The basics: Mary Barton is a novel about Manchester, about the bitter and sometimes deadly tension between workers (and their trade unions) and the bosses/owners of the factories in which they work. This general subject is explored through young Mary's relationship with three men: John Barton, her essentially good but broken and bitter father (broken by privation, loss, and constantly having to face the terrible indifference of the men determining the course of almost every aspect of his life); Henry Carson, the pampered young son of one of Manchester's most successful merchant princes; and Jem Wilson, a young man of her own class, who is entirely devoted to her and whom she resists with all her might in the hopes that Mr Carson will marry and thus rescue her from a life of poverty. While Gaskell's novel does engage in a great deal of polemical and philosophical meditation on the issues of class difference, the value of labour, and personal responsibilities, Mary Barton is also an entirely irresistible page-turner, just an incredibly excellent read. (Unfortunately, there are plot spoilers in this post, below, but you'll be warned!)
Of course, this excellent read is complicated by the narrator's (Gaskell's? I'm not certain. I think I need to read more of her work before I attempt to unpack this relationship) flip-flopping when it comes to describing the aims and needs of the violently opposed interest groups (masters and men) she portrays. The narrator’s preface is notable for its proclamation that she will not take sides; and the narrator's initial distancing herself from the controversy is apparently the result of a careful acknowledgment of having limited information:
I 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 even a greater degree than other men. A little manifestation of this sympathy and a little attention to the expression of feelings on the part of some of the work-people with whom I was acquainted, had laid open to me the hearts of one or two of the more thoughtful among them; I saw that they 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. Whether the bitter complaints made by them, of the neglect which they experienced from the prosperous—especially from the masters whose fortunes they had helped to build up—were well-founded or no, it is not for me to judge. (xxxv)Of course, the abundant footnotes to the edition of Mary Barton I read (provided by Edgar Wright) put the lie to this claim—Gaskell was sufficiently aware of the utter rottenness of the impoverished classes to know, for example, that said classes were often forced to live in basement apartments whose walls were literally dripping with human excrement lovingly provided by upstairs neighbours emptying their chamber pots out their windows—and being unable to afford anything better, and there being absolutely no safeguards in place to protect the vulnerable forced by their financial circumstances to accept such terms from unscrupulous landlords. This is just one example; Mary Barton abounds with terrible facts about the everyday realities of Manchester's poor working class.
It seems, in other words, that our narrator's refusal to take sides is no refusal at all, but rather a shockingly politician-esque rhetorical sidestepping designed to invite the audience to implicitly doubt the working class's claims. This undermining of their claims becomes more explicit when she actually goes so far as to claim that the lower classes’ perceptions are wrong:
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 of 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?
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.
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 this woe.
Among these was John Barton. His parents had suffered; his mother had died from absolute want of the necessaries of life. He himself was a good, steady workman, and, as such, pretty certain of steady employment. But he spent all he got with the confidence (you may also call it improvidence) of one who was willing, and believed himself able, to supply all his wants by his own exertions. And when his master suddenly failed, and all hands in the mill were turned back, one Tuesday morning, with the news that Mr. Hunter had stopped, Barton had only a few shillings to rely on; but he had good heart of being employed at some other mill, and accordingly, before returning home, he spent some hours in going from factory to factory, asking for work. But at every mill was some sign of depression of trade; some were working short hours, some were turning off hands, and for weeks Barton was out of work, living on credit. It was during this time that his little son, the apple of his eye, the cynosure of all his strong power of love, fell ill of the scarlet fever. They dragged him through the crisis, but his life hung on a gossamer thread.
Everything, the doctor said, depended on good nourishment, on generous living, to keep up the little fellow's strength, in the prostration in which the fever had left him. Mocking words! when the commonest food in the house would not furnish one little meal. Barton tried credit; but it was worn out at the little provision shops, which were now suffering in their turn. 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! (pp. 24-25)The poor are set up here as irrational, emotionally immature, and inconsistent; their feelings and fleeting impressions are set up against the facts the narrator is in possession of—or, more precisely, what she claims to be in possession of, for she notably doesn't explain either how or why she knows this to be true. Tricksy, aren't you, Mrs. Gaskell! I think what's going on here is twofold: first, she is worming her way into her likely comfortably middle class readers' bosoms so that she may strike a blow at their feelings and force them to empathize with the suffering around them, a tactic perhaps arising out of the notion that feeling correctly will lead to behaving correct. (Harriet Beecher Stowe famously tried this with Uncle Tom's Cabin, published just four years after Mary Barton.)
Plot spoilers begin now
The specific mechanism of this imagined sympathy and resultant social reconciliation is a gruesome and heart-breaking one: the death of children. John Barton loses his son to the poverty he can't escape; much later, he deprives the elder Mr. Carson of his son, and it is through this sickening parallel that Gaskell's idealized social healing begins. John Barton, literally dying of remorse for murdering Henry Carson, repents enough to see Mr. Carson, the boss, as a person for the first time:
"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? I did not speak of them, but were they not there? I seemed hard and cold; and so I might be to others, but not to him!--who shall ever imagine the love I bore to him? Even he never dreamed how my heart leapt up at the sound of his footstep, and how precious he was to his poor old father. And he is gone—killed—out of the hearing of all loving words—out of my sight for ever. 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!
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.
The sympathy for suffering, formerly so prevalent a feeling with him, again filled John Barton's heart, and almost impelled him to speak (as best he could) some earnest, tender words to the stern man, shaking in his agony. (p. 431)Both men go through the fire and this, rather than hardening their hearts further and re-inscribing the harsh boundaries separating them, begins to affect larger social change in Gaskell's Manchester. For not only does the man begin to see the master as human, but the master's perception of John specifically and workers generally undergoes a paradigm shift. The expansion of each man's soul under the pressure of crushing grief leads to real social improvements:
It took time before the stern nature of Mr. Carson was compelled to the recognition of this secret of comfort, and that same sternness prevented his reaping any benefit in public estimation from the actions he performed; for the character is more easily changed than the habits and manners originally formed by that character, and to his dying day Mr. Carson was considered hard and cold by those who only casually saw him or superficially knew him. But those who were admitted into his confidence were aware, that the wish that lay nearest to his heart was that none might suffer from the cause from which he had suffered; that a perfect understanding, and complete confidence and love, might exist between masters and men; that the truth might be recognized that the interests of one were the interests of all, and, as such, required the consideration and deliberation of all; that hence it was most desirable to have educated workers, capable of judging, not mere machines of ignorant men: and to have them bound to their employers by the ties of respect and affection, not by mere money bargains alone; in short, to acknowledge the Spirit of Christ as the regulating law between both parties.
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. (pp. 457-58)Feeling right leads to right action in Mary Barton; cultivating a Christ-like brotherhood amongst all makes everyone more content and more comfortable. But seeing the lower classes as people, with whom Carson's class must develop and nurture a symbiotic rather than despotic relationship, neatly sidesteps the issue of class difference and the power imbalance inherent therein. Indeed, while Gaskell aims at destroying the notion of factions here, she seems to want to do so without questioning the ingrained social hierarchy that gave birth to them. In Gaskell's social labour market, class isn't the problem—the problem is that chaos ensues when the classes don't keep to their allotted responsibilities. This position was not, of course, an unusual one; what is unusual in Mary Barton is, I think, the effort Gaskell puts into trying to be fair about the clashing perspectives she describes. From the perspective of early 21st-century forward-thinking uber-enlightenment (ha!), her apparently implicit belief in the correctness of class distinctions is unattractive and unfair; but no doubt it seemed rather revolutionary at the time.
I'll be interested to see if Gaskell addresses these issues again in later works. While she was 37-ish when Mary Barton was published, it seems like a young novel to me, by which I mean her authorial skill in unpacking the implications of her own narrative choices don't seem entirely developed here. The fact that John Barton must die, in spite of his profound spiritual unfolding at the end of his life, and the fact that Mary's aunt Esther must also die in spite of her desire to change and live (especially given Jem and Mary's sincere wish to take her to Toronto (!!) with them to start over), reminded me of Dickens's clumsy killing off of Smike in Nicholas Nickleby. These characters, in the hands of new novelists, seem too difficult to reconcile to their otherwise neat conclusions, and so they mun go. Dickens, in my experience so far, became increasingly adept at handling the utmost of human characters' complications and so I am hopeful that Gaskell did the same—but only time shall tell!