Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Mary Barton’: A Harrowing Depiction of Poverty in the UK of the Early Industrial Revolution.

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I have recently been re-reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Mary Barton’. I thought I had long since written a review of it; it seems not.

This is, of course, Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel, published in 1847. It established her reputation as a writer who sympathized with the poor and oppressed, the workers in industrial Lancashire who were voiceless in the government of the country, and who suffered hideously during the times of economic depression.

In this, she resembled Charles Dickens. He was in fact her later publisher when she wrote for his magazine ‘All The Year Round’. Like him, too, she had a great dread of the rampant mob, and shares the almost morbid fear of trade unions which he showed in ‘Hard Times’. In the novel Gaskell depicts trade unionists with unintentional comedy, as having a conspiratorial aspect almost akin to a lot of Gunpower Plotters.

This, no doubt, was partly due to the fact that she was writing the novel in the era of  the Chartist protests, which co-incided with the outbreak of revolution throughout much of Europe.  The Chartist leadership was strongly divided over those who espoused peaceful methods and those who considered that they must win power by ‘Reason if we may,  by force if we must’.  Elizabeth Gaskell was a devout Christian who recoiled from violence and was shocked by the mutual antagonism of the mill owners and their nameless ‘hands’ who comprised their workforce.

The original protagonist of the novel was not Mary Barton, but her father John Barton, and this probably explains why he in fact comes across as a more fully realised character than his daughter’s love interest, Jem Wilson. Jem is accused of the murder that John himself has committed of the mill owner’s son, the caddish and handsome Harry Carson.

He has been angling to make Mary his mistress, though in her naivety, she thinks that he is interested in marriage. Eventually, in fact, when he realises that she won’t become his mistress he does make her an offer of marriage, which she scornfully rejects (no doubt Richardson’s Pamela would be astonished by that). By then, she realises her folly in rejecting Jem, who following his own failed proposal, is assiduously keeping away from her.

Jem is warned about Mary’s danger from Harry Carson by Mary’s Aunt Esther, who subsequently deserted by her lover, had taken to prostituion to support their child, and after her death, become a drunkard.  She has been keeping a covert watch on the Barton household, and wishes at all costs to keep Mary from suffering the same fate as herself.

Jem confronts Harry Carson, and they come to blows, but a policeman separates them. When he is later murdered, Jem is the natural suspect.

Now Mary resolves to save him from the gallows…

There are some harrowing descriptions of poverty and misery in the book, and the author leaves the reader in no doubt of her moral outrage that such conditions should be allowed: –

‘Never was the old Edinburgh description of gardez-l’eau more necessary than in this street. As they passed, women at the doors tossed out slops of every description into the gutter; they ran and overflowed into the next pool, which overflowed and stagnated…our friends were not dainty, but they picked their way till they got to some steps leading down into a small area..You went down one step into the cellar…It was very dark inside. The window panes of many of them were broken and stuffed with rags…

…After the account I have given of the state of the street, no one can  be surprised that on going into the cellar inhabited by Davenport, the smell was so foetid as almost to knock the two men down…They began to penetrate the thick darkness, and of the place, and to see three or four little children rolling on the damp, nay, wet, floor…They clustered round Barton, and tore from him the food he had brought with him..’

In fact, the mill owners of Manchester were offended at what they saw as Elizabeth Gaskell’s unfair portrayal of their indifference to the sufferings of the mill workers. They were better pleased with her later novel, ‘North and South’ where their viewpoint is depicted more sympathetically.

In this novel, certainly, Mr Carson, whose son is ritually assassinated as a sort of ‘legitimate target’  in a piece of terrorism by John Barton – who despairs of anything short of this moving the obdurate mill owners – is a highly unappealing character, who only arouses the reader’s pity after the death of his prized son. His wife, though thinly skethed, is another. Once a mill worker herself, having produced upwards of four children, has taken to indulging her ill health and treats her servants as her natural inferiors.

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Harry Carson is also thinly sketched,  which as he is to some extent the antagonist, is a shame. Had he been given a sronger role, the extent of Jem’s victory, over both his own jealousy towards Carson, and Carson’s attractions as a rival  love object for Mary, would be more striking.

The trade union leader is depicted as a wily opportunist, rather on the lines of Plutard (I think that was his name; I’m being too lazy to look it up) in Zola’s ‘Germinal’.  Perhaps he is depicted that way as a counter to the unsympathetic bourgoise in the novel, but one gets the impression that Elizabeth Gaskell could  not credit that anyone could be a dedicated trade unionist and Chartist without being either fanatical or self seeking…

Jem Wilson is depicted as a wholly admirable working man, capable of selfless devotion, and handsome ‘save for the marks of smallpox’, with dark curling hair and a stalwart build. Outstandingly brave, he rescues his father and another workmate from a blazing mill. It is typical of him that he should oppose women working, but one has to remember that his mother’s experience of work has left her disabled as a result of an accident with unguarded machinery.

Mary Barton, very pretty, well meaning and often wilfully opposed to her own best interests, is a good characterisation of a young girl of sense with some silly notions. Her realisation that she loves Jem, only after she has turned down his proposal, is vividly recounted.

John Barton, demoted from his place as protagonist as he may have been,  is the character who makes the greatest impression on the reader. His personal tragedies – he has lost a son through poverty and loses his wife in childbirth – a death he blames on the shock she sustains when her sister runs off with an army officer – embitter him. Still,  he never loses his devotion to the working people and his determination to relieve their suffring.  In the scene described above, where he helps the Davenport family, he sells his last possessions of value to buy them food and medicine.  When the petition on the condition of the workers he delivers to parliament is contemptuously rejected and the recession worsens and want increases, he becomes desperate. Unemployed and black listed as a trade unionist, he turns to violent methods to change the minds of the masters.

John  Barton, then, is a believable flawed tragic hero, and the ending when the older Carson is able to forgive him makes a moving conclusion to the story.

Mary’s fight to prove Jem’s innocence is well told. Her admitting in court that she loves Jem would have been astoundingly indpendent behaviour in a Victorian heroine. Many critics disagree with Raymond Williams objection, that the story’s change in theme from the political to the domestic entails a weakening of its theme.

It is worth noting that in this first novel, the character of the sailor as a dashing racounteur is depicted in Will Wilson, Jem’s cousin. This character, no doubt partly based on fond memories of her own lost brother,  was a type Elizabeth Gaskell was to develop in Frederick Hale in ‘North and South’ and Charley Kinraid in ‘Sylvi’a’s Lovers’.

Will Wilson is a straightforward version, a touching combination of the boastful and the modest, who falls  in love with the dowdy and virtuous Margaret Leigh when  he heards her sing.  He lacks either the sophistication of Frederick Hale, or the moral dubiousness of Charley Kinraid.

Jem, for his part, is depicted as – despite his aversion to women working – a wholly more attractive rival to the dashing Harry Carson than the melancholy Philip Hepburn is to Charley Kinraid in ‘Sylvias Lovers’ . ‘Mary Barton’ is a novel which ends  happily for the two sets of young lovers, Mary and Jem, Will and Margaret, in complete opposition to the tragic conclusion to that later novel.

The ending is a good deal less happy for John Barton, of course, who must face the consequences of his crime. As a matter of fact, parents usually fare badly in Gaskell’s novels. ..

That this happy ending for the young people has to take place in Canada, not the UK, is in itself  a dismal comment on the prospects for workers in what was then the ‘workshop of the world’.

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Cardboard Characters, Lovable, Rounded Characters, Larger Than Life Characters,and Mere Ciphers: How Sympathetic Must a Character Be to Keep You Reading?

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Well, every Austen reader knows what scene this depicts. ‘She is tolerable,but not handsome enough to tempt me…’

My PC – which groaned and collapsed –  is finally working again (looks about nervously, scared to tempt fate). Someone has even offered me  an unwanted laptop. Incredibly, I’ve never had one, and I am terrified by the look of those Ipads.

Anyway, in my last post, I was talking about my new fledged writer friend being upset at the savagery of a one star review (though she felt a bit better when I showed some of the fine specimens I have come by). Readers of this blog might remember that the main criticism was that her book was ‘Boring!!!’

The second front was opened over the issue of the characters, who according to this reviewer, were both unsympathetic and unbelievable, in fact, so like a lot of walking cardboard cut outs, that it was impossible for the reader to care what became of the lot of ‘em.

While the image of a lot of cardboard cut out characters stalking through the pages of a story is intriguing material for a fantasy story – I must give one on those lines a go, sometime – those concluding side swipes obviously cut my notice writer colleague to the quick.

This is clearly the last thing that a writer – who has probably spent hours making notes on background details on the past life of those characters, to fill them out in her/his mind – wants to hear. Well, everyone’s idea of a sympathetic or believable character is different – some people even find Heathcliff sympathetic and believable (well, so do I, having the psychiatric treatment he so clearly needs)  but it did make me mull over how far it is necessary to like the characters in a story, in order to enjoy it.

Obviously, and unfortunately, if a reader both thinks the plot is dull and the characters  uninteresting, then there isn’t very much to hold the attention. Yet, as I said last week, and as I pointed out to the writer in question (just call me Polyanna) that as the reviewer  also maintained that she kept reading to the bitter end, something obviously did hold her attention, even if it was how much she hated the characters and the plot, so all was not lost. As I said in my first post, if someone keeps on reading, however much s/he hates what you’ve written, then I count that as a victory.

How much sympathetic characters matter depends a lot, obviously,  on genre. If you are writing some traditional type murder story where you are going to bump off a lot of the characters, then it’s probably best for the reader’s peace of mind if s/he doesn’t get too fond of them. Perhaps that is why most of the characters in traditional, ‘country house murder’ Agatha Christie type detective stories are like a lot of walking stereotypes, often deliberately made hateful.

If, as Colonel Blimp is holding forth about Young People Today and Hanging and Flogging from the depths of his armchair in his club, his face a fine shade of puce, and  all his captive audience suddenly see him snatch at this throat and gargle, dropping his glass of vintage port, nobody is going to feel much outrage.

All the interest lies in the intellectual puzzle: was it his Estranged Wife who poisoned the port? Was it his nephew, the Dastardly Young Heir (entailed property, you see), who is rumoured to have Anarchistic Tendencies? Or was it the Colonel’s daughter, who has been kept at home in dowdy clothes and quietly besotted by her cousin these ten years?  Or was it the Waitress, whose mother he Ruined thirty years ago? I just wrote that off the top of my head, and no prizes for guessing that of course it was the last.

On mystery and detective stories, the Sherlock Holmes stories are, of course, notoriously well written. But the secondary characters are necessarily, just a series of ciphers. There isn’t space for anything more  in a short story, even if the Victorian short story was generally far longer than one for a magazine today. There is the Spirited Governess, the Unimaginative Shopkeeper, the Dastardly Stepfather, the Haughty Unbending Aristocrat, and one of the nicest characters – the Gallant, Dashing Gentleman Sailor –in ‘The Adventure of the Abbey Grange’, my favourite.  I do like a love story as part of an adventure or mystery story – but I am wandering from the point.

Conan Doyle sometimes called Sherlock Holmes ‘a reasoning machine’. This is not doing justice to the subtlety of his creation. In ‘A Study in Scarlet’ when Watson and Holmes first start sharing rooms, Watson does create a list of the areas of Holmes’ supposed areas of knowledge and others where he supposedly shows a startling lack of it. For instance,  he claims not to know that the earth revolves round the sun, which I think we may assume was a joke at the expense of the sometimes credulous Watson. Later on, Conan Doyle ignored – or possibly, even forgot about – this list, much as he forgot about the location of Watson’s wound by the time of, ‘The Sign of the Four’.

Thus, while Holmes’ knowledge of literature is supposedly nil, he sometimes makes remarks on quite abstruse literary figures, for instance, his cynical (and  unfortunately, true, at least for women as sex roles stand) quote at the end of  ‘A Case of Identity’: ‘“There is danger for him who taketh a tiger cub, and danger also in whoso snatches a delusion from a woman.” There is as much sense in Hafiz as in Horace, and as much knowledge of the world.’

Then again, nobody seems to expect the characters in macho war stories to be anything but stereotypes. If they developed scruples about killing the enemy  or something stupid like that, it would spoil everything for the readership, so none of that.

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Dracula climbing down the wall of his castle, from a 1916 edition of the work.

Then again, as another writer friend of mine pointed out, in ‘Dracula’ (I think that was Mari Biella) while Count Dracula and his adversary Van Helsing are strongly drawn characters, the supporting cast comprising Mina and Jonathan Harker and her ex-pupil Lucy and her three admirers are very thinly drawn. However,  this doesn’t detract from the readers enjoyment of the story. The two main opponents have so much personality that there is no need for the others to need more than a few strokes of the pen.

That modern readers we require sophisticated and consistent characterisation from authors at all, shows how far our study, or perhaps, our introversion regarding human character has progressed since, say, the Bronze Age ‘Iliad’ or even the Mediaeval Arthurian Legends, when the characters often behave wholly inconsistently.

I suppose, though, it must be conceded that while most of the characters in these lasting stories (as distinct from the indistinguishable war hero types) are ciphers, they are carried by the strongly drawn main ones much like an outstanding actor supporting a while cast of mediocrities.

It is also certainly true that there are genres where characterisation is all important. This is true of most so-called ‘women’s fiction’ and is certainly true of psychological thrillers  and has to be true of love stories.

Even with love stories, though (I’m distinguishing these from ‘romance’ which is a separate genre, with set expectations of an inevitable Happy Ever After Etc from the reader) it is still possible to enjoy the story, if you find just one of the main pair appealing. That is rather similar to how it is when a friend sets her heart on someone who you think is as dismal a choice as she could make. You still want her to win through, even if you know disillusionment lurks round the corner.

I would appear to be one of the few readers of Jane Austen who doesn’t like, or admire, Mr Darcy. In fact, I thought he was a priggish so-and-so, and I delighted in Jo Baker’s less than flattering picture of him in her brilliant novel ‘Longbourn . ’ I never could imagine how Elizabeth Bennett could be happy with a man with whom she couldn’t share a laugh, and I still can’t.

However, I did like Elizabeth Bennett. So if she had the poor taste to want the boring fellow (and no, no, I’m honestly not saying anything about the  Freudian implications of her joke about the sight of the grounds of Pemberley swaying her choice) , I wanted her to be able to win him, so I stayed interested until the end.

I mentioned dashing sailors earlier, and on this, and good or bad love choices, and on how it is still possible to fnd a book fascinating while not liking any of the main characters, I can think of at least one classic novel which has long intrigued me where I didn’t particularly like any of the main characters. In one, I actively disliked the two rival flawed heroes and wasn’t especially fond of the heroine. Yes, it’s – wait for it  – ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ by Elizabeth Gaskell, about which I have often written before.

But this post is getting too long.  So more of that next time.