Sunday, 31 July 2011

Three by Sayers

There are three things you need to know:

1) I currently have insomnia. I brought this upon myself by being unable to wake up before 11 am today (well, yesterday now. Sigh.) and insisting upon napping around 6 pm; this is important to note because it will explain if the following is barely literate.

2) I am sitting at my dining room table mostly in the dark. The mood for midnight blogging is set by my fat cat Jeoffy sleeping directly next to the laptop and the houseplants all around me showing a fair bit more energy and purpose than they do during the daylight hours; they are positively standing at attention, in direct contradistinction to their usual diurnal droopiness and generally poor morale.

3) In the last month or so, I've read three Dorothy Sayers novels. My normal practice, upon discovering excellent authors who happened to have been much less prolific than either Anthony Trollope or P. G. Wodehouse, is to space out their works, to ration them. Really good books to me are like delicious morsels discovered on the eve of winter - they must be stored for the lean times which must inevitably come. I did not read this trio of Sayers in order to make any commentary upon the evolution of her style, or anything like that; I did it merely to see what reading life is like for the friends of mine who tend to tear through one author at a time. Because Sayers was so ridiculously talented, I doubt this experience is representative of this practice as a whole; nonetheless, I will pass judgement: it's incredibly enjoyable and I now understand focusing on present bookish feasting rather than fearful squirreling away of promising novels in fear of future famines. Indeed, as I am in possession of three other Sayers novels as yet unread, I may do this again in the Fall.

(It just occurred to me that peanut butter toast may be required to get me through this post, and this night.)

Pre-toast rantlet: Dorothy Sayers was a gifted writer; that she chose to bestow her gifts upon the murder mystery (thus helping to usher in what became known as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction) is, to me, a most excellent example of non-pretension and one I wish "serious" contemporary writers would think about more. Being a great writer shouldn't have to mean writing "literary fiction" designed to set fire to the hearts of Earnest 20-somethings and Booker prize judges. Plot and the pure pleasure of reading should not be underestimated!

These are the three novels I read: Strong Poison (1930), Murder Must Advertise (1933), and Busman's Honeymoon (1937). I note the dates here because two of the three novels bear important story connections to Gaudy Night (1935), which I read back in December and which began my belated love affair with Sayers.

Strong Poison is the novel in which Sayers first introduces the lovely Harriet Vane, the star of Gaudy Night and Lord Peter Wimsey's best beloved. A successful author of detective fiction, Ms. Vane finds herself on trial for the murder of a former lover with no hope of being proven innocent...until, that is, the dashing amateur crime sleuth, Lord Peter, arrives and determines based on a hunch that she's innocent! Yes, the premise is this silly (which I mean in the nicest possible way); but the writing is fantastic, and the scenes between the resigned Harriet and the alternately avuncular and smitten Peter are particularly so.

I don't know if I've ever mentioned, but the Lord Peter Wimsey of Gaudy Night is one of my literary boyfriends. He is not nearly so well drawn in this early novel, but he has potential...

...A potential Sayers displays in strange and contradictory ways in Murder Must Advertise. In this novel, Lord Peter infiltrates an advertising agency that's been the site of a mysterious death. On the one hand, Lord Peter turns out to be a natural at writing absurd yet effective advertising copy; on the other, he also reveals himself to be quite skilled at extracting important information from a shallow, drug-addled socialite by dressing up as a harlequin and haunting her.

He seems so benign and almost ridiculous that Sayers gleefully mocks him by directly aligning him and his butler, Bunter, with Wodehouse's famous characters Wooster and Jeeves (who always endeavours to give satisfaction, sir). Yet, he also knowingly sends at least one person to their violent death in the tying up of this murder's loose ends. He is sprightly and devil-may-care, and at the same time haunted by the lengths he's felt compelled to go to to get at the truth. He's becoming human.

And Lord Peter is most thoroughly human in Busman's Honeymoon, which takes place after Gaudy Night; it is all about his and Harriet's post-nuptial adventures. They are married, it is lovely in general, and they go to the country for their honeymoon, staying in an old country house that Harriet's always coveted and which they've purchased for the occasion.

Of course, it's not long before a body is discovered in the cellar and it is entirely apparent that it is a case of murder most foul...

Their honeymoon is spent in solving the crime and feeling one another out in the new and frightening context of holy matrimony. This novel is surprisingly sentimental; but what is more surprising is how its sentimentality in no way gets in the way of Sayers creating a conversation that I think does justice to the excellent mystery that is marriage in its early days. This, alongside Sayers's revelations about Lord Peter's complicated past with regards to World War I, makes for an emotionally draining book. Which makes perfect sense to me, as it is also, of the four Sayers novels I've now read, the most complicated in terms of plot. Figuring out the murder is prolonged and difficult and the explanation, when it is finally understood, drawn out and really understandable only by those who have a firm grasp of physics. I loved it. Perhaps not as much as I loved Gaudy Night, but I think Busman's Honeymoon is probably a close second.

Late night blogging status update: The plants are still looking well. Fat Jeoffy has left the table, but Mz. Bustopher Jones has colonized my lap. The toast was delicious. I am still tired but still in that way that doesn't actually lead to sleep. I have less than 24 hours left of being 35. I wish that for my birthday I could ask for more time to read instead of just for more books. I may begin working on a final Vanity Fair post right now, just because I can.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

One of the best gentlemen Becky ever saw: more on Dobbin as Vanity Fair's unlikely hero

All spoilers, my friends
In my previous post on Vanity Fair, I discussed how in spite of Thackeray's claim that his novel boasted no hero, there was a clear candidate indeed: William Dobbin. Near the novel's conclusion, Thackeray finally comes out with it, and claims the humble Dobbin as our hero:
Which of us can point out many such in his circle—men whose aims are generous, whose truth is constant, and not only constant in its kind but elevated in its degree; whose want of meanness makes them simple; who can look the world honestly in the face with an equal manly sympathy for the great and the small? We all know a hundred whose coats are very well made, and a score who have excellent manners, and one or two happy beings who are what they call in the inner circles, and have shot into the very centre and bull's-eye of the fashion; but of gentlemen how many? Let us take a little scrap of paper and each make out his list.

My friend the Major I write, without any doubt, in mine. He had very long legs, a yellow face, and a slight lisp, which at first was rather ridiculous. But his thoughts were just, his brains were fairly good, his life was honest and pure, and his heart warm and humble. He certainly had very large hands and feet, which the two George Osbornes used to caricature and laugh at; and their jeers and laughter perhaps led poor little Emmy astray as to his worth. (pp. 621-22)
In a world in which almost everyone is at best half an inch deep (Amelia, say) and at worst actively dangerous (Becky!, Good lord, woman!), Dobbin is ridiculous not because he is physically awkward, or less pleasing to the eye than one could hope, or because he doesn't care for the social niceties when they aren't anchored in something more solid than appearances; it's not even that he is good per se, although that's certainly important. Rather, Dobbin is the hero because he is focused, stolid, unashamed of who he is and what he wants. He is strong and devoted—yet, he is also foolishly smitten:
This woman had a way of tyrannizing over Major Dobbin (for the weakest of all people will domineer over somebody), and she ordered him about, and patted him, and made him fetch and carry just as if he was a great Newfoundland dog. He liked, so to speak, to jump into the water if she said "High, Dobbin!" and to trot behind her with her reticule in his mouth. This history has been written to very little purpose if the reader has not perceived that the Major was a spooney. (p. 663)
But being a “spooney”—that is, “foolish or silly, especially in love”—as Dobbins clearly is with regards to the selfish Amelia, is actually part and parcel of his heroism. He doesn't put on airs of any sort; he feels no particular shame in being her spaniel, for what others might think of his apparent lack of self respect or dignity has nothing to do with his love for her. Dobbin's love for this stupid woman entirely transcends the concerns of the other puppets in Vanity Fair.

Yet, much to my surprise, after so many years of hopeless devotion, William ends things. He finally sees how shallow and stupid Amelia is when she uses his entirely just insistence that the fallen Becky not stay with them as an excuse to send him packing:
" insulted [George's] memory. You did yesterday. You know you did. And I will never forgive you. Never!" said Amelia. She shot out each little sentence in a tremor of anger and emotion.

"You don't mean that, Amelia?" William said sadly. "You don't mean that these words, uttered in a hurried moment, are to weigh against a whole life's devotion? I think that George's memory has not been injured by the way in which I have dealt with it, and if we are come to bandying reproaches, I at least merit none from his widow and the mother of his son. Reflect, afterwards when—when you are at leisure, and your conscience will withdraw this accusation. It does even now." Amelia held down her head.

"It is not that speech of yesterday," he continued, "which moves you. That is but the pretext, Amelia, or I have loved you and watched you for fifteen years in vain. Have I not learned in that time to read all your feelings and look into your thoughts? I know what your heart is capable of: it can cling faithfully to a recollection and cherish a fancy, but it can't feel such an attachment as mine deserves to mate with, and such as I would have won from a woman more generous than you. No, you are not worthy of the love which I have devoted to you. I knew all along that the prize I had set my life on was not worth the winning; that I was a fool, with fond fancies, too, bartering away my all of truth and ardour against your little feeble remnant of love. I will bargain no more: I withdraw. I find no fault with you. You are very good-natured, and have done your best, but you couldn't—you couldn't reach up to the height of the attachment which I bore you, and which a loftier soul than yours might have been proud to share. Good-bye, Amelia! I have watched your struggle. Let it end. We are both weary of it."

Amelia stood scared and silent as William thus suddenly broke the chain by which she held him and declared his independence and superiority. (pp. 669-70)
We have known all along, of course, that while Amelia is not bad and, in fact, generally tends towards kindness, she is weak and self-absorbed and such character defects can—and in her relations with William has—make her cruel. That it takes the unflattering juxtaposition of a petulant Amelia with a drunken, corrupt, and still scheming Becky to make Dobbin see the truth, might lead one to blame him for being rather weak and blind himself.

And this wouldn't be wrong, except the true manliness with which he gives up the fight and takes full responsibility for his error in judgement makes it seem somehow noble. He believed the best of her, but doesn't blame Amelia for not living up to her own potential. He rightly sees that she has struggled with her devotion to a man long dead who did not appreciate her versus her burgeoning feelings for the living Dobbin and doesn't diminish the significance of that struggle. In a word, he maintains the utmost respect for her while insisting upon a healthy dose for himself—and ends things.

Amelia, of course, sees the justice in this but is too frightened and wilting to admit it to herself. Becky, however—fallen, malicious, Becky—not only sees the justice in Dobbin's parting words, but also immediately understands the strength and depth of character his decision arises out of:
Whilst they had been talking, the door into Mrs. Osborne's room had opened ever so little; indeed, Becky had kept a hold of the handle and had turned it on the instant when Dobbin quitted it, and she heard every word of the conversation that had passed between these two. "What a noble heart that man has," she thought, "and how shamefully that woman plays with it!" She admired Dobbin; she bore him no rancour for the part he had taken against her. It was an open move in the game, and played fairly. "Ah!" she thought, "if I could have had such a husband as that—a man with a heart and brains too! I would not have minded his large feet"; and running into her room, she absolutely bethought herself of something, and wrote him a note, beseeching him to stop for a few days—not to think of going—and that she could serve him with A. (p. 670)
How is it that Becky of all people can see Dobbin's worth so clearly when no one else can? Because she, the little adventuress who has never scrupled to play on others' weaknesses to gain her own ends, who has lied, cheated, and perhaps murdered (!) in order to ensure her own survival is the only character in this book who is Dobbin's equal! Indeed, they have more in common than Dobbin would ever want to admit. With Amelia being Dobbin's only blind spot (and it has never been entirely blind), only these two characters have seen others clearly for what they are—the difference has, of course, been what they do with such information.

While Becky uses all her deep insights into what makes others tick to her personal and ruthless advantage, Dobbin has tried to prod those around him to be better than they are (except for Becky—for he's known her to be irredeemable from the start*). Both have been true to their aims in life, while others have floundered about either revelling in their complete lack of self-understanding or have waited for others to determine their courses in life. Becky, of course, has been happy to exploit both these sorts of character defect; Dobbin has generously (and in Amelia's case, to his own detriment) tried to help his friends to figure out their own shit (a vulgar turn of phrase, yes, but I really can't think of anything more apt).

Dobbin is our hero, but Becky has many of the same traits that make him a hero—and indeed, Thackeray allows her almost to inhabit the role of the novel's hero when she disabuses Amelia of her misplaced faith in her long-dead husband so that she may marry Dobbin without guilt:
"Listen to me, Amelia," said Becky, marching up and down the room before the other and surveying her with a sort of contemptuous kindness. "I want to talk to you. You must go away from here and from the impertinences of these men. I won't have you harassed by them: and they will insult you if you stay. I tell you they are rascals: men fit to send to the hulks. Never mind how I know them. I know everybody. Jos can't protect you; he is too weak and wants a protector himself. You are no more fit to live in the world than a baby in arms. You must marry, or you and your precious boy will go to ruin. You must have a husband, you fool; and one of the best gentlemen I ever saw has offered you a hundred times, and you have rejected him, you silly, heartless, ungrateful little creature!"

"I tried—I tried my best, indeed I did, Rebecca," said Amelia deprecatingly, "but I couldn't forget—"; and she finished the sentence by looking up at the portrait.

"Couldn't forget HIM!" cried out Becky, "that selfish humbug, that low-bred cockney dandy, that padded booby, who had neither wit, nor manners, nor heart, and was no more to be compared to your friend with the bamboo cane than you are to Queen Elizabeth. Why, the man was weary of you, and would have jilted you, but that Dobbin forced him to keep his word. He owned it to me. He never cared for you. He used to sneer about you to me, time after time, and made love to me the week after he married you."

"It's false! It's false! Rebecca," cried out Amelia, starting up.

"Look there, you fool," Becky said, still with provoking good humour, and taking a little paper out of her belt, she opened it and flung it into Emmy's lap. "You know his handwriting. He wrote that to me—wanted me to run away with him—gave it me under your nose, the day before he was shot—and served him right!" Becky repeated. (p. 680)

Is the fact that shortly after this painful revelation, Amelia admits that she's already written Dobbin asking him to return (p. 682) what prevents Becky from even briefly inhabiting the role of the novel's hero? No, I don't think so; indeed, Becky's lack of information on this front makes her surprising decision to enable a marriage good for her biggest enemy more striking in its generosity. Her motives are not clear, but I think we can justifiably see them as mixed, for she truly admires and understands what Dobbin is worth and she concedes the game to him by handing him what he most wants in the world.

On the other hand, this takes Amelia off her hands, which leaves her free to work on the weak and susceptible Jos Sedley—whose money she is able to get her hands on shortly after his premature death far from the loving home of his sister and new brother-in-law. That said, I don't believe getting rid of Amelia is necessary at all to this latter scheme, for the Sedleys are a pliable bunch and even if Amelia had understood what Becky had in store for her brother (unlikely), she would have been powerless to prevent it. No, I think Becky, throughout the novel, has shown herself to be generous to those whom she deems worthy of it—it's just that so few are worthy of it.

I'm hoping to write one more post on Vanity Fair, as well as a post on three Dorothy Sayers novels before I head down east for a little holiday next week. Keep your fingers crossed that our newly repaired home internet connection will allow me to do so!

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Wounded animals in their final death throes

David Golder, Irene Nemirovsky's first novel, begins with a confusing conversation about past and present endeavours, between two business partners: the titular David and Simon Marcus. Partners for 25 years, the two older men are having an argument; Marcus is trying to cheat his partner out of some lucrative stocks and a future business deal, but Golder has had enough and impatiently reveals that he knows everything and won't be giving Marcus one cent:
“ bastard, you crook!"
“Well, what did you expect? Think about it...Last year there was that oil deal in Mexico, and three years ago the high octane deal. How many millions went from my pocket into yours? And what did I say about it? Nothing. And then...” Golder seemed to be looking for more proof [of Marcus's duplicity], attempting to bring everything together in his mind, but then he brushed it all aside with a shrug of his shoulders.
“Business,” was all he murmured, as if he were naming some terrifying god...
Marcus fell silent. He took a pack of cigarettes from the table, opened it and carefully struck a match. “Why do you smoke these disgusting Gauloises, Golder, when you're as rich as you are?”
Golder watched Marcus's shaking hands as if he were contemplating the final death throes of a wounded animal.
“I needed the money David,” Marcus suddenly said in a different tone of voice, the corner of his mouth contorting into a grimace. “I...I'm really desperate for money, David. Couldn't you...let me make just a little? Don't you think that...”
Golder shook his fist in the air. He saw the pale hands clasp each other, the clenched fingers digging their nails into the flesh.
“You're ruining me,” Marcus said finally, in an odd, hollow voice.
Golder said nothing, refusing to look up. Marcus hesitated, then quietly pushed back his chair.
“Goodbye, David,” he said. (pp. 4-5)
The next day, Golder receives word that Marcus has committed suicide. He feels something akin to but not exactly's more closely related to an increasingly fearful awareness of his own mortality. Indeed, the rest of the novel tells the story of Golder's last days as he tries to re-establish himself as one of France's foremost businessmen, a final attempt intimately linked to his increasingly clear and terrible understanding of how empty his relationships and life are, of how meaningless it's all been.

Irene Nemirovsky was an incredibly gifted writer; even though David Golder was her first novel (and penned when she was a mere 26 years old!), it has all the elements, even if they were not completely developed at this early stage, that make her later works brilliant and unique: stunning writing and a shockingly mature ability to imagine and comment upon human psychology.

When David Golder was reviewed in the New York Times in 1930, the writer asserted that Nemirovsky's first novel was “The work of a woman who has the strength of one of the masters like Balzac or Dostoevsky.” Having read one Balzac (mea culpa) and many Dostoevskys, I can only agree; she was writing in twentieth-century France but her soul belonged in the Europe of the nineteenth. She was bitter, sardonic, compassionate, devastating and unrelenting all at once, as was Dostoevsky was in his best works, but with much more rhetorical control. Simply put, she was a genius.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Beautiful, disturbing, exhausting: the fiction of Yoko Ogawa

Yoko Ogawa's The Diving Pool comprises a trio of novellas entitled “The Diving Pool,” “Pregnancy Diary,” and “Dormitory.” As in Hotel Iris, the writing and translating are stellar, and Ogawa's observations on human pain and desire are excruciatingly astute. The following interaction between the narrator and Reiko, a resident of the narrator's parents’ orphanage, occurs in “The Diving Pool”; reading it the first time was like being kicked in the gut. Reiko ends up in the Light House as a teen because her parents go insane in quick succession, leaving her with no one to care for her:
            “I wish they would miss me,” she said. Closing the magazine, she sat up on the bed and took off her glasses. “I'd be glad if they did.” With her glasses off, her eyes were so small it was hard to tell where she was looking.
            “And that's what makes you so sad?” I asked.
            She blinked nervously but said nothing. Her vacant stare confounded my efforts to understand what she was feeling. Her lips were pursed in what might have been a faint smile, but it might also have been a wounded frown. There were several seconds of icy silence.
            “The hooks have all come undone,” she said at last, as if talking to herself.
            “That's right. The ones that kept my mother and father and me together. They've come undone and there's no way to get them fastened again.” Sometimes she spoke like a young lady from a good family.
            I wondered what sort of sound was made when the hooks holding together a family came apart. (pp. 22-23)
Many plot details after this point!
Just crushing. But it is Ogawa's characters' twisted obsessions with bodies that is (still) most striking to me. In “The Diving Pool” she shows that this focus on the flesh need not be as lurid or obviously disturbing as that described in Hotel Iris. The narrator of this tale is the only child in the Light House who is not an orphan; this difference makes her feel as unhooked from others as not having parents makes others feel, and her generalized sense of loss and yearning becomes exclusively focused on Jun, an orphan who's been there since they were young children. She, of course, never tells him of her longing for him; she simply spends every day after school at the pool, secretly watching him practise his diving, focusing on absorbing every detail of his beautiful body.

Her frustration at being able to do nothing but watch him begins to come out sideways and twisted in her increasingly dangerous abuse of an 18-month-old baby in her parents' care, abuse which includes placing the child in a giant urn she is too small to get out of by herself and watching her cry for help, and feeding her a mouldering pastry just to see what will happen. The narrator knows there's a connection between her desire for Jun and this outrageous behaviour, but doesn't understand what it might be; she also tries to diminish its significance, even though the baby almost dies:
            I returned to the pool as soon as I could. It seemed all the more precious after I'd tasted deeply of my own cruelty. The ripples reflecting on the glass roof, the smell of the water, and above all the purity of Jun's glistening body—these things had the power to wash me clean. I wanted to be as pure as Jun, even if only for a moment.
            In the end, Rie had gone on to the hospital. They said she vomited until there was nothing left and then slept for two days, as still and cold as a mummy. My mother went to the hospital to take care of her and came home with long reports. I wondered whether they'd found any trace of the cream puff.
            I'm not sure how I would have felt if Rie had died, how I would have made sense of what I'd done. Because I had no idea where the cruelty came from, I could look at Jun's arms and chest and back without feeling the slightest remorse for having hurt Rie. (pp. 42-43)
Her pure enjoyment of Jun's body is not allowed to continue, however, for he confronts her about her actions:
I pictured the scene in her hospital room from the one visit I’d paid her: the walls decorated with crayon drawings, the stuffed Mickey Mouse on her bed, and Rie herself stretched out lethargically on the wrinkled sheets.
“It was you, wasn’t it?” His tone was so matter-of-fact, so unchanged, that I didn’t understand immediately. “You did that to Rie, didn’t you?”
The voice was the same, but this time the words began to sink in, as if they’ve been replayed at a slower speed. There was no hint of blame or reproach in his voice, yet I felt a chill come over me.
“You knew?” My voice was hoarse.
“I was always watching you.” This could have been a breathless declaration of love or a final farewell. (pp. 51-52)
What strikes me about this interchange is that Jun admits to seeing the narrator abuse Rie but has never intervened—and I've been racking my brain about why. It seems to me that what’s important about this scene is the revelation that her watchful obsession with him has been shown to be less committed, less complete than his watchful obsession with her. For not only has he known all along that she's been his devoted and daily companion at the pool, he's been there when she wasn't thinking of him. And in this total, single-minded, disturbing vision of early adolescent desire, she should always have been thinking of him; that she hasn’t somehow diminishes the purity she feels in her desire for him.

I'm not going to discuss the other two stories in this collection because I think you should probably just go read this book. I will say that I find Ogawa's lurid, sensual, heavy emphasis on bodies—their weaknesses and disfigurements, but also the power they have over others and how grotesquely present they are, even when they're beautiful, to be almost overwhelming. When I was reading both Hotel Iris and The Diving Pool, I found myself taking notes on every single page; Ogawa’s work is dense and unrelenting in its thick sensuality and while literarily satisfying, it is also utterly exhausting. I am looking forward to The Housekeeper and the Professor but I think it'll be a good while before I have the energy for it.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Quite lonely and almost happy

I need to say first off that although I am only a little more than halfway through William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, I am certain that it is one of the finest novels I have ever read. The writing is superb, the observations of society and social interaction matched in wit, incisiveness, and subtle compassion only, in my opinion, by George Eliot's observations of the individual. I am certain I will re-read it many times if I manage to live to a ripe old age.

I both lament and celebrate the fact that I am just now coming to Thackeray's brilliance; I lament it for obvious reasons and celebrate it because there is much to look forward to. For while he was not so prolific as Anthony Trollope, Thackeray was not idle either; indeed, the problem will be in finding his less known works in print. Having being commanded by a fellow book-obsessed “tweep” to find, stat, The Luck of Barry Lyndon, I was disappointed to discover that not only is it not available in my public library, but it's also not available online in Canada at all! I can, of course, get an affordable copy sent from the UK but I maintain a perverse desire to buy locally and in person. I will keep an eagle eye out for it in my local bookshops until I either find it or give in out of desperation and buy it on teh interwebs. Of course, if one of my gentle readers has an extra copy, I'd be willing to pay postage to have you send it to me....

But about Vanity Fair! Thackeray famously subtitled this great book “A Novel Without a Hero”; and rather than introducing us to a protagonist to start, he instead begins revealing a world in which there is much gaiety, but little real happiness. This is a melancholy place in spite of the flash and chintz that blinds the eye and merry, tinkling sounds that draw the ear. Vanity Fair lacks a hero, as well as either morals or a moral:
As the manager of the Performance sits before the curtain on the boards and looks into the Fair, a feeling of profound melancholy comes over him in his survey of the bustling place. There is a great quantity of eating and drinking, making love and jilting, laughing and the contrary, smoking, cheating, fighting, dancing and fiddling; there are bullies pushing about, bucks ogling the women, knaves picking pockets, policemen on the look-out, quacks (OTHER quacks, plague take them!) bawling in front of their booths, and yokels looking up at the tinselled dancers and poor old rouged tumblers, while the light-fingered folk are operating upon their pockets behind. Yes, this is VANITY FAIR; not a moral place certainly; nor a merry one, though very noisy. Look at the faces of the actors and buffoons when they come off from their business; and Tom Fool washing the paint off his cheeks before he sits down to dinner with his wife and the little Jack Puddings behind the canvas. The curtain will be up presently, and he will be turning over head and heels, and crying, "How are you?"

A man with a reflective turn of mind, walking through an exhibition of this sort, will not be oppressed, I take it, by his own or other people's hilarity. An episode of humour or kindness touches and amuses him here and there—a pretty child looking at a gingerbread stall; a pretty girl blushing whilst her lover talks to her and chooses her fairing; poor Tom Fool, yonder behind the waggon, mumbling his bone with the honest family which lives by his tumbling; but the general impression is one more melancholy than mirthful. When you come home you sit down in a sober, contemplative, not uncharitable frame of mind, and apply yourself to your books or your business.

I have no other moral than this to tag to the present story of "Vanity Fair." (Before the Curtain)
The novel proper initially bears out the entire lack of heroism claim in the preface. Until page 40 or so, we're introduced only to the cunning and selfish (although entirely compelling) Becky Sharp; the sweet but weak, naive, and self-absorbed Amelia Sedley; the ladies and girls adorned with an amazing variety of character defects at Miss Pinkerton's academy for girls; and the mostly obnoxious little twerps and jerks at Dr. Swishtail's famous school for boys. Yet, at Swishtail's there is also an unexpected and unusual young fellow named William Dobbin. Young Dobbin is awkward, unhandsome, no great scholar, and socially a failure; he is a grocer's son at a school housing little hellions generally more privileged than he is; he is distinguished only for not fitting in and failing to prove that his exclusion and abuse are inappropriate.

Indeed, William is a sad, solitary, and thoughtful kind of boy, exactly the kind of boy that does not belong in the sad, loud, energetic glory of Vanity Fair. The constant target of Mr Cuff (school bully and acknowledged king of the boys), Dobbin tries not to cause trouble and to find a measure of contentment in a way that would most surely be recognized by poor Tom Pinch, that is, he keeps to himself and reads a great deal. William is "quite lonely and almost happy":
Well, William Dobbin had for once forgotten the world, and was away with Sindbad the Sailor in the Valley of Diamonds, or with Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peribanou in that delightful cavern where the Prince found her, and whither we should all like to make a tour; when shrill cries, as of a little fellow weeping, woke up his pleasant reverie; and looking up, he saw Cuff before him, belabouring a little boy.
Down came the stump with a great heavy thump on the child's hand. A moan followed. Dobbin looked up. The Fairy Peribanou had fled into the inmost cavern with Prince Ahmed: the Roc had whisked away Sindbad the Sailor out of the Valley of Diamonds out of sight, far into the clouds: and there was everyday life before honest William; and a big boy beating a little one without cause.

"Hold out your other hand, sir," roars Cuff to his little schoolfellow, whose face was distorted with pain. Dobbin quivered, and gathered himself up in his narrow old clothes.

"Take that, you little devil!" cried Mr. Cuff, and down came the wicket again on the child's hand.—Don't be horrified, ladies, every boy at a public school has done it. Your children will so do and be done by, in all probability. Down came the wicket again; and Dobbin started up.

I can't tell what his motive was. Torture in a public school is as much licensed as the knout in Russia. It would be ungentlemanlike (in a manner) to resist it. Perhaps Dobbin's foolish soul revolted against that exercise of tyranny; or perhaps he had a hankering feeling of revenge in his mind, and longed to measure himself against that splendid bully and tyrant, who had all the glory, pride, pomp, circumstance, banners flying, drums beating, guards saluting, in the place. Whatever may have been his incentive, however, up he sprang, and screamed out, "Hold off, Cuff; don't bully that child any more; or I'll—"

"Or you'll what?" Cuff asked in amazement at this interruption. "Hold out your hand, you little beast."

"I'll give you the worst thrashing you ever had in your life," Dobbin said, in reply to the first part of Cuff's sentence; and little Osborne, gasping and in tears, looked up with wonder and incredulity at seeing this amazing champion put up suddenly to defend him: while Cuff's astonishment was scarcely less. (pp. 40-41)
Not only does William give Cuff the worst thrashing of his life, but his social status at Swishtail's also changes radically as a result. His defense of young George Osborne results in improved academic performance, a lifelong friendship with George Osborne, and the real and prolonged respect of everyone at school because Cuff himself is beaten into respecting him! Dobbin becomes, in short, the schoolyard hero that every bullied young boy could either wish for or hope to become.

Dobbin remains a quiet, thoughtful, generous, and devoted defender of the underdog well into adulthood. Years later, his friendship with George Osborne flourishes, even though the latter isn't half the man he could and should be, and is given to a selfishness that takes good old souls like William entirely for granted. The primary object of William's quiet and permanent devotion and care changes later in life when he finds his heart enslaved by Amelia Sedley—destined, of course, because that's the kind of luck William has, to marry George.

In William Dobbin, Thackeray gives himself the lie about Vanity Fair boasting no hero, for this character represents the highest level of heroism imaginable in a place where everyone is basically out only for themselves. He distinguishes himself on the battlefield when Napoleon is routed, and not only for carrying wounded off the field even though he is wounded himself. He steadfastly does his duty by those around him, regardless of circumstances.

More importantly in the context of this novel, I think, is William's domestic heroism. He knows his love for Amelia is hopeless, but this in no way diminishes his adoration and commitment to her care, which begins in earnest when her husband dies on the battlefield. Her family being in straightened financial circumstances, and George's family having disowned him for marrying Amelia, Dobbin quietly takes care of George's burial expenses, brings Amelia and her newborn back to England, and behaves as her greatest friend with no hope of a return of any sort:
Our friend Dobbin…brought her back to England and to her mother's house; when Mrs. O'Dowd, receiving a peremptory summons from her Colonel, had been forced to quit her patient. To see Dobbin holding the infant, and to hear Amelia's laugh of triumph as she watched him, would have done any man good who had a sense of humour. William was the godfather of the child, and exerted his ingenuity in the purchase of cups, spoons, pap-boats, and corals for this little Christian.

How his mother nursed him, and dressed him, and lived upon him; how she drove away all nurses, and would scarce allow any hand but her own to touch him; how she considered that the greatest favour she could confer upon his godfather, Major Dobbin, was to allow the Major occasionally to dandle him, need not be told here. This child was her being. Her existence was a maternal caress. She enveloped the feeble and unconscious creature with love and worship. It was her life which the baby drank in from her bosom. Of nights, and when alone, she had stealthy and intense raptures of motherly love, such as God's marvellous care has awarded to the female instinct—joys how far higher and lower than reason—blind beautiful devotions which only women's hearts know. It was William Dobbin's task to muse upon these movements of Amelia's, and to watch her heart; and if his love made him divine almost all the feelings which agitated it, alas! he could see with a fatal perspicuity that there was no place there for him. And so, gently, he bore his fate, knowing it, and content to bear it. (pp. 358-60).

Major Sugarplums performs his duty to the letter

Only when accused by Amelia's father of harbouring roguish intentions of some sort does Dobbin reveal that the young widow's well-being has been entirely dependent upon him:
Dobbin at this lost all patience, and if his accuser had not been so old and so broken, a quarrel might have ensued between them at the Slaughters' Coffee-house, in a box of which place of entertainment the gentlemen had their colloquy. "Come upstairs, sir," lisped out the Major. "I insist on your coming up the stairs, and I will show which is the injured party, poor George or I"; and, dragging the old gentleman up to his bedroom, he produced from his desk Osborne's accounts, and a bundle of IOU's which the latter had given, who, to do him justice, was always ready to give an IOU. "He paid his bills in England," Dobbin added, "but he had not a hundred pounds in the world when he fell. I and one or two of his brother officers made up the little sum, which was all that we could spare, and you dare tell us that we are trying to cheat the widow and the orphan." Sedley was very contrite and humbled, though the fact is that William Dobbin had told a great falsehood to the old gentleman; having himself given every shilling of the money, having buried his friend, and paid all the fees and charges incident upon the calamity and removal of poor Amelia.

About these expenses old Osborne had never given himself any trouble to think, nor any other relative of Amelia, nor Amelia herself, indeed. She trusted to Major Dobbin as an accountant, took his somewhat confused calculations for granted, and never once suspected how much she was in his debt. (pp. 393-94)
The fact is, he does all of this out of pure, unselfish love; of course, William would marry Amelia if he could but he neither hopes for it nor expects it; he also never tries to disabuse the sweet but blind, and in her blindness rather selfish, Amelia of the true state of either her husband's financial status before his death or how entirely reliant she is on William afterwards.

William is a complete anomaly in the cast of characters peopling Vanity Fair, for he is the only one engaged in active goodness on a significant scale. There are some, like Amelia and Lady Jane, who are not malicious, mean-spirited, or consciously selfish; but Amelia's passivity and self-absorption, at least, sometimes cause pain as the result of her obliviousness and inaction. (An exception who still nonetheless doesn't truly compare to William is Mrs. O'Dowd who "in adversity...was the best of comforters [and] in good fortune the most troublesome of friends" (p. 341).)

William's domestic heroism boasts all the loneliness of a knight's quest without any of the external glory; it also represents and worships the Victorian idol of home and hearth but without allowing him to partake of any of their joys. It seems as though he is destined to remain quite lonely and at best almost happy forever; but perhaps Thackeray will relent and allow his Amelia puppet to see her own foolishness and the ultimate happiness upon his poor, constant William puppet in the second half of the novel.

A timely tweet
Just a few minutes ago, I saw a tweet about Thackeray—it turns out that today is his 200th birthday! Check out the Oxford DNB for more info here.

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.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Brothers in the deep suffering of the heart

Mary Barton marks my first real foray into the world of Elizabeth Gaskell. I have read her biography of Charlotte Bronte and back in the dark ages, when I was still teaching the undergraduates, I led a very resistant (to everything, not only Gaskell) set of first-years through “The Old Nurse's Tale”. Based on these two examples of her fiction (for I cannot recall anything at all about what Gaskell had to say about Crazy Charlotte), I think I can say I like Elizabeth Gaskell very much, and I'm really glad I decided to include a couple more of her novels on my Vic Lit project list.

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!