Saturday 16 July 2011

The wild romances of their lives

Gentle Readers,

I've really struggled with this post. I think I'm on to something but I also think I've done a poor job of explaining what the hell I mean. If you've read Mary Barton, please put your two cents in and help make this mediocre post better!


In my previous post on Mary Barton, I was trying to get at the narrator’s complicated (and to me, still mostly obtuse) technique for using fiction to get at actual, everyday issues for real, living people. I couldn’t figure out what Barton’s was doing, and I still haven’t. I came across the following passage when reviewing the novel again, however, and have come up with the tentative beginning of a theory. Context: John Barton and his friend Wilson are trying to care for an ailing family; John is wandering about the city trying to find medicine:
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 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. They are the mysterious problem of life to more than him. He wondered if any in all the hurrying crowd had come from such a house of mourning. He thought they all looked joyous, and he was angry with them. But 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 desperate 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. (p. 70)
My theory is that Gaskell is being deliberately cagey about which, if any side to take, in the master versus man struggle described in Mary Barton; and further, that she is doing so precisely to show that, in spite of people’s (even her own!) claims to understand the other side, they do not and they cannot. How is this useful in terms of reconciling differences, or setting the stage for the kind of social change enabled by, for example, the mutual suffering of grieving fathers?

I think that Gaskell, by being/creating so unreliable a narrator here, is reminding readers—who mostly, no doubt, began this book chock full of settled options—that they do not know enough to have the right to such opinions. Neither side truly understands the needs, desires, thoughts, actions, feelings, motivations, choices of those with whom they struggle and whom they judge every day. Alluding to that unknowability by aligning all "other" people with the characters of “wild romance”, of fiction, does not simply strengthen Gaskell’s use of story to help readers feel right so that they will act right; it also, one would hope, reminds readers to approach their fellow humans with a measure of chastening humility, to perhaps remember that only God knows how hard they've tried. It’s a literary call to quotidian mercy.

Plot spoilers galore
That we cannot really know what others’ lives are like is reiterated in the unlikely love story of Mary Barton and Jem Wilson. They have been brought up together since childhood, their fathers being best friends and their families close neighbours. It has been assumed by everyone that they will eventually marry—until, that is, Mary’s head is turned by the predatory young Mr. Henry Carson. Having commenced a dangerous flirtation with Henry, Mary begins to nurse fantasies of a different and better life than the one promised to her by her class and familial birthright; she allows herself to be unscrupulously led to dream of becoming a rich man’s wife:
"O dear," said she to herself, "I wish he would not mistake me so; I never dare to speak a common word o' kindness, but his eye brightens and his cheek flushes. It's very hard on me; for father and George Wilson are old friends; and Jem and I ha' known each other since we were quite children. I cannot think what possesses me, that I must always be wanting to comfort him when he's downcast, and that I must go meddling wi' him to-night, when sure enough it was his aunt's place to speak to him. 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 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. Well, when I'm Mrs. Harry Carson, may happen I can put some good fortune in Jem's way. But will he thank me for it? He's rather savage at times, that I can see, and perhaps kindness from me, when I'm another's, will only go against the grain. I'll not plague myself wi' thinking any more about him, that I won't."
So she turned on her pillow, and fell asleep, and dreamt of what was often in her waking thoughts; of the day when she should ride from church in her carriage, with wedding-bells ringing, and take up her astonished father, and drive away from the old 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--and all day long if he liked.
Such thoughts mingled in her predilection for the handsome young Mr. Carson, who, unfettered by work-hours, let scarcely a day pass without contriving a meeting with the beautiful little milliner he had first seen while lounging in a shop where his sisters were making some purchases, and afterwards never rested till he had freely, though respectfully, made her acquaintance in her daily walks. He was, to use his own expression to himself, quite infatuated by her, and was restless each day till the time came when he had a chance, and, of late, more than a chance of meeting her. There was something of keen practical shrewdness about her, which contrasted very bewitchingly with the simple, foolish, unworldly ideas she had picked up from the romances which Miss Simmonds' young ladies were in the habit of recommending to each other.
Yes! Mary was ambitious, and did not favour Mr. Carson the less because he was rich and a gentleman. (pp. 90-91)
Like Gaskell’s readers, Mary is unable to read others very well; in particular, she is very slow to realize what base desires motivate Henry Carson’s attentions to her. She is likely of a lower class than Gaskell’s readers would have been, but Mary is smart and good and possessed of valid concerns about how marriage will affect her life; these characteristics should make her sufficiently recognizable to Gaskell's audience to inspire in them enough sympathy and identification to, ironically but crucially, highlight how difficult it is to know even one’s self, never mind another person!

And Gaskell doesn’t stop here; the unlikely love story (and it is a wild romance of true, deep, and abiding love) of Mary and Jem is almost unrealized because of the terrible consequences of carrying on as though there is nothing left to know about either self or others. Jem is accused of murdering Henry Carson and barely saved from conviction and execution by Mary’s desperate efforts to secure the one witness who can speak to his true whereabouts on the fatal evening. In the process, Mary sees clearly what she’s been hiding from herself all along—and what the consequences have been for Jem who, thinking she does not love him, warns Henry to be good to her and careful of her honour, and then walks out of her life. At the trial, Mary is forced publicly to reveal everything that she has come to understand about herself:
"[The prosecutor] asks me which of them two I liked best. Perhaps I liked Mr. Harry Carson once—I don't know—I've forgotten; but I loved James Wilson, that's now on trial, above what tongue can tell—above all else on earth put together; and I love him now better than ever, though he has never known a word of it till this minute. For you see, sir, mother died before I was thirteen, before I could know right from wrong about some things; and I was giddy and vain, and ready to listen to any praise of my good looks; and this poor young Mr. Carson fell in with me, and told me he loved me; and I was foolish enough to think he meant me marriage: a mother is a pitiful loss to a girl, sir: and so I used to fancy I could like to be a lady, and rich, and never know want any more. I never found out how dearly I loved another till one day, when James Wilson asked me to marry him, and I was very hard and sharp in my answer (for indeed, sir, I'd a deal to bear just then), and he took me at my word and left me; and from that day to this I've never spoken a word to him, or set eyes on him; though I'd fain have done so, to try and show him we had both been too hasty; for he'd not been gone out of my sight above a minute before I knew I loved—far above my life," said she, dropping her voice as she came to this second confession of the strength of her attachment. "But, if the gentleman asks me which I loved the best, I make answer, I was flattered by Mr. Carson, and pleased with his flattery; but James Wilson, I—" (pp. 382-83)
This confession does not, in itself help Jem’s chances at survival. It does provide a disturbing vision of what it means to live life without closely examining one’s own motives, and the need to humbly attempt to determine both one's own and others’ wants and needs before acting.

Jem is acquitted and he and Mary must and will wed, but they cannot do so at home in Manchester. Even though he is proven not guilty, Jem’s reputation is shattered as the result of the murder charge, and so they emigrate to Canada to begin again. This is where I think Gaskell makes her final, complicated commentary on the relationship between reality, fiction, and readers’ responses thereto. Jem and Mary get their incredibly improbable happy ending; they get to begin clean in a "new" and relatively empty (of any traces of their past and people who knew them) world. This too is part of the wild romance—for, of course, if Mary Barton were either a realist or realistic novel this wouldn’t happen. Jem would be hung, Mary ruined and she certainly wouldn’t have secured Jem's saving witness via a crazy and prolonged boat chase (!!). This is not, I think, intended to be a feel-good happy ending; rather, it is a happy ending whose fictionality is so extreme as to force home, one final time, the more likely fatal consequences of in reality assuming one can read and judge and decide for others while labouring under the delusion of understanding them entirely.


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I have read the book, so I know what you mean! The word I leaned on, when I wrote about MB, was "sympathy," but nothing wrong with "mercy" and so on. Gaskell hits this button again and again - thus the emphasis on, for example, consoling the grieving.

You are probably right that G. is not particularly comcerned with understanding others. Our interest or sympathy must defy understanding, must exist regardless of our understanding.

The great mystery to me about Gaskell's (and Carlyle's) program is what, exactly, this effusion of sympathy is supposed to lead to. I am a Marxist in this sense - without a specific reform of material conditions, I find it hard to see any substance.

G. thinks that merciful owners will take steps to improve conditions of workers, and merciful workers will not murder their employers. I guess.

Gaskell's going to take another run at the same issues in North and South.

Bookphilia said...

Ah, thank you both for helping to clarify what I was trying to get at and hinting at what I didn't say.

Also, I think my tendencies are Marxist too. I am intensely interested in practicalities, which may rightly be outside the domain of literature. I don't know.