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

marybarton

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.

9780486812496

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’.

41d0-G63AjL._SX305_BO1,204,203,200_

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Those Necessary Sympathetic, Rounded Characters: A Classic Novel Without Them

220px-Milky_Way_Night_Sky_Black_Rock_Desert_NevadaIn my last two posts, I discussed the dismal topic of getting really scathing reviews, and how a novice writer friend of mine had her confidence knocked through being on the receiving end of a particularly savage one.

On that, I’d like to add that perhaps that  is better than the lukewarm reaction over my latest I got from an associate the other day: – ‘I’ve been reading your book.  It’s all right; but nothing like as good as the first. Maybe I’m just tired of Gothic. I’m glad you’re doing something different with your next.’

I see.  Thanks for that.

Now, in a way, isn’t that indifference almost worse than having someone write a rant instead of a review of your book?

Anyway, I was wtiting about whether or not it is necessary to have sympathetic characters in order to like or become fascinated by a book, and how far this depends upon genre.

Then – wait for it, regular readers – I mentioned how in fact, I didn’t really care for any of the characters in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’.

I might as well add at once, that I found it hard to sympathize with the active whaling community depicted in the book. I tried, by doing that act of  historical distancing which allowed me to see that while they were decimating the whale population, they couldn’t see it, or that it was wrong. For all that, the descriptions of the battles which the Specksioneer (Chief Harpooner) Charley Kinraid and the heroine’s ex-whaler father have with the whales may have impressed Victorians as heroic, but struck me as downright barbaric and pitiful.

I have written before of how unsympathetic I find the two flawed heroes, the lovers (in the old fashioned sense) of the heroine Sylvia Robson: Charley Kinraid and Philip Hepburn.

The romantic interest, Charley Kinraid, ‘the boldest Specksioneer on the Greenland Seas’, is dark and handsome, hearty, fearless, a brilliant raconteur, able to drink endlessly without showing it, the life and soul of the party, irresistible to women and admired by men. In short, he is an early example of the  ‘Black Hole Marty Stu’ described by a blogger:

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MartyStu

‘His gravity is so great, he draws all the attention and causes other characters (and, often, reality itself) to bend and contort in order to accommodate him and elevate him above all other characters. Characters don’t act naturally around him – guys wish to emulate him and all the girls flock to him regardless of circumstances. They serve as plot enablers for him to display his powers or abilities… He dominates every scene he is in, with most scenes without him serving only to give the characters a chance to “talk freely” about him…’

220px-BH_LMC

This, basically, is why Charley Kinraid, though overwhelming, isn’t convincing. As Graham Handley observes, he ‘comes but fitfully to life’.  He is a walking macho stereotype. Such a man would never suffer form sea sickness, or fall flat on his face.

Philip Hepburn has the misfortune to be the polar opposite of a Black Hole Marty Stu. He is the indoors type with a sallow complexion, quiet, humourless,  and influenced by his grim quasi stepmother Alice Rose into the belief that any form of fun is sinful. Nobody admires him but Alice’s daughter. As an early critic observed, his whole personality seems to revolve around his obsession with Sylvia.

This might be interesting, for a short infatuation; but his drags on during years of indifference from Sylvia, who makes it painfully obvious that she worships his rival. This makes him a dismal character to read about.

Generally, then, to me, both flawed heroes seem curiously one dimensional and incomplete, as if they need to merge into each other to form one three dimensional character. As if in some bizarre way they are aware of this, they seem to be more interested in their rivalry towards each other than they do in the heroine Sylvia Robson.

At first I sympathised with Sylvia in her longing to have adventures at sea herself. However, as this is impossible for a respectable Victorian girl, she can only realise this wish by transforming it into a longing to have the man who personifies those adventures.

Unfortunately, then Sylvia Robson suffers the fate of any female character who falls for a Black Hole Marty Stu – she remains trapped forever in his event horizon, seemingly frozen in time and seemingly static, though she has in fact, vanished. In other words, she ceases to have an independent existence of her own.

Part of this dissolution of her personality is bound up in her tragic fate. She believes that Charley Kinraid is dead, but in fact, he has been taken by the press gang, and though Philip Hepburn knows, he keeps quiet about it so that he can marry her himself. Naturally, Kinraid returns, imagining that they are still troth plighted.  Sylvia swears never to forgive Hepburn. In the end, after Kinraid has humiliated her through an astonishingly speedy marriage to an heiress, and Hepburn has heroically saved both Kinraid and her daughter, she does.

Most of the time for the second two volumes, the once high spirited and rosy Sylvia is depicted as pale and suffering, mourning Kinraid’s loss almost obsessively. As the critic T J Winnifrith remarks, ‘Kinraid is finally shown to be a shallow character; but the depiction of him is always so superficial that this makes it difficult to understand the depths of Sylvia Robson’s love for him.’

The melodramatic tone and improbable co-incidences in the last part of this novel are notorious.  However, I thought that the problems started far earlier, in the strange interdependence of the characters. Just as Hepburn seems to have no passion in life except in being Sylvia’s lover, so Sylvia very soon comes to have none except in worshipping and then mourning the loss of, Charley Kinraid. This fate – far more usual in a female than in a male lead – finally makes them both dismal.

Of course, one of the things that Elizabeth Gaskell was attempting to explore in this novel was how wrong (in her eyes, blasphemous) it is to ‘make an idol’ out of any other human being. She was also, as her daughter had recently gone through the disillusioning experience of having to break off  an engagement to a charming man with a questionable past – one Captain Charles Hill –  exploring the painful consequences of ‘ill advised’ love.

In fact, when I came to sum up the novel in a sentence, here is what I came up with: –

‘Philip Hepburn worships Sylvia Robson, and finds dishonour; Sylvia Robson worships Charley Kinraid, and finds disillusionment; Charley Kinraid worships himself, and  finds a wife who agrees with him and a career in the Royal Navy.’

But, as I said, for all the unsatisfactory nature of the characters – for all that  they aren’t markedly sympathetic, I have been intrigued by this novel since I first read it in 2002.

True, I found Sylvia’s extended mourning of Kinraid tedious; I found Hepburn’s destructive pursuit of Sylvia frankly distasteful, and I found Kinraid to be about as rounded a character as a cardboard cut out. Also, I am disgusted by whaling and how we decimated the whale population in the Greenland Seas. Yet, still it remains one of my favourite novels.

It can’t be ‘comfort reading’ as there is scarcely any worldly comfort to be found in it, but clearly, there are elements in the depictions – perhaps, the vivid descriptions of life in the late eighteenth century sea faring community of Whitby (called Monkshaven in the novel), which have made me unable to dismiss it.

…And the same is true for me of ‘Vanity Fair’.  There, again, I don’t exactly like any of the characters – though I do feel sorry for Amelia – and yet, that is a novel I have read three times. True, it contains some unsurpassed passages on the battles of Quartre-Bras and Waterloo – but that is in the middle;  much of the later part is taken up with the society career of the vain, unfeeling Becky.  I suppose this book is also remarkable, in having in Becky Sharp what falls only a little short of a Black Hole villainess (a Mary Sue she most certainly is not).

Therefore, perhaps when advice to novice writers on how to draw in readers includes the invariable: ‘To draw readers in, you must create sympathetic, fully rounded, convincing,  developing characters’ – then the exceptions from classic novels which continue to be read but which have signally failed to do that just might noted?

Finally, for anyone interested, here is my link for my article on ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ published a few years ago on the F Word website: here

 

Discovering More So Bad It’s Good Writing

Alice Askew
A wonderfully dramatic cover for a book. I love the way that the ghost is waving…

I never get much in the way of writing done in the summer and early autumn; family matters always take precedence. I feel guilty about not getting down to that editing of my latest, but there seems to be no time…

I have been doing some reading. I am Beta reading a fellow author’s fantasy book, which has a darkly comic twist that appeals, and still reading the background material on the Peterloo Massacre. But there are so many distractions, and coming across So Bad It’s Good writing from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is one of them.

I have written in posts before of how my mother filled the bookshelves in the rambling old houses in which my family used to live when I was growing up by buying job lots at auctions.

These included much late Regency and Victorian writing, including books on farming, the care of poultry, guide books of the North Wales coastline, collections of sermons, classic works and much else. There was,  for instance, a massive book with the ambitious title ‘Everything Within’ which could surely only have been written by a British Victorian. In it you could find advice on supposedly all the subjects under the sun – geography, mathematics, astronomy (written, of course, from that oddly static pre Einstein perspective) a solemn exposition of phrenology,  advice on how to write letters on delicate topics, such as breaking off an engagement, and a massive amount of other varied information.

There were also, besides much twentieth century popular fiction, many  Victorian and Edwardian novels of the sort lent out by circulating libraries and deplored by the serious minded as a bad influence on maidservants.

My older half brother still lives in the Clwyd Valley in the area where my family lived for six years (the area where I set ‘That Scoundrel Emile Dubois’ and my latest – which still needs editing). He still has some of that stock which I investigated on snowy and rainy days long ago.

I came on a book which seemed likely to rival Jefferey Farnol for melodrama. It is called ‘Eve and the Law’, written by ‘Alice and Claude Askew’, published in 1905. It is a cheap hardback of the sort mass produced before paperbacks were invented, and I recognised it at once as one of the romantic melodramas of the sort churned out by Charles Garvice.

I glanced at the frontispiece. This depicted a man obviously intended to be a villain, as he sported a moustache and a conniving, suave expression – standing by the side of the tall heroine, whose upright bearing is obviously intended to illustrate a noble soul – and knew I had to read it.

I have never heard of these writers, but Wickipedia says of them that they were a married couple of British authors who wrote over ninety novels together between 1904 and their deaths when their boat was  sunk by a torpedo attack by a German submarine in 1917.

That tragic end did make me stop laughing at the sheer melodramatic absurdity of the plot of ‘Eve and the Law’ and of the list of titles generally, which includes such gems as ‘Bess of Bentley’s: A True Shop-Girl Story’ and ‘Fate- And Drusilla’.  There is something particularly horrible about a couple who depicted life in terms of romance and happy ever afters coming to a violent end.

images
Sadly, I don’t think this one is in print. I’ll have to go in for sour grapes and say maybe it wasn’t about a real vampire, but a suspected one…

Oh dear.  And oh dear, for purely selfish reasons. What with ‘Martin Coninsby’s Revenge’ and this, my background reading on the Peterloo Massacre for my planned novella will be slower than it ought to be…