, with a holiday outing by the Barton and Wilson families to a favourite spot of Mrs Gaskell's, Green Heys Fields; both men are in work and they are able to live reasonably well. When they all return to the Bartons' house for tea, we learn that the room was ‘warm and glowing light in every corner’, and that ‘Mrs Barton was proud of her crockery and glass’ (p. 49). There is money enough to buy in extra food for the guests, and Mary is sent for eggs, milk, a loaf, some rum and a pound of ham, but John Barton calls to his wife: ‘Say two pounds, missis, and don't be stingy’ (p. 50). But we already have an indication of the vehement concern John Barton has for the problems of the poor:

If I am out of work for weeks in the bad times, and winter comes, with black frost, and keen east wind, and there is no coal for the grate, and no clothes for the bed, and the thin bones are seen through the ragged clothes, does the rich man share his plenty with me, as he ought to do, if his religion was not a humbug? … Don't think to come over me with the old tale, that the rich know nothing of the trials of the poor. I say, if they don't know, they ought to know.

(p. 45)

The happiness of the first two chapters is soon destroyed; the Bartons suffer first, as during the following night Mrs Barton dies in labour:

One of the good influences over John Barton's life had departed that night. One of the ties which bound him down to the gentle humanities of earth was loosened, and henceforward the neighbours all remarked he was a changed man. His gloom and his sternness became habitual instead of occasional. He was more obstinate.

(p. 58)

It is not long before the Wilsons also suffer. George Wilson loses his job after a fire in Carsons' mill where he worked, and then their twin babies die. Shortly afterwards George Wilson also dies suddenly, so that the only remaining members of the two families are Mrs Wilson and Jem on the one hand, and John Barton and Mary on the other.

Mary, who is apprenticed to a dressmaker, is flattered by the attentions of wealthy young Harry Carson, and unrealistically imagines a future as his wife, with her father living with them in ease and luxury. The parallel between her and her aunt Esther, who has disappeared from home and (after having been seduced and then abandoned) has become a streetwalker, is made evident, and even John is worried by: ‘… this terrible superstitious fear suggested by her likeness to Esther …’ (p. 172)

Eventually Mary is brought face to face with the choice before her, for she receives a proposal from Jem, which she rejects, and which leads to his passionate outburst:

‘Mary! you'll hear, may be, of me as a drunkard, and may be as a thief, and may be as a murderer. Remember! when all are speaking ill of me, you will have no right to blame me, for it's your cruelty will have made me what I feel I shall become.’

(p. 175)

No sooner has Jem left than Mary realises she has made a terrible mistake and determines to avoid Harry Carson. Eventually, though, she meets him again and is confronted by the folly of her misguided daydreams: Harry Carson, frustrated by her refusal to have any more to do with him, says:

‘I thought we could be happy enough without marriage. … But now, if you like, I'll get a licence to-morrow morning—nay, to-night, and I'll marry you in defiance of all the world, rather than give you up.’

(p. 183)

In the meantime John has become more embittered about the situation of the poor and his inability to do anything to alter it. He has been to London as a member of the Chartist delegation of 1839 to present a petition to parliament, and is shattered by its reception:

‘As long as I live, our rejection that day will bide in my heart; and as long as I live I shall curse them as so cruelly refused to hear us; but I'll not speak of it no more.’

(pp. 144-5)

His views turn even more extreme, and he becomes involved in a plot to assassinate young Carson, whose cynical disregard of their desperate condition has infuriated the men. When Harry Carson is found murdered, his father, grief-stricken, offers a large reward to have the murderer found and brought to the gallows. Suspicion quickly falls on Jem, who is arrested and taken to Liverpool for trial.

Meanwhile, John Barton has left Manchester on a trade union delegation, unaware that his action has endangered Jem's life, or of Mary's entanglement with Harry Carson, which is now public knowledge. Mary determines to save Jem. Her situation is especially fraught when she finds evidence which reveals to her that her father is in fact the murderer. After a dramatic chase in a rowing-boat, Jem's cousin, who can provide him with an alibi, is found; he arrives at the trial at the critical moment, and Jem is found not guilty.

Mary, after a nervous collapse, returns home to find her father a broken man:

And as for his face it was sunk and worn,—like a skull, with yet a suffering expression that skulls have not! Your heart would have ached to have seen the man, however hardly you might have judged his crime.

(p. 422)

After several harrowing days, John brings together Mary, Jem, an old friend Job Legh, and Mr Carson, and confesses his guilt. Mr Carson refuses to show mercy, but in a passionate speech describes his feelings for his son, and John sees him for the first time as a brother rather than an employer, and cries out: ‘I did not know what I was doing.’ (p. 436) This has a profound effect on Mr Carson, and he returns to the Bartons' home the next morning, where in a melodramatic scene he holds John Barton in his arms in forgiveness, as John dies. Jem now decides to emigrate to Canada with Mary and his mother, and we finally see them living in a pleasant home with a garden and orchard, with Jem and Mary's baby son.

This narrative outline can give only a superficial impression of the forceful exposure of the living conditions of the poor, of the contrast between their lives and those of the employers, and of the near inability of human beings to understand one another and enter into each other's feelings, which are the underlying themes of the book. It is also important to consider the wealth of character-drawing, and the vivid detail which brings the descriptive passages to life.

The intimate knowledge Mrs Gaskell had of the lives of the poorest of her fellow citizens must have been fermenting in her mind from the time she married and settled in Manchester in 1832. The impact this knowledge had made found a release in the mid-1840s in Mary Barton, and the very fact that it had been latent for so long must have increased the passion with which she exposed the appalling conditions. The contrast between the living conditions of the rich and the poor is explicitly described again and again:

At all times it is a bewildering thing to the poor weaver to see his employer removing from house to house, each one grander than the last, till he ends in building one more magnificent than all, or withdraws his money from the concern, or sells his mill to buy an estate in the country, while all the time the weaver, who thinks he and his fellows are the real makers of this wealth, is struggling on for bread for their children, through the vicissitudes of lowered wages, short hours, fewer hands employed …

(p. 59)

The difference between the homes of the poor and that of the Carsons helps to highlight the contrast. There is a vivid description of Ben Davenport's home. He used to work with George Wilson at Carsons' mill, and also lost his job when the mill burnt down. He contracts a fever, and George Wilson enlists the support of John Barton to help the Davenport family. As they approach his home:

… women from their doors tossed household slops of every description into the gutter; they ran into the next pool, which overflowed and stagnated. Heaps of ashes were the stepping-stones, on which the passer-by, who cared in the least for cleanliness, took care not to put his foot.

(p. 98)

The Davenports live in a small cellar, which is made even darker by the rags stuffed into the gaps in the broken windows to keep out the cold air; the room stinks, and the men find:

… three or four little children rolling on the damp, nay wet, brick floor, through which the stagnant, filthy moisture of the street oozed up; the fire-place was empty and black …

(p. 98)

The two friends provide the family with what little food and comfort they can, and relieve Mrs Davenport by watching over her delirious husband during the night. This gives John Barton an opportunity to expound his ideas on the contrast between the lives of the rich and those of the poor: ‘“Han they ever seen a child o' their'n die for want o' food?”’ (p. 105) In the morning Wilson goes to Mr Carson's home to ask for any infirmary order for Ben Davenport, an order which had to be obtained from the employer to enable a workman to have hospital treatment: ‘Mr Carson's was a good house, and furnished with disregard to expense.’ (p. 105) The brightness of the kitchen with its ‘glittering tins’ and ‘roaring fire’ greets Wilson, who has come straight from the dank, foetid home of the Davenports. He is ushered into the dining-room, where he finds Mr Carson and his son at ‘the well-spread breakfast-table’, where ‘they lazily enjoyed their nicely prepared food.’ (p. 107) He is treated kindly, but without any understanding of the urgency of the situation, and he is given an out-patient order only for several days ahead.

This inability of the rich to understand the desperation of the poor is a theme recurring throughout the novel. The gap between them is enormous, both materially and emotionally; the rich have no conception of the crushing poverty which breaks the spirit of a man watching his children literally ‘clemming’ (starving) to death. Mrs Gaskell underlines this by referring on two occasions to the parable of Dives and Lazarus in the Book of Luke. Dives is the man who enjoys wealth and great material comfort on earth, whilst Lazarus, the beggar, suffers on earth, living only on the crumbs from the rich man's table. In the next world, however, Lazarus is rewarded in Heaven, whilst Dives is tormented in Hell. There is a gulf between them which cannot be crossed. So John Barton, when we first meet him expounding his beliefs to George Wilson during the relatively happy outing to Green Heys Field, says:

‘We are their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows; and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds; ay, as separate as Dives and Lazarus, with a great gulf betwixt us …’

(p. 45)

and later, after the abortive attempt to present the Charter to parliament:

‘Ay, London's a fine place,’ said he, ‘and finer folk live in it than I ever thought on, or ever heerd tell on except in th' story-books. They are having their good things now, that afterwards they may be tormented.’

whilst the author comments: ‘Still at the old parable of Dives and Lazarus! Does it haunt the minds of the rich as it does those of the poor?’ (p. 142)

Throughout the story, Mrs Gaskell has interwoven the theme of people's inability to communicate with each other, and therefore to understand each other's motives and attitudes. This inability is sometimes caused by sheer ignorance of another's situation; perhaps if Mr Carson or his son had visited the Davenports, and seen the appalling conditions in which they were living, they might have acted with a greater sense of urgency, a truer understanding of the fearful situation, for young Harry Carson is moved enough to give Wilson five shillings for ‘the poor fellow’, whilst his father, when he finally visits the Bartons' home to hear John's confession of murdering Harry, is forcibly struck, on returning home, by:

… the grinding squalid misery he had remarked in every part of John Barton's house, and which contrasted strangely with the pompous sumptuousness of the room in which he now sat. Unaccustomed wonder filled his mind at the reflection of the different lots of the brethren of mankind.

(p. 439)

The failure in communication is caused by haughtiness, by a wilful disregard and neglect of the feelings and understanding of others, particularly those considered inferiors. So, when the men are striking because of want and need:

No one thought of treating the workmen as brethren and friends, and openly, clearly, as appealing to reasonable men, stating the exact and full circumstances, which led the masters to think it was the wise policy of the time to make sacrifices themselves, and to hope for them from the operatives.

(p. 232)

Perhaps the gulf between the two sides would still have remained, even if the masters had tried to explain the position clearly to the workmen, but it might have been narrowed, for the masters, without intimate experience of the overwhelming conditions in which the poor exist, fail again and again to understand the situation. Even Mr Carson, towards the end of the story, and after seeing where and how John Barton lived, could say (in trying to explain his position to Job and Jem):

‘We cannot regulate the demand for labour. No man or set of men can do it. It depends on events which God alone can control. When there is no market for our goods, we suffer just as much as you can do.’

(p. 456)

and provokes mild Job Legh into replying:

‘Not as much, I'm sure, sir; though I'm not given to Political Economy, I know that much. I'm wanting in learning, I'm aware; but I can use my eyes. I never see the Masters getting thin and haggard for want of food; I hardly ever see them making much change in their way of living, though I don't doubt they've got to do it in bad times. But it's in things for show they cut short; while for such as me, it's in things for life we've to stint.’

(p. 456)

Another instance of the inability to communicate, this time on a personal level, occurs when Esther tries to warn John of Mary's liaison with Harry Carson; as a result of her own sufferings, she is very much aware of the life which will face Mary if she yields to the temptation of living unmarried with Harry, and she desperately wants to prevent this. In this case John, who is blindly prejudiced against Esther, refuses to listen, and flings her into the gutter, from where she is picked up by the police. Her half-delirious moans throughout the night centre around her failure to communicate her message to John: ‘“He would not listen to me; what can I do? He would not listen to me, and I wanted to warn him!”’ (p. 170)

So, in both work and personal relationships, Elizabeth Gaskell emphasises the misunderstandings between, and the resulting separateness of, people—their lack of empathy. On the industrial front the lack of perception exists not only between masters and men, but even between different groups of desperate workers. Over the years John Barton changes, often for the worse, as he becomes more embittered and intransigent, but he also on occasion learns about his fellow-men and becomes more sympathetic towards them. This happens when he goes to visit a ‘knob-stick’, a strike-breaker, in hospital. The action of the knob-sticks, in working for lower wages, and thus ruining the effectiveness of the strike, has incensed many of the strikers, and there is much bitter feeling, often erupting in violence, including one particularly brutal form of action: throwing vitriol at the knob-sticks. One of John's fellow-workers is in gaol for throwing vitriol in a knob-stick's face and, because he is haunted by the sight of the man he has injured, he asks John to sell a silver watch which belonged to his mother, to give the money to the knob-stick for his family and to ask him for forgiveness. John is horrified at the sight of the man and at his shrieks of pain and misery: ‘“… I, for one” he says, “ha' seen enough of what comes of attacking knob-sticks, and I'll ha' nought to do with it no more.”’ (p. 240) He develops his thoughts further and tells his fellow-members of the deputation:

‘… since I've thought on th' matter to-day, I've thought we han all on us been more like cowards in attacking the poor like ourselves; them as has none to help, but mun choose between vitriol and starvation.’

(p. 241)

Towards the end of the book both John and Mr Carson learn a little about each other's attitudes and way of life, and so narrow and fleetingly bridge the gap between them, especially as individuals. John, filled with guilt at the murder he has committed, tries to explain to Mr Carson:

‘Sir, one word! My hairs are grey with suffering, and yours with years—’

‘And have I had no suffering?’ asked Mr Carson, as if appealing for sympathy, even to the murderer of his child.

(p. 434)

Mr Carson goes on to explain how much he has lost in the loss of his son, and succeeds in making John Barton understand:

The eyes of John Barton grew dim with tears. Rich and poor, masters and men, were then brothers in the deep suffering of the heart; for was not this the very anguish he had felt for little Tom, in years so long gone by that they seemed like another life!

(p. 435)

Tom, Barton's son, had died for lack of nourishment as a young lad long before the story opens, at a time when John had been laid off from his mill. There is a brief, melodramatic description of John seeing the wife of his employer coming from a shop of ‘edible luxuries’, carrying her purchases for a party, and ‘Barton returned home with a bitter spirit of wrath in his heart, to see his only boy a corpse!’ (p. 61) So John Barton is able to understand the feelings of another man on the loss of his son, a man with whom he previously thought he had nothing in common, to empathise with him, as he has been shown to do earlier with the knob-stick. The passage is over-written and sentimental, but the underlying theme, that occasionally the gap can be bridged, is of great importance. Towards the end of the same chapter (Chapter 35) Mr Carson also bridges the gap in an equally sentimental and melodramatic passage. John Barton's cry: ‘I did not know what I was doing’, is taken up in an incident that Mr Carson witnesses, in which a little girl is knocked to the pavement by a careless, rough lad, but pleads with her nurse not to call a policeman: ‘“He did not know what he was doing, did you, little boy?”’ (p. 438) A chord is struck in Mr Carson's mind; he goes home to his Bible and finds the sentence: ‘They know not what they do’. He returns the following evening to John Barton's death-bed to pray:

‘God be merciful to us sinners.—Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us.’

And when the words were said, John Barton lay a corpse in Mr Carson's arms.

(pp. 441-2)

He has managed to feel for and with John Barton, if only briefly.

It is interesting that some of the most vivid character-drawing in Mary Barton depicts older people, who remember poignantly scenes from the past; Alice Wilson and Job Legh are two outstanding examples, neither of them central to the story, but each embodying sturdy, solid characteristics and attitudes, so obviously approved by Mrs Gaskell. Alice is a washerwoman, but also a devoted and skilful sicknurse, always ready to help her neighbours, even sitting up all night with an ill child; she is a patient, humble woman, content to accept her lonely, hard life without complaining. We hear about her early life in rural north Lancashire. Work was very scarce, and her brother, George, who was working in Manchester, found her a place in service there. She came to Manchester as a young girl, and never managed to return, even for a brief visit, to the ‘bonny bit’ which had been her home. Alice remembers fondly the countryside which she loved, but accepts that ‘the pleasure o' helping others’ is greater than that of self-indulgence. Whilst she is active, she is always ready to help those in trouble, and is a great comfort to her brother and sister-in-law when their twins die. Her health deteriorates during the course of the book; eventually her mind goes, and she sinks slowly into death, imagining herself back in her childhood life and surroundings. But even as she dies, ‘she diffused an atmosphere of peace around her.’ (p. 405)

Job Legh, on the other hand, is a more robust character, a knowledgeable, intelligent man, an authority on natural history. It is to him that Mary naturally turns for information and help when she wants to know about alibis, and how to help prove Jem's innocence; it is to him that John turns when he confesses that he is the murderer, and it is to him that Mr Carson turns when he wishes to find out more about John's motives, and to justify his actions as a master. Job conveys a calm, dependable, imperturbable personality, but we also see another side of him in his deep love and concern for his granddaughter, Margaret. There is a delightful interlude in which he describes the journey he and her other grandfather made with the orphaned ‘babby’ from London, two men with no idea how to feed or comfort the infant, dependent on landladies and chambermaids to help them out. On one occasion the other grandfather puts on a woman's nightcap, with which he hopes to fool the baby but, says Job:

‘Such a night as we had on it! Babby began to scream o'th' oud fashion, and we took it turn and turn about to sit up and rock it. My heart were very sore for th' little one, as it groped about wi' its mouth; but for a' that I could scarce keep fra' smiling at th' thought o' us two oud chaps, th' one wi' a woman's nightcap on, sitting on our hinder ends for half th' night, hushabying a babby as wouldn't be hushabied.’

(p. 149)

Such gleams of humour indicate Mrs Gaskell's liveliness and sense of the ridiculous, and provide a balance to the prevailing gloom depicted in the lives of the poor.

Jem's mother is another example of a well-drawn, convincing character. Jane Wilson is a ‘frabbit’ (ill-tempered) woman, who has had much to bear in her life; she had an accident, catching herself against an unboxed wheel in a factory, just before she was married, and this left her sickly and weak. Then, during the course of the story, she loses her twin sons and her husband, and Jem, who becomes the most important person in her life, is on trial for murder. She is indeed shown to have cause for her bitterness and short temper. The overall picture of this unhappy, irritable woman with a deep love for her son, is realistic and adds conviction to the texture of the novel.

There is also a splendid character sketch of Sally Leadbitter, who acts as go-between for Harry Carson and Mary. She is a vulgar, insensitive, self-seeking young woman, incapable of appreciating deep feelings, with ‘just talent enough to corrupt others’. (p. 132) Her superficiality is highlighted when she thinks that Mary's only concern at Jem's trial must be over what to wear; she thinks of the trial mainly in terms of picking up young men, and finds it more interesting to continue believing in Jem's guilt: “‘Decent men were not going to work with a—no! I suppose I mustn't say it, seeing you went to such trouble to get up an alibi’.” (p. 427)

The least real characters, the cardboard cut-outs, are the members of the Carson family. Admittedly they play only a small part in the story, but Mrs Gaskell's lack of sympathy with the masters in this novel is underlined by the lifeless manner in which she characterises them.

Elizabeth Gaskell's love for the countryside in which she grew up is revealed again and again in her writing, and even in a novel such as Mary Barton, set almost entirely in the urban environment of an industrial city, it comes bursting through. The book begins and ends in a rural setting: the outing to Green Heys Field at the start, where ‘… in their seasons may be seen the country business of hay-making, ploughing, &c, which are such pleasant mysteries for townspeople to watch’, and where they can ‘… listen awhile to the delicious sounds of rural life: the lowing of cattle, the milkmaids' call, the clatter and cackle of poultry in the old farmyards’. (p. 39)

At the end, in Canada, Jem and Mary live in:

… a long low wooden house, with room enough, and to spare. The old primeval trees are felled and gone for many a mile around; one alone remains to overshadow the gable-end of the cottage. There is a garden around the dwelling, and far beyond that stretches an orchard. The glory of the Indian summer is over all, making the heart leap at the sight of its gorgeous beauty.

(p. 465)

There are also Alice's reminiscences and ramblings about her childhood, in which country life is vividly evoked:

‘Eh, lasses! ye don't know what rocks are in Manchester! Gray pieces o' stone as large as a house, all covered over wi' moss of different colours, some yellow, some brown; and the ground beneath them knee-deep in purple heather, smelling sae sweet and fragrant, and the low music of the humming-bee for ever sounding among it.’

(p. 70)

The most haunting descriptions are those of the wretched homes and surroundings of the desperately poor, but the contrast with the greenness and beauty of nature is powerfully conveyed.

With Mary Barton Elizabeth Gaskell achieved recognition and admiration. It is an authentic account of the effects of poverty and under-privilege experienced by so many of the inhabitants of the fast-growing industrial cities, but not recognised or understood by so many of their affluent and privileged contemporaries. The authenticity is maintained even in the speech of many of the characters, and the footnotes which ‘… form a sort of running glossary of the Lancashire dialect’,2 were added by her husband, who had a great interest in, and often lectured on, the local dialect. She was aware of how her despondency, particularly over the death of her son, affected her writing, but both the subject-matter and her own feelings made this inevitable. ‘I acknowledge the fault of there being too heavy a shadow over the book; but I doubt if the story could have been deeply realised without these shadows’. (L. 42)

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the shadows, the book made a great impact when it was first published, and it remains a powerful account of the lives of one of the two nations: the poor.


  1. David Thomson, England in the Nineteenth Century, Harmondsworth, 1950, p. 40.

  2. John Levitt, ‘William Gaskell and the Lancashire Dialect’, Journal of the Lancashire Dialect Society, no. 31 (1982), p. 38.

Select Bibliography

Mary Barton, Penguin English Library (PEL), Harmondsworth, 1970

The Letters of Mrs Gaskell, A. Pollard and J. A. V. Chapple (eds.), MUP, Manchester, 1966

Patsy Stoneman (essay date 1987)

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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 herself from ‘political economy’ because she believed that humane ethical attitudes, rather than blind market forces, should govern social relationships (see also Hopkins 1931: 60).

Mary Barton develops 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. The dichotomy is similar to the conventional gender-role division, and Elizabeth Gaskell has been criticised (e.g. Lucas 1966: 174) for trying to evade the question of class struggle with an inappropriate domestic ethic. She had, however, some justification for presenting the working class as observing a ‘female ethic’. Like Wordsworth, she observed that one product of extreme poverty is mutual aid (L [The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell] 12), and historians confirm that ‘the workers … made thousands of tiny sacrifices daily in automatic response to the promptings of common humanity’ (Cazamian [1903] 1973: 71). The result was a ‘feminisation’ of working-class men who performed from necessity the roles of child-care, sick-nursing and house-keeping; Angela Davis identifies the same effect in American slave families (Davis 1982: 18). Although these same men, in Mary Barton, take part in strikes, assaults and murders, Elizabeth Gaskell presents this aggressive action as an enforced and psychologically damaging expression of essentially nurturing motives. The single-minded masculinity of bourgeois men, on the other hand, finds appropriate articulation in their aggressive use of the forces of law and order. Rather than evading the question of class struggle, therefore, Mary Barton offers a critique of confrontational politics. Since aggression is the language of authority, the concept of class struggle as necessarily aggressive appears not as the will of the people but as a masculine, middle-class imposition.

Marxist critics like John Lucas see the love story and the murder plot as extraneous to Mary Barton because they see class confrontation as the only valid focus for the ‘industrial theme’. Marxist feminists such as Nancy Chodorow, however, emphasise that individuals of both classes acquire the values which perpetuate or challenge capitalism through childhood socialisation, in which the status of the father is crucial. Although class struggle is most clearly seen in public confrontations, the family is the mechanism which reproduces class attitudes, and parent-child relationships, as worked out in the ‘extraneous’ sections of this novel, demonstrate how the personal becomes the political. If we approach the novel through the ethics of the family, therefore, we do not detract from its value as an exploration of class relations, but instead of seeing it as an ‘industrial novel’ flawed by political naïvety and superfluous sub-plots, we can see it as an attempt to understand the interaction of class and gender. In particular, its opposed class-based images of fatherhood prompt us to rethink the political concept of ‘paternalism’.

Mary Barton begins with a chapter which stresses the nurturing role of working-class fathers. The rural family scene suggests the ‘elementary feelings’ of Wordsworth's ‘low and rustic life’ (Wordsworth [1801] 1963: 245), feelings which are shown to persist in the urban environment of the ham-and-egg tea. Eli Zaretsky confirms that ‘proletarianisation’ put a new emphasis on the family. Because the family ‘was the only space that proletarians “owned”’, it became the focus for personal fulfilment and the basis for social attitudes. ‘The … Victorian ideology of the family as the repository of “human values” converged with the tradition of romantic revolt’ (Zaretsky 1976:61). In Chapter 1, John Barton is shown partly as nurturing father and partly as political activist, as if mediating in his person the Latin meaning of ‘proletarian’—‘he who has no wealth but his children’—and its meaning in capitalism—‘he who has no wealth but his labour’ (O'Brien: 177). In every speech of his, throughout the book, which shows class antagonism, there is also mention of starving children. ‘“If my child lies dying (as poor Tom lay, with his white wan lips quivering, for want of better food than I could give him), does the rich man bring the wine or broth that might save his life?”’ (MB: 45; see also 105, 126, 130, 143-4, 238, 251).

Barton has learned his nurturing role from his mother and identifies with her:

When he was a little child, [he] had seen his mother hide her daily morsel to share it among her children, and … he, being the eldest, had told the noble lie, that ‘he was not hungry, could not eat a bit more’, in order to imitate his mother's bravery, and still the sharp wail of the younger infants.

(p. 158)

Men who define themselves primarily in relation to the family at subsistence level partake of its ‘female ethic’, based on the survival of infants, which extends itself beyond the family in neighbourly help like that to the Davenports. ‘Male morality’, on the other hand, stresses transcendence of mere survival, and the middle-class father Carson is ‘proud’ of his son and daughter for being accomplished, well-dressed and well-mannered (MB: 107)—features which distinguish them from common humanity. The novel explicitly criticises Carson for not extending the same sort of paternal care to his workers that they show for one another (e.g. p. 458), and modern critics see this ‘paternalism’ as a weakness in Elizabeth Gaskell's political vision, confirming a relationship of inequality between the classes. The ‘paternalism’ practised by her working-class characters, however, is not only nurturing rather than authoritative, it is functional rather than innate. It can be temporary and ad hoc; John Barton feeds Mrs Davenport like a baby when she is sick, but later she becomes a nurse to old Alice. More importantly, it revolves with successive generations. Working-class ‘parents’ educate their children to take responsibility. Alice Wilson makes sure Will knows what a seafaring life is like, but then lets him go; when Margaret goes blind, her grandfather watches her down the street and, seeing that she can manage, lets her go (MB: 252). Moreover, they accept what Noddings calls the ‘commitment of the cared-for to turn about and act as one-caring’ (Noddings 1984: 95). In the course of the novel old Alice changes from foster-mother to foster-child and calls young Mary ‘mother’ (MB: 270); Jane Wilson calls her son Jem ‘mammy’ (p. 329); John Barton becomes ‘childish’ and is cared for by his daughter (p. 424). This pattern gives a new meaning to ‘paternalism’. The middle-class concept of fatherhood, separated from motherhood and based on ‘innate’ authority, is indeed a cheat as a paradigm for class relations because the working class cannot acquire in turn the authority of the ‘father’ and ‘grow up’ into a class of owners. The caring, temporary and functional notion of fatherhood which Gaskell presents as characteristic of the working-class, on the other hand, easily passes into the principle of cooperation.

If any kind of parent-child paradigm seems offensive when applied to adults, we should remember that proletarianisation was a new phenomenon. Elizabeth Gaskell's urban workers are the first or second generation of their kind. The codes of conduct evolved in a land-based environment are inappropriate to urban capitalism. The inadequacy of the workers to their new situation is rendered in all the social writings of the period in terms of inarticulacy and unsteadiness—characteristics of children (infant = unable to speak; see G. Beer, in Barker et al. 1978). But Gaskell also sees that the manufacturers have in a sense created this class of people, and have therefore a functional responsibility towards them. In Chapter 15, explaining the growth of class antagonism, Elizabeth Gaskell uses the image of Frankenstein and his monster (making the common mistake of giving the monster his creator's name):

The actions of the uneducated seem to me typified in those of Frankenstein, that monster of many human qualities, ungifted with a soul. …

The people rise up to life; they irritate us, they terrify us, and we become their enemies. Then, in the sorrowful moment of our triumphant power, their eyes gaze on us with a mute reproach. Why have we made them what they are; a powerful monster, yet without the inner means for peace and happiness?

(MB: 219-20)

This image has only been noticed with embarrassment by critics of Mary Barton (e.g. Ganz 1969: 64), but feminist critics have seen the social significance of Mary Shelley's novel itself. Ellen Moers, for instance, sees it as a ‘fantasy of the newborn as at once monstrous agent of destruction and piteous victim of parental abandonment’ (Moers 1978: 97). Mary Daly says that ‘Mary Shelley … unmasks the mentality of the technological “parent”’ (Daly 1979: 70). Both claim that although the technocratic ‘father’ can create a ‘child’, he cannot nurture it. Frankenstein attempts to control his monster by physical restraint and by rules, which are ineffective, just as ‘magistrates, and prisons, and severe punishments’ (MB: 223) fail to restrain the Manchester strikers. Constraint by law alone is absurd, as if parents should ‘make domestic rules for the pretty behaviour of children, without caring to know that those children had been kept for days without food’ (p. 127). In a domestic economy of ‘separate spheres’ primary child-care is the province of the mother, but the Frankenstein model of the economy attempts to dispense with the maternal function. The monster is deprived, above all, of socialisation and is left to educate himself, obsessed with questions of origin, identity and purpose: ‘“Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination?”’ (Shelley [1818] 1985: 170). In the same way, Barton is obsessed with ‘the problems and mysteries of life … bewildered and lost, unhappy and suffering’ (MB: 219).

Articulacy is the goal of the ‘infant’. The monster confronts his maker with his speech on Mont Blanc; Barton takes the Chartist petition to Parliament. Speech promises participation in the symbolic order (see above, Ch. 1 (2v); it is a claim to be heard and replied to, accepted as ‘adult’ by the ‘father’. Parental refusal of dialogue closes that path; the monster then ‘learns’ refusal, antagonism. The ‘father’ creates, instead of a son, an adversary. ‘“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed”’, says the monster (Shelley 1985: 142). Chapter 15 of Mary Barton makes it plain that the workers, as they move from the ‘female ethic’ of the family to the ‘male morality’ of the public world, ‘learn’ silence and resistance from the masters. At the end of the novel, John Barton, now repenting of the murder of Harry Carson, feels ‘as if he could never lay bare the perverted reasoning which had made the performance of undoubted sin appear a duty’ (MB: 436). But the ethic of revenge is part of the dominant ideology which Barton invokes in Chapter 1 when he cites the parable of Lazarus and Dives, gaining satisfaction from the punitive chasm set between them by Abraham/God. This invocation of revenge, or what Noddings calls ‘the judgemental love of the harsh father’ (Noddings 1984: 98), puts Barton on a level with Carson, who says, ‘“Let my trespasses be unforgiven, so that I may have vengeance for my son's murder”’ (MB: 436). The ‘murder plot’, which critics see as an ‘irrelevance’ to the ‘industrial theme’ (e.g. Gill, MB: 22), is necessary to show that the avenging force which appears ‘lawless’ in the hands of the workers is in fact the ethic of the dominant ideology, supported by Church and law. The masters must refuse dialogue with the workers (p. 232) because to engage in speech with them would be to accept them as ‘adults’ and thus legitimise their access to the dominant ‘language’ of vengeance.

In Mary Barton the agents of the law prevent not crime but unauthorised speech; John Barton is struck by a London policeman when going to present the petition (p. 144); Esther is arrested (‘a clear case of disorderly vagrancy’, p. 170) when she tries to speak to John Barton, and a policeman threatens Jem when he tries to speak to Harry Carson (p. 230). After the murder, the police become nakedly the agents of revenge. Carson treats the superintendent as a personal servant and is prepared to buy ‘justice’ (p. 262). The phrase ‘brought to justice’ (p. 265) comes to have an ironic ring, and Gaskell emphasises the revenge motive:

True, his vengeance was sanctioned by law, but was it the less revenge?

Are we worshippers of Christ? or of Alecto? [one of the furies]

Oh! Orestes! you would have made a very tolerable Christian of the nineteenth century!

(p. 266)

The mechanism of the law is implicated in Carson's ‘craving thirst for blood. He would have fain been policeman, magistrate, accusing speaker, all; but most of all, the judge, rising with full sentence of death on his lips’ (p. 274). Whereas William Gaskell uses the words ‘vengeful and unjust’ as equivalents (see above, Ch. 3 (4)), the trial scene shows that the law equates vengeance with justice. Carson is likened to a ‘beast of prey’ fearing that ‘his victim [would be] taken from his hungry jaws’ (p. 396), ‘would slip through the fangs of justice’ (p. 398). Mrs Wilson feels that ‘the judge were some wild animal trying to rend thee from me’ (p. 409). The narrative also exposes the adversarial system of law itself, in which lawyers are paid, not to discover the truth, but to attack one another (pp. 395, 397).

And all the time Carson is ‘a noble-looking old man … so stern and inflexible, with such classical features’ like ‘some of the busts of Jupiter’ (p. 384). Patriarchal power, symbolised by the ‘father of the gods’ and sanctioned by the institutions of law and order, is exposed as the primitive antagonism of wild animals.

The working-class ‘female ethic’ is endangered not only by the ‘male morality’ of adversarial justice but also by the middle-class concept of ornamental femininity. John Barton's hostility to Esther in Chapter 1 seems unreasonable when all he has against her is that she is ‘“fond of thinking herself”’ a lady, and is fond of dress (pp. 43-4). Yet his sketch of the ‘“do-nothing lady, worrying shopmen all morning, and screeching at her pianny all afternoon, and going to bed without having done a good turn to any one of God's creatures but herself”’ (p. 44), shows the incompatibility between decorative ladyhood and the useful, caring habits of the working class.

The cash-nexus economy forces men ‘who have no wealth but their labour’ into an antagonistic stance towards employers; for women the situation is complicated by the fact that not only their work but also their bodies have a cash value. Middle-class women play the marriage market; working-class women can take a risk—they may land a husband, as Mrs Carson did (p. 164), they may end up a cheap bargain, as Mary nearly does (p. 180), or as spoiled goods, like Esther (p. 168). What John Barton hates in all three categories is the fact that women are changed from useful, caring people into commodities incapable of doing anyone ‘a good turn’. Reacting against the middle-class ideology of the ‘pleasing female’, he rightly focuses on dress. Ironically, he objects to factory work for Mary because the good wages would give her spare cash to spend on clothes (p. 43), and so she ends up working for a dressmaker, ‘where the chief talk was of fashions, and dress, and … love and lovers’ (p. 140)—the very ideology he wishes to avoid. Most critics see Mary's attention to dress and her ambition to marry Harry Carson as personal, moral failings, as ‘vanity’ and ‘frivolity’ (e.g. Ganz 1969: 70; Bergmann 1979: 30, 109). But ideologically, they represent a switch from the ethic of caring and cooperation to that of the commodity market. At the trial, Mr Carson sees Mary as ‘the fatal Helen’ (p. 388), a phrase which combines the concept of woman as a piece of disputed property, with the ethic of adversarial ‘justice’—the dispute over Helen was settled by the Trojan War.

John Barton's encounter with Esther in Chapter 10 comes in the context of his growing hatred of the ‘do-nothing’ class which she seems to have joined, a class whose antagonism has changed him from ‘Adam’ to ‘the fallen angel’ (Shelley 1985: 142), and they meet in the ‘darkness visible’ of Milton's hell (MB: 168; Paradise Lost I, 63). Gilbert and Gubar note that Frankenstein, ‘one of the key Romantic “readings” of Paradise Lost … is most especially the story of hell’ (Gilbert and Gubar 1979: 221). Barton and Esther are here both ‘fallen’ from the ‘Eden of innocence’ (MB: 292), the ‘elementary feelings’ of ‘low and rustic life’, into the divisive ideology of separate spheres. Both might have said, with Anne Finch, ‘“How are we fal'n, fal'n by mistaken rules”’ (quoted in Gilbert and Gubar 1979: 219); Esther has become a sexual commodity, and John an avenger, ‘a sort of accusing angel’ (MB: 292). It is appropriate, therefore, that for the only time in the novel he behaves like a middle-class man, and asserts superiority over a woman. Esther is left sobbing, ‘“He would not listen to me …”’ (p. 170), a poignant echo of John's own earlier words, ‘“we mun speak to our God to hear us, for man will not hearken …”’ (p. 141).

Esther's attempts at speech, however, follow rather than precede her ‘fall’, and are born of a ‘monomaniacal’ compulsion like the Ancient Mariner's, to tell her ghastly tale with its moral of love (p. 207). When she tries to speak to Jem in Chapter 14, he initially shrugs her off, in a gesture that becomes a leit-motif for the novel (p. 208; see pp. 144, 169, 228). But the ‘spell’ of Mary's name ‘was as potent as that of the Mariner's glittering eye. “He listened like a three-year child”’ (p. 208). Jem is thus the wedding-guest, who may learn the ‘moral’ without himself having to suffer the purgatorial journey.

When Esther visits Mary in Chapter 21, she feels ‘as if some holy spell would prevent her (even as the unholy Lady Geraldine was prevented, in the abode of Christabel) from crossing the threshold of that home of her early innocence’ (p. 293). Christabel's ‘holy’ mother and the usurping Geraldine in Coleridge's poem function as ideological ‘doubles’ like the double Lucy in The Poor Clare (see above, Ch. 3 (Coda)). In Mary Barton also, the physical likeness of the fallen Esther and her virtuous sister seems ironically to point their moral divergence. Unexpectedly, however, no ‘holy spell’ prevents Esther from speaking to Mary. In a remarkable apotheosis at the end of Chapter 20—recalling the moon/mother scene in Chapter 27 of Jane Eyre, which Elizabeth Gaskell had not yet read (L 25a)—Esther functions as the agent of divine/maternal influence. ‘There, against the moonlight, stood a form, so closely resembling her dead mother, that Mary never doubted the identity, but exclaim[ed] (as if she were a terrified child, secure of safety when near the protecting care of its parent) “Oh! mother! mother! You are come at last!”’ (p. 287). As so often in Elizabeth Gaskell's work, the parental impulse is more important than parental identity. In the moment of crisis, Esther functions as a mother for Mary, and the madonna/magdalen double is united.

Esther's maternal message, the fruit of her ‘fallen’ experience, is the opposite of the gentlewoman's ‘duty’, to ‘suffer and be still’. By bringing Mary the valentine/gun-wadding, she raises her from the posture of prostrate suffering (p. 285) to ‘the necessity for exertion’ (p. 301).

Mary's whole story is a chiasmic change from being the silent object of others' contemplation to a speaking subject unconscious of her appearance. In the early chapters her concern even with other people who are to appear in public is with their clothes (pp. 128-9, 136). Absorbed in the gossip of the dress-shop, she doesn't hear of the failure of the petition (p. 141), and when her father and Job Legh discuss it, she falls asleep. The over-pretty description of her ‘sleeping soundly as any infant’ (p. 153), presents her as a ‘picture’ and as a baby. By the time of the trial, however, she shrugs off Sally, who wants to know what she will wear (p. 336), and appears with ‘the rich treasure of her golden hair, stuffed away in masses under her little bonnet-cap’ (p. 389). On the other hand, her determination to speak brings ‘dignity, self-reliance, and purpose’ (p. 318); ‘she began to take confidence, and to have faith in her own powers’ (p. 330).

Ironically, although Esther and Jem, and indirectly her father, are all concerned to ‘save’ Mary from Harry Carson, she does not need ‘saving’ and deals with him competently herself on the basis of the ethics learned in her childhood (pp. 183-4; cf. Noddings 1984: 1). Her real test comes with her discovery that her father is a murderer, which casts doubt not only on his personal worth but also on the system of values which he represented. The act ‘seemed to separate him into two persons,—one, the father who had dandled her on his knee, and loved her all her life long; the other, the assassin, the cause of her trouble and woe’ (p. 413). Like Esther in the ‘darkness visible’, John has become a ‘phantom likeness of John Barton; himself, yet not himself’ (p. 414).

The effect on Mary is to make her doubt her own identity and values. Chapter 19 is prefaced with a quotation from Coleridge's ‘The Pains of Sleep’, stressing moral confusion: ‘I could not know, / Whether I suffered or I did, / For all seemed guilt, remorse, or woe’ (p. 267); and in Chapter 20 she asks, ‘Was it not she who had led him to the pit into which he had fallen?’ (p. 285). The valentine/gun-wadding symbolises the involution of innocence with guilt. John Barton's act of murder is motivated by love as ‘innocent’ as Samuel Bamford's verses, ‘God help the poor’, or Jem's message of love for Mary, both of which are inscribed on the valentine which ‘innocently’ facilitates the fatal shot. Yet the ‘guilty’ act must somehow be separated from the ‘innocent’ motive. Like Elizabeth Gaskell's ghost stories, John Barton's phantom ‘double’ is best seen in terms of conflicting ideologies (see above, Ch. 3 Coda). Ideologies do not provide motives (such as parental love), but they provide the means by which these primary impulses can ‘speak’. John Barton, having failed to speak ‘openly, and clearly, as appealing to reasonable men’ (p. 232), ‘falls’ into the middle-class ‘language’ of violence. Mary's sense of her father's ‘fall’ is suggested by the quotation at the head of Chapter 22, from Keat's Hyperion, where Thea approaches the old god Saturn, king of the Titans, defeated in his war with Jupiter. Bereft of paternal guidance, she has a ‘conviction of how much rested upon her unassisted and friendless self, alone with her terrible knowledge’ (p. 303). In order to act and speak, she draws ‘a black veil … over her father's past, present and future life’ (p. 324) and focuses her mind on Jem, the ‘wedding-guest’ who has inherited both Esther's ‘moral’ and the lessons of the unfallen fathers of Chapter 1. In this way, she is able to speak from an alternative ethic to the adversarial system. Although the legal summons requires her ‘“to bear witness again[st] Jem Wilson”’ (p. 314), she finds a way ‘to bear witness to the truth’; to prove Jem innocent without accusing anyone; to seek remedy rather than revenge; in Carol Gilligan's terms, she favours ‘that resolution in which no one is hurt’ (Gilligan 1977: 515). The novel thus suggests that in the class war, also, it is unnecessary to accuse. Everyone has an ‘innocent motive’; what is in question is whether the motives will ‘speak’ in the mode of remedial or adversarial justice.

Mary's clarity on behalf of Jem is undermined by the moral chaos behind the ‘veil’ hiding her father's fall. Since it is through the father that adults acquire access to language, the father's ‘fall’ threatens the child with inarticulacy. As soon as the immediate object of finding Will is achieved, Mary finds that she has no secure ethical base; ‘her very words seemed not her own, and beyond her power of control’ (MB: 359). Her moral danger is indicated when, at the trial, she is likened to Beatrice Cenci (p. 389), who turned her father's violent methods against himself. Unlike Beatrice, Mary uses her brief public power not to kill her father but to affirm her love for Jem, but Jem's safety cannot validate her father's crime. Exhausted by the effort of distinguishing truth and silence from falsehood (p. 394), unable either to accept or reject her ‘double’ father, she refuses consciousness. In delirium, ‘sight and hearing were no longer channels of information to that poor distracted brain’ (p. 401).

The impasse is resolved by a process which reads like a curious pre-vision of Chodorow's psychoanalytic insight that social change must begin with the imprinting on infantile minds of maternal care from men (see above, Ch. 1 (2vi)). Mary, her mind reduced by trauma to ‘the tender state of a lately born infant's’ (MB: 415), recognizes Jem ‘as a baby does when it sees its mother tending its little cot’ (p. 416). In this strange parody of a mother-child dyad, Mary's avenging father is an ‘awful forbidden ground of discourse (p. 419) until, strengthened by Jem's ‘maternal’ care, she is able to see not his ‘savage … wayward violence’ (pp. 420-1) but his ‘smitten helplessness’ (p. 422). Assuming adult responsibility, Mary now becomes mother to her own father, who speaks ‘in a weak, high, childish voice’ (p. 424). Chapters 33 to 36 pass in a dizzying permutation of mother-child relationships. Even the patriarchal Carson is prompted to reread the Bible in the spirit of a ‘little child’ (p. 440); and his support of the dying Barton is like that of the Madonna in Michelangelo's Pietà (p. 442). The novel thus urgently seeks to redress what Noddings identifies as a major lack in our culture: ‘ethics has been discussed largely in the language of the father: in principles and propositions. … The mother's voice has been silent … the memory of caring and being cared for, which I shall argue form the foundation of ethical response, have not received attention except as outcomes of ethical behaviour’ (Noddings 1984: 1). It is ironic, therefore, that the parental theme has been invisible to critics of Mary Barton, who understandably find its message somewhat thin—‘grotesquely inadequate’ according to Lucas (1966: 174), while Stephen Gill complains that ‘the diagram at the end of Barton dying in Carson's arms appears to say something about conflict and brotherhood, when in fact it has grown out of a progressive simplification of the issues with which the novel confronted us at its outset’ (MB: 27; cf. Ganz 1969: 80). The novel may not say much about brotherhood, but it says a great deal about fatherhood.

If we read Mary Barton as a novel about fatherhood—a relationship rather than a person—we can to some extent escape the debate about who is the central character. We should also be able to see, however, why Elizabeth Gaskell conceived John Barton as her ‘tragic … “hero”’ (L 39). As a working-class father, male proponent of a ‘female ethic’, he suffers in his person that disjunction of private and public values which was the nineteenth century's most traumatic schism. As father to his family, he is his mother's son—feeding the children comes first. As a ‘child’ in the public world, however, he encounters only the patriarch Carson, who doesn't ‘“pretend to know the names”’ of his workers (MB: 109). The ‘piteous victim of parental abandonment’ (Moers 1978: 97), he receives neither help nor instruction; ‘“no one learned me, and no one telled me”’ (MB: 440). In the context of an aggressive individualism whose motto is ‘“‘Stand up for thy rights’”’, the official altruism of the New Testament seems ‘“a sham put upon … women”’ (p. 440), yet it still comes ‘“natural to love folk”’. Barton's attempts at self-education founder in this ideological rift between a language in which ‘father’ = ‘love’ and one in which ‘father’ = ‘law’, a rift which tears him ‘“in two”’ (p. 441). Sanity and the social contract alike depend on shared meanings: ‘“you'd never believe black was black … when you saw all about you acting as if black was white”’ (p. 440). The incomprehensibly double meaning of fatherhood reduces him progressively to ‘silence’ (pp. 141, 162), ‘incipient madness’ (p. 219) and a ghoulish ‘double’ existence (p. 413).

As a critique of fatherhood, Mary Barton needs its ‘irrelevant’ sub-plots. The ‘murder plot’ demonstrates how the dominant ideology sanctions vengeance, not succour, as the expression of paternal ‘care’, and the ‘romance plot’ offers Jem as the worker/father of the future, when workers will be ‘educated … not mere machines of ignorant men’ (p. 460). Jem the inventor is the real source of technological progress, ‘The Modern Prometheus’ instead of ‘Frankenstein's monster’, but he is also a ‘family man’, whose marriage is contracted in an ambience almost absurdly maternal, with everyone acting as mother to everyone else, and whose little son greets him at the end with ‘a crow of delight’ (p. 465). Yet the family grouping at the end curiously effaces Mary. Under necessity, she reasoned, spoke and acted in the public world, protecting her father and rescuing Jem, but her role ends with this enablement of her menfolk. Jem, his roots nourished by the ‘female ethic’, blossoms in the world of technology, but Mary's life is as private as her mother's.

Mary Barton thus embodies an irony. Born of its author's grief as a mother at the death of her infant son (L 25a), and of her care as a woman for the sufferings of her neighbours, its impulse is profoundly maternal. Yet its most notable absence is Mary's mother, whose ‘female ethic’ is the standard from which John and Esther fall, but whose domestic field of action is too small for the crusading message Elizabeth Gaskell wishes to spread. The ‘mother's voice’ speaks in the public world only through men—not only the male characters of the novel but also the male writers whose ‘language’ defines its parameters.

The domestic ending, which irritates socialists and feminists alike, is generally read as a peculiarly feminine lapse—a case of ‘Mrs Gaskell’ naïvely or carelessly reverting from radical politics to cosy romance. Yet it is more likely to derive from the masculine tradition of Romantic revolt which she uses to ‘authorise’ her radical text. For the novel is densely haunted by literary ‘fathers’: her own father's essays on political economy; her husband's lectures on ‘The Poets and Poetry of Humble Life’; Wordsworth's reverence for the poor who are ‘“the fathers … [of] small blessings”’ (L 12); the New Testament, which promises maternal care from the suffering son of a loving father; the People's Charter, in which women are invisible; Carlyle, who on the title-page addresses the novelist as ‘worthy brother’; the Romantic poets of the chapter-mottoes—Goethe, Coleridge, Burns, Crabbe, Keats, Southey, Shelley, Byron; Frankenstein, another woman's text with a notably absent mother, haunted by Godwin, Shelley and Byron (see Rubinstein 1976); and ultimately, though there is no explicit reference, Rousseau, whose influence permeated the Romantic movement and early Utopian socialism. Rousseau's strength in his wish to ‘bring to public life sympathy, love, affection and the supportive solidarity of family relationships’. His now notorious weakness is to exclude women. His ideal is a ‘Brotherhood’ of man working for the public good, while women ‘choose’ to fertilise ‘its enigmatic roots in the private realm’ (O'Brien 1981: 96-7).

This is the programme which indirectly determines the ending of Mary Barton. Its political naïvety is thus not that of female incompetence but of the male-stream tradition of pre-Marxist revolt. But as a dutiful daughter of Romanticism, Elizabeth Gaskell unwittingly betrays her maternal text, entrusting her female ethic to a ‘Brotherhood’ defined by its difference from women.

Only in this first novel, in fact, does she put faith in an ideal father. From North and South she confronts the fact that men of all classes are governed, in the public sphere, by a masculine code which precludes ‘feminine’ tenderness.

References and Abbreviations

There are no footnotes in this book; sources are indicated in the text by the author's surname in parentheses and the full reference will be found in the Alphabetical List of References at the end of the book. There is also a brief classified selected bibliography.

The only complete edition of Elizabeth Gaskell's work is the Knutsford edition, in eight volumes, edited by A. W. Ward, published by John Murray, London, 1906. Since much of her work is unknown, I have listed titles below. Because it is difficult to distinguish short ‘novels’, like Cranford, from long ‘short stories’, like The Moorland Cottage, I have broken the convention and italicised all titles:


Vol. 1: Mary Barton, Libbie Marsh's Three Eras, The Sexton's Hero, Clopton House

Vol. 2: Cranford, Christmas Storms and Sunshine, Lizzie Leigh, The Well of Pen-Morfa, The Moorland Cottage, The Heart of John Middleton, Disappearances, The Old Nurse's Story, Morton Hall, Huguenots, My French Master, The Squire's Story

Vol. 3: Ruth, Cumberland Sheep-Shearers, Modern Greek Songs, Company Manners, Bessy's Troubles at Home, Hand and Heart

Vol. 4: North and South

Vol. 5: My Lady Ludlow, Round the Sofa, An Accursed Race, The Doom of the Griffiths, Half a Lifetime Ago, The Poor Clare, The Half-Brothers, Mr Harrison's Confessions, The Manchester Marriage

Vol. 6: Sylvia's Lovers, An Italian Institution

Vol. 7: Cousin Phillis, Lois the Witch, The Crooked Branch, Curious if True, Right at Last, The Grey Woman, Six Weeks at Heppenheim, A Dark Night's Work, The Shah's English Gardener, French Life, Crowley Castle, Two Fragments of Ghost Stories

Vol. 8: Wives and Daughters

For convenience, however, I have referred to the Knutsford edition only when no modern edition is available and have used the Penguin edition wherever there is one. Titles of Elizabeth Gaskell's works, letters and other books frequently referred to in the text are abbreviated as below. Note that numbers following (L) are Letter numbers and not page numbers. Incidental references to Victorian works available in various editions are to chapter or section rather than page.

Elizabeth Gaskell's Works

L The Letters of Mrs Gaskell, ed. J. A. V. Chapple and Arthur Pollard (Manchester University Press: Manchester, 1966). [Note: numbers refer to Letter no. and not page.]

MB Mary Barton, ed. Stephen Gill (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1970).

Alphabetical List of References

Barker, Francis et al. (eds.). 1978. The Sociology of Literature: 1848 (University of Essex).

Bergmann, Helena. 1979. Between Obedience and Freedom: Women's Role in the Mid-Nineteenth Century Industrial Novel (Acta Universitatis Gothenburgensis: Gothenburg, Sweden).

Cazamian, Louis. 1973. The Social Novel in England 1830-1850, trans. Martin Fido (Routledge & Kegan Paul: London and Boston; first published 1903).

Chodorow, Nancy. 1978. The Reproduction of Mothering (University of California Press: Berkeley, Los Angeles and London).

Daly, Mary. 1979. Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Women's Press: London; Beacon Press: Boston, 1978).

Davis, Angela. 1982. Women, Race and Class (Women's Press: London; Random House: New York, 1981).

Fetter, F. W. 1960. ‘The economic articles in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, and their authors, 1817-1853’, Scottish Journal of Political Economy 7, 85-107.

Ganz, Margaret. 1969. Elizabeth Gaskell: the Artist in Conflict (Twayne Publishers: New York).

Gaskell, William. 1862. ‘Unitarian Christians Called to Bear Witness to the Truth …’ (Edward T. Whitfield: London).

Gilbert, Sandra and Gubar, Susan. 1979. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (Yale University Press: New Haven, Conn., and London).

Gilligan, Carol. 1977. ‘In a Different Voice: Women's Conceptions of Self and Morality’, Harvard Educational Review 47, 481-517.

Hopkins, Annette B. 1931. ‘Liberalism in the Social Teachings of Mrs Gaskell’, Social Service Review (Chicago) 5, 57-73.

Lucas, John. 1966. ‘Mrs Gaskell and Brotherhood’, in Tradition and tolerance in nineteenth-century fiction, ed. David Howard et al. (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London).

Moers, Ellen. 1978. Literary Women (Women's Press: London).

Noddings, Nel. 1984. Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (California University Press: Berkeley, Los Angeles and London).

O'Brien, Mary. 1981. The Politics of Reproduction (Routledge & Kegan Paul: Boston, London and Henley).

Rubinstein, Marc A. 1976. ‘“My Accursed Origin”: The Search for the Mother in Frankenstein’, Studies in Romanticism 15, 165-94.

Shelley, Mary. 1985. Frankenstein, ed. Maurice Hindle (Penguin: Harmondsworth; first published 1818).

Stevenson, William. 1796. Remarks on the Very Inferior Utility of Classical Learning (no publisher cited, Manchester).

Wordsworth, William. 1963. The Lyrical Ballads, ed. R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones (Methuen: London; first published 1798).

Zaretsky, Eli. 1976. Capitalism, the Family and Personal Life (Pluto Press: London; first published in Socialist Revolution (Calif.), January-June, 1973).

Marjorie Stone (essay date 1991)

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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” in describing Davenport's funeral, noting that in his case, thanks to the charity of the poor to the poor, “there was no ‘rattling the bones over the stones’ of the pauper's funeral” (112). Yet characteristically, in this double-voiced utterance Gaskell simultaneously calls on a working-class text to articulate the opposing norm. Rather than imitating Carlyle in Past and Present by graphically preaching the agony of the “dumb people,” Gaskell showed her middle-class readers that the “other half” had other ways of speaking its suffering than death. Through her creation of a novelistic discourse that Bakhtin was later to find exemplified by Dostoevsky, in a work that may indeed have influenced Crime and Punishment, as C. A. Johnson notes,2 she reveals the power and variegation of working-class utterances themselves. More radically, through her rhetorical and narrative strategies, she subverts the hegemony of middle-class discourse that empowers her to speak.

Mary Barton has customarily been viewed as a technically clumsy “split novel.” In Rosemarie Bodenheimer's view, Gaskell's focus on the domestic sphere fails to resolve the issues raised in the public world of politics; in John Lucas's, she retreats from the “abyss” created by the gulf between her ideological prescriptions and her powerful evocation of the plight of the poor (142). Like Bodenheimer, Stephen Gill objects to the “bewildering shifts” in the narrative voice (Mary Barton 3), while others criticize the split between the “social-problem plot” centering on John Barton and the “romance plot” centering on his daughter Mary.3 More recently, in a refreshing shift of focus, Catherine Gallagher has shown how the contradictions in industrial narratives like Mary Barton grow out of the “ruptures” within the early nineteenth-century critique of industrialism, rather than out of their authors' personal limitations. These divisions reflect “the contradictory structures of the social criticism the novelists tried to embody,” Gallagher observes; and in Gaskell's case, they lead to “formal inconsistencies,” but also to a “high degree of formal self-consciousness” (33-34). This essay will argue more unreservedly for Gaskell's formal self-consciousness, from the viewpoint of Bakhtinian and reader-response theory rather than in the context of the critique of industrialism.

When Bakhtin's model of novelistic discourse is assumed, many of the apparent formal inconsistencies in Mary Barton can be seen as the outcome of Gaskell's innovative artistry and her exceptional ability to incorporate conflicting perspectives and the languages that embody them in the textual voice of her first novel. An operative concept of “textual voice,” incorporating all of the voices that sound in the text, seems called for in Mary Barton because a univocal and static idea of narrative voice or character voice cannot accommodate the effect of polyphony and debate that Gaskell's first novel creates.4 “Voice” is itself a keyword in this work, where the reader is immersed in a constant, dynamic interplay of voices, not only in the dialogue of the working-class characters interacting with each other and with the propertied classes, and in the inner mental debate of the characters, but also in the multiple voices of the novel's authorial discourse, which debate with each other, with the character's voices, and with the inscribed readers who also proliferate in the novel. Added to these are the voices that speak in the novel's inset stories, and in its many mottoes and allusions, some derived from working-class or female discourse, others from the canonical texts of a male literary tradition. In Bakhtin's terms, Gaskell actively dialogizes the discourse of Mary Barton by incorporating in it the heteroglossia of multiple languages—languages understood in Bakhtin's stipulative sense, not as linguistically separate dialects, but as “ideologically saturated” embodiments of “socio-linguistic points of view” (271-73). Bringing the heteroglossia of working-class and women's discourse into collision with the official languages of male middle-class culture, Gaskell initiates what Bakhtin terms a “critical interanimation of languages” (296), designed to produce a “relativizing of linguistic consciousness” (323). The result is that middle-class male discourse—principally socio-economic and literacy discourse—is radically deprivileged. At the same time, varieties of middle-class, working-class, and women's discourse in Mary Barton are internally dialogized, as Gaskell reveals the multiplicity of languages and perspectives constituting each. This internal dialogization extends to the narrative voice, so much so that it is more accurate to speak of narrative voices, some female, some male, in this novel which, more boldly than George Eliot's early works, both exploits and disrupts the strategy of male impersonation.

In “Discourse in the Novel,” Bakhtin identifies several “compositional forms for appropriating and organizing heteroglossia in the novel” (301). These include dialogue representative of the “social dialogue” of languages (285, 365); hybridizations, or the combining of two social languages or speech manners in a single double-voiced discourse (304, 358); the creation of “character zones” or fields of action defined by the distinctive features of a character's language (316); “parodic stylizations of generic, professional and other languages” (302); the incorporation and stylization of other genres (308); the incorporation of maxims and aphorisms (322); and, more generally, any activation of the “internal dialogism” or words (279). All of these stylistic features are markedly present in Mary Barton, the last most conspicuously in Gaskell's play with multiple interpretations of keywords such as “duty” and “improvidence,” both in her characters' discourse and in her own authorial discourse. The mixing of regional and occupational dialects, and of fictive and historical voices, and the proliferation of chapter mottoes, quotations and footnotes also contribute to the dialogization of discourse in Mary Barton. Most notably, however, Gaskell further dialogizes the discourse of Mary Barton through combining gender-inscribed languages and plots, a possibility that Bakhtin curiously ignores, as Wayne Booth has pointed out. 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. As Patsy Stoneman suggests in her critique of the conventional view of Gaskell as a “split” novelist, women and the working classes were alike muted groups in Victorian society, enjoined to “suffer and be still” (13, 63). In Mary Barton, members of both assume the power of speaking subjects, but Gaskell also shows how these two groups, themselves internally divided, act to silence their own warring members and each other.

The most straightforward of the dialogic strategies apparent in Mary Barton is dialogue embodying the social dialogue of classes. In contrast to a novelist such as Jane Austen who, as Tony Tanner observes, excludes “not only the unassimilable roughness and dissonance of working-class speech but also any of the potential discordance of colloquial or vernacular discourse” (38), Gaskell portrays the voices of the poor with the loving and intimate detail that made her such an important follower of Scott and precursor of George Eliot. Her achievement in depicting Lancashire dialect has long been recognized. But less attention has been given to the cumulative effect of her calculated focus on working-class voices that are at once individualized and representative, and to the manner in which these voices interact with those woven into Gaskell's authorial discourse.5 Middle-class literary discourse typically frames the polyglot world or working-class discourse in nineteenth-century industrial novels, but in Mary Barton the framed interpenetrates the frame. As for bourgeois socio-economic discourse in Mary Barton, it seems swallowed up in the working-class discourse it is accustomed to suppress. This effect results partly from Gaskell's portrayal of a relatively narrow spectrum of the propertied classes, a feature of her first novel that was strongly criticized and that she sought to redress in North and South. In Mary Barton, only the members of the Carson family are individualized among the propertied classes. Moreover, although Gaskell presents a “medley” of the masters' conflicting voices in Chapter 16, where they meet to deal with the strike, she chooses to do so on an occasion when they do not appear in a particularly positive light. Thus the most humane master weakly suggests that the employers must “‘try and do more’” than make two “‘cow's heads into soup’” every week to feed the starving for several miles around, while the most brutal denounces the strikers as “‘more like wild beasts than human beings’” (232).

Representing the working classes, on the contrary, we encounter a broad spectrum of fully individualized characters, embodying conflicting cultural backgrounds and ideological perspectives, ranging from the Chartist radicalism of the Manchester-born John Barton, to the political passivity of George Wilson, a laborer still shaped by his rural roots, to the Christian pacifism of the aptly named Job Legh. Moreover, John Barton and Job Legh speak with an eloquence that finds no counterpart in the speech of the masters. John's speech is most moving in Chapter 16 in his spontaneous address to the striking workers, when they discover that one of the masters addressed by their delegation has crudely caricatured their tattered appearance in a cartoon:

John Barton began to speak; they turned to him with deep attention. “it makes me more than sad, it makes my heart burn within me, to see that folk can make a jest of earnest men; of chaps, who come to ask for a bit o' fire for th' old granny, as shivers in the cold; for a bit o'bedding, and some warn clothing to the poor wife as lies in labour on th' damp flags; and for victuals for the children, whose little voices are getting too faint and weak to cry aloud wi' hunger. For, brothers, is not them the things we ask for when we ask for more wages? … We do not want their grand houses, we want a roof to cover us from the rain, and the snow, and the storm; ay, and not alone to cover us, but helpless ones that cling to us in the keen wind, and ask us with their eyes why we brought 'em into th' world to suffer?” He lowered his deep voice almost to a whisper.

“I've seen a father who had killed his child rather than let it clem before his eyes; and he were a tender-hearted man.”


By this point in the novel we have already heard the story of John Barton's son dying of disease because his father could not obtain the food he needed. And we have already heard the narrator present the debate between strikers and masters in “technical” economic terms. Critics have often faulted the narrator's remark in Chapter 15 of Mary Barton, “I am not sure if I can express myself in the technical terms of either masters, or workmen” (220), as an example of Gaskell's feminine diffidence and ignorance of economic theory. But such criticisms overlook Gaskell's evident knowledge of Adam Smith, her unconventional and undisguised intervention as a modest female voice in the “masculine” realm of political economy—sometimes with the additional force of an abrupt interruption—and the subversive equality she grants to the workers in acknowledging that they, like the masters, have their own “technical” economic terms.6 Clearly, however, she puts less stock in this abstract discourse than in the concrete and moving language that John Barton later speaks, which makes his listeners see and hear what is being described, as Gaskell sought to do through her own art (Sharps 8-9). Indeed, the masters and workers do not themselves think or speak principally in rational “technical” terms, as she reveals through her skillful use of free indirect speech and hybridizations to depict the economic debate. The masters insist that they will not be “bullied” by the workers, while the workers cry “Shame on them!” in response to the masters' low wages (221-22).

The social dialogue of classes is far from the most original element in Mary Barton. Joseph Kestner has shown that such dialogues were a common feature of English social narratives written by women like Hannah More and Harriet Martineau long before Disraeli presented the “two nations” of rich and of poor in Sybil (23-25), 41). Gaskell's greater accomplishment, according to Kestner, is her ability to locate “the expression of social conditions within the consciousness of her characters” (121). This achievement results chiefly from Gaskell's depiction of her working-class characters in dialogue among themselves and, in John and Mary Barton's case, within themselves. Most notably, John Barton's radical language and views are clearly opposed to Job Legh's Christian submission, although Gaskell by no means sets up a simple, one-dimensional opposition between Chartism and Christianity in which her characters becomes walking mouthpieces for social ideologies. Accordingly, she initially depicts Barton engaged in dialogue not with the articulate Job, but with George Wilson, whose ideological position is not clearly formulated. More important, she gives to the Chartist Barton some of the most Biblically resonant language in the novel, a feature that is not out of character since, as Angus Easson notes, the Chartists frequently adapted Christian discourse to their own purposes (57).7

Thus it is John who invokes the parable of Dives and Lazarus in the novel's opening chapter, and John who caustically observes that he would rather see his daughter “‘earning her bread by the sweat of her brow as the Bible tells her,’” instead of living like “‘a do-nothing lady, worrying shopmen all morning, and screeching at her pianny all afternoon, and going to bed without having done a good turn to any one of God's creatures but herself’” (44-45). In mixing Chartist radicalism and popular idioms with Christian doctrine and imagery, Gaskell activates the “critical interanimation” of languages in Barton's discourse. A reverse dialogization subsequently occurs when she depicts the delirious Methodist, Ben Davenport, who habitually speaks “‘as good as Bible-words’” about “‘God being our father, and that we mun bear patiently whate'er he sends,’” cursing and swearing in his final illness like the popular middle-class conception of a raving Chartist (103-104).

The central debate between John Barton's radical activism and Job Legh's pacifism gradually emerges as the novel develops, but before Job is introduced Gaskell has embodied this conflict in various ways, most strikingly in the text of the Lancashire song, “The Oldham Weaver,” that she “copies” for her readers in Chapter 4. In this song, the speaker is a poor cotton weaver who laments:

Owd Dicky o'Billy's kept telling me lung,
Wee s'd ha better toimes if I'd but howd my tung,
Oi've howden my tung, till oi've near stopped my breath,
Oi think i' my heart oi'se soon clem to death, …


The message that he should “howd his tung” is, in effect, Job's answer to John's Chartist criticisms. (Significantly, we learn in the next chapter that Job's hobby of collecting insects keeps him “‘silent’” [79].) Parliament also in effect tells the Chartist delegates to “howd” their tongues when they appeal to it with the 1842 Petition and “all the force of their rough, untutored words,” only to be ignored (141).

“The Oldham Weaver” is not only woven into the debate of working-class submission versus activism in Mary Barton, but is also dialogized through Gaskell's mode of presenting it. Evidently, she deliberately chose not to modify the diction and pronunciation of the Lancashire dialect to make the song more comprehensible to her middle-class readers, as she customarily does even in presenting John Barton's speech.8 The result is that the language seems almost grotesquely deformed and the song's pathos is lost in the reader's bewilderment before the alien idioms and the unfamiliar orthography. Indeed, as the narrator observes, though “it is a powerfully pathetic song,” “to read it … may, perhaps, seem humorous” (73). To counteract this effect, Gaskell emphasizes the cultural context of the song and the suffering it reflects. More subtly, she presents Margaret Legh singing it with a “superb and flexible voice,” then going on to “burst forth with all the power of her magnificent voice … in the grand supplication, ‘Lord remember David’” (74). This is a characteristically complex instance of dialogization in Mary Barton because Gaskell's combining of voices mixes social classes, genders, low and high genres—a Lancashire folk “ditty” with a grand Hebrew psalm—and history and fiction, the last through the comparison of Margaret to the historical Deborah Travers, an Oldham factory girl whose singing made her the “darling of fashionable crowds” (74).

The mixing of genders evident in Margaret's singing “The Oldham Weaver”—a song in which the male speaker in turn speaks for his silent wife—pervades Gaskell's depiction of working-class discourse in Mary Barton. Thus, in describing the fire at Carson's mill, the narrator observes that the crowd utters “a sob, as if of excited women,” in watching the dramatic rescue of the entrapped men (90). And in Chapter 9, old Jennings, who accompanied Job Legh to London when his son and Job's daughter fell sick, “‘screeched out as if he'd been a woman’” when he saw the corpses of the unhappy couple (146). This dialogization of speech occurs in a narrative that calls attention to the crossing of gender lines by presenting the spectacle of two old men in their fumbling attempts to nurse a hungry female baby, which gropes around with its mouth and insists on “‘crying for its pobbies’” (148). Old bearded Jennings even puts on a woman's nightcap in an attempt to trick the crying baby into thinking that he is female. In this delightfully comic touch, Gaskell indicates how much the feminine is a social construction, based on gender-inflected meanings attached to arbitrary signifiers.

Job's homely, conventionally female story of nursing baby Margaret is further dialogized by the narrative structure of Mary Barton because it appears in the same chapter as John Barton's historic, conventionally male story of the journey to London with the Chartist petition. Gallagher overlooks the complex interactions between these two stories when she divides the novel into two mutually exclusive plots—a domestic tale focusing on Mary and a tragedy focusing on John—and argues that Job's domestic tale acts to suppress John's tragic story of the fate of the Chartist petition (82; see Bodenheimer, 203, for a similar argument). On the contrary, Gaskell consistently employs the hungry child metaphor to link the two stories, the first of which articulates a desperate cry of hunger on the part of an entire class whose members were often viewed as refractory children or infants by the middle classes. In Chapter 8, for instance, the narrator describes the petition to Parliament as the “darling child” of the Chartists' hopes because they believe that the country's legislators must be unaware of their suffering—much as parents might “make domestic rules for the pretty behaviour of children, without caring to know that those children had been kept for days without food” (127). The rejection of the petition thus symbolically entails a double rejection of children: both of the Chartists themselves, and of the “darling child” of their hopes. In Chapter 9, the child metaphor continues as John Barton recalls being “‘like a child’” lost in wonder at the spectacles of London (143). Then, as Job's story of the rescue of his infant granddaughter closes, John's daughter Mary falls asleep on her father's knee, “sleeping as soundly as an infant” (153). Both stories are much concerned with the cost and difficulty of obtaining food, for working class adults and for children. “‘We were wanting our breakfasts, and so were it too, motherless baby!’” Job says at one point in his tale (151). Job's focus on private hunger reinforces the point of John's story, and brings it home to the reader in personal terms. As the chapter ends, the public and private spheres of the two stories are fused in Samuel Bamford's poem “God Help the Poor,” which again brings together the hunger of forlorn adults and children among the poor.

Both dialogue and narrative structure enter into another notable instance of dialogization at this point in Mary Barton, as Gaskell shows Barton shifting from weeping to cursing, much as she had earlier described the suffering factory workers collectively: “the sufferers wept first, and then they cursed” (126). After telling of the rejection of the Chartists, Barton says to Mary, “‘man will not hearken: no, not now, when we weep tears of blood’” (141); and subsequently he declares, “‘as long as I live I shall curse them as so cruelly refused to hear us’” (145). This transition from a conventionally female response to a conventionally male one is then epitomized in one of the mottoes to the following chapter, which foreshadows Barton's act of cursing Esther, his fallen sister-in-law, in the private as opposed to the political sphere: “‘My heart, once soft as woman's tear, is gnarled hair / With gloating on the ills I cannot cure’” (157).

If Gaskell's working-class men often speak or act in conventionally female ways, so too her working-class women speak in ways that undermine conventional alignments of gender and sphere. Thus in Chapter 8, when John Barton is described in a double-voiced construction as holding “a levée” before he sets off for London with the Chartist Petition, we hear a female as well as male neighbors besieging him with conflicting political messages—most notably, Mrs. Davenport, who urges him to speak out against the laws keeping children from factory work (128).9 In Chapter 10 we again hear women, this time unaccompanied by men, promoting factory legislation to prevent married women from working, in contradiction to Mrs. Davenport's earlier stance regarding children. Mrs. Wilson remarks that Prince Albert “‘ought to be asked how he'd like his missis to be from home when he comes in, tired and worn,’” and insists that Prince Albert is the one to approach because, although the Queen makes the laws, “‘isn't she bound to obey Prince Albert?’” (166). This is another interesting example of Gaskell's quietly subversive irony and crossing of gender and class lines, particularly if it is viewed in the context of the popular controversy in 1839 and after concerning gender reversal implicit in Victoria and Albert's courtship and royal relationship. One lithograph, for instance, comically presents Victoria proposing to Albert as royal etiquette required (Marshall 71).

Although P. J. Keating includes no women at all in his catalogue of representative working-class characters in Victorian fiction (26-27), Gaskell portrays a broad spectrum of working-class women in Mary Barton and her other works, as Stoneman notes (46). Like their male counterparts, the working-class women in Mary Barton represent different ideological perspectives and speak different languages in Bakhtin's sense of the term. At one extreme, we encounter the vulgar unchecked “utterance” of Sally Leadbitter (132), whose discourse is chiefly shaped by the popular theater (427) and the “romances” of fashionable life read by Miss Simmonds's seamstresses (121). Sally's “witty boldness” gave her “what her betters would have called piquancy,” the narrator slyly observes, crossing class lines in another double-voiced construction (132). At the other extreme, we meet the pious old Alice Wilson, Job's female counterpart, who preaches and lives by a doctrine of passive submission to God's will, and speaks a biblical idiom—“‘Let the Lord send what he sees fit’” (69). Many around Alice assume as Sally does that her religious discourse is “‘Methodee,’” but Alice is in fact Church of England as Mary points out (134). Thus Gaskell mixes the discourse of denominations, perhaps in an attempt to promote a common Christian spirit of belief. Alice is flanked by Margaret, who emphasizes womanly submission more than Christian submission. Both of these women have been viewed as Mary's better angels opposing Sally the tempter (Bodenheimer 29). But Margaret conspicuously fails Mary when the question of Jem Wilson's guilt is at stake, and Alice quietly dies in the second half of the novel when Mary, who initially plays the role of a passively waiting Mariana in her relation to Jem, decides that it is her duty not to wait and to submit like Alice, but to act and to speak out in Jem's defense.

Mary's inner conflict between submission and action is presented in the context of a running debate about what constitutes “duty” in Mary Barton, a debate that connects class to class, and women to men. The focus on this keyword is clearest in Chapter 14, where Gaskell echoes Carlyle's injunction in Sartor Resartus to “do the duty that lies nearest” as she presents Jem Wilson's successful struggle to subdue his vindictive rage against Harry Carson (216). In Chapter 33, Jem experiences conflict again as he first accepts Job's advice that it is his “duty” to stay with his distraught mother instead of with Mary after the trial (404), and then rejects Margaret's rebuke for going to see Mary on the day of his Aunt Alice's death. You remember the dead “‘without striving after it, and without thinking it's your duty to keep recalling them,’” he points out to Margaret (411). However, Jem's interpretation of his duty is far less problematic than either John Barton's or Mary's of theirs. In depicting these characters and the complexity of their ethical choices, Gaskells plays out Carlyle's authoritarian precept in what Carol Gilligan calls “a different voice,” as she adapts his characteristic strategy of multiplying and interrogating meanings for her own purposes (Holloway 41-47).

When Job reminds Jem of his duty in standing by his mother, he at the same time criticizes John Barton for neglect of his daughter: “‘To my mind John Barton would be more in the way of his duty, looking after his daughter, than delegating it up and down the country’” (404). At this point, Job is still unaware of the assassination John has undertaken in fulfilling a very different conception of duty. In murdering Harry Carson, John Barton speaks on the behalf of the workers, not in an act of private revenge such as Jem considers and rejects, but because “perverted reasoning” had made “the performance of an undoubted sin appear a duty” (436). But although he repents his means of carrying out his “duty,” and the narrator describes it as the result of perverted reasoning, the message of the novel about John's duty is altogether more multivoiced and mixed—particularly if we consider that his desperate attempt to make death speak, middle-class death this time, is the catalyst that brings about old Mr. Carson's conversion and recognition of his “duty” to those less fortunate than himself (457).

Gaskell's dialogization of the Victorian keyword “duty” interacts with her exploration of the meanings of “justice” and “revenge” in the innovative adaptation of the traditional revenge tragedy plot she undertakes in Mary Barton. Old Mr. Carson believes that his desire to avenge his son's death reflects his “duty” (439) and his desire for simple justice, but the narrator asks, “True, his vengeance was sanctioned by the law, but was it the less revenge?” (266); and she later emphasizes his fury when he believes that “the slayer of his unburied boy would slip through the fangs of justice” (398). In fact, John Barton's action in assassinating Carson's son, later correctly interpreted as an act of class revenge by Mr. Carson and Job (455), is less tainted by vindictive motives than Carson's cry for “justice,” since Gaskell pointedly refuses to provide Barton with a direct personal motive for revenge on Harry Carson. The assassination is a dreadful duty that falls to him by lot, not, as it easily might have been in a melodrama or a traditional revenge tragedy, his response to Harry Carson's attempt to seduce his daughter.10 Bodenheimer argues that the splitting of the stories of Mary's sexual harassment and the economic exploitation of the workers softens the “systemic analysis of industrial oppression” in Mary Barton (208; see Lucas, 173, for a similar view). Yet Gaskell's focus on John Barton's political rather than personal motives foregrounds the unconventional class revenge the novel depicts, and at the same time generates sympathy for her working-class avenger and the sense of “duty” that governs him.

In dramatizing the contradictory interpretations of “duty” embraced by John, Job, and Mr. Carson, Gaskell activates the internal dialogism of words as Bakhtin conceives them. “The word, directed towards its object, enters a dialogically agitated and tension-filled environment of alien words, value judgments and accents,” he observes; “and an artistic representation” may “activate and organize” this “dialogic play of verbal intentions” (276-77). The question of what “duty” means or should mean for John's daughter Mary is brought into this complex field of “dialogic play.” Gallagher, interpreting Mary as the sentimental heroine of a domestic take, suggests that “duty is clear” for women in Gaskell's tales of this sort (79); while Kestner sees Mary's function as merely “focusing the men's interests” in the novel (119). But Mary's “duty” of acting and speaking out on Jem's behalf, so contradictory to the womanly submission enjoined upon her, is dialogized both through her mental debate depicted in Chapter 22, and through her later debate with Job, when she refuses to depute what she sees as “her duty, her right” to a man (340). The parallel between the father's duty and the daughter's—John's taking a life in the name of duty and Mary's saving a life—emerges if one considers how John is driven by the desire to save working-class lives, and how Mary risks ending her father's life by trying to save Jem.

In Gaskell's “interanimation” of diverging definitions of “duty,” Mr. Carson's concluding recognition of his duty to the less fortunate brings a middle-class perspective into the conflicting social and ideological interpretations of this keyword. However, it is Job who points out this duty to him, and who speaks to it most eloquently. Consequently, working-class interpretations of duty, situated in the intricate intersections of private and public responsibility, dominate the novel. This dominance is not surprising since, as I implied in the introduction, everywhere we turn in Mary Barton—in the textual voice of the novel's narrative and commentary as well as in the dialogue of the characters—we encounter working-class languages, texts, and perspectives. Gaskell weaves into her text at every opportunity not only passages from Chartist poems like “The Pauper's Drive” and Lancashire “ditties” like “The Oldham Weaver,” but also proverbs and maxims, nursery rhymes like “Polly put the kettle on” (the motto to Chapter 2), and quotations from ballads, from poets pointedly identified as “Anonymous,” as in the mottoes to Chapters 17 and 24, and from working-class poets like Robert Burns, Ebenezer Elliot, and Samuel Bamford. Subsequent novels by Gaskell do not exhibit this plenitude of working-class discourse to nearly the same degree, and there is much to suggest that it results from deliberate narrative and rhetorical strategies in Mary Barton.11

In Chapter 10 the narrator notes the soothing effect “in times of suffering or fierce endurance” of “the mere repetition off old proverbs” such as “it's a long lane that has no turning” (157), a proverb which Job Legh in fact speaks in the preceding chapter (151). Gaskell also draws freely on working-class idioms that she acknowledges may sound like “trivial, everyday expression[s]” (186), as in depicting Mrs. Wilson's love for her helpless, silly twins: “want had never yet come in at the door to make love for these innocents fly out at the window” (115). In another instance, Margaret reacts to a goodnatured kiss from Jem by asking “‘What would May say?’”, Jem replies, “‘She'd nobbut say, practice makes perfect,’” and in between the narrator observes, “Lightly said, lightly answered” (81). Such hybridizations create a double-voiced effect as the narrative voice fuses with the voices of the working-class characters. Mary Barton is thus typical of the dialogized novel as Bakhtin describes it, in that the heteroglossia entering through dialogue is also diffused through authorial discourse (316).

In addition, Gaskell's chapter mottoes, many of them drawn either from working-class texts like Ebenezer Elliot's, or from the texts of authors associated with working-class causes like Tom Hood and Caroline Norton, do much to establish a matrix of working-class discourse in a novel that is insistently intertextual, although in a different way than more conventional literary works. Stoneman suggests that Mary Barton is a text haunted by literary “fathers” (85), but she does not address the unconventional working-class identity of many of these “fathers,” or the extent to which Gaskell also echoes literary “mothers” such as Norton, Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, and Elizabeth Stone (see Kestner; also Wheeler, “The Writer as Reader”). Ten out of the first eleven chapters begin with mottoes derived either from popular, anonymous discourse, or from authors associated with working-class causes. Often Gaskell employs these mottoes dialogically, as when she prefaces Chapter 9 with a quotation from Norton's “Child of the Islands” which presents one half of a debate between the rich and the poor. In the motto, the rich ask the poor of what they “complain”—and the chapter itself, incorporating John Barton's narrative of the rejection of the Chartist petition, provides the answer. A similar question and answer relation is set up between the motto and the chapter's contents in Chapter 33, but this time it is the poor who ask if “brothers” would treat them as the rich do (451), a question which both the dying John Barton and Job Legh reiterate in the ensuing chapter, and which Mr. Carson and the reader are left to answer. Elsewhere, as in Chapter 10 discussed below, Gaskell anticipates George Eliot in combining two mottoes to set up a dialogue of opposing voices played out in the ensuing chapter.

Gaskell's principal rhetorical strategy in creating a dialogue of voices, both in the characters' speech and in her authorial discourse, seems to be juxtaposing differing modes of discourse in order to emphasize the common humanity of differing classes and genders, or to foreground conflicting ideologies and cultural perspectives. An example of both effects combined occurs in Chapter 15, where she presents young Harry Carson's contrast of his own dandified appearance to Jem Wilson's grimy appearance in his mechanic's clothes. Recalling his own reflection in his bedroom glass, Harry thinks: “It was Hyperion to a Satyr. That quotation came aptly; he forgot ‘The man's a man for a' that’” (227). Gaskell's focus here on the literacy and ideological intertext shaping Carson's aristocratic prejudices indicates that her own repeated quotations from writers of the people such as Burns—a writer frequently lauded by the Chartists—are a deliberate strategy.12 Moreover, her opposition of Harry's field of allusion to Jem's is a clear example of dialogization involving what Bakhtin terms “character zones”—that is, textual territories surrounding particular characters that are penetrated by their distinctive discourse. Typically too, the mixing of allusions here is quietly ironic, as we watch the conceited young Harry applying to himself the praise Hamlet applies to his dead father.

The allusion to Hamlet belongs to the other main group of allusions and mottoes in Mary Barton, derived from traditional literary texts rather than working-class discourse: in particular, from Greek and English revenge tragedies, and from Romantic poetry. Michael Wheeler (“The Writer as Reader”) and Graham Handley have shown how intricately patterned some of these allusions are, contrary to Henry James's view of Gaskell as naively unintellectual (Ganz 29), and to Johnson's impression that Gaskell's Biblical and literary allusions are “scattered” while Dostoevsky's are carefully patterned (48). In fact, Gaskell seems to make calculated dialogic use of quotations from the traditional “high” genres of poetry and drama in order to invest her humble characters' actions with heroic or epic significance—much as she uses her footnotes on dialect to connect the humble idioms of her Lancashire working-class characters to writers such as Chaucer, that “well of English undefiled,” Wycliffe and Ben Johnson.13 Quotations from such genres are particularly frequent in the second half of Mary Barton, where Gaskell uses them to relate her working-class tragic hero and the middle-class Mr. Carson to the aristocratic protagonists of classical and English revenge tragedy. It is Mr. Carson to the aristocratic protogonists of classical and English revenge tragedy. It is Mr. Carson, however, who emerges as the more bloodthirsty revenger—the “Orestes” who passes as a Christian in the nineteenth century (266). The motto of Chapter 18 from Dryden's Duke of Guise—“‘My brain runs this way and that way; 'twill fix hair / On aught but vengeance’” (254)—applies most directly to Mr. Carson's fury at the close of the chapter, as he confronts the corpse of his beloved son.

Mary is associated even more insistently than her father with epic and tragic figures, a feature often overlooked by those who see her simply as a domestic heroine. Indeed, Maria Edgeworth said that Gaskell's heroine was placed in a “situation fit for the highest Greek Tragedy” (Sharp 67). Mary's divided feelings about her father and her participation in his guilt are intimated in the trial scene through a comparison linking her with Beatrice Cenci (389), while Mr. Carson erroneously sees her as the “fatal Helen, the cause of all” (388). More intriguingly, she is linked with Saturn's wife in Keats' Hyperion through the motto to Chapter 22. This last motto seems intended to add epic stature to Mary at a point when her “innate power” of “judgement and discretion” is called upon in the attempt to free Jem (302). At the same point, Mary is also compared to Spenser's Una in The Faerie Queen. In the next chapter, a gender reversal figures her as the archetypal romance hero: “She was like one who discovers the silken clue which guides to some bower of bliss, and secure of the power within his grasp, has to wait for a time before he may tread the labyrinth” (311).

One other persistent set of textual allusions relates both Mary and her Aunt Esther to Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, and to Christabel and her stepmother Geraldine respectively (Handley 134-36). The connection of Esther, the fallen woman, to the Ancient Mariner is a daring and effective dialogization of the prostitute's forbidden discourse. “To whom shall the outcast prostitute tell her tale!” the narrator asks (207). Gaskell does not let us forget that the “leper's” discourse of the fallen women is suppressed even by those members of the working classes who might be expected to understand the economic deprivation leading to prostitution. The combination of mottoes prefacing Chapter 10 highlights the irony involved in John Barton's refusal to listen to Esther's warning about Mary, immediately after the chapter in which he has described his anger at the legislators' refusal to listen to the Chartists' appeal. Later the reader, like Coleridge's hapless wedding guest, must listen to the “outcast prostitute's” tale along with Jem as Esther insists, “‘I will have the relief of telling it’” (210). Another literary precedent from a high Romantic genre subsequently appears for the telling of this inset story, as Esther is linked through the motto to Chapter 21 to the seduced Margaret in Goethe's Faust.

Gaskell's mixing of genres and genders through her use of allusions and mottoes dialogizes literary discourse internally, at the same time as it democratizes it through collision with the languages of the illiterate and the non-literary. Further dialogization occurs through Gaskell's opposition of the languages of different regions and professions. In a reversal designed to relativize the linguistic consciousness of her London readers, she presents John Barton commenting on the alien sound of “‘tongue-tied’” Londoners who “‘can't say their a's and i's properly’” (144). Sailor Will's nautical “way of speaking” (203), evident in his inset comic story of the scorpion, finds its regional counterpart in the Liverpool ship slang that Mary finds “unintelligible” at times—slang that the narrator says she cannot “repeat correctly” because she is “too much of a landlubber” (352). Young Charley, Mary's waterside guide, says that “‘women know nought about’” such language (349), but ironically even Job is perplexed by the “confused use of the feminine pronoun” that Charley's reference to Will's ship as “she” entails (367).

Much as different regional and professional languages, marked by internal gender differences, are juxtaposed in Mary Barton, so fictional and historical voices intermingle. Indeed, a startling effect of “faction” rather than fiction is frequently created when Gaskell feigns to report the comments of actual witnesses to her fictitious events. Thus, after Margaret is depicted singing the song “What a single word can do,” the narrator says, “As a factory worker, listening outside, observed, ‘She spun it reet fine!’” (139). Presenting Mary at the trial, the narrator comments, “I was not there myself; but one who was, told me … that her countenance haunted him, like the remembrance of some wild, sad melody, heard in childhood” (389). And the discovery of the caricature of the strikers drawn by Harry Carson, one of the most crucial incidents in the plot, is presented in a similar way as a “by-play” at the meeting of the masters and men “not recorded in the Manchester newspapers” (235). These reportorial remarks seem calculated rather than accidental, since Gaskell plays differing versions of the Carson murder off against each other, among them a newspaper version which reduces it to “some dispute about a factory girl” (344) and the opposing legal versions at the trial, in effect forensic fictions streaked with melodrama.

Gaskell's parodic stylization of professional languages thus interacts with the parodic stylization of genres in Mary Barton to reveal how much the apparently factual accounts of Harry Carson's murder produced by the newspapers, the law courts, and the police rely on the conventions of genres such as farce, melodrama, and the detective novel. Gallagher, who observes that “Mary Barton is partly about the ways in which narrative conventions mask and distort reality,” notes how Gaskell parodies the conventions of farce and melodrama even as she employs the latter herself to play upon the reader's expectations (67-68). Much the same can be said of Gaskell's use of the conventions of the Newgate or detective novel noted by Wright (237). When the police are hot on Jem Wilson's trail, the narrator observes how “they enjoy the collecting and collating evidence, and the life of adventure they lead; a continual unwinding of Jack Sheppard romances, always interesting to the vulgar and uneducated mind” (273). The version of the murder the police piece together is not very different from the cruder version told by the “halfpenny broadsides” hawked in the streets, with their “raw-head-and-bloody-bones picture of the suspected murderer” (283). Similarly reductive is the police interpretation of Esther's situation after she is cursed and thrown aside by John Barton when she tries to warn him about Mary. Seeing “the close of these occurrences,” a policeman arrests Esther, and the next day she is charged and committed to the New Bailey. “It was a clear case of disorderly vagrancy,” the narrator says (170). In this ironic hybridization, Gaskell “does the police in different voices” with the virtuosity of Dickens.

Gaskell's sustained and complex “critical interanimation” of voices and discourses—working-class and middle-class, female and male, oral and written, vernacular and literary, historical and fictional, regional and professional—provides a context in which to view the inconsistencies of the narrator in Mary Barton. Existing criticism has typically privileged one or two of the multiple narrative voices in the novel, and objected to contradictions between these, or between the teller and the tale. Bodenheimer, for example, sees Gaskell as shifting awkwardly between the roles of a sympathetic and accurate “domestic observer” of the poor and a stilted middle-class “social historian” (198).14 However, dichotomizing labels do not capture the flux and diversity of the narrative voicing in the novel. Sometimes the voice is that of a neighborly gossip. “Do you know ‘The Oldham Weaver?’ Not unless you are Lancashire born and bred. … I will copy it for you” (71). At other times, it is an intimate voice urgent as Esther's, as when we hear of Mary's dark suspicion that her father is Harry Carson's murderer: “I must tell you; I must put into words the dreadful secret” (299). Sometimes this intimate voice is oddly intrusive and personal. Most notably, the account of Mrs. Wilson's distressed dreams after her son's arrest is interrupted to reveal the narrator's grief and solace in the land of “dreams—(that land into which no sympathy nor love can penetrate with another … where alone I may see, while yet I tarry here, the sweet looks of my dead child)” (327).

These particular voices seem overtly female, in ways that George Eliot's narrative voice never is in Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss, two works that show the influence of Mary Barton.15 Yet, when Gaskell's first novel was published anonymously, there was some controversy about the gender of the author: Carlyle and W. R. Greg detected a feminine hand, while reviewers in the Athenaeum and the Independent assumed the writer was male (Hopkins 17; Stoneman 3). The controversy seems understandable if one considers that some of the narrative voices assumed in Mary Barton have the masculine tone of a Carlylean prophet or preacher. Chapter 10, for example, begins with a sermon-like exhortation to middle-class readers to “remember” the suffering of the poor, and then invokes the Old Testament story of Rehoboam in 1 Kings 12. The people had found the “yoke” of poverty hard to bear in preceding years, the narrator observes, “but this year added sorely to its weight. Former times had chastised them with whips, but this chastised them with scorpions” (157). Since in the Biblical story, it is not the “times” that chastised the people, but the “yoke” of oppression imposed by Rehoboam, this allusion sharpens Gaskell's social satire, at the same time as it prophesies the downfall of rulers as oppressive as Rehoboam, subsequently replaced by the people's advocate Jeroboam. Having spoken in the conventionally male voice of the preacher, Gaskell then typically shifts in the next paragraph to a colloquial, conventionally female voice, as she describes how John Barton and Mary tried to subsist on her salary—“But the rent! It was half a crown a week—nearly all of Mary's earnings” (158).

The abstract, univocal concept of the “implied author” cannot accomodate this multiplication of narrative voices in Mary Barton. Nor can the diverse readers posited or actively engaged by Gaskell's multiple narrative voices be accommodated by the concept of “the implied reader,” which many reader response critics now reject as too abstract and reductive (Suleiman 14, 25-26). In Mary Barton, many of these readers are actually inscribed in the text, as opposed to implied, and they shift in identity as the narrative voice shifts. Sometimes addressed as “you,” sometimes as “we,” the inscribed reader is at times individual, at times collective. Sometimes the “you” evokes the careless, anonymous man—or is it woman?—in the streets, who cannot “read the lot of those who daily pass you by. … How do you know the wild romances of their lives … ?” (101). Sometimes the “you” evokes a womanly neighbor or friend: “Can you fancy the bustle of Alice to make tea … ?” (67). At other points, the “you” might be the educated clubman in an armchair whom Thackeray often addresses in Vanity Fair—or it might just possibly be an educated woman or self-educated working man. “If you will refer to the preface to Sir J. E. Smith's Life (I have it not by me, or I would copy you the exact passage), you will find that he names a little circumstance corroborative of what I have said,” the narrator observes in describing the self-educated working men of Manchester like Job (76). Such an address has the potential to cross both class and gender lines, given its context and its juxtaposition with narrative comments conventionally coded as female.

The shifting narrative voices in Mary Barton and the multiplication of inscribed readers further contribute to the actively dialogic nature of the novel's discourse because both narrator and reader participate in the internal and external debates the characters experience. Christine Brooke-Rose describes the dialogical novel as one in which “the author has a constant metatextual dialogue with his characters” (Suleiman 145); while Bakhtin observes that even in Turgenev's works, “substantial masses” of the novelist's apparently monologic language are “drawn into the battle between points of view, value judgments and emphases” embodied by the characters (315-16). This effect occurs in Mary Barton when both narrator and reader are drawn into the debate Mary experiences concerning “duty.” Should Mary submit and wait as Alice and Margaret advise? Or should she act? The narrator asks the reader a propos of Mary's dilemma, “Do you think if I could help it, I would sit still with folded hands to mourn?” (301).

At other points, what seem to be irritating middle-class platitudes on the part of the narrator emerge, when viewed contextually, as components in extended debates pervading the narrative commentary and the dramatic presentation of the characters' thoughts and actions. One notable example of apparently platitudinous commentary in Mary Barton appears in Chapter 3, when the narrator comments on John Barton's anger at the rich who, in his eyes, do not suffer during bad times:

I know that this is not really the case; and I know what is the truth in such matters: but what I wish to impress is what the workman feels and thinks. True, that with child-like improvidence, good times will often dissipate his grumbling, and make him forget all prudence and insight.


This interruption has seemed jarring to many readers (Bodenheimer 199-200 and Gill, Mary Barton 3-24 are representative). But, rather than being seen as epitomizing Gaskell's subscription to middle-class ideology, this patronizing commentary can be viewed as playing an integral part in a sustained debate in which she elicits the stock opinions of her middle-class readers (and no doubt of one part of her own mind) in order to destabilize those opinions. Precisely this effect occurs as Gaskell progressively complicates and interrogates the assumption that the working classes are “improvident” in the first half of Mary Barton.

The motif of improvidence first appears in Chapter 1, when John Barton's appearance is described as “stunted,” giving the impression that he had “suffered” from the scanty living consequent upon bad times, and “improvident habits” (41). Here the opinion that the working classes are improvident seems something that the narrator is not even conscious of, yet one notes how “improvident habits” hangs in potential conflict with “bad times” as an explanation of the suffering of the poor. The motif next appears indirectly in the narrator's description of the Bartons' domestic belongings in Chapter 2. Here there is a curious insistence on household articles that are “really for use,” like a table, in contrast to more ornamental articles like the “bright green japanned tea-tray” and “crimson tea-caddy,” and the “triangular pieces of glass to save carving knives and forks from dirtying table-cloths,” for which one would have fancied their possessors could find no use” (49-50). It's as if Gaskell were embodying the first impressions of a working-class home in the mind of a typical middle-class visitor representing the Manchester and Salford District Provident Society, to which she herself belonged. A similar voice seems to be speaking in the disruptive narrative commentary of Chapter 3, cited above. After the description of the Bartons' home, the “improvidence” motif is intermingled with the focus on distinguishing between objects of use and objects of ornamentation. The motif recurs in the description of Alice's meagre domestic possessions, which include an “unlackered, ancient, third-hand tea-tray” (66); and it takes on an ironic note when Mr. Carson's home is described as “furnished with disregard for expense”—“many articles chosen for their beauty and elegance adorned his rooms” (105). This description appears in Chapter 6, where we first vividly see, smell, and feel the dark, foetid, clammy Davenport cellar, stripped even of the plainest articles of use (101). Finally in Chapter 10, in a passage remarkable for its quiet but caustic ironies, the narrator describes the stripping of the Barton house itself, as the family of father and daughter sink into penury, not because of improvidence but because of “bad times” aggravated by the blacklisting of John as a Chartist:

“By degrees the house was stripped of its little ornaments. … And by-and-by Mary began to part with other superfluities at the pawn-shop. The smart tea-tray, and tea-caddy, long and carefully kept, went for bread for her father. He did not ask for it, or complain, but she saw hunger in his shrunk, fierce, animal look. Then the blankets went, for it was summer time, and they could spare them; and their sale made a fund; which Mary fancied would last until better times came. But it was soon all gone; and then she looks around the room to crib it of its few remaining ornaments.”


When blankets become classified with “superfluities” and “ornaments”—when objects of use are so barely defined—life is cheap as beasts', and the assumptions that expect such a life of the poor are shown to be cheap and mean-spirited themselves.

The narrator's apparent platitude about the workers' “child-like improvidence” can thus be seen to exist, like the concept of “duty,” in a “dialogically agitated” environment that destabilizes and subverts it. This dialogical agitation is further intensified because the conjunction of “childlike” with “improvidence” implicates the latter term in Gaskell's complex development of the child metaphor noted above, a development that generates sympathy, not criticism, for the starving workers. Bakhtin emphasizes the potential reductiveness of abstracting “direct authorial speech” from its context in a text and viewing it in isolation as epitomizing the author's “style” or authorial identity (265-66). Unfortunately, this critical practice has led to the under-appreciation of Gaskell's artistry, and to monologic conceptions of a narrative voice that is persistently dialogical.

Of course, not all of the shifts and contradictions in the narrative voicing of Mary Barton can be explained in terms of Gaskell's innovative dialogization of authorial discourse. For instance, the often noted contradictory use of the Frankenstein metaphor in Chapter 15, in which Gaskell seems first to deny, then to affirm, that the uneducated like John Barton have a “soul,” is best explained by Gallagher's analysis of the conflict between social determinism and free will in nineteenth-century narratives (74-75). Other inconsistencies can be interpreted psychologically as unconscious manifestations of what Gaskell, in a striking phrase, referred to as her many “Mes”: “One of my mes is, I do believe a true Christian—(only people call her socialist and communist), another of my mes is a wife and mother. … Now that's my ‘social’ self I suppose. Then again I've another self with a full taste for beauty and convenience. … How am I to reconcile all these warring members?” (Letters 108). However, the point where psychology ends and artistry begins is difficult to determine. Gaskell's conceptualization of her identity as made up of “warring members” is itself notable for its self-reflexive dialogization of consciousness, a feature that casts some light on her remarkable ability—one might say her “negative capability”—to accomodate conflicting discourses and perspectives.

It is not surprising that this ability should have been highly developed in a woman with Gaskell's personal history and experience. Her struggle as a Southerner like Margaret Hale with alien Manchester idioms and viewpoints, her encounter as a middle-class social worker with working-class perspectives, her parallel literary encounter with the working-class poets she studied with her husband, and her struggle as a woman with discourses like political economy conventionally viewed as masculine—all no doubt contributed to the relativizing of her linguistic consciousness. Her tendency to incorporate the heteroglossia of female and working-class discourses in double-voiced constructions can furthermore be seen as the predictable consequence of her status as a member of a “muted” group within a dominant masculine culture.16 More remarkable is the intricacy and daring with which she challenges the dominant discourses of her culture by opposing these to suppressed discourses, instead of simply translating the latter into some form of dominant discourse.

The success of Mary Barton has traditionally been assessed in light of its formal consistency. A more appropriate measure might be Hans-Robert Jauss's criterion for evaluating the artistry of a work: the “distance between the horizon of expectations and the work, between the familiarity of previous aesthetic experiences and the ‘horizon change’ demanded by the response to new works” (Suleiman 36). Because it is such an intensely dialogical novel, Mary Barton provoked a horizon change in its middle-class readers.17 It did so not by overt iconoclasm, which might have alienated much of its reading public, but by engaging its readers, like its characters and its author, in a complex series of interlocking debates and encounters with conflicting languages and ideologies. In the process, even the more conspicuously middle-class voices among the narrator's “many mes” play their part because a horizon of expectations can only be changed when that horizon is acknowledged from the inside, as the viewers see it, and simultaneously penetrated by what is outside. This is what Gaskell achieves through the polyphony of voices she orchestrates in Mary Barton.


  1. A poem of six stanzas, “The Pauper's Drive” deftly combines black humour, caustic social satire and pathos. Kovalev does not identify the author. He notes that poems like “The Pauper's Drive” were conventional in working-class writings before the Chartists (371). For a translation of Kovalev's Russian introduction see Chaloner.

  2. Mary Barton was the first foreign novel published in translation by the Dostoevsky brothers in their magazine Vremya. Johnson notes that Dostoevsky may have been influenced in Crime and Punishment by Gaskell's “Dantesque scenes” of urban suffering, her Christian ideology, and her depiction of an ideological murderer like Raskolnikov, whose character deteriorates in the course of the novel.

  3. See also Michael Wheeler, English Fiction of the Victorian Period (36). Bodenheimer and Lucas offer the most thought-provoking discussions of the divisions within Mary Barton. Margaret Ganz relates these to the split in Gaskell herself between the Knutsford world of Cranford, and the Manchester world of Mary Barton and North and South (31-32).

  4. On the complexity of “voicing” in Victorian fiction, though not in Mary Barton, see Mark Kinkead-Weekes.

  5. Bodenheimer notes in passing that Gaskell's “society of the poor is so full of its own dictions and traditions, so various in its own right, that the middle-class voices we hear at the Carsons' or before the Liverpool Assizes seem genuine intrusions from another linguistic universe” (214). And Coral Lansbury similarly suggests that, surrounded by these voices, the narrator's own voice begins to sound like a fiction (Elizabeth Gaskell: The Novel of Social Crisis (25). The most useful treatment of dialect in Mary Barton remains Sanders's “A Note on Mrs. Gaskell's Use of Dialect.”

  6. Gaskell proposed several readings in political economy to her daughter Marianne: “first I think we should read together Adam Smith on the Wealth of Nations. Not confining ourselves as we read to the limited meaning he attaches to the word ‘wealth’” ([7 April 1851], Letters 148). For one of Gaskell's bolder interruptions of male discourse, see Chapter 16 in Mary Barton where the narrator interrupts the masters' comments on the beast-like workers: “(Well! Who might have made them different?)” (233).

  7. Some Chartist poems are entitled “hymns” (see Kovalev, 118, 164). Like the Owenites described by Barbara Taylor in Eve and the New Jerusalem (158), with their Social Hymn Book and millenarianism, the Chartists adapted Christian rhetoric to their revolutionary purposes.

  8. Edgar Wright (260-62) and Kathleen Tillotson (213-24) have suggested that Gaskell's depiction of working class dialect is limited, particularly in the depiction of Mary, who often speaks in standard English. But Gaskell's variations in “editing” dialect indicate that she was highly conscious of her own novelistic modifications. She depicts Mary using more dialect terms in speaking to members of her own class than to the middle-class Harry Carson.

  9. These political messages from women find an analogue in “The Oldham Weaver,” where the male speaker says that his wife Marget has declared “Hoo'd goo up to Lunnon an' talk to the' greet mon” if only she had “cloo' as to put on” (73). Taylor notes that women weavers were particularly active in labor agitation, in Oldham and elsewhere. “In the desperate years following the Napoleonic Wars,” women weavers had “often served as violent shock-troops,” and “so it was again among power-loom weavers in the early 1830s, when women led the way in riotous confrontations with the military in Oldham and other textile centres” (91).

  10. Taylor notes that the “torrid tales of innocent daughters of the people seduced and ruined by dastardly blue-bloods or lascivious employers filled the radical press” in the 1830s and 40s (201).

  11. In North and South, the novel where one might most expect to encounter the pervasive presence of working-class discourse again, the principal working-class characters, Nicholas and Bessy Higgins, play marginal roles. Occasional chapters make use of epigraphs from poets such as Elliott (Chapters 21 & 43) and Hood (Ch. 37) or from the Corn Law Rhymes (Ch. 22); several other epigraphs are anonymous (Chapters 5, 11, 17, 34, 48). On the whole, however, the textual voice is much less polyglot, in part because of the use of Margaret Hale as a center of consciousness.

  12. Passages from Burns also appear as mottoes for Chapters 11 and 33 in Mary Barton. See Kovalev, 298 & 305, for indications of the popularity of Burns among the Chartists. Kovalev points out that to compare a writer with Burns was “the highest honour Chartist critics could confer” (Chaloner translation, 128).

  13. Stephen Gill notes this function of Gaskell's footnotes on etymology (Mary Barton 474), as does Norman Page (52). Gustav Klaus overlooks the complexity of Gaskell's rhetorical strategies when he infers that she “felt obliged to defer to her readers' sensibilities by adding footnotes to, or translating into standard English, the colloquial utterances of her working-class characters” (52).

  14. Gill similarly distinguishes between Gaskell as “imaginative artist” and as middleclass “mediator between the classes” (Mary Barton 24); and Lucas opposes the novel's “sensitive exploration” of John Barton's experience to “Mrs Gaskell's prim interpolations” 162-63). Coral Lansbury points to the “disjunctions between the narrative mediator and the action of the plot,” and comments that the “major difficulty” with Mary Barton is “a concilatory narrator who is often so mealy-mouthed and platitudinous that the reader's teeth are set on edge” (Elizabeth Gaskell 10 & 14). Responding to another of the narrative voices in the novel, Gary Messinger observes that “the persona of the authoress is that of a nurse who sees no final remedy for the sorrow she witnesses daily” (Welch 92).

  15. In a letter to Gaskell dated November 11th, 1859, Eliot acknowledged the influence of the “earlier chapters of Mary Barton” on her art (The George Eliot Letters III 98). But the entire plot structure of Mary Barton seems to have influenced The Mill on the Floss: both begin with the tragedy of a humble man, and in each the man's daughter replaces the father as the center of interest in the second half of the novel. The depiction of the relationship between Gaskell's depiction of Jem Wilson's relationship with his mother while Esther's moral development in Felix Holt resembles Mary's in some respects. Both begin as rather flippant young women, who grow in stature and who choose working-class lovers in the end.

  16. The tendency of “muted” groups to produce “double-voiced” discourse is discussed by Elaine Showalter (31) and by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Stoneman notes Gaskell's use of such discourse (12-14).

  17. See the “resisting” reviewers, perceptively analysed by Lucas (164-69).

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist; trans. Carlyl Emerson & Michael Holquist. Austin & London: U of Texas P, 1981.

Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. “Private Griefs and Public Acts in Mary Barton.Dickens Studies Annual 9 (1981): 195-215.

Booth, Wayne C. “Freedom of Interpretation: Bakhtin and the Challenge of Feminists Criticism,” The politics of Interpretation. Ed. W. J. T. Mitchell. Chicago & London: U of Chicago P, 1983. 51-82.

Chaloner, W. D. “Y. V. Kovalev: The Literature of Chartism,” Victorian Studies (1959): 117-138

Easson, Angus. Elizabeth Gaskell. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979.

Eliot, George. The George Eliot Letters. Ed. Gordon S. Haight. New Haven: Yale UP, 1954. Vol. 3.

Gallagher, Catherine. The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Form 1832-1867. Chicago & London: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Ganz, Margaret. Elizabeth Gaskell: The Artist in Conflict. New York: Twayne, 1969.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Ed. Stephen Gill. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1970.

———. The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell. Ed. J. A. V. Chapple & Arthur Pollard. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1967.

———. North and South. Ed. Martin Dodsworth. Middlesex: Penguin, 1970.

Gilbert, Sandra & Gubar, Susan. “Sexual Linguistics: Gender, Language, Sexuality.” New Literacy History 16 (1985): 515-43.

Gilligan, Carol. In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard UP, 1982.

Handley, Michael. “Mrs. Gaskell's Reading: Some Notes on Echoes and Epigraphs in Mary Barton,Durham University Journal 59 n.s. 28 (1967): 131-38.

Holloway, John. The Victorian Sage: Studies in Argument. 1953; New York: Norton, 1965.

Hopkins, Annette B. “Mary Barton: A Victorian Best Seller,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 3 (1948): 1-18.

Johnson, C. A. “Russian Gaskelliana,” Review of English Literature 7 (1966): 39-51.

Keating, P. J. The Working Classes in Victorian Fiction. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971.

Kestner, Joseph. Protest and Reform: The British Social Narrative By Women 1827-1867. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1985.

Kincead-Weekes, Mark. “The Voicing of Fictions.” Reading the Victorian Novel: Detail Into Form. Ed. Ian Gregor. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1980. 168-192.

Klaus, Gustav. The Literature of Labour: Two Hundred Years of Working-Class Writing. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985.

Kovalev, Y. V., ed. An Anthology of Chartist Literature. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956.

Lansbury, Coral. Elizabeth Gaskell. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1984.

———. Elizabeth Gaskell: The Novel of Social Crisis. London: Elek, 1975.

Lucas, John. “Mrs. Gaskell and Brotherhood.” Tradition and Tolerance in Nineteenth-Century Fiction. Ed. David Howard et al. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966. 141-205.

Marshall, Dorothy. The Life and Times of Victoria. London: Book Club Associates, 1972.

Page, Norman. Speech in the English Novel. London: Longman, 1973.

Wheeler, Michael. English Fiction of the Victorian Period. London & New York: Longman, 1985.

———. “The Writer as Reader in Mary Barton.Durham University Journal 67 n.s. 36 (1974): 92-102.

Sanders, Gerald Dewitt. Elizabeth Gaskell. New York: Russell & Russell, 1929.

Sharps, John G. Mrs. Gaskell's Observation and Intervention: A Study of Her Non-Biographic Works. London: Linden Press, 1970.

Showalter, Elaine. “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness.” Writing and Sexual Difference. Ed. Elizabeth Abel. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982. 9-35.

Stoneman, Patsy. Elizabeth Gaskell. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, Key Women Writers Series, 1987.

Suleiman, Susan R. & Crosman, Inge, eds. The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation. Princeton UP, 1980.

Tanner, Tony. Jane Austen. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1986.

Taylor, Barbara. Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983.

Tillotson, Kathleen. Novels of the Eighteen-Forties. 1954; 2nd ed. London: Oxford UP, 1956.

Welch, Jeffrey. Elizabeth Gaskell: An Annotated Bibliography. New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1977, p. 92.

Alisa M. Clapp (essay date January 1995)

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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 Barton was to unite the classes by showing successful class communication. A middle-class resident of industrial Manchester during the “hungry forties,” she witnessed first-hand the distresses of the working class, attributing such poverty not as much to the employers' callousness as to their ignorance. She, then, would “give utterance to the agony which … convulses this dumb people” as she writes in her Preface, writing primarily to inform a middle-class readership though lower classes would read it, too.3 The conditions of the industrial working class are shown through two families—the Bartons and the Wilsons—each of whom loses family members due to poverty. John Barton retaliates by killing the employer's son, Harry Carson, and when young Jem Wilson is accused of the murder, his sweetheart Mary Barton spends much of the novel attempting to exonerate him while her father, racked with hate and guilt, wastes away and dies.

As this paper's epigram suggests, Gaskell herself was anxious to justify the accuracy of her portrayals. In a letter, for instance, she emphasizes how John Barton's character was “exactly a poor man I know,” that the scenes were “real as my own life at the time,” and that she “tried to tell them as nearly as I could.”4 Opinions of Gaskell's success at representational accuracy were mixed from the beginning, however, with some contemporary reviews praising the accurate account and others criticizing the exaggeration of working-class conditions.5 The debate has continued into our own century with Kathleen Tillotson claiming a “wider impartiality, a tenderer humanity” for the novel,6 while Raymond Williams criticizes the unrealistic, middle-class “fear of violence” from the lower classes which pervades the pages.7

Several recent readings, then, have begun to consider the problems of communication as stemming from the text itself, specifically in its incompatible literary genres: for example, Catherine Gallagher argues that the characters' melodramatic reactions to social ills impede social action until the end,8 while Amanda Anderson qualifies this: the prostitute Esther is never seen outside melodrama and her subsequent “unreadable” appearances throughout belie written communication's ability to prompt social action.9 Thus, the issue of language's inability to communicate objective reality—intricately tied with authorial subjectivity, class biases, and literary constraints—is readily exemplified in the various historical reactions to Mary Barton, prompting recent criticism's exploration of communication on the textual level. This issue of miscommunication between author and reader, then, complicates the goals of the socially minded novelist.

Indeed, the anxieties about the success of language and written communication appear to have haunted Gaskell herself and are found, I argue, within the actual texts in her own text. These “texts” can be defined as either (1) documents committed to paper in written form, such as professional documents, Biblical texts, and letters; (2) pictorial texts, such as caricatures and valentines; or (3) oral communications also transmitted within a written tradition, such as ballads and broadsides. However, due to class barriers, gender politics, and linguistic inadequacies these texts cause “miscommunications”—i.e., misunderstandings and schisms—between and even among classes, which thwart any potential for language to clarify and heal social ills. Often these failures in written language threaten oral communication by extension.10 Containing no models of healthy written communication, then, Gaskell's own text falters as well. In short, Gaskell's text may avow one thing but its subtexts tell another story, that of Gaskell's unconscious anxiety about the success of all written communication.

From the first, Gaskell suggests class tension to be due, in large part, to barriers in written documents, and she roots this in historical fact by alluding to the “People's Charter,” a charter drafted by working-class unions in 1838 which demanded such reforms as universal male suffrage.11 Through John Barton, a starving factory worker turned political activist, Gaskell shows the frustration of the working class when Parliament refused to accept the People's Charter in 1839. Interestingly, Gaskell blames this failure specifically on a gap in communication between the classes, with the ruling class shunning the lower classes' uneducated use of language: “Parliament had refused to listen to the working men, when they petitioned, with all the force of their rough, untutored words …” (112). Thus, the Charter and what it represents—the inability of the upper and lower classes to communicate sympathetically through the written word—becomes a paradigm for the fictional texts in the novel.

Such include the novel's legal texts which distance the middle-class lawyers from their lower-class patrons whom they are supposedly serving. For instance, both John's daughter, Mary, and their friend Mrs. Wilson receive subpoenas to appear in court, but these “mysterious” and incomprehensible documents use upper-class terminology which only confuses these lower-class characters (301). The poor cannot understand these texts completely; furthermore, neither can they challenge them. And even though Mary's friend Job has some legal knowledge, still, when he sends a message to Mr. Bridgenorth, the lawyer, during the court session, the lawyer finds it “almost illegible” (388). This illegibility is not handwriting alone: Job's letter, though quickly written with “trembling hands,” is probably illegible more in its improper lower-class style, suggested by the colloquial manner of Job's speech. Between both of these legal writings—courtroom notes and subpoenas—Gaskell is suggesting the miscommunication between classes; neither able to read the writing of the other, especially when set in inhuman, legal terms like the subpoena.

Another professional text found in the novel is the infirmary order which Mr. Wilson tries to obtain from Mr. Carson to save the life of his friend Mr. Davenport. The distance between employer and employee is harshly evident when Carson unfeelingly gives Wilson an outpatient order when an emergency order was required (79); this, obviously, is not soon enough to save Davenport, who dies that day. Also, when Mary needs a doctor's order to excuse Mrs. Wilson from attending the trial, the doctor initially misunderstands her; finally agreeing to write an excuse, he says: “Come to me for the certificate any time; that is to say, if the lawyer advises you. I second the lawyer; take counsel with both the learned professions—ha, ha, ha” (322). His callous joking and alignment with a professional peer rather than a poor family in need ripens the class tension in the novel. In both cases, then, the upper classes control the documents which provide medical relief—and hatred, not healing, is the result.

Gaskell also uses another text—a drawing—which inflames the feud between rich and poor. This is unusual, given the universality of pictorial texts. Gertrude Himmelfarb describes the “democratizing” effect that illustrations, from books to fliers, had on the reading public, since both lower and higher classes came away with similar impressions (of a character's looks, for instance).12 However, such democracy becomes anarchy when Carson's son, Harry, draws a caricature of the poorer workers who have come to bargain with the employers. His drawing, depicting the workers' delegation as a mass of scrawny-looking men, causes a good laugh among his upper-class friends who catch the allusion to high literature (a quote from Henry IV), reinforced by the picture itself. This text falls into the wrong hands, though, hands which were not supposed to grasp its meaning. But these workers do, because of the picture of themselves: “The heads clustered together, to gaze at and detect the likenesses” (219). Ultimately, this perverted form of democratic communication results in Harry's death; he is “killed for making a joke” as Gallagher puts it,13 since the workers vow revenge on Carson. This theme is made doubly poignant since this very same drawing is ripped to become the slips of paper when Barton and his men draw lots to pick the assassin; it becomes literally Carson's death warrant as the workers anonymously communicate their intent with each other—and violently communicate their anger to the upper class.

The one text which is privileged above the others as having unifying power is the Bible, with both Alice and Jane Wilson deriving spiritual comfort from Biblical texts. However, John Barton reads only upsetting parallels with his society within its pages. For example, in the first scene of the novel, Barton first introduces the rich-man/poor-man theme by alluding to the parable of Dives and Lazarus: “we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds; ay, as separate as Dives and Lazarus, with a great gulf betwixt us: but I know who was best off then” (8). Indeed Lazarus, the poor man, was better off in heaven than Dives, the rich man, in hell. Actually, in Luke the “great gulf betwixt” mentioned is this gap between heaven and hell, but Barton sees the socially-constructed gulf between rich and poor as just as permanent.

The Bible plays a part in the clash between classes again in the climactic ending. John, quivering before the hardened Carson, spontaneously cries out, “I did not know what I was doing … forgive me the trespass I have done!” (432). But Carson retorts by perverting the Lord's Prayer: “Let my trespasses be unforgiven, so that I may have vengeance for my son's murder” (433) and he leaves the house, unreconciled with Barton. But once home he reaches for his Bible, reading the Gospel “almost greedily, understanding for the first time the full meaning of the story” (436). Simultaneously, John Barton reveals his own neglect of the Bible, since society's actions didn't “square wi' th' Bible” (438). Neglected by both men for years, the Bible has been unable to save them from lives of selfishness and despair, respectively. So, despite its privileging in the novel, the Bible itself results in miscommunication. And these men's recognition of this comes too late for them actually to make amends, except for one brief moment that unconscious Barton will never know: “Mr Carson stood in the door-way … ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us.’ And when the words were said, John Barton lay a corpse in Mr Carson's arms” (438).

This ending may be read sentimentally as ideal, and it is ideal since a written text provides the stimulus to Carson's actual conversion which promotes a direct encounter between enemies who may reach a fleeting reconciliation. However, this attempt at class reconciliation is not convincing enough to overcome the futile class communications of the rest of the novel. Besides, how effective is communication to a dead man?

That different classes have difficulty communicating in the novel is not surprising given Gaskell's intent to address such real-life tensions; but that positive communication is never shown, even at the end, is surprising. But what is even more problematic is that healthy written communication fails to take place even within the protagonists' own lower class.

Such is true of the written communication between family and friends, as represented by valentines and letters. In the first place, valentines, the most visually symbolic of loving discourse, become perverted throughout the novel. For instance, in order to identify herself to Jem, Esther refers to a valentine she once sent him, yet Jem fails to remember this act of kindness, though it is one of the few such acts we know of her before her fall (187). And a large portion of the plot hinges on a valentine “all bordered with hearts and darts” that Mary possesses. As she suspects it came from Jem she originally does not treasure it as he would like (129). Instead, she uses it as scratch paper on the back of which she copies a poem, ironically entitled “God help the poor,” depicting the forgotten, unloved poor of the streets: Job encourages Mary to copy the verses, saying that the “more they're heard and read the better” (129). But this dissemination of social commentary never occurs, at least not in conventional form. Instead, John Barton ponders this poem over and over, which begins to breed hatred in him against the rich. Eventually, John does send the valentine and poem to the upper class, Harry Carson specifically, but in a perverted way: as wadding in his gun when he murders Carson (the darts on it are only too ironic). When Esther finds a piece of this valentine by the scene of the crime, the text on it—Mary's name and address in Jem's handwriting—falsely implicate them. But the story that this valentine now tells, to Mary's eyes only once Esther brings it to her, is one of her own father's guilt (she finds the rest of the torn valentine—that “terrible piece of paper”—in her father's coat [285]). So, although Margaret Homans suggests the power of this direct encounter between Esther and Mary, she also notes its juxtaposition “with the return of a letter that brings men's dangerous, murderous passions closer to home.”14 Thus we see love gone sour by this perverted use of a valentine—a sign of love—used as an aid to murder and as the means of incriminating a loved one. Like the caricature, this text has fallen into the wrong hands, enlightening others of what they wished not to know.

Additionally, the novel is filled with letters, yet successful communication, implied by their inclusion, fails to take place. Letters are lost in the mail or lost by the recipient, are never sent or not given to the person who needs them, carry people away from loved ones, or contain unwanted, embarrassing, or misleading information. For instance, Alice Wilson haunts the post office awaiting a letter from her nephew Will which never comes, only to have him turn up in person. When a letter does arrive, it is a disappointing one, calling him back to the navy. Mary receives “passionate” letters from the rich Mr. Carson which prove embarrassing and unwanted, and none from her true love, Jem; yearning to write to Jem she is dissuaded since “men … like to have a' the courting to themselves”—so the woman becomes mute (166). The one letter of Jem's contained within the novel is not to her, though it might have been, containing his sincere feelings for her. And during Mary's illness, Jem waits impatiently for a letter about her, but Job doesn't even think of writing. When letters do arrive at their destination, they usually contain bad news: of the death of Job's daughter and Alice Wilson's approaching death, for example.

In most cases, the direct encounter is more successful than any attempt at written communication. So it is no wonder when Mary decides to chase Will down in person, because “to the chances of a letter she would not trust” (299). Such problematic uses of letters might implicate the British postal service, yet an American, Otis Clapp, in his 1878 book on the subject, shows that between 1839 and 1854, England's postal system had far surpassed America's in terms of efficiency.15 Thus, Gaskell's anxious inclusion of so many misplaced letters seems to be a comment not on the state of the postal system but on the power of written communication. The ending truly is an ideally happy one—much like Barton and Carson's reconciliation—since Margaret and Will's letters do reach Mary and Jem all the way in Canada and they contain good news about their marriage and upcoming visit to Canada (another direct encounter). Yet, given the problems with letters throughout, this ending only falsely solves the problem, more likely being a symptom of what was bothering Gaskell, rather than a cure.

As the example of Mary's refusal to write to Jem shows, gender-specific problematic communication has ramifications in Mary Barton. If it is not proper for women to express their feelings in letters, then sung texts are another outlet. Such is true of bashful Margaret who displays more of her true feelings to Will through singing then she ever will in person; however, Will, though charmed with her voice, misses her meaning. Women only, it seems, have a special insight into their songs: Alice imparts her love of her childhood countryside in a ballad to Mary and Margaret, and Margaret imparts her concern for the poor when singing to them “The Oldham Weaver,” the pathos of which leaves Alice teary-eyed and Mary breathless.

Ballads and songs in Mary Barton quickly enter the realm of written communication because it is their literary texts which are highlighted: Gaskell includes the lyrics to most songs, sometimes inserting as many as seven stanzas, as with the “The Oldham Weaver.” This ballad was the best known of the Jone o'Grinfilt adventure poems about hand-loom weavers who had become displaced and impoverished with the advent of the power loom. In her book The Industrial Muse, Martha Vicinus describes the ballad as “a magnificently laconic description of the hand-loom weaver's situation at the time. In many ways this song is the summation of all protest against the new conditions brought by industrialization.”16 Thus, Margaret's song represents a class-conscious attempt to deal with economic hardships, especially as befell weavers like John Barton. Unfortunately, this song never leaves the innocuous community of women. Admittedly, Margaret does obtain a job singing at the Mechanics Institute to an audience of higher-class as well as working-class men, and so one might imagine these songs as a significant bridge between classes. However, no longer is Margaret singing politically grounded songs like the “Oldham Weaver” which she enjoyed with her female community but rather songs like “The Siller Crown” and “What a single word can do”—songs about clothes and love, respectively (110). Relegated by her male employers and audience to such romantic, “feminine” songs, Margaret and her social commentary are muted.

Further, men's monetary award only threatens to distance the rising star from her fellow working-class friends. Margaret's tease to Mary of making her a “lady's maid” when she becomes rich thus has serious implications (110). Further, Job uses Margaret to show off to Will, as if she were one of his specimens of natural history (180); through this means, Margaret is successfully restrained from further musical communication since she quickly charms Will and settles down to married life. But the communication barriers shown between genders, especially with musical texts, still remain.

Finally, the lower class as a whole is even shown to be divided by a text in the case of a broadside hawked throughout the streets giving “an account of the bloody murder, the coroner's inquest, and a raw-head-and-bloody-bones picture of the suspected murderer, James Wilson” (269). Broadsides—ballads or tales printed on sheets of paper and hawked, read, or recited aloud in the streets—were one of the few means by which the predominantly illiterate working class obtained news and gossip. They also acted as a unifying device, bringing the poor together against the rich since broadsides' heroes were often common people standing up to the richer classes.17 Interestingly, the brief glimpse of broadsides in Mary Barton reveals not class bonding, but class separation since “Mary heard not; she heeded not” (269). The news cannot reach Mary and she herself refuses to acknowledge the information it conveys about her lover. Furthermore, the broadside is treacherous in its exposure and mockery of a fellow worker for all the people to hear and see, especially in the “raw-head-and-bloody-bones picture.” Now the caricature of the poor is drawn by the poor itself: the poor-hero-vs.-rich-villain theme is suddenly perverted.

Ultimately, all attempts at written communication are thwarted throughout Mary Barton: between rich and poor, between friend and neighbor, between lover and loved one, between father and daughter. So the obscure smaller texts within this greater text tell a different story than Gaskell apparently intended: that written language and communication are hopelessly inadequate in resolving class tensions and personal tensions.


  1. Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton, ed. Edgar Wright. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), xxxvi; all subsequent references to Mary Barton are to this edition.

  2. Besides Mary Barton, these novels include Benjamin Disraeli's Sybil (1846), Charles Kingsley's Alton Locke (1850), Charles Dickens' Hard Times (1854), and Gaskell's North and South (1854-55). For a full study of these novels, see Catherine Gallagher's The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Form 1832-1867 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).

  3. Many employers passed the novel out to their workers; see Winifred Gérin, Elizabeth Gaskell: A Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), 91-92.

  4. Gaskell, letter of May 1849, in The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell, ed. J. A. V. Chapple and Arthur Pollard (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1967), 82; see also 827.

  5. Two representative reviews include one from the Literary Gazette of 28 October 1848 which reads: Mary Barton is “a vivid and complete picture of a state of society hitherto only known by scraps … It is the true picture of the condition of all ranks in the manufacturing capital, Manchester …”; while another review from the British Quarterly Review of 1 February 1849 states that the “author of ‘Mary Barton’ has also, in our judgment, done very great injustice to the employers … The distresses of the labouring poor are set forth in ample detail, and we cannot regard that as a fair picture of the state of society …” See Angus Easson, Elizabeth Gaskell: The Critical Heritage (London and New York: Routledge, 1991), 61-191, for further examples.

  6. Kathleen Tillotson, Novels of the Eighteen-Forties (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954), 202.

  7. Raymond Williams, Culture and Society: 1780-1950 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), 90.

  8. Gallagher, Industrial Reformation, 62-87.

  9. Amanda Anderson, Tainted Souls and Painted Faces: The Rhetoric of Fallenness in Victorian Culture (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1993), 108-26.

  10. For discussions of failed speech in Mary Barton, see Patsy Stoneman, Elizabeth Gaskell (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 78-79, and Jenny Uglow, Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1993), 202-3.

  11. See Gallagher for a discussion of the centrality of Chartism to the industrial novel genre, especially 6, 31-32, 202.

  12. Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), 41-49.

  13. Gallagher, Industrial Reformation, 69.

  14. Margaret Homans, Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 234.

  15. Otis Clapp, British and United-States Post-Offices Compared (Boston: Committee of Publishers, 1878), 3-8.

  16. Martha Vicinus, The Industrial Muse: A Study of Nineteenth Century British Working-Class Literature (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1974), 49.

  17. Ibid., 9-10.


Anderson, Amanda. Tainted Souls and Painted Faces: The Rhetoric of Fallenness in Victorian Culture. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Clapp, Otis. British and United-States Post-Offices Compared. Boston: Committee of Publishers, 1878.

Easson, Angus, ed. Elizabeth Gaskell: The Critical Heritage. London and New York: Routledge, 1991.

Gallagher, Catherine. The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Form 1832-1867. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell. Edited by J. A. V. Chapple and Arthur Pollard. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.

———. Mary Barton. (1848). Edited by Edgar Wright. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Gerin, Winifred. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Biography. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976.

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.

Homans, Margaret. Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Stoneman, Patsy. Elizabeth Gaskell. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Tillotson, Kathleen. Novels of the Eighteen-Forties. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954.

Uglow, Jenny. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1993.

Vicinus, Martha. The Industrial Muse: A Study of Nineteenth Century British Working-Class Literature. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1974.

Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society: 1780-1950. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.

Joseph W. Childers (essay date 1995)

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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 affairs” (12). These people, explains Engels, “vegetated happily” in their idyllic life, yet “they remained in some respects little better than the beasts of the field. They were not human beings at all, but little more than human machines in the service of a small aristocratic class” (12). The Industrial Revolution “carried this development to its logical conclusion,” turning the workers “completely into machines” and depriving them “of the last remnants of independent activity” (12). Paradoxically, however, it was also the Industrial Revolution that “forced the workers to think for themselves and to demand a fuller life in human society” (12). According to Engels, political and economic changes that are tied directly to the Industrial Revolution brought the middle and working classes into the “vortex of world affairs” (12).2

The opening of Mary Barton also alludes to a simpler, idyllic past. One April day in the early or mid 1830s, the operatives from Manchester spend “a holiday granted by the masters, or a holiday seized in right of nature and her beautiful springtime” (40) in Green Heys Fields. Scattered about these fields, which are within a half-hour's walk from the busy manufacturing town, one can see “here and there an old black and white farm-house,” which speaks of “other times and other occupations than those which now absorb the population of the neighborhood” (39). And like Engels, Gaskell comments on the physical appearance of some of the operatives, a group of factory girls, whose “faces were not remarkable for beauty; indeed they were below the average, with one or two exceptions” (41). Yet just as Engels remarks on the increased intellectual activity of urban workers, activity that distinguishes them from their rural counterparts, Gaskell also comments on these plain working girls' “acuteness and intelligence of countenance, which has often been noticed in a manufacturing population” (41). A few sentences later, the narrator describes Mary Barton's mother, also named Mary, as a woman who has “the fresh beauty of the agricultural districts; and somewhat of the deficiency of sense in her countenance, which is likewise characteristic of the rural inhabitants in comparison with the natives of the manufacturing towns” (41-42).

Gaskell and Engels observe the same changes in the English lower classes that have come about as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Whereas Engels's workers are thrown into the vortex of world affairs by industrialization, Gaskell's factory operatives are “absorbed” by occupations other than farming. In each text, the lower classes are passive; they are acted upon by the conditions in which they live, conditions they had historically done little to change. But as they have collected together in large masses in towns like Manchester, they have made the most of their compelled socialization. This new type of workers, the urban workers, have become keen and intelligent; they have begun to think for themselves; they have begun to participate in the making of their world.

It is important, I think, to recognize how significant the similarities in these two texts are. In each case the observer is an outsider to the world of the working class, and in each case it is up to the observer to make sense of that alien world. Likewise, in both Mary Barton and The Condition of the Working Class in England there is an insistence on a continuity with a past that has become mythologized as a simpler, less physically and intellectually demanding time. Further, this past is only recoverable as history or memory, whether it be in Engels's comparisons of pastoral to urban life or in Alice Wilson's anecdotes (or delirium). For both Engels and Gaskell the change that was transforming nineteenth-century life was inexorable and ultimately “progressive” inasmuch as it held within it the potential for amelioration of the laboring classes' conditions of life as well as the promise of a vital intellectual and spiritual life for the working orders. But in each text, the workers are represented as partly responsible for their lot, no matter the oppression they experience at the hands of more economically and politically powerful classes. Further, just as industrialism has thrown both laborers and the middle class into the vortex of world affairs in Engels's description of the effects of the Industrial Revolution, in Mary Barton we find that the working classes and middle classes are inextricably bound to one another. In Gaskell's novel, the interests of either are the interests of both, and it is only through understanding this interdependence that their mutual concerns can be served.

The difficulty of making this linkage clear to members of both classes becomes apparent in the John Barton portion of Gaskell's 1848 “Tale of Manchester Life,” which is bifurcated into his story and the story of Mary Barton and Jem Wilson's romance. The one-time titular hero of the novel, John Barton has found that he can expect very little comfort from his economic and educational betters. As he says to his friend of many years, George Wilson,

I tell you, it's the poor, and the poor only, as does such things [as give aid in time of sickness or death] for the poor. Don't think to come over me with the old tale, that the rich know nothing of the trials of the poor. I say, if they don't know, they ought to know. We are their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows; and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds; ay, as separate as Dives and Lazarus, with a great gulf betwixt us; but I know who was best off then.


John Barton ends this, the first and perhaps most famous of his many speeches on the enslavement of the lower classes by the manufacturers, “with a low chuckle that had no mirth in it” (45). One critic has argued that “this closing reference to heavenly justice is a gloomy prophecy of revenge, not a joyful anticipation of saintly rewards” (Gallagher, Industrial Reformation 71). While Barton's character certainly lends some credence to this interpretation and while such a closing does emphasize the “polarized social vision, and the determinism that informs [John Barton's] thinking” (70), it is important to consider this statement within the context of the scene in Green Heys Fields and within the rhetoric of suffering that even in the first few pages of this novel is being established as the work's interpretive filter.3 With such considerations in mind, the similarities of Mary Barton's opening pages to the “Historical Introduction” of Engels's book take on added significance, and John Barton's punctuating the parable of Dives and Lazarus with his mirthless laugh becomes more than an indication of his character or a foreshadowing of later violence; it also indicates the humorless irony of the situation in which the poor find themselves.

The industrial poor are the natural consequence of the very “system” that made some, such as Barton's employer Mr. Carson, rich. Yet whatever such men may have learned in their success, they have refused knowledge of an existence even more deplorable than that out of which they rose and which they now exploit. As the narrator says, “in the days of his childhood and his youth, Mr. Carson had been accustomed to poverty: but it was honest decent poverty; not the grinding squalid misery he had remarked in every part of John Barton's house, and which contrasted strangely with the pompous sumptuousness of the room in which he now sat” (439). The refusal to know this aspect of the factory system is compounded in the younger Carson when at one point he states his intentions toward Mary Barton: “my father would have forgiven any temporary connexion, far sooner than my marrying one so far beneath me.” When confronted with the fact that his mother was a factory girl he replies, “Yes, yes!—but then my father was in much such a station; at any rate there was not the disparity there is between Mary and me” (184). This offhand repudiation of his own working-class antecedents highlights not only the lack of knowledge that the middle classes have about the lower but a lack of desire to know. It is not for nothing, then, that Barton's “explanation” for killing Harry Carson rings like a refrain in the elder Carson's ears: “I did not know what I was doing” (436).

Barton's use of the parable also illustrates the kinds of explanations and thus the understanding available to the workers as they attempt to interpret and, to an extent, to order their world. This world, as both Engels and Gaskell point out, is one the working classes had very little say in making. It is a world into which they are thrown or absorbed, yet one which they must make some sense of if they are to survive; in this world that seems so hostile to their existence, they must create a space for themselves that they can at least partially control. Barton's reference to the parable of Dives and Lazarus indicates the perspective of opposition and oppression that informs the workers' view of this world and thus provides them with some measure of containing this world within an interpretive paradigm of their own. Oddly enough, however, despite Barton's gloomy understanding of the world and his place in it, the reference to Dives and Lazarus rather incongruously offers the workers some hope for amelioration. It goes far in indicating how profoundly Christian eschatology constitutes the lower classes' comprehension of the industrialized world; or at the very least, Barton's reference demonstrates Gaskell's perception of the working poor's attitudes toward their lots in life.

In the introduction to his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Hegel speaks of the “cunning” of reason in history, those events, figures, circumstances that seem to quell the progress of mind and humanity, but which, upon closer examination, reveal themselves as necessary for that progress. In the opening pages of Engels's Condition, we see exactly how such cunning functions, for in the very deprivation suffered by the laboring classes, historical progression is at work. It is precisely because they suffer that the working classes begin to create and to demand for themselves “a fuller life in human society.”

The “principal and most potent Hegelian category and instrument of analysis—the negative” (Marcus, Engels, Manchester 137) primarily informs Engels's logic of representation of the history of the working classes. The working classes are for Engels “the universally negated,” who had “been deprived of everything except their humanity, and even that existed for them in an estranged and unachieved form” (Marcus, Engels, Manchester 138). As universally negated, however, they also represent the “power of universal negation” and prefigure an “immense and dreadful convulsion” (138) that will produce, finally, a positive result. For Hegel, and later for Engels and his famous associate, this result is freedom. In Hegel it is a freedom of the mind; for Marx and Engels it becomes a freedom from the manipulations of capitalism—a social and material freedom.

Importantly, Engels sees the negativity of the working class as that class's impetus for the reinterpretation of itself and its place in the world, and he provides the structure for this new narrative of the working class: the result of the working classes being placed “at the vortex of world affairs” is revolutionary. The workers are no longer at the periphery of the social “machine”; they now are the means by which industrialization thrives. No longer need they be content to be acted upon by history; the urban, industrial workers can make history; they can—if they will—destroy the institutions that continually enslave the lower orders and that persist in debasing their humanity. Thus deprivation and the deplorable conditions of life for the lower orders comprise a vital component both in the way the working classes can interpret and thus redefine and reorder their world, and also in how they can materially change their fate.

Mary Barton's use of the negative, though by no means Hegelian in its derivation, also influences interpretation and understanding, at least for the main characters. Through their suffering they create a world of meaning and thereby a community that is inaccessible and unintelligible to their employers. Suffering is the linchpin of the society of the poor in Mary Barton; all experience it and, as with death, the fact that one will experience it can be foretold with certainty. Suffering is also the impetus to positive change, even when it appears to stifle all possibility of amelioration. Yet unlike The Condition of the Working Class, and much more akin to other social-problem novels of the period, Mary Barton promotes reform rather than revolution, and the ways in which such reform can take place are connected, finally, to those with whom power resides and will continue to reside—the middle classes. In contrast to works such as Helen Fleetwood or Alton Locke, which focus on the importance of individual spiritual purity or regeneration, Mary Barton concerns itself with the problem of communication between the two nations of England, characterizing the gulf between the two classes as a sea of silence, an absence of discourse. According to Mary Barton if communication is established, the middle classes will be able to understand their obligation to the lower orders and to proceed apace with material reform, which Gaskell represents as more immediately necessary than spiritual or moral reform.

At one point early in Alton Locke, Alton is struggling with his conscience about whether his duty to himself and to the attainment of knowledge should outweigh his duty to his inherited religion and his mother. As he says to the reader, “I was not likely to get any very positive ground of comfort from Crossthwaite; and from within myself there was daily less and less hope of any” (53). Out of his discomfort, his suffering, he is able to come to a decision about which course of action he will take. Reform, let alone revolution, is not undertaken by a sated or complacent subject. For Alton, the interpretative paradigm bequeathed to him by his mother no longer satisfactorily orders his world or answers his inquiries. Thus he begins to search for new ways to come to terms with his world and eventually underwrite changes in that world. This too is happening in Mary Barton; from the opening pages of the novel, characters are moved to action through their suffering. And as in Alton Locke, one of the first aspects of the characters' lives to be examined are the discourses that constitute them and their understanding of and relations to their surroundings.

These examinations are particularly interesting, because in Mary Barton the constitutive discourses of the lower classes are predominantly informed by middle-class presuppositions. For example, when John Barton speaks of the “great gulf” between rich and poor, he asks, “does the rich man share his plenty with me, as he ought to do, if his religion was not a humbug?” (45). Barton is questioning the value of a moral system that has no more force than middle-class religion seems to have, but his query is followed by the famous Dives and Lazarus reference, an indication that middle-class Christianity, the religion that Barton is interrogating, has found its way, however mediated, to the lower classes and lies ready to hand for those who will follow it or will employ it. Barton turns this discourse on itself in defining his and his family's place vis à vis the middle classes. Only a few sentences before commenting on middle-class religion as “humbug,” Barton tells of warning his sister-in-law, Esther, about filling Mary's head with notions of becoming a lady:

I'd rather see her earning her bread by the sweat of her brow, as the Bible tells her she should do, ay, though she never got ay butter to her bread, than be like a do-nothing lady, worrying shopmen all morning, and screeching at her pianny all afternoon, and going to bed without having done a good turn to any one of God's creatures but herself.


Note the ideological and moral alignment in the foregoing examples of Barton's words. Both in his assertion that it is only the poor who look after the poor and in his determination that Mary shall earn her living through honest work, as the Bible instructs, Barton strongly insinuates that the lower orders conform more closely than the middle classes to the middle classes's own code of moral conduct—a code that for Gaskell follows almost exclusively from the precepts of Christianity. Second, the moral rectitude of the poor is represented as all the more remarkable for the debilitating material conditions of life they are forced to endure. When the poor do for the poor, as John Barton says they must, the important biblical analogy is no longer that of Dives and Lazarus but of the scene in Matthew's depiction of the Last Judgment in which the “Son of Man” bids the righteous to come forward to “inherit the kingdom” prepared for them: “For I was hungered, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty and ye gave me drink. I was a stranger and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison and ye came unto me” (Matt. 25:34-36). And when the righteous ask how it is that they have done these things for Christ, he answers: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40).

Certainly this or a comparable text (such as the parable of the Good Samaritan) determines, in part, Barton and Wilson's errand of mercy to the Davenport household; and as the novel points out of the poor in general: in times of distress, though there were “desperate fathers …, bitter-tongued mothers …,” and “reckless children,” there was “Faith such as the rich can never imagine on earth; there was ‘Love strong as death’; and self-denial, among rude, coarse men” (96). Writes Gaskell, “The vices of the poor sometimes astound us here; but when the secrets of all hearts shall be made known, their virtues will astound us in far greater degree” (96).

This sort of moral consciousness is a part of all the working-class main characters of Mary Barton and even contributes to some of the actions of the pandering Sally Leadbitter (132-33). From Gaskell's middle-class perspective, the perspective shared by most of her readers, this must have been in some degree comforting. Despite well-known attacks by those such W. R. Greg in the Edinburgh Review (1849) in which the novel is criticized for its overly sympathetic portrayal of factory operatives and for Gaskell's failure in understanding the principles of political economy, Mary Barton's representations of a moral segment of the working class escaped serious challenge by its contemporary critics. And though there is little time for church attendance (or at least there is very little discussion of it) in the novel, the fact that the lower classes' moral code is so often exemplary in many ways diminishes the fears of violence and infidelity that so many observers of the working classes, and of Manchester in particular, had expressed.

Thus, unlike Alton Locke, which attempts a reform of public religion and politics by offering a personal spiritual awakening, Mary Barton does not perceive the need to fortify or remake working-class morality as a means of achieving political goals. Indeed, the novel's aim, according to Gaskell, is far from political—even on a tertiary level. As she says in the preface to Mary Barton, “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” (37). The novel's stated goal is dramatic and representational. As Gaskell writes at the end of the preface, “I know nothing of Political Economy, or the theories of trade. I have tried to write truthfully; and if my accounts agree or clash with any system, the agreement or disagreement is unintentional” (38).

Unintentional perhaps, but unavoidable nonetheless. Like Kingsley, Chadwick, or any other observer of the lower classes, Gaskell could not completely repudiate a perception of reality formed by experiences and their interpretations that could only be very different from the experiences and interpretations of most members of the working classes. Thus while John Lucas validly asserts that Mary Barton is an important corrective to The Condition of the Working Class in England because Gaskell was able to represent important variations in attitude and conditions of life among different groups within the lower classes, he errs in his argument that Gaskell's representation is more “truthful” because it is formed out of a more complete “experience” (see Lucas, Literature of Change 39, 56). As subtle as Lucas's definition of “truth” is and despite his denial of any sort of empirical basis to his thesis, ultimately his argument must revert to one of observation and representation. That is, Gaskell, according to Lucas, saw things as they really were. But things “as they really were” to Gaskell differs considerably from the reality experienced by those who had first-hand experience of living in cellars below the water line, or of the gnawing hunger of going days without eating, or of relief at the death of a child because there is one less mouth to feed and because burial society funds might even make such a death profitable.

Moreover, Gaskell never purports to be representing the reality of the situation she observes; she knows this is a claim she cannot make. She writes of Mary Barton in an undated letter of 1848, “I can only say I wanted to represent the subject in the light in which some of the workmen certainly consider to be true, not that I dare to say it is the abstract absolute truth” (Letters 67). She is always aware of the limits on what she can see, and thus the limits on what she can (or should) say.4 It comes as no surprise therefore, that she should write to Mary Ewart late in 1848 that “no one can feel more deeply than I how wicked it is to do anything to excite class against class” (Letters 67; original emphasis). For her, to incite revolt would indeed be wicked, for it would be to encourage the destruction of an order that, given her Unitarian theology, must be ordained by God. Yet in the same letter to Ewart she writes:

I do think that we must all acknowledge that there are duties connected with the manufacturing system not fully understood as yet, and evils existing in relation to it which may be remedied in some degree, although we as yet do not see how; but surely there is no harm in directing the attention to the existence of such evils.


Mary Barton exists between what Gaskell construed as the “wickedness” of inciting class against class and the duty of acknowledging and remedying the evils inherent to the factory system. The problem for this novel, much like the problem for Alton Locke or other novels written by members of the middle classes who were sympathetic to the plight of the poor, is how to devise interpretations and representations that can successfully depict the conditions (and for Gaskell, the emotions) of the workers without upsetting the order of society. Also, like Chadwick, Engels, Mayhew, or Kingsley, Elizabeth Gaskell is an observer of the poor and their lives, and she is sharing her discovery with a world of readers that otherwise would have only limited access to it. Winifred Gérin remarks that “the setting of the tale is, unrelievedly, Manchester” and that “except to the commercial travellers of England, Manchester was virtually unknown in the south” (87).5 Speaking of North and South (1855), Gérin writes, “Her descriptions of the back-to-back insanitary dwellings of her dramatis personae, of the stationary pall of smoke polluting the air, well removed though the mills were from the residential areas where the prosperous cotton-spinners and calico-printers lived, had in themselves the power to shock” (87). As with other observers of the lower orders, Gaskell must conceive a strategy of representation that can provide the fullest possible depiction of this alien, unfathomable world yet still be accessible to her readers in terms they can understand.

As an interpretive trope, suffering provides those terms, for it reaches across class boundaries, affecting even those who, John Barton believes, easily weather the storms of bad economic times.6 This is the discourse of John Barton's resentment and bewilderment at seeing “that all goes on just as usual with the mill owners. Large houses are still occupied, while spinners' and weavers' cottages stand empty, because the families that once occupied them are obliged to live in rooms or cellars” (59). As far as Barton is concerned the worker alone suffers through bad times at the mill. The narrator of Mary Barton tells the reader, “I know that this is not really the case; and I know what is the truth is such matters: but what I wish to impress is what the workman feels and thinks” (60). The workers, then, are creating their own reality, understanding their world through interpretations that describe the material circumstances that bind them together—and that apparently situate them as adversaries of the manufacturers.

As the reader sees with the murder of Harry Carson, it is not only the operatives who can be affected by loss, nor does suffering lie exclusively in the domain of the laborer. Urged to action by the murder of his son, the senior Carson arranges for a speedy trial and construes the available evidence, circumstantial though it is, as conclusive proof of Jem Wilson's guilt. Carson's loss provides him with the interpretive imperative to create a reality in which the only explanation for his son's death is linked to the rivalry between Harry and Jem for Mary's affections. And after Jem's acquittal and Barton's deathbed confession to Carson, it is mutual suffering, ironically, that heals the breach between laborer and manufacturer, that makes a community of the two nations much as it creates community among the poor:

The eyes of John Barton grew dim with tears. Rich and poor, masters and men, were then brothers in the deep suffering of the heart; for was not this the very anguish he had felt for little Tom, in years so long gone by that they seemed like another life!


The poor's suffering and the utterances that arise from it seem to be tied directly only to their material conditions of life. Yet in its interpretive functions, that suffering and its articulation is inextricably linked to their religious perceptions and utterances as well. Alice Wilson's “optimistic determinism” is a case in point. For Alice, all bad things ultimately are for the good. Rather than grieving immoderately over the loss of a friend or relative, Alice prefers to believe every misfortune is “sent” and falls “to trying to find out what good it were to do. Every sorrow in her mind is sent for good” (84). This can only be described as a way of articulating suffering that gives vent to the experience of loss or deprivation, yet which also provides comfort. This means of interpreting the world, argues the narrator of Mary Barton, depends upon the strength of one's faith. Thus when Mary strives “to deny the correctness” of her friend Margaret Jennings' fear that she is going blind and thus will be unable to support herself and her grandfather, she offers false comfort, primarily because she refuses to interpret the event of Margaret's blindness as an event of loss, yet one also of gain. As the narrator says, Mary should have helped Margaret to “meet and overcome the evil” (85).

Not all characters find suffering informed by religious faith an adequate discourse for interpreting the world in which they live. Once again, one need only think of John Barton's many attacks on religion. Because the rhetoric of suffering is tied to religious discourse, even in Barton's own speech, this does not mean that religion cannot be or is not called to account. For Barton, religion as a means of understanding the lot of the worker fails miserably. When he and Wilson are in the appalling cellar ministering to the dying Ben Davenport, Wilson tells how while sitting alone with the dying man and his family and bitterly musing on his having to “sponge off” his son Jem, he reads a letter the dying man had written to his wife, which was “as good as Bible-words; ne'er a word o' repining; a' about God being our father, and that we mun bear patiently whate'er he sends” (104).

For George Wilson these are words of comfort, but Barton immediately scoffs: “Don ye think he's the masters' father too? I'd be loath to have 'em for brothers” (104). Such a statement notably denies the community between master and man that Gaskell presents as the only solution to the problems of the poor. In every case such community depends upon communication between the classes, and to an extent an identification of one class with another. As Gaskell demonstrates, however, such identification is impossible when the factory operatives see their employer “removing from house to house, each one grander than the last” until finally the manufacturer withdraws his money “from the concern, or sells his mill to buy an estate in the country” (59). Gaskell goes on to point out that it is not only the actions of the employers but their unwillingness to communicate with the operatives that contributes so greatly to the alienation of classes:

And when he [the worker] knows trade is bad, and could understand (at least partially) that there are not buyers enough in the market to purchase the goods already made, and consequently that there is no demand for more; when he would bear and endure much without complaining, could he also see that his employers were bearing their share.


Of course, remarks like Barton's indicate that the refusal to identify with another class is not solely a characteristic of the monied orders; indeed, his stated aversion to claiming his employers as “brothers” only contributes to the gap separating master and man so that finally there can be no communication at all, as Gaskell's description of the confrontation between the factory owners and the striking workers bears out:

So class distrusted class, and their want of mutual confidence wrought sorrow to both. The masters would not be bullied, and compelled to reveal why they felt it wisest and best to offer only such low wages; they would not be made to tell that they were even sacrificing capital to obtain a decisive victory over the continental manufacturers. And the workmen sat silent and stern with folded hands refusing to work for such pay. There was a strike in Manchester.

(221-22; emphasis added)

The novel itself steps into the space created by the refusal of the representatives of each class to speak. As with the riots in Alton Locke, the strike is indicative of the breakdown of discourse, the inability (or refusal) of either side to understand its adversary's position. The strike, however, also demonstrates the unwillingness of each group to make known the reasons for its position. The novel interrupts this silence and provides intercourse between these opposing positions, not only as a way of offering a possible solution to the impasse the confrontation between employer and operative has reached but also in order to provide knowledge about the convictions held by those involved. In this way, the novel—both Mary Barton specifically and the novel as a genre in nineteenth-century Britain—presents as well as evaluates social practices that may have been completely alien to a large number of its readers. This function is not only cognitive but constitutive; Manchester, Chartists, fallen women, and working-class naturalists exist for many of Mary Barton's readers according to their textual representation. Knowledge provided, we should remember, is also knowledge made. Possibilities of meaning and understanding are both broadened and circumscribed by the limits of representation.

Whatever readers may not have known about the lives and attitudes of the laboring population, they were quite familiar with the significance of a strike in a manufacturing town. As one historian has asserted, for a Victorian reader the sentence, “There was a strike in Manchester” was “ominous, a signal of violence to come” (Himmelfarb, Idea 506). Violence does indeed follow the declaration of the strike in the form of the operatives' attacks on the “knob-sticks” (scabs) and of course Barton's murder of Harry Carson. But the strike is also preparatory to another act of violence in the parallel plot of the romance of Jem Wilson and Mary Barton. Having learned from Mary's “fallen” aunt Esther that young Carson has been somewhat successfully wooing Mary, Jem seeks out and confronts the manufacturer's son to ascertain Harry's intentions. Harry divulges nothing, and when Jem refuses to let him pass until he gets Harry's word that his intentions are honorable, the verbal confrontation quickly becomes a physical altercation:

The young man raised his slight cane, and smote the artizan across the face with a stinging stroke. An instant afterwards he lay stretched in the muddy road, Jem standing over him, panting with rage.


This happens after the strike has seized Manchester and has seen Carson and Son emerge as the “most energetic of the masters” in fortifying the resolve of the manufacturers not to give in to the demands of the operatives (222). The encounter between Jem and Harry takes place at a time when communication between master and man is at its least fluent and when violence is most likely. The narrator even attributes young Carson's exuberant involvement in the masters' strategies to “the excitement of the affair. He liked the attitude of resistance. He was brave, and he liked the idea of personal danger, with which some of the more cautious tried to intimidate the violent among the masters” (222).

In light of the more general social context of John Barton's story and the Manchester strike, the confrontation between Jem and Harry may seem trivial and coincidental; but its novelistic function, aside from helping to tie together two disparate plot lines, emphasizes the connections that reach across class boundaries to bind together master and worker in a community that must operate with open communication and mutual respect. Harry's attitude toward Jem is one of suspicion; he is not intent upon “attending very particularly to the purpose [Jem] had in addressing him” but upon “trying to gather … what was the real state of the case” (228). For Harry, any interest Jem may have in Mary's affairs must be selfish and must be ulterior to Jem's reasons for stopping him, though Jem avers that he will tell his reasons in “plain words.” Likewise, Jem distrusts Harry's motives in courting Mary and feels justified in accosting, striking, and even threatening the young manufacturer. Of course, this scene is part of the romance plot of the novel and as in most romances there is a hero and a villain. To be sure, Jem is cast in the former role, and Harry (except perhaps in refusing to press charges when Jem flattens him) is portrayed as contemptible. Nevertheless, the short scene between these characters corresponds in its precepts to the social drama that Gaskell is representing in Mary Barton. Unwilling to acknowledge the claims of its counterpart, each class contributes to the violence that threatens to destroy completely communicative relations between the classes.

Although it is individuals that Mary Barton is most concerned with, as the novel makes clear when the narrator states, “So much for generalities. Let us now return to individuals” (223), it is the generalities that contribute so significantly to relations among individuals and in some measure constitute the conditions of individual existence. And it is through the individuals that generalities are articulated and made apparent. More than forty years after the publication of Mary Barton, Charles Booth in his Life and Labour of the People of London comments on the difficulty of recognizing the individual relations that bind together an urban populace:

It is not in country but in town that “terra incognita” needs to be written on our social map. In the country the machinery of human life is plainly to be seen and easily recognized: personal relations bind the whole together. The equipoise on which existing order rests, whether satisfactory or not, is palpable and evident. It is far otherwise with cities, where as to these questions we live in darkness, with doubting hearts and ignorant unnecessary fears.


Admittedly, Booth is writing about “deepest darkest London” in 1889, but there is much in his observation that is at the very center of Gaskell's novel. For in Manchester, a town that had grown from 75,000 residents in 1800 to 300,000 in 1840 (and more than 400,000 by 1848), the whole had become an aggregate, a collection of individuals and interests whose relations to each other were no longer “palpable and evident” except that they were informed by certain economic considerations. The human and the humane often were obscured by the layer of sooty misery that blanketed lower-class existence, creating a cover of darkness that materially and imaginatively separated the two nations. Mary Barton is specifically concerned with piercing that darkness, with promoting understanding and eradicating at least some of those “ignorant unnecessary fears.” Certainly this informs the work's narrative, for it is a novel of secrets and misunderstanding, of attempting to discern the unsaid and construe the silences that exist within and between communities. Simultaneously, Mary Barton is a novel about communication and disrupting those silences in order to make things known.

The failure to communicate, to share across class boundaries in the common discourse of suffering, specifically contributes to the very form the narrative takes, for it ultimately is one of the causes of Harry Carson's death. His inability to conceive of the suffering of the workers and his mockery of their condition singles him out as the manufacturer who must die and is foreshadowed early in the novel when George Wilson goes to the Carsons' to beg an infirmary order for Davenport. The contrast between the two homes is striking and fraught with irony. Mrs. Carson's mood is “very black this morning. She's got a bad headache.” To assuage her suffering she orders her breakfast carried upstairs to her chambers, where she will have “the cold partridge as was left yesterday, … plenty of cream in her coffee … and … a roll … well buttered” (107). Amy, the youngest Carson daughter, pooh-poohs the cost of a small rose (half a guinea), saying that her father will not begrudge her the money, knowing full well that she cannot “live without flowers and scents” (108). The amount and types of “suffering” in the Carson household are farcical in comparison to the dire conditions of the Davenport cellar. When Wilson enters with his request, it is almost as though the Carsons cannot conceive of the distress Davenport and his family must be experiencing. Mr. Carson can do no more than give the man an out-patient's order for the infirmary, and young Harry, who is extravagant in all things pertaining to his own person, presses five shillings into Wilson's hand for “the poor fellow”—the same sum Barton, who had no money about him whatsoever, was able to contribute to the Davenports after pawning his better coat and his silk handkerchief—“his jewels, his plate his valuables, these were” (99).

While the failure of the Carsons to acknowledge or participate in suffering until Harry's murder demonstrates the discursive responsibilities of living in a society organized according to Christian values, Barton's withdrawal from the community that has always supported him emotionally and spiritually, if not economically, indicates that the internal dissolution of the community of the poor is not only possible, but a substantive threat to society as a whole. After the death of his wife and of George Wilson, the two influences in his life who mitigate his hatred toward the middle and upper classes and who are the conduits, along with Mary, of his relations with his own class, Barton effectively refuses to participate in the community of which he has so long been a part. The sympathetic ties he has always had to those of his own class who are less fortunate than he are transformed into political bonds. Barton's ambivalence toward the religious basis of the rhetoric of suffering, which for the poor is the discursive basis of community, turns to outright denial of religion as a solution to the problems of the working classes. Instead, he opts for Chartism.

At first, Barton has great hopes for Chartism, though, as Gaskell points out, not all who were involved with the 1839 petition were Chartists and the idea that men “could voluntarily assume the office of legislators for a nation, ignorant of its real state,” while originating with the Chartists, “came at last to be cherished as a darling child by many and many a one” (127). In the beginning, Mary Barton depicts Chartism as positive in many ways and sharing many qualities with religion: it too recognizes the discursive power of suffering; it too attempts to form a community committed to common goals. Ultimately, however, John Barton's turning from religion as the basis of community is as personally and socially devastating as his sister-in-law Esther's turning from the religious teachings of her youth.

Unlike Alton Locke in which Chartists are the most moral and the most highly educated of the working classes, Mary Barton represents individual Chartists as haggard, forlorn, desperate men, and Chartism, despite its good intentions, becomes the most dangerous of activities. Consequently, it is when Barton can no longer interpret his or other workers' distress in the religious discourse of patience, of suffering silently, that Mary Barton is at its most “revolutionary” and most at odds with commonly accepted middle-class values and perceptions of the poor.7 This is not to say that the novel ever completely abandons its social and moral presuppositions, but in John Barton's attempt to formulate his social existence discursively through politics instead of religion, Mary Barton examines those presuppositions and presents the alternative to Christian society—violence.

The move from religion to radical politics, as in Alton Locke, is far less difficult for the laborer than one might at first imagine. And, as in Alton Locke, Chartism is described in religious terms: “John Barton became a Chartist, a Communist, all that is commonly called wild and visionary. Ay! but being visionary is something. It shows a soul, a being not altogether sensual; a creature who looks forward for others, if not for himself” (220). Such a description portrays the activity of becoming a Chartist as an attempt at creating oneself in social and non-material terms. It represents the consequences of the increased intellectual activity of the urban factory operative as Engels describes him. Barton is partially propelled toward becoming a Chartist through his “overpowering thought”: “rich and poor; why are they so separate, so distinct, when God has made them all? It is not His will, that their interests are so far apart. Whose doing is it?” (219). Reason, however, fails Barton's uneducated mind. He must resort to feeling, and the only emotion “that remained clear and undisturbed in the tumult of his heart, was hatred to the one class and keen sympathy with the other” (219).

Emotion without wisdom, however, “with all its effects, too often works but harm” (219). Gaskell's Unitarianism is most apparent in this statement, which stops short of a complete rethinking of the failure of religion for Barton. Unitarianism, as the title of Dennis Wigmore-Beddoes' book asserts, is a “religion that thinks” (A Religion that Thinks: A Psychological Study). Reason, as well as spirit and sentiment, is the responsibility of the individual who seeks to live a Christian life, and indeed underlies the very basis of Christian society. Within Unitarianism one is as likely—perhaps more likely given the Unitarian denial of the essential depravity of human nature—to be wrong-headed as wrong-hearted.8 This is Barton's flaw, for he does not have the capacity to act out of wisdom (which Gaskell attributes to education); rather he acts “to the best of his judgement, but it was a widely erring judgement” (219).

Thus if we return to the passage in which Barton “became a Chartist, a Communist,” we see that despite the religious troping and the sympathetic tone of the comparison of Chartists to visionaries and men of souls, also at work is the condemnation of such activity—a condemnation the passage itself attempts to soften by expounding on the positive rather than the pejorative effects of being “wild and visionary.” Nevertheless, the passage comes at the end of an extended comparison between the working classes—whom Gaskell calls “the uneducated”—and Frankenstein's monster, who despite “many human qualities” was “ungifted with a soul, a knowledge of the difference of good and evil.” Rising up to life, writes Gaskell, the people “gaze on us [the middle classes] with mute reproach: Why have we made them what they are: a powerful monster, yet without the inner means for peace and happiness?” (219-20). Though Chartist activity may indicate that the working classes, despite their “creation” by the middle classes, are not without souls (the soul being for Gaskell the seat both of sympathy and of the knowledge of good and evil), they are still “creatures,” and attempting a political rather than a religious solution. Whatever the intent of the Chartists, because their activities are politically and not religiously informed they are effectively without reason, or at least without right reason, and thus their efforts must inevitably lead to confrontation rather than communication.

One immediately sees both the disturbing and reassuring effects such a representation must have had on the manufacturing classes in 1848. On the one hand is the justification of a class structure which places some above others; for whatever reason, be it innate ability, or industriousness, or the intercession of Providence, good things can happen to members of the working classes. Mr. Carson, formerly a factory operative, becomes one of the most successful mill owners in Manchester, and Jem Wilson looks bound to recreate the narrative of Carson's success in the “uncompromised New World” (Williams, Culture and Society 91). This creates a flexibility within the class structure, and further justifies the positions in society of those who have risen. They are there, the argument goes, because they are more able, because they are meant to be in positions of authority.

On the other hand is Mary Barton's questioning of the factory system as it is run by those who have risen to authority. In many ways this is much more disquieting to middle-class sensibilities than an outright attack on the system such as one reads in a work like Helen Fleetwood or Michael Armstrong. Gaskell's narrator, though critical of the abuses of the system, is after all mediating her observations from a middle-class perspective. She speaks of the manufacturing classes of Manchester as “us.” The working classes “gaze on us,” she writes; they “ask us” why everyone does not suffer during hard times. She knows that this is an uninformed perspective from which the working classes judge their employers. She knows the “truth in such matters.” But knowing the truth does not mitigate the conditions of the poor, nor does it correct their perceptions of the middle classes. Rather, it makes the factory system seem all the more constraining to both manufacturer and operative, and it makes the threat of violence all the more imminent.

Gaskell's solutions to the problems she raises in Mary Barton have often been criticized, and it has become a commonplace to speak of the “failure of Gaskell's art.”9 Certainly it is difficult to ignore the contrivance of the narrative resolution: Barton dies, guilty but redeemed. Carson, through his suffering and from talking with Job Legh and Jem Wilson after Barton's confession, becomes a manufacturer who works toward the fulfillment of what has come to be his greatest wish: “that a perfect understanding and complete confidence and love, might exist between masters and men” (460). Jem Wilson and Mary move to Toronto to begin a new life together in a clean, spacious world where the past has no force. Even Jem's attempts to protect Mary from his mother's irritability and possibly misspoken word by not telling the old woman of John Barton's part in Harry Carson's murder is an unnecessary precaution. Years later, after a chance reference to the event, Jem questions his mother and finds she has known of the details of the crimes for years and has never once used it against Mary. This example of the lack of the past's influence on the Wilsons' present circumstances, together with the removal of the Wilsons to Toronto, completes a theme of nostalgia that runs throughout the novel, from the scene in Green Heys Fields, to old Alice's reminiscences and delirium, to a final pastoral ideal that can also accommodate industrialization.

Despite what might be considered literary sleight of hand at its close, Mary Barton contributes to the entire discussion of the problems raised by industrialism in a way that most novels dismiss. This novel represents industrialization as a fact of life that cannot, in itself, be significantly changed. It shapes the lives of workers and manufacturers, and it can be interpreted and understood only in its effects on those lives. Thus, for the workers the factory system is both livelihood and enslavement; for the manufacturers it is the source of their wealth but also the breeder of a force that could destroy the status, privilege, and power that wealth has purchased. For both classes, industrialization is neither completely benevolent nor malevolent; it contains its own negative.

In confronting the negative, in seeing what good can come from it, Mary Barton offers the possibility of communication, community, and solution to the difficulties each class faces. Like most middle-class observers of the problems of the Victorian poor, Gaskell relies heavily on the belief that what is in the best interest of the middle classes is in the best interest of society as a whole. But unlike Alton Locke, which seeks to raise the working classes to the spiritual and intellectual level of their employers, or Michael Armstrong, which represents the manufacturing classes as deserving of retribution, Mary Barton reforms representations of industrialization by presenting the factory system as problematic for all classes, and by demonstrating that one class is as committed to its interpretation of the successes and deficiencies of the system as the other. At the end of the novel, when Jem, Job, and Mr. Carson meet to go over the facts of the murder and fall into a conversation as to the cause of Barton's actions, Carson is depicted as a reasonable, just man, who, like most men, has his own best interests at heart. Yet he is not a Bounderby any more than Barton was ever an Owenite. This novel is not concerned with presenting what would have been considered the extremists in each class, but those who are well informed of their personal and their class's interests and who are themselves typical members of their class. It is among these people that dialogue must take place, so that if the “system” of industrialization cannot change, then as Job Legh says, at least there will be “the inclination to try and help the evils which come like blights at times over the manufacturing places” (458).

When Gaskell writes that the duties “connected to the manufacturing system” are not yet completely understood, and that she is unable to perceive how the “evils” associated with it might be remedied, though “there is no harm in directing the attention to the existence of such evils,” she highlights Mary Barton's interpretive enterprise, which is to bring to a common understanding the attitudes of worker and mill owner toward the necessity of industrialization. And while she is continually concerned to mediate between the interpretations of the two classes, and thus accommodates her narrative to that mediation, the fact remains that in attempting such a negotiation, she calls the very project of the social-problem novel to account. Yet despite the criticism of some, such as Coral Lansbury, who has argued that the weakly resolved plot lines of Mary Barton demonstrate the failure of Gaskell's inquiry into the factory system to provide the answers for improving the conditions of the poor (22), such failures do little to dampen the spirit of inquiry that such a novel fosters. After Mary Barton there are no easy solutions; there is no reverting to an idyllic past. For many the past becomes instead the standard against which to measure the present, as Gaskell indicates in North and South when she writes of manufacturers who “defy the old limits of possibility, in a kind of fine intoxication, caused by recollections of what had been achieved and what yet should be” (45). It is as though there is no longer any way to think about the world—past, present, or future—without considering the effects of the industrial system.

It is in novels such as Mary Barton and Alton Locke that we get ways of reading those effects that provide new ways of organizing and interrogating the world of Victorian England. In each of these novels, the discourse of industrialization does not replace other important discourses, but rather becomes the object of interpretation and inquiry by them. Thus, while we may speak of industrialization shaping the everyday lives of the people of Victorian Great Britain, we must also remember that industrialization—at least as some sort of monolithic public discourse—is evaluated, rethought, and at some level even accepted in these social-problem novels of the second quarter of the nineteenth century. The other interpretive enterprises it mingles with certainly are shaped by it; the paradoxical yet undeniable connections between Chartism and religion are a perfect example; but as we see in Alton Locke and Mary Barton, there is no such thing as the “discourse of industrialism” per se. Rather, through the efforts of these two works we see there are many variants, ways of understanding the concept of industrialism that reformulate it along the paradigmatic lines of a number of discourses. It is in this way that we can speak of the “novelistic reformation of British industrialism,” for in becoming part of the discourse of the novel in nineteenth-century England, industrialism in some ways becomes more accessible, more understandable, even if the material effects it generates cannot be solved in the pages of a novel. And it is in this combination of discursive possibilities that Victorian culture and society is generated as much as it is “reflected.”


  1. As Engels himself points out in his chapter “The Great Towns,” a good deal of his introduction is taken from Peter Gaskell's The Manufacturing Population of England (London, 1833). See translator's note 1 in The Condition of the Working Classes in England, trans. Henderson and Chaloner, p. 9. See also p. 78 of the same edition.

  2. Steven Marcus discusses these opening pages of The Condition of the Working Class in England in some detail in Engels, Manchester, and the Working Class (133-39). As Marcus points out, Engels's construction of a pre-industrial way of life for the English is a myth and fraught with empirical inaccuracies. Historical precision, however, while always a concern, is not of primary importance here. More significant is Engels's need to present an historical background in order to examine how change takes place. As Marcus writes of the passage in which Engels describes the workers as intellectually and spiritually dead and the Industrial Revolution as the event that compels them to think for themselves, “It may not be excessive to suggest that in this passage, at this moment, a new mode of conceptual reflection and analysis has been turned upon English events and history. … For what Engels has done here, in the opening pages of the work, is to bring the Hegelian method of thinking to bear upon this momentous development in English history” (136-37).

  3. In her essay “Private Grief and Public Acts in Mary Barton,” Rosemarie Bodenheimer argues for the primacy of grief and loss as an organizing trope. She writes that “Mary Barton is a novel about responding to the grief of loss or disappointment. Its pages are filled with domestic disaster; the sheer accumulation of one misfortune after another is the organizing principle of the first half of the narrative” (195). Bodenheimer's main concern is with the movement of the “split” narrative and the “structures” of conflict that shape it (196). Also, for Bodenheimer, Mary Barton starts and ends “always with personal grief,” so that “the novel is only secondarily about politics as such” (213). Although there are obvious affinities between Bodenheimer's reading and my own, my concern is not primarily with the domestic spaces and discourses of the novel, but rather with precisely the ways that suffering, as an interpretive discourse, informs the public, political arena that Bodenheimer sees as secondary.

  4. Hilary Schor's Scheherezade in the Marketplace provides an especially good discussion of the implications of such “truth telling” and its limits in terms of the issues of authorship and authority that Gaskell faced as one “almost frightened at [her] own action of writing [Mary Barton]” (see Schor 26-28).

  5. Gérin's remark is problematic since as Asa Briggs has demonstrated in Victorian Cities, Manchester was the “shock city” of the period—especially the '30s and '40s—and by 1851 the shock had begun to wear off. Perhaps Gérin is referring to first-hand experiential knowledge of Manchester, and if this is her meaning then there is some validity to her statement; certainly there would have been many Londoners (as well as other southern, more provincial readers) who would never have actually traveled to Manchester despite having read a good deal about it.

  6. Hilary Schor comments lucidly on how this trope works to bind the novel's readers to the community of the poor. In Scheherezade in the Marketplace she writes that “the speeches the workers deliver make sense to them—and to us—because they mirror the experience we have been witnessing. When starving workers explain their poverty in terms of dying children, readers who have watched children die for two hundred pages will be moved; the empty talk of foreign markets lacks validity for us, as for them” (17).

  7. Although Chartist rhetoric is the obvious exception, there was in early Victorian Britain a tradition, or at least it was perceived as a tradition by the wealthier classes, of the poor's suffering in silence. See E. Chadwick, Sanitary Condition Report, 92.

  8. For a full treatment of Unitarian doctrine see Dennis Wigmore-Beddoes, Yesterday's Radicals: A Study of the Affinity between Unitarianism and Broad Church Anglicanism in the Nineteenth Century, 64-69. Compare also Susanna Winkworth's letter to the Rev. J. J. Tayler, dated July 1, 1859:

    As it is I feel myself to some extent in union with all; and especially with the Unitarians, in as much as they, more than most others, seem to me to recognize the true ground of Christian union to be spirit and sentiment, not doctrine, and to uphold the duty as well as right of free search after truth and intellectual veracity.

    (Margaret J. Shaen, Memorials of Two Sisters: Susanna and Catherine Winkworth, 199)

    In the third chapter of The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction, Catherine Gallagher discusses the problems of free will and necessitarianism in Mary Barton in some length. See pp. 64-87.

  9. See, for example, P. J. Keating, The Working Classes in Victorian Fiction; John Lucas, “Mrs. Gaskell and Brotherhood,” in Tradition and Tolerance in Nineteenth-Century Fiction; Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, and Catherine Gallagher, The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction. Although these critics do not all agree as to the extent of Gaskell's failed attempts at representing the working classes, all find the novel to be either formally or ideologically defective. The notable exception to this list is Rosemarie Bodenheimer, who writes, “A merger of the Bartons and the Wilsons, repairing the decimation of the original families is the proper resolution in a novel that locates its virtues so firmly in family solidarity and tradition” (“Private Grief” 213).


Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. “Private Grief and Public Acts in Mary Barton.Dickens Studies Annual 9 (1981): 195-216.

Chadwick, Edwin. Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, 1842. Ed. M. W. Flinn. Facsimile rpt. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1965.

Engels, Friedrich. The Condition of the Working Class in England, 1844. 1845. Trans. W. O. Henderson and W. H. Chaloner. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1968.

Gallagher, Catherine. The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction, 1832-1867. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn. The Letters of Mrs. Gaskell, ed. J. A. V. Chapple and Arthur Pollard. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967.

———. Mary Barton. 1848. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

Gaskell, P[eter]. The Manufacturing Population of England, Its Moral, Social, and Physical Conditions, and the Changes Which have arisen from the Use of Steam Machinery; with an Examination of Infant Labour. London: Baldwin and Cradock, 1833.

Gérin, Winifred. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Keating, P. J. The Working Classes in Victorian Fiction. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971.

Lucas, John. “Mrs. Gaskell and Brotherhood.” In Tradition and Tolerance in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, ed. David Howard, John Lucas, and John Goode, pp. 161-74. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967.

Marcus, Steven. Engels, Manchester, and the Working Class. New York: Random House, 1974.

Schor, Hilary M. Scheherezade in the Marketplace: Elizabeth Gaskell and the Victorian Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Shaen, Margaret. Memorials of Two Sisters: Susanna and Catherine Winkworth. London: Longmans and Green, 1908.

Wigmore-Beddoes, Dennis. Yesterday's Radicals: A Study of the Affinity Between Unitarianism and Broad Church Anglicanism in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: James Clarke, 1971.

Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society, 1780-1950. 1958. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Thomas E. Recchio (essay date October 1996)

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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.’

(Shelley 125)


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 psychoanalytical criticism (see Freedman for example), the vast majority of literary criticism and theory and the pedagogical applications of criticism and theory continue to approach such reading with suspicion, dubious about the rigor and controlability of personal response. Teachers, myself included, evoke strategies, paradigms, protocols of reading in order to tease out formal, psychological, ideological, and thematic patterns, studiously avoiding the problem of personal application. When a student struggles to work out what a text means to “me,” we take that as a starting point that we humor to encourage student interest but quickly move “beyond.” The traditional idea that literature should both “delight and instruct” (give pleasure of a complex kind and some sort of ethical signposts), we treat as an historical curiosity. In much the way that Frankenstein feared his inability to control his monster, we too fear our inability to respond adequately to and control our students' monstrous reading. We work equally hard, I would argue, in our professionalism to elide our own.

Which is not to say that the problem of personal application is not an issue in what we take to be objective forms of critical discourse. Discussing the concept of “appropriation” in his essay “What is a text?,” for example, Paul Ricoeur writes: “By ‘appropriation’, I understand this: that the interpretation of a text culminates in the self-interpretation of a subject who thenceforth understands himself better, understands himself differently, or simply begins to understand himself” (158). But the “subject,” by which I assume Ricoeur means the individual person in his/her unique historical, cultural, and personal moment, remains an abstraction, the purveyor of a never defined discourse. “If reading is possible,” Ricoeur argues, “it is indeed because the text is not closed in on itself but opens out onto other things. To read is, on any hypothesis, to conjoin a new discourse to the discourse of the text” (158). Note the slippage in the passage; as we trace the text opening out “onto other things,” we find those other things are a “new discourse.” Reading is, in this formulation, a conjunction of languages. It makes eminent sense, then, in teaching literary interpretation to evoke reading strategies that require bringing together pre-formulated critical discourses and literary texts; Freudian readings of Hamlet, Marxist readings of Wuthering Heights, existentialist readings of Sartor Resartus, formalist readings of Renaissance lyrics, ideological readings of the literature of the Vietnam war, for example, all have their value and their limitations. We learn much about the various contexts within which certain levels of meaning in a literary text can be produced by readers as they “conjoin a new discourse to the discourse of the text.” We also learn something about how individual readers are constructed by the discourses at their disposal, discourses which may, in part, dispose of the reader. Construing reading as the conjunction of two discourses, the discourse of the text and a discourse at the disposal of the reader, simplifies the multiplicity of responses a text may set in motion. In so doing, the individual reader in her complexity and in his internal contradictions tends to disappear. Through a kind of interpretive violence, the monster is banished.

Although I have clearly simplified matters above, since within each critical discourse evoked analyses are inflected by the unique presence of particular critics (there is more than one Freudian reading of Hamlet, for instance), almost all who have completed Ph.D. programs in literary studies and have pursued an academic career can recognize in their “progress” from naive readers to professional critics and teachers the kind of violence I am talking about. And reactions to that violence are increasingly visible (though not necessarily uniform). We can see such reactions in the autobiographies of Henry Louis Gates and Frank Lentricchia, for example, in addition to the work of Jane Gallop, Nancy K. Miller, and Jane Tompkins. Recent efforts to recuperate the personal essay as a mode of criticism in the work of G. Douglas Atkins among others can also be seen, in part, as a similar reaction. Such work, it seems to me, has opened up the space for experiments with hybrid discourses, which rely quite heavily on notions of the personal. Writing in a personal voice and telling stories about one's life need not necessarily reinscribe “the individual as a unique, coherent, unified self,” as Linda Kauffman claims in her critique of “personal testimony” (264). Rather personal critical writing is characterized by hybridity as it explores the often contradictory and complex relations between experience and language.

I first became aware of the interpretive violence I alluded to above in my junior year of college in 1974. In a Victorian literature course which emphasized how social/political/economic conflict is played out (or not) in literary texts, I read Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848) for the first time. Economic tensions, political conflict, and social upheaval are manifest throughout that novel: cycles of economic boom and bust, struggles between “masters and men,” and the social ambiguities of an emergent industrialist/management class. We read the novel as a confirmation of Engels' diagnosis of “the condition of the working class in England” in the 1840s, and we criticized the novel's value by examining how Gaskell failed to tease out the inevitable pattern of social conflict as articulated by Marx: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles: freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman—in a word, oppressor and oppressed—stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in revolutionary reconstitution of society at large or in the common ruin of the contending classes” (“The Communist Manifesto” cited in Jameson). It became clear to me as I prepared to write a paper on Mary Barton that my task was to demonstrate Gaskell's imaginative failure to confirm the necessity of a “revolutionary reconstitution of society.” I completed that task, repressing the rather vague but nonetheless powerful feelings the novel evoked in me; in reading the novel I felt as if someone had been speaking to me, as if I were in the presence of a profoundly moral subjectivity (not the way I would have put it at the time) which made me feel the value of human suffering, human sympathy, and the humane possibilities of political and personal compromise. The intersubjective event of my reading brought me in contact with a sensibility, an identity that I half recognized and wanted to understand, an identity I wanted to be. In my paper, of course, I ignored all that. My professor loved the paper, read it to the class, and requested a copy for her files. I should have felt wonderful, successful, rewarded. I felt dishonest and guilty.

It is extremely difficult twenty years later to unpack all the pressures and counter-pressures I was experiencing during that definitive moment in my education as a reader. Two issues, however, stand out clearly for me: class and identity. If appropriation as a way of self understanding is a significant part of how one reads a literary text, what sort of self understanding could emerge when a working-class American man of Italian-English parentage from New Jersey in the 1990s reads a Victorian “social problem” novel written by a middle-class Englishwoman in the 1840s? What kind of cultural continuities and discontinuities can be mapped onto the internal recognitions and fragmentations I experience in my reading? In other words, in what ways does my reading of Mary Barton in particular (and literature more generally) contribute to the formation of my subjectivity, and how might an understanding of that process contribute to an understanding of the role of literature in the maintenance and transformation of culture? My project in this essay, then, is to begin to come to terms with the way my reading of literature has helped shape my subjectivity on the one hand and my sense of cultural placement on the other. Such a project is for me an appropriation of the two questions (about identity and class) that pervade the canonical novels (written by both women and men) in the nineteenth century: Who am I? and Where do I belong? (Qualls 1-16).

In order to address those questions, I need to explore briefly the ways in which novels in the nineteenth century (and still today) participate in the work of cultural formation through a mediation between the idiosyncracies of individuals (in this case myself) and the structural forms of culture (in this case the novel). That is, novelists and novel readers participate in a dynamic ritual process which the anthropologist Victor Turner has defined as “communitas.” In my discussion, I will first define communitas and adapt that definition to my purposes; then I will examine the contemporary reception and some subsequent working class and literary responses to Mary Barton in order to suggest how communitas functions in those readings/uses of the novel. Finally, I will return to the context of my own reading in order to suggest how the novel, for me and, I suspect, for others, continues to participate in the process of communitas.

In The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, Turner defines ‘communitas’ as follows: “Essentially, communitas is a relationship between concrete, historical, idiosyncratic individuals … [who] are not segmentalized into roles and statuses but confront one another rather in the manner of Martin Buber's ‘I and Thou’” (131-32). Turner highlights the “direct, immediate, and total confrontation of human identities” in communitas, communitas's “spontaneity and immediacy” which is, of necessity, fleeting. The vitality, open-endedness, and reciprocity of communitas inevitably become ordered by the human need to organize human relations within a social structure. “Communitas,” he claims, “itself soon develops a structure, in which free relationships between individuals become converted into norm-governed relationships between social personae.” Turner then distinguishes among three stages or components of communitas: “(1) existential or spontaneous communitas … [what] William Blake might have called ‘the winged moment as it flies’ … (2) normative communitas [which is] … existential communitas … organized into a perduring social system; and (3) ideological communitas, which is a label one can apply to a variety of utopian models of societies based on existential communitas” (132).

Despite this division of communitas into three components and Turner's subsequent effort “to trace the broad outlines of this widely distributed process” (133), implying a stage model of social development, Turner discusses communitas in the broad context of the dialectic between “structure and anti-structure” in social life. Consequently, we can understand the three components of communitas as a complex whole which informs human experience on many levels. We can, for example, equate existential communitas with the range of more or less unpredictable human encounters in daily life through which we realize our humanity in reciprocal relations with others; we can equate normative communitas with the social structures that determine our various social placements, which, in practice, often conflict with the ideally humane potential of existential communitas; and we can equate ideological communitas with the utopian desire for a social order that would nourish and enrich our existential experience.

I would revise Turner's model, then, as follows. Existential or spontaneous communitas I construe as a manifestation of anti-structure, normative communitas as a manifestation of structure, and ideological communitas as potential structure—a mediating term that holds the unpredictability of human experience and the human desire for order and meaning in a dialogical relation. This revised model provides a way to conceptualize the non-teleological movement of human life. That is, it accounts for a sense of direction and movement in human experience (and the narrative of human experience) while allowing for a perpetual open-endedness; it emphasizes the processes through which we construct and revise meaning for ourselves and in our relations with others as we struggle to find more humane ways to live our lives.

As I look back on my naive reading experience of Mary Barton, taking into account my personal situation and needs and the institutional context of my reading, I can detect traces of such a struggle. I see my immediate, unstructured response to the novel as an event of spontaneous communitas; I see the professor's pre-fabricated, institutionally sanctioned Marxist reading of the novel as a manifestation of normative communitas; and I see the impulse behind my subsequent work as a reader, writer, and teacher as animated by ideological communitas, an utopian belief in the revisionary, humane potential of the dialogue between spontaneous and normative communitas. I would like to stress again that these three aspects of communitas do not unfold in a linear way. Spontaneous communitas emerges in a context where normative communitas already exists. In addition, communitas is an intersubjective concept; it helps account for the intellectual and affective dynamics between and among individuals and between individuals and social structures.


In his essay “Dickens: The Two Scrooges,” inscribed “To the Students of English 354, University of Chicago, Summer, 1939,” Edmund Wilson observes: “In his novels from beginning to end, Dickens is making the same point always: that to the English governing classes the people they govern are not real. It is one of the great purposes of Dickens to show you these human actualities who figure for Parliament as strategical counters and for Political Economy as statistics; who can as a rule appear only even in histories in a generalized or idealized form” (23). That statement implies a function for fiction and the criticism of it that has affinities to my modified model of Turner's communitas. If we take the inscription as more than a mere gesture, the essay can be read as both Wilson's record of and response to the class he taught in 1939; the inscription, in short, locates the genesis of the essay in Wilson's intersubjective experience with others, anchoring it at a precise historical moment. The use of the second person (“to show you these human actualities”) extends that moment into an indefinite but nonetheless human future relationship, connecting Wilson, his essay, and his readers. That small shift to “you” conveys Wilson's sense of the human actuality of his readers even as it produces a sense of Wilson's human actuality in “us,” inviting us to share the substance of the seminar experience the essay records. Wilson's choice of pronoun reveals his awareness of the potential for spontaneous communitas through acts of reading, a potential somewhat fettered by the conventions of critical discourse (manifestations of normative communitas).

The mild tension between spontaneous and normative communitas implicit in the context and form of Wilson's essay can be felt in the content as well. The allusions to Parliament (political discourse) and Political Economy (economic discourse) place the emphasis in Dickens's work on human actuality in discursive contexts different from his fiction. In Wilson's reading, Dickens's language produces a sense of the human actuality of people who had already become abstractions through being subjected to political and economic discourses; the idiosyncracies of Dickens's language can be read as figures for spontaneity (anti-structure) and thus for resistance to the violence imposed on individuals by normalizing discourses (structure). Of course, without the structure there can be no anti-structure; without normative patterns there can be no spontaneity. In this sense (with a nod toward Bakhtin), we can read Gaskell's Mary Barton in a way similar to Wilson's reading of Dickens, as a rejoinder in a dialogue, as a response not just to what she saw of working class life in Manchester in the 1840s but equally to the languages she encountered (and rejected in the “Preface” to the novel), the normative representations about the economic and social meanings of that life.

Gaskell's claim to ignorance of economic theory in the “Preface” cannot be taken at face value. “I know nothing of Political Economy, or the theories of trade,” she writes. “I have tried to write truthfully; and if my accounts agree or clash with any system, the agreement or disagreement is unintentional” (38). As Jenny Uglow has recently pointed out, however, Gaskell knew about such matters from her father, who, in the 1820s wrote a “series of articles called ‘The Political Economist’, in which he tried to work out a sound theoretical basis for this new science, and appealed … for ethical values to replace market demands” (52). Gaskell's claim to ignorance, then, may be more rhetorical than real, a way for her to acknowledge the reality of theoretical systems while not so subtly rejecting their explanatory power through her subsequent assertion, “I have tried to write truthfully.” Like Dickens, her effort is to render the human actuality of people whose human faces, it seemed, had been erased, in Carlylean phrase, by system-mongers; she set herself the impossible but necessary task, through sympathetic “attention to the expression of feelings on the part of some of the work-people with whom [she] was acquainted,” to give expression to “the poor uneducated factory-workers of Manchester” (37). The uneven success of her effort is well documented in the critical response of her contemporaries to the novel.

Those responses, however, despite their disagreements about the accuracy of the novel as a social statement, agreed for the most part on two things: it did in fact have a potential social impact and that impact depended on the power of the details of individual scenes. The scenes, I would argue, function as moments of spontaneous communitas for they compel readers to confront the suffering of imagined but recognizably particularized people at one point in history where four trajectories intersect: the social history of industrial suffering and unrest circa 1842, the imagined personal history of the characters, the social circumstances, and the personal history of the reader.

The reviews, both major and minor, fall into two camps: one argues for the peculiar and powerful moral function of the novel as a commentary on industrial, social life; the other argues for the inadequacy and deceptive potential of such commentary. The Edinburgh Review article (April, 1849), written by Gaskell's friend W. R. Greg, a social reformer and one of the founders of the Manchester Statistical Society (Uglow 89) is the best example of the latter. Greg acknowledges the force of Gaskell's detailed engagement with the lives of her characters; he then reads those details through a socially progressive discourse buttressed by statistical analysis. In so doing, he reduces the four trajectories implicit in single moments of spontaneous communitas to one: an economic reading of social history.

The Edinburgh Review article argues that although Mary Barton presents an accurate picture of the details of domestic life, the novel exhibits too much sympathy for the working class (failing, for example, to take workers to task for not having the foresight to put aside some of their earnings in anticipation of future unemployment) and too little understanding of the “suffering” of the mill owners (failing to note, for example, that they must cut back on expenditures when business is bad). The novel's greatest failing, the review asserts, however, is its refusal to place the blame for working class suffering where it belongs—on the working class itself. “The plain truth cannot be too boldly spoken, nor too frequently repeated: the working classes, and they only, can raise their own condition; to themselves alone must they look for their elevation in the social scale; their own intellect and their own virtues must work out their salvation; their fate and their future are in their own hands, and in theirs alone” (420). Despite the fact that Greg later writes, “the greatest service rendered by Mr. Carlyle to the cause of social truth and progress” is his vindication of “the happiness and nobility of labour” (423), the emphasis of the above passage is on the positive desire to escape labor, to “raise” one's condition and social class. Greg's praise earlier in the review of the details in the novel makes that emphasis understandable. He praises the characters as being of “singular beauty and reality,” and he finds a sense of truth in the suffering depicted in Davenport's death on a bed moistened by sewage, which, he argues, should produce a “sickening of the heart, and a sense of shame and self condemnation” among “readers living in comfort and luxury.” He goes farther, claiming that “we are proud to be enabled to testify that the scene presented in this extract (Davenport's death scene) is not only true to the individual life, but it is the expression of a general fact” (409-10). (I must point out that Greg does not emphasize the details of Davenport's suffering as such but the efforts of John Barton and Job Legh to relieve his suffering, presenting those efforts as examples of the working class's capacity for self help!) Greg reconciles the “apparent” contradiction between the desire to escape labor and the dignity of labor by shifting focus from actual work to the accumulation of capital.

“As a contrast to the unnatural blindness and self delusion of John Barton,” Greg quotes an “account of the actual progress upwards of a young mechanic” (418) which is remarkable in its reduction of the young mechanic to a narrative of numbers—weekly wages, money set aside, interest accrued, wife obtained, six children produced, money invested, more interest accrued—leaving him at the age of forty with one wife, six children, 250 pounds of capital, “in addition to his house and garden” (419). After a couple of pages of commentary which highlight the morality embedded in the narrative of numbers and emphasize the necessity of self reformation, Greg notes: “We are as certain as we can be of anything, that if the factory operatives and mechanics were possessed of the education, the frugality, the prudence, and the practical sense which generally distinguish their employers, no change whatever, either in the regularity or remuneration of their work, would be needed, to place them, as a body, in a state of independence, dignity, and comfort” (421-22). In short, the operatives should strive to become, if not owners themselves, like the owners. It would be easy to dismiss the general applicability of Greg's counter-example to John Barton just as it was easy for Greg to dismiss John Barton as an example of working men, for both fictional character and “real” example are exceptional. The review captures a clash of sensibilities based on two different orders of experience, heightening, oddly enough, the sense of existential communitas. Readers are left to adjudicate for themselves the truth value of those different sensibilities.

W. R. Greg's review of Mary Barton is fascinating, and I could go on about his middle-class bias, his conflation of material and moral “progress,” and his uneasy response to the emotions stimulated by Gaskell's “pathos,” but my purpose is not to open up Victorian economic arguments and doctrines (despite their reappearance in the Republican-dominated US congress recently) or to evaluate the validity of Greg's review (although the tone of my discussion is certainly evaluative). Rather I want to suggest how the review serves as a site where the disruptive and humanizing energies of spontaneous communitas come into conflict with the structures of normative communitas. We can see that tension mainly in the way that Greg registers the power and unsettling appeal of the particularity of character and scene, only to efface his affective response by transposing the experiential appeal of the novel to pre-established theories of economic law and social progress. Greg's effort on one level is to translate narrative discourse into economic argument. Whether one judges his effort a success or not, the fact that the effort shows such signs of strain registers the resistant power of Gaskell's art, a power felt and appreciated by another “class” of readers.

I have been able to find few documented working class responses to Mary Barton. One is from a two-page article in Lancashire Life called “A Champion of the Oppressed,” published in 1948, the centenary of the appearance of Mary Barton. In that piece, J. A. Davies notes how “weavers in factories clubbed together to buy copies of the book [Mary Barton] which actually depicted them as people of real flesh and blood and told the world plainly of their inexpressible sufferings” (202). The other is a letter from Samuel Bamford, author of Passages in the Life of a Radical and Manchester working class resident, to Elizabeth Gaskell dated March 9, 1849. The second paragraph of the letter reads: “You have drawn a fearfully true picture: a mournfully beautiful one also have you placed on the tables of the drawing rooms of the great, and good it must there effect; good for themselves, and good also I hope for the poor of every occupation” (106-7). Naive as those responses may seem, they reflect a faith in the value of human recognition; the weavers in being seen “as people of real flesh and blood” are linked more closely not only through their suffering but through its representation, and Bamford in imagining the novel as an object placed on the tables of those ignorant of working class life projects a potential transformation from imaginative sympathy to moral action. The novel, for Bamford, functions as a social interaction, stimulating self reflection in readers, new understanding of the human actuality of working class “others,” and, potentially, a concrete response to that new understanding. It is impossible to measure in any quantitative way the actual effect of the novel on national social policy or efforts of industrial reform within particular factories, but the fact that there was such an effect was believed by many in retrospect, as Stephen Gill notes in his Introduction to the Penguin edition of the novel (15). Even as far away as Russia in 1863, A. Druzhinin noted in his article “Last Season's English Novels”: “With her novel Mary Barton Mrs. Gaskell won the public's sympathies for the misfortunes of female [sic] factory workers. The novel, which revealed little-known facts about the life of workers in manufacturing districts, not only aroused general interest, but even led to a number of useful measures and undertakings” [Peterburgskie vedomosti 3, 4 (1863) cited in Grossman 10]. Dostoevsky chose to publish Mary Barton “to begin the series of translations of foreign literature in his magazine Vremya (Time)” in 1860 (Grossman 8), and as late as 1907 the novel was banned in Manchester area schools for girls because it was felt to be too emotionally stimulating. (See Manchester Evening Chronicle 9 May and 19 June 1907 and Manchester Guardian 22 June 1907).


The cultural life of Mary Barton, a “social problem” novel of the 1840s, clearly extends beyond its time and place. Each reading of the novel extends its cultural life further, whether that reading is done by a nineteenth-century Russian novelist in the midst of re-evaluating his artistic/social values and purposes, or by a nervous early twentieth-century school board in Manchester, or by an American college student in the late twentieth century struggling to resolve questions of personal and social identity. Readers clearly recognize some qualities in the novel that are not absolutely determined by the particulars of its contemporary context and explicit purpose. Often those qualities are ethical; that is, they concern the difficulties we have in orienting ourselves towards others as ends rather than means. Two of the most significant qualities which remain recognizable across readers, if understood a bit differently as contexts of reading change, are emotional recognition and potential moral action, implicit components of existential communitas. As I look back twenty years and remember the paper I wrote and try to imagine the paper I wanted to write in my Victorian literature class, I see that I subordinated my sense of spontaneous communitas in reading (the paper I wanted to write) to a theoretical discourse of normative communitas (the paper I wrote). I wanted, to borrow a concept from Kurt Spellmeyer, to transpose the text of Mary Barton into my own life-world, or, to return to Paul Ricoeur's term, to “appropriate” the novel for my own self-understanding. I do not mean to imply that historical understanding and theoretical application are less significant aspects of reading and interpretation than self-understanding (consider how I have been “applying” Turner's notion of communitas, for example, and what I hope is my obvious interest and pleasure in examining contemporary responses to the novel). I do think, however, that self-understanding is a part of most reading of literature (and most other reading perhaps), but it has been extremely difficult in my literary education and professional life to articulate as a student, teacher, or writer the ways in which my reading contributes to my self-understanding, including self doubt and moral confusion. I would like now to consider some domestic scenes and encounters between characters in Mary Barton, scenes and encounters where my sense of spontaneous communitas is most forceful, in order to suggest how the novel provides a way for me to conceptualize, if not finally to resolve, my uncertainties about class, personal identity, and ethical action.

Much has been made of the bifurcated structure of Mary Barton. The general argument goes that Gaskell's purpose was divided between presenting the realistic narrative of John Barton and the romantic narrative of his daughter Mary. Those two narratives, despite Gaskell's difficulties in weaving them together, are contained within a larger structure. The novel opens with a rural scene as the factory operatives and their families go on a holiday ramble in Greenheys Fields (now the site of a government estate housing project), a ramble, Gaskell notes, “seized in right of nature” (40) with children “carried for the most part by the father” and where “the whole family might enjoy the delicious May afternoon together” (41). The novel ends with another rural family scene in the outskirts of Toronto, where Mary stands in the doorway of a “long low wooden house,” holding her child and “watching for the return of her husband from his daily work” (465). Between those two scenes, the novel depicts the disintegration of the original family groups, a disintegration chronicled by a series of domestic scenes. In relatively quick succession, the narrative moves from the Barton household, which at the time had a coal fire which produced “warm and glowing light in every corner of the room” (49) to the Davenport cellar where “the smell was so foetid as almost to knock the two men [John Barton and Job Legh] down.” As Barton and Legh “began to penetrate the thick darkness of the place” in their search for Davenport, they “see three or four little children rolling on the damp, nay wet, brick floor, through which the stagnant, filthy moisture of the street oozed up; the fire-place was empty and black” (98).

With the death of Barton's wife and his lack of employment, Barton, left alone with Mary, lapses into a brooding silence as his household begins to take on characteristics of the Davenport cellar.

But by degrees the house was stripped of its little ornaments. Some were broken; and the odd twopences and threepences wanted to pay for repairs, were required for the far sterner necessity of food. And by-and-by Mary began to part with other superfluities at the pawn-shop. The smart tea-tray, and tea-caddy, long and carefully kept, went for bread for her father. He did not ask for it, but she saw hunger in his shrunk, fierce, animal look. Then the blankets went, for it was summer time, and they could spare them; and their sale made a fund, which Mary fancied would last till better times came. But it was soon all gone; and then she looked around the room to crib it of its few remaining ornaments. To all these proceedings her father never said a word. If he fasted, or feasted (after the sale of some article), on an unusual meal of bread and cheese, he took all with a sullen indifference.


Barton takes to chewing opium; he even, once, beats his daughter, and the hearth fires are finally extinguished.

That succession of scenes calls for a political reading, and when I wrote my undergraduate paper, I performed that reading. When Barton was put on trial for the murder of the mill owner Carson's son (a murder for which there was an historical source—see the British Quarterly Review article for the details), I discussed what he should have said, giving him a speech to the effect that since the blood of his dead wife and children should be seen on the hands of the mill owners, the murder was a justifiable and inevitable political act. I scoffed at Gaskell's having him repent through his recognition of common human needs and common human bonds. But in my heart I believed Gaskell, and I still do. The political and economic issues cannot be denied, and Gaskell was well aware of them. When the human relations in the novel are confined to those issues, however, the human subjects involved get reduced to abstractions. The catalyst for the murder of Carson's son is a caricature he drew of the workers during a meeting between them and the mill owners. That caricature is an apt symbol for the reduction of concrete historical beings into abstractions. That reduction establishes the psychological conditions which enable acts of murder, and the moral energy animating Mary Barton resists those conditions. There are other issues in that succession of scenes, issues of class related to family, social group, place, and vocation; and identity related to how a sense of self emerges in the context of class.

Two paragraphs before the passage I quoted above, Gaskell offers this observation: “The agricultural laborer generally has strong local attachments; but they are far less common, almost obliterated, among the inhabitants of a town. Still there are exceptions, and Barton formed one” (158). That observation registers the massive population dislocation brought about by industrialization. Except perhaps for the landed aristocracy and those who could continue working on the land, that massive dislocation affected everyone, laborer, artisan, and merchant. With the increasing urban population almost all being transient, previous definitions of class and identity had to be reconstructed. Part of the point of the many domestic scenes in Mary Barton is to document the effort of the working class to construct a domestic life, founded on rural values, in an urban environment. In addition, the growth of an urban middle-class, most members of which had working class origins, created confusions of identity. Consider Carson, from the working class himself with a working class wife, raising his children as if they were landed aristocracy. (We see similar patterns throughout Victorian fiction, Stephen Guest and family from The Mill on the Floss being another example). There was, it seems to me, a general crisis of identity, a crisis which helps explain why the idea of the “self-made man” was both so appealing and so pernicious, appealing in its embodiment of emerging middle-class values and pernicious in its insensitivity to origins and changing social and economic contexts. Having been born in London, raised in Knutsford in rural Cheshire, and having lived her adult life in urban/industrial Manchester, Gaskell was especially sensitive to the effects of transience on one's sense of family and of self. Consequently, although conditions certainly are not equal, Barton and Carson find themselves in the midst of a major social/cultural transition with political and economic causes to be sure but with effects that run deeper, and which are still felt today throughout the industrial/post-industrial world.

As an example of how the effects of similar cultural/personal instabilities have been felt and thought about by one individual today, I offer the following autobiographical facts with some admittedly questionable commentary: My father was the son of uneducated Italian Catholic immigrant parents. His father was a laborer for a railroad company in Bergen County, New Jersey, in the 1920s and 30s; his mother spent her time giving birth to and caring for her thirteen children; my father was the youngest son. His parents never learned to speak English although they would not let their children speak anything but English. Though typical of the time, their home life must have been strange indeed. When my father was in elementary school, his school's principal wanted to remove him from his home, adopt him and encourage his education. His parents, of course, were appalled at the idea. He remained at home, left high school after the ninth grade, worked odd jobs (shortly before his death he was fond of recalling the time he caddied for Babe Ruth at a local golf course), and was drafted into the army when World War II broke out. He drove a tank in the 3rd Armored Division under Patton, and at the war's end he was found wandering around a battle field, traumatized. I never learned the details. After the war, he worked more odd jobs before getting permanent employment with a paint contractor in New York City. He bought a small tract house in New Jersey and proceeded to work, gamble, and drink heavily, leaving his wife and four children to, more or less, fend for themselves. He was a silent, distant presence in the household. We never knew when and if he would be coming home or what condition he would be in if he did. The only continuity I recall in relation to my father in my childhood was his insistence on our visiting his parents nearly every Sunday where he, his father, brothers, and brothers-in-law would watch the Yankees on television, drink beer (Schaeffer) by the case, and eat pasta. Sundays were never pleasant. His life, as far as I can tell, was fairly typical for men of his class and generation. He died of lung and brain cancer in 1992.

My mother, in contrast, was the youngest of three children in a declining Anglo-American family. Her father had inherited a prosperous canvas business (the business had the awnings contract for the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis and the tent contract for the army in World War I), which failed under his direction. Before the failure, he was the town tennis champion, and when he built a new family home, it was featured on the front page of The New York Times. With the Stock Market crash, the family fortune declined rapidly, as did my grandfather's mental health. He worked for the American Nazi Party, giving rabidly incoherent speeches and becoming increasingly paranoid. He drank as well, making life unbearable for his wife and children. Partly to escape, and partly, I suspect, to protest her domestic situation, my mother left school after the tenth grade, married my father, and had her first child, all at sixteen. During the war, her father simply disappeared (he resurfaced some twenty years later, but that's another story), and my mother found herself living with her daughter and her mother in a small attic apartment. After the war between 1946 and 1950, she had three more children. Somewhat distant from her family (except for her mother, an absolutely wonderful woman), with little education and married to an alcoholic, my mother spent the next twenty-five years coping.

My childhood, then, was built on the foundation of two broken lives, patched together at best and locked in mutual incomprehension at worst, my father a guilt-ridden lapsed Catholic and my mother desperately holding onto a form of evangelical protestantism. She raised her children in a rather humorless Baptist church, the services ending each Sunday with an altar call. After each crisis in their marriage (when I was fifteen, I recall tallying up about ten “separations” between my parents), my father would make a lame gesture at embracing my mother's faith, a pattern reinforced by a church that seemed actively to encourage “backsliding” in order for there to be people in need of responding to the weekly altar calls.

With two family histories of cultural and psychological breakdown, and with my immediate family life defined by cultural, religious, and personal conflict, I now read my childhood as a perpetual identity crisis. I was unanchored, ripe for the identity-shaping pressures of schooling. What the institutions of family and church failed to provide, the institution of education would, though not in a direct and simple way.

I grew up with no expectations for college. Although I was a straight A student through the sixth grade, my education fell apart in junior high and high school; I was too busy being a New Jersey street kid, being “cool.” (I graduated in the bottom half of my class.) After spending four years in the Marine Corps (1968-72) and qualifying for the Vietnam-era G. I. Bill, I decided to go to college. (Actually, I attended night classes at an East Carolina University extension program during my last year in the Marines and then attended a California community college for two years before transferring to Rutgers in my junior year.) Although I had been very successful at the community college—I wrote an “honors” project on John Donne and won the scholarship for the best student in the languages division two years in a row—I felt out of place when I arrived at Rutgers. I “knew” I didn't belong. Rutgers was the real thing, a university with a colonial pedigree. My uncertainties about class and identity resurfaced with a vengeance, despite the fact that as the state university of New Jersey, Rutgers was filled with students like me and had been for at least a generation. In my isolation, however, I was aware only of my own frailty. I would probably have written anything for any professor to make me feel that I belonged; I would have espoused any version of “truth” as long as it was decked out in professorial garb.

I could not at the time imagine how the university could be a place where I could bring my experience of the world and my reading of books into productive dialogue for the purpose of self-formation and self reformation. I felt and was powerfully drawn to, though I could not articulate it at the time, what I now see clearly as the cultural hegemony of British literature; that is, by reading certain books, by internalizing certain forms of literary language, and by experiencing through texts certain frames of mind, sensibilities, perceptions, and values I could think of myself as a whole person, fabricated in an image that would erase my uncertainties of social class and personal identity. The tensions involved here, between a sense of social marginalization and the social centering function of a university education and between my desire for some sense of selfhood and the implicit promise of British literature to provide the means for achieving that selfhood, were too important to ignore, and I felt them most profoundly in my Victorian literature class. I recalled a story my mother told me about what her mother was doing on the day Queen Victoria died. It seems that my grandmother, as a young girl, was walking across a footbridge over a brook wearing a hat her mother had given her which she despised. She stopped in the middle of the bridge and shook and shook her head until the hat flew off and floated down stream. (I am tempted to turn that story into an allegory; I will resist the temptation.) I must have felt in the title “Victorian Literature” a hint of the possibility that my education might become a way for me to understand, if not necessarily resolve, uncertainties whose origins I now see embodied in my grandmother's floating hat and my mother's marriage. I may even have sensed how my education could do more, connecting my family history to a thread of cultural history through language, through “English,” the one thing I shared with my family and everyone else I knew in my life.

In my particular Victorian Literature class, my uncertainties could not be defined explicitly—much less explored and resolved—when my task as a reader was to conjoin the discourse of Marxism with the discourse of Mary Barton. But there is no resolution for those tensions; I still feel them. Part of me still hungers to achieve a frame of mind analogous to the one I constructed from the narrative voice of Mary Barton and attributed to the author. In much the way that little boys want to be like Michael Jordan, I wanted and still want to achieve a sensibility I find in the work of Elizabeth Gaskell, a sensibility characterized by clarity of vision (in the most literal sense of seeing the ordinary luminously), non-dogmatic moral certainty, and an immense capacity for compassionate understanding, qualities, I might add, which I associate with my grandmother specifically and with Victorian novels written by women more generally.

Those qualities permeate Mary Barton. In a novel full of suffering rendered quite graphically—recall Davenport's death on what is literally a bed of shit—there are no villains. And that, given the power of suffering in the novel, can make readers uneasy. To posit a villain (some version of Marx's “oppressor”) is to ease the burden of reading by enabling us to avoid the kind of “appropriation” Ricoeur defines and then undercuts. By reading through a discourse that presupposes a necessary “revolutionary reconstitution” of society, we can accuse Gaskell of bad faith at worst and failure of imagination at best, arguing as John Lucas has done in “Mrs. Gaskell and Brotherhood” (which, in general, offers a sympathetic, finely nuanced reading of Mary Barton) that Gaskell brings us to the “abyss” (Lucas 142, 144) of inevitable class warfare only to turn her back on the implications of her own presentation. Lucas's criticism, written well over one hundred years after Mary Barton, seems to me stunningly unfair and (a point I have wanted to make for years) blind to history. There was no revolution in England in 1848 or after. Labor struggles, which still go on, were addressed through a series of political reforms, partly as a result of the much maligned middle-class liberalism Lucas takes to task. Labor history and social history in the nineteenth century seem to me (and I claim no expertise on these matters) to be histories of compromise. As John Rae noted in 1881, “the writings of Marx are hardly better known [in Britain] … than those of Confucius.” This is so, Rae continues, because “the working classes are preoccupied with the development of trades unions, of friendly societies, and of the great co-operative movement, from which … they not unwarrantably expect great results” (cited in Gilmour 177; See also 147-94). The whole country turned away from the abyss with Gaskell, and I would argue, her novel played a part in a sort of political coming to one's senses. And it did so by encouraging a feeling for the value of communitas, another aspect of which Turner alludes to by quoting William Blake's phrase, “mutual forgiveness of each vice” (132). That is, Mary Barton's narrative strategy is to encourage a non-agonistic confrontation of human identities among characters in the book and between the book and its readers, enabling readers to experience communitas as “a relationship between concrete, historical, idiosyncratic individuals” (131). Such a strategy calls for a reading of “appropriation” in which we, as “concrete, historical, idiosyncratic individuals” come to understand ourselves in relation to the “others” provided by the novel. We may appropriate the novel in acts of recognition of similarity or of difference. In either case, the novel calls for an ethical reading that culminates in some version of self understanding and self reformation.

Since my own background is a hybrid of the working and middle-classes, I found myself when I first read the novel and still find myself radically split in my sympathies. Having grown up in suburban New Jersey, my attachment to place was very tenuous. Not only did we move three times in my childhood for domestic and economic reasons, the more rural aspects of the town were literally obliterated by the construction of public buildings and tract housing. Given the tensions in my parents' relationship, I could look toward the background of neither to develop a sense of family history and cultural placement. I grew up in the fifties and sixties when the dominant cultural ideology was “social mobility.” With those among other things as the material for my personal identity, I understood Carson's rejection of his own past, his son's cultural pretensions, and the force and aptness of John Barton's anger. (His silences so reminded me of my father's.) Transposing Mary Barton into my world, I could at least posit historical and economic sources for my own uncertainties and I could recognize elements of multiple subjectivities in myself, but I could not resolve those uncertainties or construct a unified sense of identity by recourse to an impersonal political argument. In retrospect, it seems that the inconsistencies for which critics attacked the novel—the shift from the political to the personal and Gaskell's middle-class sensibility conflicting in tone with the more obvious implications of her material—were precisely what engaged me in my reading, but to me they did not seem like inconsistencies. I responded to Gaskell's sensibility, her utopian faith in the possibility of human understanding as the basis for reconstructed community, a faith echoed in Turner's notion of existential communitas.

And existential communitas seems to be central to Gaskell's effort to reconcile the “classes” through the “mutual forgiveness” of Barton and Carson. While that mutual forgiveness feels totally inadequate as a solution to class conflict, and while the scene that presents that forgiveness does not work well as art, the utopian impulse behind the scene can still be felt. I will quote just a small part. After having refused Barton forgiveness in an earlier conversation, Carson spends a night meditating on the words, “They know not what they do,” and returns to see Barton the next day just as Barton is dying.

Mr Carson stood in the door-way. In one instant he comprehended the case.

He raised up the powerless frame; and the departing soul looked out of the eyes with gratitude. He held the dying man propped in his arms. John Barton folded his hands as if in prayer.

“Pray for us,” said Mary, sinking on her knees, and forgetting in that solemn hour all that had divided her father and Mr Carson.

No other words could suggest themselves than some of those he had read only a few hours before.

“God be merciful to us sinners.—Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us.”

And when the words were said, John Barton lay a corpse in Mr Carson's arms.


While that scene's inadequacies as both argument and art are obvious, as is its melodrama, it expresses a powerful desire for reconciliation, and it insists that readers recognize the more powerful possibility of death's making any reconciliation impossible. The moment is forced, but having witnessed death myself (most recently my father's), I find that any moment of death is forced, if not for the dying for the living. And such moments compel us to consider our own mortality, our own pasts and possible futures, as Carson does. “In the days of his childhood and youth, Mr Carson had been accustomed to poverty: but it was honest decent poverty; not the grinding squalid misery he had remarked in every part of John Barton's house, and which contrasted strangely with the sumptuousness of the room in which he now sat” (439). In a sense, Carson appropriates Barton's death, transposing it into his own life and projecting a meaning. In witnessing Barton's death, Carson experiences existential communitas, and sparked by that experience he begins to treat his factory “hands” like men. That is not social reform to be sure, but the recognition of the concrete, historical reality of others as a stimulus for self examination and compassionate response within the limitations of one's social sphere is not a bad ethical ground upon which to base one's actions.


My brief reading of Mary Barton emphasizes the relationship between existential and utopian communitas; the domestic scenes and encounters between characters constitute the particulars of daily life which are contained within framing images of utopian community. Those framing images are both retrospective and projective; they serve as generalized extensions of the ideal moral energy felt in moments of spontaneous communitas, as characters and readers apprehend the positive possibilities of personal understanding leading to the “mutual forgiveness of each vice.” One way to construe the central tension in the novel is as a conflict between spontaneous and normative communitas. Recall, according to Turner, that normative communitas structures the goals implicit in spontaneous communitas into a “perduring social order.” Over time, however, normative communitas, rather than focusing and extending spontaneous communitas, comes into conflict with it. Mary Barton explores that conflict at a very specific historical moment.

The conflict between spontaneous and normative communitas plays out in the history of the novel's reading as well. Reading the novel is an experience of spontaneous communitas as readers encounter, with relative degrees of specificity, images of concrete individuals. In addition, there is the harder-to-define encounter between the distinct sensibilities of the author and readers. As I tried to show in my discussion of W. R. Greg's review, readers with a thoroughly internalized sense of normative communitas respond to the existential qualities of the novel by explaining them away within the context of a fully theorized, normative system. I am in danger of doing the same thing myself by transforming Turner's definition of communitas into an explanatory system through which I have constructed “my” reading. But normative communitas cannot be avoided. We live within social structures and already established explanatory systems. The value of Turner's model of communitas is that it is an open model; Turner posits a process not a teleology. That process, in being sensitive to the relatively unstructured peculiarities of experience and to the normative structures that would often wrongly provide meaning to experience in advance, accounts for both the individual and the collective, for social change and cultural continuity, for personal change and social placement. It also invites readers to historicize their reading in a way that allows for a rapprochement between personal and cultural history where self-understanding and cultural understanding emerge simultaneously.

Such an understanding can result from discontinuity just as easily as from continuity. So far my reading of Mary Barton has stressed continuity between the sensibility of the narrative voice (i.e., Gaskell herself), the contradictions within that sensibility, and my own inchoate sensibility and internal contradictions. By insisting on that continuity in my effort to resist normative readings of the novel, I wanted to stress the positive monstrousness of such a naive reading. But there is another level of positive monstrousness in my reading, which I feel at moments when I am unable to share the narrative sensibility. These are moments when I become an object of that sensibility (a position I strongly want to resist) rather than a participant in it.

Soon after Mary discovers that her father has murdered young Carson, she rushes home “where she might vent her agony, unseen and unnoticed by the keen, unkind world without.” Her progress, however, is “arrested by a light touch on her arm.” Mary stops and sees a little Italian boy, with his humble show-box, a white mouse or some such thing. The setting sun casts its red glow on his face; otherwise his olive complexion would have been very pale; and his glittering tear-drops hung on his long curled eye-lashes. With his soft voice and pleading looks, he uttered, in his pretty broken English, the word “Hungry! so hungry.” Mary brushes past but immediately has second thoughts. She runs home, grabs the last remaining food in her cupboard, and returns to find the Italian boy muttering “in some foreign language” and crying for his “Mamma mia.”

With the elasticity of heart belonging to childhood he sprang up as he saw the food the girl brought; she whose face, lovely in its woe, had tempted him first to address her; and, with the graceful courtesy of his country, he looked up and smiled while he kissed her hand, and then poured forth his thanks, and shared his bounty with his little pet companion.


This is one of a series of moral set pieces of a religious tract sort spliced in throughout the novel and timed to bring a character out of self-absorption into awareness of the needs of others. (Two others concern John Barton after the murder and Mr. Carson after he had rejected Barton's entreaties for forgiveness.) Despite the artistic flaws of the scene, the ingredients are there to embody, through the recognition of basic human need, another moment of existential communitas. For me the moment fails, not only for aesthetic reasons but because of my uncertainties about personal and cultural identity, uncertainties that complicate my too easy identification with the narrative sensibility of the novel. I can best describe my reaction to the above scene by positing this analogy: Mary is to the Italian boy as the author Elizabeth Gaskell is to me.

When I read that scene, then, I become a culturally impoverished Italian (American) boy begging crumbs of cultural confidence and coherence from the kind lady I hope will deign to give them to me. I feel the residue of a double hegemony: the hegemony of British culture over American and the hegemony of Anglo-American society over Italian-American. My role as a reader shifts from being an agent of compassion as I share with Gaskell the effort to understand the peculiar circumstances and suffering of others to being an object of pity. The cultural stereotypes in the passage evoke, however crudely, a part of my personal history which I rejected but which remains. I am still my father's son.

At such moments, I understand more deeply how Frankenstein's monster's effort to achieve self understanding cannot succeed because he is, in effect, trying to become what he is not. In his search to define himself and to locate himself in the world through his reading and his contact with “others,” he discovers internal contradiction and experiences rejection and physical dislocation. Normative structures cannot accomodate him; his reading fails to answer his questions. He becomes enraged, and he directs his rage at those “others” associated with his creator's (and, figuratively, his own) family and, finally and most destructively, at himself. Although there is something monstrous in all of us, we are not monsters. But our monstrousness, by which I mean our singularity based on the boundaries of our bodies and the peculiarity of our individual origins and histories, is what animates all our work, our reading, writing, and teaching. That monstrousness, in ourselves and in our students, requires acknowledgment and accommodation.

And serious thought, for there are dangers—the danger of reducing texts to our own narrow concerns, for example, and of uncritically assuming that our own experience is somehow singular, separate from the discourses that enable us to understand it and that, in fact, enable us to perceive it as experience in the first place. The moments that render personal experience in this essay may convey a sense of uniqueness in some of the details, but the patterns of cultural change, family breakdown, and psychological uncertainty are recognizable precisely because they extend beyond myself, a necessary precondition that enables the meanings of those patterns to be contested. As Theresa de Lauretis has argued, “Subjectivity is constructed from experience, but what one comprehends as subjective are in fact material, economic, and interpersonal and historical relations” (cited in Kauffman 266). By ignoring the personal in our teaching and our writing, we miss an opportunity to help our students see and to come to terms with ourselves the multiple relations—economic, interpersonal, discursive—that determine who we think we are. We also miss the opportunity to begin the work of changing those relations in positive ways.

Works Cited

Atkins, G. Douglas. Estranging the Familiar: Toward a Revitalized Critical Writing. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1992.

Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

Butrym, Alexander, ed. Essays on the Essay. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1989.

Davies, J. A. “A Champion of the Oppressed.” Lancashire Life 1.8 (1948): 201-2.

Eliot, George. The Mill on the Floss. New York: New American Library, 1981.

Freedman, Diane P, Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar, eds. The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Gallop, Jane. Thinking Through the Body. New York: Columbia UP, 1988.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

Gates, Henry Louis. Colored People: A Memoir. New York: Random, 1994.

Gill, Stephen. Introduction. Mary Barton. By Elizabeth Gaskell. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

Gilmour, Robin. The Victorian Period: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature 1830-1890. London: Longman, 1993.

Greg, W. R. “Art. V.—Mary Barton; a Tale of Manchester Life. London: 1848.” Edinburgh Review (1849): 402-35.

Grossman, Leonid. “Dostoevsky and Mrs. Gaskell.” Trans. Jennifer Warren. Anglo-Soviet Journal 21 (1960): 8-14.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.

Kauffman, Linda S. “The Long Goodbye: Against Personal Testimony, or An Infant Grifter Grows Up.” American Feminist Thought at Century's End: A Reader. Ed. Linda S. Kauffman. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993. 258-277.

Lentricchia, Frank. The Edge of Night. New York: Random, 1994.

Lucas, John. “Mrs. Gaskell and Brotherhood.” Tradition and Tolerance in Nineteenth-Century Fiction. Ed. David Howard, John Lucas, and John Goode. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967.

Manchester Evening Chronicle 9 May and 19 June 1907.

Manchester Guardian 22 June 1907.

Miller, Nancy K. Getting Personal: Feminist Occasions and Other Autobiographical Acts. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Qualls, Barry. The Secular Pilgrims of Victorian Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982.

Ricoeur, Paul. “What is a text?” Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992.

Spellmeyer, Kurt. Common Ground: Dialogue, Understanding and the Teaching of Composition. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1993.

Tompkins, Jane. “Me and My Shadow.” The Intimate Critique. 23-40.

Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.

Uglow, Jenny. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories. New York: Farrar, 1993.

Unattributed review. British Quarterly Review (1849): 117-136.

———. Prospective Review 17 (1849): 36-57.

———. The Examiner 4 November 1848: 708-709.

———. Fraser's Magazine 39 (1849): 429-432.

Waller, R. D. “Letters Addressed to Mrs. Gaskell by Celebrated Contemporaries.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 19 (1935): 102-69.

Wilson, Edmund. “Dickens: The Two Scrooges.” The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature. New York: Farrar, 1978.

Harriet Guest (essay date 1998)

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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.]


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.

(p. xxxv)

These opening sentences emphasise that what Gaskell wanted to write, as a result of her personal circumstances, was what might readily be defined as a regional novel, a novel set ‘on the borders’, beyond the purview of the metropolis. Yet the phrase, ‘Living in Manchester’, hangs oddly, perhaps ambiguously, in this account of the narrator's intentions: it might implicitly justify that ‘first thought’, of finding a frame in rural Yorkshire, as the result of living in urban Lancashire. Or it might explain the second thought, and that apparently accidental and yet convoluted process in which ‘I bethought me’ of a deep romance made remote by its very familiarity and proximity. Through a curious dialectic of presence and absence, the syntax seems to regionalise Gaskell's Manchester, the town in which she resided, from which she escapes, to which she escapes, in fiction.

Most explicitly in the Preface, deep romance is attributed to the familiar remoteness produced by class difference, the mundane disjunction and contrast between the ‘even tenor’ of the ‘seemingly happy lives’ of the rich, and the ‘anguish caused by the lottery-like nature’ of the lives of the poor. Living in Manchester, anxious from circumstances that will be more fully alluded to in the novel, Gaskell writes that she:

had always felt a deep sympathy with the care-worn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and want; tossed to and fro by circumstances, apparently in an even greater degree than other men.

(p. xxxv)

Class difference invokes deep sympathy. The apparently random vicissitudes of the lives it makes strange promote looks and feelings, the sentimental projections of sympathy that create deep romance. And the romance of estrangement and sympathy seems to displace the original need for distancing by time and place. So that perhaps the placing of Manchester, and the localisation that implies, is a manifestation not so much of that idea of regionalism which emphasises topographical enclosure and the emotional depth it produces, as of class imagined as producing a regionalised form of social space.2

The regional novel is often thought of as rural, and as distinguished from urban narratives of class difference, or from novels which dramatise the ‘condition of England’—industrial capitalism and the urban poverty it produced. So it may not obviously seem appropriate to look at Mary Barton as an example of the regional novel. Manchester in the 1840s is above all else the modern industrial city, ‘the great METROPOLIS of LABOUR’, as Disraeli called it,3 though it was not the capital seat of government, not metropolitan in that sense. And it seems set in stark contrast to those enclosed and rural regions in which human relations and human verities are imagined to achieve a particular depth, duration and intensity. Regionalism seems to imply that placid milky sense of time suspended that Hardy's Tess enjoys at Talbothays, released from the dreamy spell of a changeless pastoralism only when she and Angel travel to the railway station and see the trains that engirdle and fitfully intrude upon the outer limits of the Great Vale of Dairies. It seems to involve that isolation of locality, and innocence of change, that informs the exclusive and shared identity of Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw as children, and which they attempt to perpetuate, to regress to through starvation, in Wuthering Heights. And the contrast between those fantasies—visions which focus on place with an intensity that is almost hallucinatory or ecstatic in its myopic exclusiveness—and the urban ‘reality’ of Manchester, seems explicitly to be emphasised in Mary Barton. Gaskell writes that for the heroine, alone in the city night:

There was little sympathy in the outward scene, with the internal trouble. All was so still, so motionless, so hard! Very different to this lovely night in the country in which I am now writing, where the distant horizon is soft and undulating in the moonlight, and the nearer trees sway gently to and fro in the night-wind with something of almost human motion … The sights and sounds of such a night lull pain and grief to rest.

But Mary re-entered her home … with a still stronger sense of anxiety, and a still clearer conviction of how much rested upon her unassisted and friendless self, alone with her terrible knowledge, in the hard, cold, populous world.

(p. 290)

The contrast between the humanised dim sympathies of the country, and the antipathetic harshness of the populous city seems to confirm the hackneyed polarisation of rural richness and urban etiolation of feeling. Manchester seems to lack specificity and uniqueness, to be different and enclosed only in those characteristics that make it the exemplary forerunner of other industrial cities. It seems to lack even the native or indigenous population that might articulate its authentic character—for most of the characters of the novel are first or second generation immigrants, or, by the end of the novel, have left the city.

Yet the strength of feeling, for place and for community, that regionalism may imply seems produced in Gaskell's Manchester precisely by those characteristics—of accident and mobility as opposed to permanence—that apparently deny or disavow its possibility. When Mary leaves Manchester for Liverpool, the narrator writes that she:

looked towards the factory-chimneys, and the cloud of smoke which hovers over Manchester, with a feeling akin to the ‘Heimweh.’ She was losing sight of the familiar objects of her childhood for the first time; and unpleasant as those objects are to most, she yearned after them with some of the same sentiment which gives pathos to the thoughts of the emigrant.

(p. 333)

It's not the vision of Manchester itself, but the smoke obscuring that vision, that makes possible Mary's sentimental apprehension of this ‘hard, cold, populous’ place as home, and her attachment to that idea of it. Her identity is so vested in the idea of its ‘familiar objects’ that her transportation to Liverpool seems a threat to her sanity, her personal coherence and integrity. In Liverpool Mary cannot understand what is said to her, and her ‘very words seemed … beyond her power of control’ (p. 350).4

The narrator seems concerned to emphasise that the attachment of her characters to their locality does not only involve a kind of private and asocial fetishism. When she details how John Barton, thinking of leaving his home, ‘seemed to know every brass-headed nail driven up’ there (p. 132), she points out that this is not just a possessive attachment to things, but the expression of a more generalised sense of place:

The agricultural labourer generally has strong local attachments; but they are far less common, almost obliterated, among the inhabitants of a town. Still there are exceptions, and John Barton formed one.

(p. 131)

The sympathetic representation of class relations seems almost to depend, at moments like this, on a kind of displaced expression of a more usually rural intensity of attachment. It depends on the transposition into the regional key of some of the conventional tropes of metropolitan representation. Manchester, in Gaskell's writing, seems to be both the metropolis of cotton—the prototype of the modern city—and a location on the borders, the site of regional codes of feeling and behaviour.


The implications of this ambivalent position can perhaps be seen most clearly if we juxtapose the narrative of John Barton's experience of the city streets with that described in the Preface, which I began by discussing.

It is a pretty sight to walk through a street with lighted shops; the gas is so brilliant, the display of goods so much more vividly shown than by day, and of all the shops a druggist's looks the most like the tales of our childhood, from Aladdin's garden of enchanted fruits to the charming Rosamond with her purple jar. No such associations had Barton; yet he felt the contrast between the well-filled, well-lighted shops and the dim gloomy cellar, and it made him moody that such contrasts should exist.

Barton is hostile to the ‘hurrying crowd’ that surrounds him, and the narrator rebukes him for the anger that he feels at what he takes to be its joy:

he could not, you cannot, read the lot of those who daily pass you by in the street. How do you know the wild romances of their lives; the trials, the temptations they are even now enduring, resisting, sinking under? You may be elbowed one instant by the girl desparate in her abandonment, laughing in mad merriment with her outward gesture, while her soul is longing for the rest of the dead, and bringing itself to think of the cold-flowing river as the only mercy of God remaining to her here. You may pass the criminal, meditating crimes at which you will to-morrow shudder with horror as you read them. You may push against one, humble and unnoticed, the last upon earth, who in heaven will for ever be in the immediate light of God's countenance. Errands of mercy—errands of sin—did you ever think where all the thousands of people you daily meet are bound?

(p. 70)

The account of the shops, with their Arabian-nights associations, repeats the dominant structural trope of the novel, in the contrast between the rich world of literary fantasy made available as a luxury of middle-class culture, and the impoverished bare necessities that dictate the language of working-class desires. The radiance of the gas-lit shops of the modern city is specifically textualised, their allure made specifically dependent on a cultural education that Barton has not received. It seems to be as much because of that lack, as because his progress is purposive and not leisurely or idle, that he cannot acknowledge the ‘wild romances’ that might differentiate the ‘hurrying crowd’. For those romances are textualised fantasies that emphasise the connection between the radiant commodity displayed in the shop window and the individual in the crowd. In the terms suggested by Walter Benjamin, the individual in the crowd is also a commodity insofar as they are identified with their labour power, and participate in the romantic and complex exchanges of desire and projection that commodities stimulate and focus.5 Though the reader is assured that neither Barton nor they could ‘read the lot of those who daily pass you’, the obstruction to doing so is certainly not the obscurity or unpredictability of the narratives of prostitution, crime, or salvation available. Barton might be thought of as proletarianised in Benjamin's terms because he is conscious of the ‘mode of existence … imposed upon him by the system of production’: he does not ‘feel like empathizing with commodities’, with the people in the crowd, because he is bitterly conscious that he is ‘gripped by the chill of the commodity economy’.6 But the readers' incapacity to read these narratives seems to mark their exclusion in different terms. The anonymity of the crowd, which seems as alien to Barton as does the allure of the shops, may be typical of the modern city, but the readers' exclusion from the romance in which shops and crowd are involved may mark their exclusion from the network of local attachment and sympathies peculiar to ‘Living in Manchester’.

For what is most intriguing about the comparison between this narrative of walking the street and that of the Preface is not so much the suggestion that Barton's class position makes the city crowd illegible to him, but the emphasis on the physical proximity of the crowd that both passages share. In the Preface, the narrator was almost forcibly distracted back to urban Lancashire from the rural regions of Yorkshire by the thought of the deep ‘romance of some of those who elbowed me daily’, and here the generalised ‘you’ is again elbowed and pushed against. The evidently feminine narrator, and her potentially feminine reader,7 are both constructed as experiencing some obligation to project sympathising romances into the crowd they are immersed in, and physically forced up against.

Gaskell's capacity to write this politically charged tale depended of course to some extent on her distance from the more usually masculine subject position that might articulate a directly political discourse. The positioning of the narrator in the street makes available to her a capacity for individual and depoliticised sympathy, perhaps a ‘“consumerist” mode of being-in-the-world’,8 that is important to the expression of liberal concern. But it is not a position one can readily imagine a feminine narrator adopting in a novel set in London in this period. As Janet Wolff, among others, has pointed out, ‘Women could not stroll alone in the city’ if they wished to maintain a respectable middle-class identity.9 That identity is of course critical to the production and reception of the sympathetic romance of Mary Barton. The position of the narrator, in the Preface and in the account of John Barton's shopping trip, is that of a woman at home in the streets, enjoying the lure of the gas-lit shops, and yet capable of maintaining her distance from that lure. She seems detached from the degree of absorption in the world of the commodity that makes prostitution and suicide the only narrative available to the women in the crowd of passers-by. The narrator's position is voyeuristic in so far as it implies her presence in the crowd that elbows her, but also her detachment from its commodified and commodifying imaginary. That gendered position in Gaskell's novels is made possible specifically by the regionalisation, or perhaps provincialisation, of Manchester, by its being perceived through the lens of contrast with London.

In an intriguing passage from North and South (1855), the narrator reflects on the heroine Margaret Hale's experiences of walking in London, the New Forest, and ‘Milton’ or Manchester. Margaret had been able to walk freely, and at her own pace, in the Forest, but in London, her aunt's ‘ideas of propriety and … helpless dependence on others, had always made her insist that a footman should accompany Edith [her daughter] and Margaret, if they went beyond Harley Street or the immediate neighbourhood’.10 Margaret finds walking ‘something of a trial’ in Milton, ‘this busy bustling place’ (p. 109), but it is unclear, because of the triangular structure of the contrast, whether the ordeal is produced by walking alone in the urban streets, after the protection she had grown used to in London, or by having to adopt ‘the even and decorous pace necessary in streets’ (p. 110), in contrast to the freedom of the forest.

The ambivalence of Margaret's reaction to walking in the street is compounded when her encounters with ‘factory people’ are described:

Until Margaret had learnt the times of their ingress and egress, she was very unfortunate in constantly falling in with them. They came rushing along, with bold, fearless faces, and loud laughs and jests, particularly aimed at all those who appeared to be above them in rank or station. The tones of their unrestrained voices, and their carelessness of all common rules of street politeness, frightened Margaret a little at first. The girls, with their rough, but not unfriendly freedom, would comment on her dress, even touch her shawl or gown to ascertain the exact material; nay, once or twice she was asked questions relative to some article which they particularly admired. There was such a simple reliance on her womanly sympathy with their love of dress, and on her kindliness, that she gladly replied to these inquiries, as soon as she understood them; and half smiled back at their remarks. She did not mind meeting any number of girls, loud spoken and boisterous though they might be.

(p. 110)

I have quoted the passage at length because the relation between the first sentence and last is curious and complex. Initially it seems that it will be only a matter of time before Margaret learns to avoid these very unfortunate encounters, and her alarm at her unprotected exposure to them seems paramount. The proprieties appropriate to her gender and class seem violated by the ‘independence’ which Gaskell, like other commentators, attributed to women earning mill wages. At first Margaret seems to fear these women as representatives of a marginalised and alien sub-culture, transgressors of ‘all common rules of street politeness’. The transformation is not so much in their behaviour, though they do become more individualised as their threatening noise is articulated and broken up into speech she begins to understand. The change is in Margaret's perception of the implications of her own class and gender position. Her defence of her own proper invisibility in the street gives way to ‘womanly sympathy’; a kind of ‘maternal complaisance’ in ‘love of dress’ which marks her out for an appropriately extensive and generous benevolence.11 The women share an interest in dress that restates class difference in terms appropriate to the distinction between their fragile economic independence and her private independence of mind, or between their position as wage earners, and hers as a consumer—she possesses the clothes they desire.12

That her encounters with these factory women do involve a substantial recasting of Margaret's understanding of her own position in the street is apparent from the continuation of the passage. Margaret

did not mind meeting any number of girls … But she alternately dreaded and fired up against the workmen, who commented not on her dress, but on her looks, in the same open, fearless manner. She who had hitherto felt that even the most refined remark on her personal appearance was an impertinence, had to endure undisguised admiration from these out-spoken men.

(p. 110)

Though the perception of a common interest is what makes it possible for Margaret to accept the factory women's version of street politeness, there's clearly a significant difference between her clothing being made visible, as it were, by comment in the street, and her body becoming the focus for explicit sexual admiration. Here class difference, and the privacy implicit to middle-class feminine identity are her resource. The narrator comments on the behaviour of the men that:

the very outspokenness marked their innocence of any intention to hurt her delicacy, as she would have perceived if she had been less frightened by the disorderly tumult. Out of her fright came a flash of indignation which made her face scarlet, and her dark eyes gather flame, as she heard some of their speeches. Yet there were other sayings of theirs, which, when she reached the quiet safety of her home, amused her even while they irritated her.

(pp. 110-1)

The passage as a whole suggests the pleasure of the street-wise narrator, enjoyably excited and secure in her understanding of the sometimes startlingly different rules of street behaviour that apply in Manchester. These crowds seem legible in terms of a specifically local knowledge, though the registering of fear and indignation as a kind of necessary prelude to a condescending pleasure (in the comments of the women), and a more secretive, partly disavowed pleasure (in the remarks of the men), indicates that for her these local rules must be juxtaposed with and cannot replace gendered codes of propriety derived from metropolitan London.

The regionalised pattern of street behaviour that the heroine learns to accept in North and South, and that may distinguish the position of the narrator of Mary Barton, does not, of course, ungender the masculine identity of the urban spectator,13 by whom so many nineteenth-century accounts of metropolitan life are authorised. For it is central to the voyeurism of that masculine identity that the spectator should remain anonymous, and not be drawn into the kinds of exchanges described in North and South.14 Those exchanges described the pleasure the narrator or heroine experienced in assuming the identity of a consumer or commodity among commodities, and in exercising the sympathy or empathy that position made available. But the narrator maintained a gendered identity set apart from those exchanges, and which marked pleasure in them as somehow licensed by the northern or more specifically the Mancunian nature of the experience. In Manchester, the narrator assures us, male outspokenness to women is a sign of innocence of intention, even though it violates the proper invisibility of middle-class women in the streets: the rules of street politeness are different, exceptional and regionalised.


The obvious distinguishing feature of Manchester, compared to other growing industrial cities, is, of course, the economic dominance of cotton. Cotton manufacture and trade pervades and structures the representation of Manchester life in the 1840s. Cotton workers were said to be regarded by other workers as ‘as a set of spiritless milksops—as soft and pliable as the woolly fibre which they twist’.15 Seen in the streets, the male factory workers appeared ‘in general undersized, sallow-looking’, and the women were similarly ‘stunted and paled’ from mill work, and always ‘speckled with flakes of cotton’.16 Cotton ‘impregnated’ the air of the mills' blowing rooms with its ‘flying dust and impalpable filaments’, and filled the lungs and stomachs of those who worked in ‘blowing’ off its impurities and carding it.17 Bessy Higgins laments, in North and South, that cotton fibre ‘winds round the lungs, and tightens them up’ till its workers fall ‘into a waste, coughing and spitting blood’ (p. 146). The cotton industry blanched and dyed its workers, recolouring them in the scarlet of blood, or of the exotic shades of the empire around which it wound, in, for example, the lyrical visions of the Manchester correspondent of the Morning Chronicle:

There is something curious, while walking through the stack of coloured stuffs with which the rooms of a great warehouse are heaped, in the reflection that … the piles of fabric which surround you will form the clothing and household drapery of half the nations of the east and south. This piece of gaily-tinted cloth will cover a divan in a Turkish harem—this other will flutter across the desert in the turban of an Arab sheik. Here is the raw material of a garment which will be stitched up by Hindoo fingers—there a web which will be ‘made up’ by a Chinese tailor, while beside there may, perchance, be the staple of the flowing robe which the Tahiti girl doffs when she laves her limbs in the pellucid depths behind the coral reefs in the South Seas.18

What seems most obviously curious about this reflection is its juxtaposition with the account of dying processes which involve ‘degrading, stupefying and exhausting’ labour. The correspondent comments that the boys employed in this work ‘were the only species of labourers whose condition I pitied since my arrival in Lancashire’,19 but there remains an unspoken sense that this pitiable condition may be veiled and exoticised by the colourful romance of his speculations, like travel advertisements lighting up the inner city.

The imperial weave of industrialised Lancashire, in these decades, seems to leave its imprint in Dickens's account of Coketown, as ‘a town of unnatural red and black, like the painted face of a savage’,20 and to be figured in the imperious dignity of the heroine of North and South, with her ‘regal composure’, like that of ‘some great Egyptian statue’.21 It colours commonplace perceptions of the exotic savagery of the mill workers.22 Its incongruous implications of abandoned luxury and indolence seem to be figured in images of the excess, the ‘overloading … with colour’, and ‘gaudy patterns’, that Gaskell represents as characterising the Mancunian ‘taste that loves ornament, however bad, more than the plainness and simplicity which are of themselves the framework of elegance’ (North and South, p. 98). What Gaskell saw as the childish taste of the Manchester workers who produce the cloth aligns them with its exotic consumers, in the account of the Morning Chronicle:

As a general rule, the Mediterranean and Levantine nations prefer the most glaring patterns. The manufacturer can never make his reds, oranges and yellows too bright for the taste of the archipelago, the Smyrniote cities, and the fashions prevalent among the African subjects of France.23

The cotton industry required the labour of women, which was perceived to result in a range of social problems. In accounts of these women workers, it seems as though the tropical hues of the imperial product wind round them, to license fantasies of lurid and exotic sexual abandon, which must then be disavowed, bleached into credible and depressing stains of dreary and pathetic realism. But to unpack that process a little: factory work was perceived to unfit women for domestic life, because they lacked the opportunity to acquire the necessary skills, and because they became accustomed to levels of disposable income that they could not have if they stayed at home. And this lack of domesticity was perceived to be immanently scandalous. Engels recorded the comment that ‘most of the prostitutes … had their employment in the mills to thank for their present situation’, and endorses the view that this resulted from the crowding together of people of different ages and sexes in the work room, and the ‘indecent’ language employed there.24 The Morning Chronicle noted the ‘sincere conviction’ that ‘there is hardly such a thing as a chaste factory girl’, though it commented that ‘this is an assertion the correctness of which is generally, and I believe with truth, denied’.25 The point is that mill work produces women who are undomesticated and economically independent, and who can therefore be most appropriately described in the pejorative language of sexual abandon, even if the accuracy of this then needs to be denied. As John Barton comments on his sister-in-law, ‘the worst of factory work for girls’ is that it gives them a disposable income to spend on luxuries such as dress, and the conclusion he draws seems inevitable; ‘I see where you'll end at with your artificials, and your fly-away veils, and stopping out when honest women are in their beds; you'll be a street-walker’ (p. 6).26 The implication that women workers waste their incomes on the luxuries of dress, which lead them into vanity and sexual immorality, is associated for Barton with a freedom of movement which may not have been unusual for working-class women, but which is cast, by the dominance of middle-class notions of street politeness and feminine domesticity, as a further intimation of immorality.

For Barton, the link between factory work and prostitution seems so strong that he is prepared to undergo considerable sacrifice in order to apprentice his daughter to a ‘milliner and dressmaker’ (p. 28). The decision might seem surprising, for the connection between prostitution and working in the clothing trade was historically powerful: the work was poorly paid and often seasonal, and, in as it were a different register of causation, there was a strong discursive association of sexual immorality and interest in dress.27 Prostitutes were characteristically represented in ‘flashy’ clothes28 that travestied those perceived as appropriate to a more affluent social class. Gaskell writes of the dying prostitute in Mary Barton, that: ‘fallen into what appeared simply a heap of white or light-coloured clothes … lay the poor crushed Butterfly—the once innocent Esther’ (p. 462): the badge of Esther's profession here seems to leave no other identity or presence available to her—she becomes ‘simply a heap’ of inappropriate clothing. Milliners and dressmakers seem to share access to this inappropriately fine, light, or colourful clothing, and therefore to the profession it identifies. ‘Lushing Loo’, one of the women interviewed for the survey of prostitution in Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, seems to play ironically on the overdetermined character of narratives of the descent of clothing workers into prostitution in her response to questions about her history: ‘“Oh I'm a seduced milliner,” she said, rather impatiently; “anything you like.”’29

Once Mary has become an apprenticed milliner, she is caught up in the logic of the ‘romances which [the milliner's] young ladies were in the habit of recommending to each other’: she imagines herself as the consumer who ‘would drive up to the door in her own carriage, to order her gowns from the … dress-maker’, and she is positioned as an appropriate object of desire for Carson the mill owner's son, who sees ‘the beautiful little milliner … while lounging in a shop where his sisters were making some purchases’ (pp. 90-91). Because her work makes her movements predictable, Mary begins to experience walking the streets as a source of unavoidable persecution rather than freedom, for Carson lies ‘in ambush’ for her in shops and side streets. She is caught up in a commodity economy which projects her into romances like those which the narrator read in the faces of the crowd on London Road: she figures in the ‘Jack Sheppard romances’ of police detection (p. 258), in newspaper reports of crime and trial (p. 422), and in Sally Leadbitter's imaginary theatrical melodramas (p. 423). As a result, she is told that the dressmaker will be ‘glad to have you back … by way of tempting people to come to her shop. They'd come from Salford to have a peep at you, for six months at least’ (p. 422).

Work in the production of cotton cloth, or in the clothing trade, seems to involve women in a blurred and extensive discursive category that is more or less implicitly characterised by sexual abandon. Gaskell's writing about Manchester draws on, and to some extent intensifies, this characterisation. But I think her writing also sets it alongside a notion of the regional specificity of Manchester, and the almost exotic character of the cotton industry, in a way that may call into question the commonly received critical image of Gaskell as a defender of feminine domesticity. Margaret Hale's complex pleasure in the different rules of street politeness that she finds in Manchester, I suggest, may be taken to indicate the complexity of the gender politics of the ‘deep sympathy’ that animates Mary Barton.

The inexorable narrative that seems to structure the representation of working with cotton, or working with cloth, extends, in Gaskell's novel, to embrace Carson the mill-owner's son, who seems subject to the inevitable laws of its commodity economy: he is described by his sister as a ‘masculine flirt’ (p. 239), and is represented to the police detective after his death by his portrait in fancy-dress costume (p. 249). In what might seem to be a parody of his plans for Mary's seduction, he is shot through the head with the gun that Mrs Wilson believed might go off by itself (p. 261), though ‘she seemed to think’ her husband ‘could manage it’ (p. 450). Finally, in the little sentimental tableau which teaches his father to forgive his killer, young Carson is represented by the figure of a little girl whose white party dress is stained with blood—‘those scarlet marks so terrible to little children’ (p. 434). The occasion for his death is that he believes himself to be in command of the economy of the factory, and he believes that this gives him the right to manipulate the complex business of representation. While arguing that the striker's demands should not be met, he draws a caricature of their representatives, which the men then use to draw lots to determine who shall be his assassin, each having ‘sworn to act according to his drawing’ (p. 224). Carson's drawing transposes the political representatives of the workers into the register of educated, literary representation in a gesture that indicates the luxury available to power, rather than the sympathy that, in Gaskell's terms, might license it. Carson's romantic representation reinforces the chill of the terrible reality of the commodity economy, and violently trashes the sense in which sympathetic romance may be necessary to the workings of that economy.

That second function of romantic representation seems underlined when, in the same chapter, Gaskell writes of the striking trades unionists being entertained by the delegate from London:

As the man who has had his taste educated to love reading, falls devouringly upon books after a long abstinence, so, these poor fellows, whose tastes had been left to educate themselves into a liking for tobacco, beer, and similar gratifications, gleamed up at the proposal of the London delegate. Tobacco and drink deaden the pangs of hunger, and make one forget the miserable home, the desolate future.

(p. 218)

Here the hunger of the men can best be understood, or sympathetically apprehended, in terms of the apparently more common, or primary appetite for books. Representation is what makes their hunger and misery accessible, though representation, in the hands of young Carson, is also what belittles and does violence to the urgency of their needs. That ambivalence about the use of representation or fantasy, I suggested, colours the representations of women in the novel. The working women in Manchester, with their access to a street-life denied to metropolitan ladies, are represented as participating in romances that may identify them as commodities both in their labours and in their desires. Those narratives may imply sexual abandon in the transgression of ‘common rules’—or middle-class and metropolitan rules—of feminine behaviour. But romances are also necessary to sympathy, which makes partially legible, and even enviable, the local codes that structure what appear to be transgressions of the common rules of street politeness.


The importance of deep romance in Gaskell's representations of Manchester is more complex than, say, that of fantasy in Dickens's Hard Times. In Mary Barton, romance is what leads the heroine from the straight and narrow, and what characterises her sense of shameful exposure in the second half of the novel, though it also appears to be what enables the narrator to extend her sympathetic projections across the lines of class difference or into the anonymity of the crowd. In particular, I have suggested that romance was the genre appropriate to the narrator's pleasure in the ‘pretty sight’ of the gas-lit shops. The shops of Manchester acquired a particular importance in Engels' account of the city. He remarked that: ‘I have never seen so systematic a shutting out of the working-class from the thoroughfares, so tender a concealment of everything which might affront the eye and nerves of the bourgeoisie, as in Manchester’. And he explained that:

the thoroughfares leading from the Exchange in all directions out of the city are lined, on both sides, with an almost unbroken series of shops, and are so kept in the hands of the middle and lower bourgeoisie, which, out of self-interest, cares for a decent and cleanly appearance and can care for it. True, these shops bear some relation to the districts which lie behind them … but they suffice to conceal from the eyes of the wealthy men and women of strong stomachs and weak nerves the misery and grime which form the complement of their wealth.30

Engels' account contrasts with these sheltered prospects the striking revelations of railways, cutting through previously concealed cross-sections of the city, and, most unknowable of all, the ‘horrors which surpass all others by far’ to be found beneath the railway bridges.31 Gaskell's knowledge, as one ‘Living in Manchester’ rather than in the wealthy suburbs, extended well beyond the shop-lined thoroughfares, but Engels' account nevertheless suggests the extent to which the presence of shops structured the imaginative apprehension of the city by its middle class.

Representations of shops in Mary Barton seem to confirm Engels' implication of their importance in drawing lines of class ignorance and antagonism. The mill-owners are represented as happy consumers of luxuries, while necessities are denied to the increasingly embittered workers. Gaskell writes that ‘the workman loiters away his unemployed time in watching’ the rich shop, while he meditates on the deprivations of his own family; and for him the ‘contrast is too great’ (p. 24). But shopping is also represented as a source of peculiarly feminine pleasure. So, in the good times described in the opening pages of the novel, ‘Mary ran off like a hare to fulfil what, to a girl of thirteen, fond of power, was the more interesting part of her errand—the money-spending part’ (p. 16). The imagined pleasures of consumption—or perhaps more accurately, of money-spending, and the power that implies—are, as I have said, important to the progress of Mary's seduction. And it is that imaginary power of expenditure that the narrator appeals to in her account of the shops and crowds of London Road. In that account, the fantasy of expenditure becomes the expenditure of fantasy, of sympathetic projection. This act of imagination, the narrative implies, is not one in which John Barton can participate, partly because of his class, but partly also because of his gender.

At the beginning of this essay, I suggested that the regionalisation of Manchester in Mary Barton was constructed through a curious dialectic of presence and absence. Because she lives in Manchester the narrator thinks of writing a tale set somewhere else, and that thought somehow returns her to a Manchester transformed by sympathy into the stuff of romance. This curious process in a sense repeats Gaskell's account of the writing of the novel. The anxiety she alluded to in her Preface as having driven her to write the novel was caused by the death of her nine-month old son, William.32 She explained to Mrs Greg that:

The tale was formed, and the greater part of the first volume written when I was obliged to lie down constantly on the sofa, and when I took refuge in the invention to exclude the memory of painful scenes which would force themselves upon my remembrance. It is no wonder then that the whole book seems to be written in the minor key; indeed, the very design seems to me to require this treatment. I acknowledge the fault of there being too heavy a shadow over the book; but I doubt if the story could have been deeply realized without these shadows. The cause of the fault may be looked for in the design; and yet the design was one worthy to be bought into consideration. Perhaps after all it may be true that I, in my state of feelings at that time, was not fitted to introduce the glimpses of light and happiness which might have relieved the gloom.33

This letter, like so much of Gaskell's prose, is difficult to summarise because its argument is mobile and ambiguous. She both defends and apologises for the ‘gloom’ of the book, which she claims is the fault of the design and of her ‘state of feelings’. But what seems to emerge most strongly is the ambivalence of the sense in which she was able to take ‘refuge in the invention’, for the book seems to function for her both as an escape from ‘the memory of painful scenes’, from loss and guilt, and as a means of reinscribing them, forcing them ‘upon my remembrance’.

More than half way through Mary Barton, when Gaskell had perhaps felt able to leave her sofa, the text refers explicitly to the loss that drove her to find employment in writing. At this point in the story, Mary, dazed by the revelation of her father's guilt, is watching over the sleep of Alice and Jane Wilson. Mary fears the changes that sleep may bring in the condition of the two women, for Alice is dying, and Jane Wilson is ‘dateless’ with anxiety for her son, who has been charged, partly on the basis of her evidence, with the murder John Barton committed (p. 305). The narrator adds, on the state of Jane Wilson:

Already her senses had been severely stunned by the full explanation of what was required of her,—of what she had to prove against her son, her Jem, her only child … and what if in dreams (that land into which no sympathy nor love can penetrate with another, either to share its bliss or its agony,—that land whose scenes are unspeakable terrors, are hidden mysteries, are priceless treasures to one alone,—that land where alone I may see, while yet I tarry here, the sweet looks of my dear child),—what if, in the horrors of her dreams, her brain should go still more astray, and she should waken crazy with her visions, and the terrible reality which begot them?

(p. 316)

The paragraph repeatedly insists on the isolation of the dream state, but in the same movement, and perhaps most emphatically in the way that the narrator's confessional moment is encompassed about in the almost incoherent extensions of the sentence, it links her dream to the visions of Jane and Alice Wilson, and with the ‘terrible reality’ they inhabit.

By this stage of the novel, the women involved in the narrative have almost all suffered some loss, some mental or physical impediment, which in a sense removes them from immediate contact with their surroundings, from ‘Living in Manchester’. Alice has gone blind, and imagines herself in the rural scenes of her childhood—in a country which, the other characters agree, she would no longer have been able to find had she travelled there as she wished. Jane Wilson had an injury which prevented her from working in the factory, her infant sons and her husband have died, and she has now become ‘dateless’ with anxiety for her surviving son. Mary's friend Margaret is blind, which prevents her from sewing and allows her to take her singing seriously. Mary believes that Margaret has acquired a kind of instinctive sensitivity and ‘new charm’ in place of her sight (p. 205), so that her ‘blindness almost appears a blessing’ (p. 226). Esther, who has also lost her child, is confused and sometimes consoled by the effects of drink. She is feverish from the consumption which is killing her, and as a result speech is difficult for her, as it also becomes for Mary. As a result of these different forms of loss and deprivation, the narrative represents each of these women as having access to romances and fantasies, or inhabiting a kind of dream-land that obscures yet reinscribes ‘terrible reality’.

In the letter to Mrs Greg, in which she described writing the novel, Gaskell explained that John Barton ‘was my hero, the person with whom all my sympathies went, with whom I tried to identify myself at the time’. He is, however, progressively excluded from the narrative, as critics have frequently pointed out. As the degree of Gaskell's prostration diminishes, he becomes peripheral to the action, and the women take over his central role. In her letter Gaskell wrote that Barton was animated by a ‘sympathy for suffering’ that, in the novel, makes him increasingly a figure of melancholy isolation. His sympathies confine him in an inexorable narrative that is likened to the shrinking room of the Borgias, whose walls finally crush their prisoner (p. 198). Gaskell's account of the living conditions of the workers of Manchester does not emphasise the physically oppressive proportions of the spaces they inhabit as insistently as does, say, Engels', but nevertheless Barton's shrinking prison seems to echo his experience of fetid cellars and basement areas, spaces he could measure ‘without the least motion of his body’ (p. 66). Gaskell writes that the opium he uses to suppress his hunger and his sense of despair reinforces his ‘monomania’, producing: ‘Days of oppressive weariness and langour, whose realities have the feeble sickliness of dreams; nights, whose dreams are fierce realities of agony’ (p. 198). As a result of his sympathetic sorrow and guilt, Barton is confined within a prison of insistent realities, alternately ‘feeble’ or ‘fierce’. His sympathy oppresses him, and leaves no room for what Freud identified as ‘the work which mourning performs’ in enabling a ‘compromise in which the command of reality is carried out piecemeal’:34 it is not coloured by that dialectic of presence and absence that identified the narrator's deep sympathy with deep romance.

The difference between the representation of John Barton and of the women in the novel suggests again that interplay between romance and reality, need and desire, that is so important to the narrative. The romance that characterises Mary Barton as ‘A Manchester Love Story’35 is the specific and determined product of a region dominated by cotton; and of a narrator who takes pleasure in the Manchester shops and the fantasies they market, but who also observes the ‘terrible reality’ of the workers' lives, which the shops both conceal and re-emphasise through contrast. Fantasy and romance mark the narrator's distance from that reality, which is a measure of her class-difference from those she writes about, but they are also the means of projecting her sympathy into that reality, especially as it is imagined to be experienced by the women in the novel who have suffered loss. Romance allows the narrator to escape from the confinement of Manchester, from the hardships she observes and from the ‘painful scenes’ they force upon her remembrance, but romance also insistently reinscribes that confinement. It constantly calls to mind the loss that makes the luxury of fantasy a necessity; and the forms taken by fantasy are the forms of Manchester itself, or visions of a world elsewhere constructed entirely in terms of what Manchester is not. The terrible reality of loss makes possible, indeed makes necessary, the ‘deep sympathy’ that animates Gaskell's writing. She projects that sympathy in forms of deep romance that mark her sense of the remoteness produced by class difference and the regional specificity of the cotton industry.


  1. All quotations are from Mary Barton (ed.) and intro., Edgar Wright (Oxford, 1987). Page references to this edition will be given in the text. Jack Culross suggests that Gaskell's working title for the first drafts of the novel was ‘A Manchester Love Story’, see ‘Mary Barton: A Revaluation’, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, vol. 61, no. 1, Autumn 1978, pp. 42-59. The notes on dialect were contributed by William Gaskell, who ‘was an able authority on the Lancashire dialect, and it is said that he never lost an opportunity of hearing it spoken by the native. One of his old pupils tells of seeing him leave a first-class railway carriage and join a number of Lancashire workmen in a third-class compartment, in order to hear them speak in the true Lancashire dialect’, Mrs Ellis H. Chadwick, Mrs Gaskell: Haunts, Homes, and Stories, rev. edn (London, Pitman, 1913), p. 210. My discussion of regionalism takes as its starting point the arguments of Raymond Williams's essay, ‘Region and Class in the English Novel’, in his Writing and Society (London, Verso, 1983).

  2. Williams writes that: ‘Through all the observable ideological manoeuvres and shifts, Elizabeth Gaskell, Dickens, Kingsley, Disraeli, George Eliot and others were continuously and intensely concerned with the active relations between as well as within classes. A problem in the definition of ‘class’ is then especially relevant. A class can indeed be seen as a region: a social area inhabited by people of a certain kind, living in certain ways … [But] to see a class on its own … is subject to the same limitations as seeing a region on its own, and then to some further limitations, in that certain of the crucial elements—that it is formed in and by certain definite relations with other classes—may then be missed altogether’. (‘Region and class’, p. 234).

  3. Benjamin Disraeli, Coningsby, or The New Generation, ed. Sheila M. Smith (Oxford, 1982), p. 133. For discussion of the representation of Manchester in these terms, see Alan J. Kidd, ‘Introduction: The middle class in nineteenth-century Manchester’, in Alan J. Kidd and K. W. Roberts, (eds.), City, Class and Culture: Studies in Social Policy and Cultural Production in Victorian Manchester (Manchester, 1985), pp. 5-7.

  4. In Liverpool, Mary is taken for a street-walker. For discussion of this, and of the significance of the parallel between Mary and her aunt Esther, see Jenny Uglow, Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories (London, 1993), pp. 207-9. The contrast between Liverpool and Manchester is marked, perhaps most notably, by the dominance of men in the society Mary encounters in the port.

  5. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire, II, The Flaneur’, in Charles Baudelaire: The Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, tr. Harry Zohn (London, 1983), see especially pp. 55-58, and the argument that: ‘The flaneur is someone abandoned in the crowd. In this he shares the situation of the commodity. He is not aware of this special situation, but this does not diminish its effect on him and it permeates him blissfully like a narcotic … The intoxication to which the flaneur surrenders is the intoxication of the commodity around which surges the stream of customers. If the soul of the commodity which Marx occasionally mentions in jest existed, it would be the most empathic ever encountered in the realm of souls, for it would have to see in everyone the buyer in whose hands and house it wants to nestle’ (p. 55). And see Judith R. Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London (London, 1992), on ‘the flaneur's propensity for fantasy’: ‘As illusionist, the flaneur transformed the city into a landscape of strangers and secrets … Always scanning the gritty street scene for good copy and anecdote, his was [a] quintessentially “consumerist” mode of being-in-the-world, one that transformed exploitation and suffering into vivid individual psychological experience’ (p. 16).

  6. Benjamin, ‘Paris of the Second Empire’, p. 58.

  7. I do not wish to imply that the novel was exclusively addressed to women. George Sand commented that: ‘Mrs Gaskell has done what neither I nor other female writers in France can accomplish—she has written novels which excite the deepest interest in men of the world, and yet which every girl will be the better for reading’ (Quoted in Chadwick, p. 171).

  8. Walkowitz, Dreadful Delight, p. 16.

  9. Janet Wolff, ‘The Invisible Flaneuse: Women and the Literature of Modernity’, in Feminine Sentences: Essays on Women and Culture (Oxford, 1990), p. 41. My discussion is also indebted to Rachel Bowlby, ‘Walking, women and writing: Virginia Woolf as flaneuse’, in Still Crazy After All These Years: Women, Writing and Psychoanalysis (London, 1992), pp. 1-33.

  10. Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South, ed. Dorothy Collin, intro. Martin Dodsworth (Harmondsworth, 1970), p. 109.

  11. Middle-class women did of course expect to be looked at in the street, as objects of curiosity or desire, but they do not seem to expect comments on their appearance, let alone comments that demand some response; and they are therefore invisible as potential subjects. Both situations contrast with Margaret's earlier (pre-adult?) ‘free walks’ in the New Forest, where it is implied that she had enjoyed a more absolute and almost extra-social invisibility: ‘She went along there with a boundless fearless step, that occasionally broke into a run, if she were in a hurry, and occasionally was stilled into perfect repose, as she stood listening to, or watching any of the wild creatures who sang in the leafy courts, or glanced out with their keen bright eyes from t