Stephen Carver looks at Mary Barton

Stephen Carver looks at Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel, on the plight of factory workers in the mills of Manchester in the 1840s

In 1848, Europe was experiencing the greatest upheaval since Napoleon. The year had begun with a revolution in the Two Sicilies; by February, the French had declared another republic and Marx and Engels had published the Communist Manifesto. By March, there were barricades in Berlin, riots in Sweden, and the Hapsburgs were looking decidedly insecure. The Danes were demanding a constitutional monarchy, and there were nationalist uprisings in the Romanian Principalities, Poland, and Ireland, now three years into the Great Famine. In England, the new industrial labouring class had organised into the Chartist movement ten years before, calling loudly for electoral reform. Now, the Chartists once more seized the moment to lobby parliament with huge outdoor gatherings across the country prefacing the presentation of a third petition. The Duke of Wellington, then 79, was tasked with defending London. Like the climax of an epic novel, societal tensions could no longer be contained; oppositional forces were moving towards an inevitable collision.

This was also the year that Chapman & Hall, at the recommendation of Dickens’ friend and agent, John Forster, published the debut novel of an anonymous female author entitled Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life. Astute reviewers quickly grasped the connection. ‘When people on Turkey carpets with their three meat meals a day are wondering why working men are turning Chartist and Communist,’ wrote Charles Kingsley in Fraser’s Magazine, ‘then let them read Mary Barton.’ And he didn’t stop there. If, he continued, the rich wanted to know why men grew to hate them and turn their backs on God, why mothers gave their babies opium to assuage the pains of hunger, and what a human being looks like when he starves to death in a filthy cellar, ‘then let them read Mary Barton.’ (Kingsley would go on to write his own ‘Condition of England’ novel, Alton Locke, in 1850, which was sympathetic to the Chartist cause.) Although his readers were by then no strangers to religious tracts, government reports and earnest social investigations into the living conditions of the new urban working class, there was clearly nothing like a good novel to really raise awareness. As George Eliot would later write: ‘The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies.’ There was something in the air, and Mary Barton had clearly caught it.

Then, as now, old orders were rapidly changing for which there was no precedent. Britain was the first industrial nation; and as farm labourers, redundant artisans and economic migrants poured into the cities looking for work, by the middle of the century the urban population exceeded the rural for the first time in any country in history. No British city exemplified this change more than Manchester, which had turned traditional handloom weavers into cotton mill workers, while entrepreneurs, factory owners and their financiers amassed vast fortunes.

For some commentators, intoxicated by dynamic economic growth, Manchester was a symbol of national pride, heralding a new era of innovation and prosperity. As the hero of Disraeli’s Coningsby (1844) enters Manchester, he declares:

What Art was to the ancient world, Science is to the modern; the distinctive faculty. In the minds of men the useful has succeeded to the beautiful. Instead of the city of the Violet Crown, a Lancashire village has expanded into a mighty region of factories and warehouses. Yet rightly understood, Manchester is as great a human exploit as Athens.

But Disraeli didn’t live there. The author of Mary Barton did. As W.R. Greg noted in the Edinburgh Review, she (because he was certain the author was a woman) should not be confused with the type of writer who ‘get up the needful information, and then prepare a story as a solicitor might prepare a case.’ Instead, ‘She has evidently lived much among the people she describes, made herself intimate at their firesides, and feels a sincere, though sometimes too exclusive and undiscriminating, sympathy with them.’ Greg, who was a friend of the Gaskell’s, found much to like in the novel’s execution. His criticism, however, was representative of that of many outright negative reviewers, who simply couldn’t comprehend the world Mary Barton depicted. If only the doomed factory worker John Barton had saved his money in periods of economic boom, they said, constantly retrained to keep up with emergent technology, and tried to understand better the financial risks that manufacturers and venture capitalists took, then he would have been fine. And this ‘self-help’ argument is still wheeled out today, in defence of the brutal Darwinism of our own ‘gig’ economy, making the novel as relevant now as it was when it was written.

To a ‘sympathetic’ observer, Manchester was less Athenian, more infernal; and in the most Miltonic sense – it was also rebellious. In the last century, Manchester had welcomed the Jacobite army of the ’45, while the spirit of Peterloo hung over the place as heavily as the smog that turned the snow black. In 1831, three striking workers even assassinated the Manchester mill owner Thomas Ashton to send a message to their employers. The city was a centre for Chartist and Anti-Corn Law League protests, and while both movements hated the government, they also loathed each other. Demonstrations frequently descended into riots, not helped by the rhetoric of many activists. In a vast rally on Newcastle Town Moor in 1839, for example, the Methodist minister Joseph Rayner Stephens told a crowd of 40,000 Chartists, Leaguers, factory reformers and anti-Poor Law campaigners that he was ‘a revolutionist by fire, a revolutionist by blood,’ and should their demands be ignored they should burn the city to the ground. Stephens served 18 months of hard time for sedition and General Sir Charles Napier was sent north to restore order. ‘Poor rascals, poor rogues, drunken ragamuffins and prostitutes form the moral,’ he wrote of Manchester, ‘soot made into paste by rain and physique, and the only view is a long chimney. What a place! The entrance to hell realised!’

Mary Barton was, of course, the work of Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell, a fact which most people who knew her worked out very quickly from the tone of the novel, recognising not just her strong moral opinions but her manner of speaking. Gaskell was married to the prominent Unitarian and academic Reverend William Gaskell, the minister of Cross Street Unitarian Chapel in Manchester and a pioneering charity worker. He was devoted to improving public health and living conditions (Manchester had been subject to several outbreaks of cholera and typhus, the latter being the ‘fever’ that runs through Mary Barton), alleviating poverty, and educating the workers. Unlike many of his reformist contemporaries, William had little interest in political activism. Instead, he did what he could to help directly, through hands-on social work and fundraising, privately tutoring poor mill workers and teaching evening classes at the Manchester Mechanics’ Institute and Manchester Working Men’s College. He was an early exponent of dialectology and sociolinguistics and published widely on the subject, specialising in Lancashire dialects. (The footnotes in Mary Barton explaining local idioms are William’s.) He also wrote poetry, using everyday language to sensitively portray the lives of ordinary working people, which drew favourable attention from Wordsworth. These poems were collected in Temperance Rhymes, which is dedicated ‘to the working men of Manchester.’ The poem ‘Sketches among the Poor’ was co-written with Elizabeth.

Elizabeth shared her husband’s values, and as a minister’s wife she was active in parish duties, home visits to the poor and various charitable projects, all of which she managed around their growing family. Like William, she taught the children of mill workers at two Sunday schools. Elizabeth was well-liked across the social classes with which she mixed, from intellectuals and society folk – the so-called ‘millocracy’– to the denizens of the slums described by James Kay-Shuttleworth and Friedrich Engels. She was attractive, sociable, highly intelligent, and an animated talker, whereas her husband was quiet and reserved outside the chapel and the classroom. She loved ghost stories and local gossip the best. But she was also prone to anxiety and depression, which William found difficult to deal with, preferring to avoid negativity as if it were contagious. His advice was always to ‘keep busy’.

Elizabeth began to write as a hobby after the birth of her second child, Marianne, in 1834, keeping a diary reflecting on motherhood, faith and the development of her child. (Her first child, another daughter, was stillborn the year before and not named.) The Gaskell’s wide social circle included the literary couple William and Mary Howitt, both prolific collaborative writers. (Mary was the author of ‘The Spider and the Fly’, probably one of the best known and most quoted poems in English popular verse, and William’s history Colonization and Christianity is cited favourably in the first volume of Marx’s Capital.) The Howitt’s encouraged Elizabeth’s writing, publishing her essays in their histories Visits to Remarkable Places and The Rural Life of England, and three short stories (under the pseudonym ‘Cotton Mather Mills’) in Howitt’s Journal, an eclectic and short-lived literary magazine. These stories, ‘Libbie Marsh’s Three Eras’, ‘The Sexton’s Hero’ and ‘Christmas Storms and Sunshine’ (all well worth seeking out) feature many of the themes that would be explored and developed in Mary Barton: a Manchester setting, accurate depictions of working and lower-middle-class life and its economic realities, and the closeness of not just family but community, especially among the women. In the stories, love is shown to be a social virtue, not simply romantic, or even instinctive, but part of wider altruism that is possible between strangers. The tone is Dickensian – witty and affectionate but moving towards a serious conclusion. The stories are set in the early-30s, however, so there is none of the poverty, unemployment, and class war of Mary Barton. This grew out of the ‘Hungry 40s’ and a much more personal trauma.

The Gaskell’s first and only son, William, was born in 1844. Red-haired like his mother, ‘Willie’ was a healthy and even-tempered baby and the family adored him. Elizabeth’s diary and letters paint a picture of a loving and slightly chaotic Victorian family, typical of the provincial middle class, but she also fretted about her children’s health – especially in periods of the epidemic. She liked to escape to the countryside, to replace the miasmic fumes of Manchester with the crisp clean air of Snowdonia, and Mary Barton is framed by open and closing scenes in idealised pastoral settings. Working-class characters are also divided between the older folk, like the wonderful Alice Wilson, who remember their rural childhoods, and John Barton’s demographic, who were born in the polluted city. Elizabeth had a horror of contagious diseases – she had seen what they could do, especially among the poorer members of her husband’s parish – and in part to distance themselves from an outbreak of scarlet fever, she and William took Marianne and the 9-month-old Willie on holiday in Wales. But the mountain villages were as infectious as the city, and Marianne soon fell ill. She shook it off relatively quickly, but then Willie became suddenly and seriously ill. His little body and as yet undeveloped immune system were no match for the infection, and he died soon after.

Elizabeth was devastated, and after her son’s funeral she broke down. Terrible, hopeless grief oppressed her. Falling back on his belief that the best way to fight depression was to distract oneself with activity, William encouraged his wife to make the leap from short fiction to a novel. It is to this that Elizabeth obliquely refers in the opening line of her preface to Mary Barton: ‘Three years ago I became anxious (from circumstances that need not be more fully alluded to) to employ myself in writing a work of fiction.’ She initially began a historical novel set in eighteenth-century Yorkshire, but somehow this did not offer the solace that she so desperately needed. It was as if the city around her was calling, with its very real and commonplace trials of poverty, disease, and death, much of it a by-product of industrialisation and laissez-faire capitalism. As Thomas Carlyle had written, ‘England is full of wealth, yet England is dying of inanition’.

Elizabeth also felt an intense bond with parents who had lost their kids to epidemics, and it was around this tragic reality that a new story grew:

I bethought me how deep might be the romance in the lives of some of those who elbowed me daily in the busy streets of the town in which I resided. 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…

It was also to be based on her own experience as a charity worker:

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…

And although she prudently hedges as to whether such grievances are justified, she still manages to strongly imply that they are – the inequality is man-made and maintained, and accepting God’s will feels conditional – while introducing the key themes of social injustice and revenge:

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. It is enough to say, that this belief of the injustice and unkindness that they endure from their fellow creatures, taints what might be resignation to God’s will, and turns it to revenge in too many of the poor uneducated factory workers of Manchester.

(Clearly, the murder of Thomas Ashton was an inspiration.) She goes on to describe workers and their masters as ‘bound to each other by common interest’, hinting at a symbiotic relationship which should, and even could, be based on mutual interest rather than conflict. Apparently hedging further, she concludes ‘I know nothing of political economy or the theories of trade.’ This was to give her many critics an open goal even though it wasn’t true. She was well aware of the prevailing theories (and an avid reader of Carlyle), although not committed to any of them. Instead, like many of her more liberal contemporaries, she was trying to make sense of a period of unprecedented technological and economic change while living through it. This is why the hero of Dickens’ Hard Times (1854), Stephen Blackpool, dies having reached no further conclusion than: ‘’Tis a muddle, and that’s aw … awlus a muddle. That’s where I stick. I come to the muddle many times and agen, and I never get beyond it.’ Neither did Dickens, who, like Elizabeth, saw Christian Brotherhood as the answer, rather than a decent union.

That said, her final points equally suggest that theories of trade and political economy are neither here nor there in the face of the facts, her direct experience thereof already well established. ‘I have tried to write truthfully,’ she continues, using the same argument as Dickens in his preface to the controversial Oliver Twist, and which Anne Brontë had just deployed in her preface to the downright scandalous The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. She concludes by letting these facts speak for themselves:

To myself the idea which I have formed of the state of feeling among too many of the factory people in Manchester, and which I endeavoured to represent in this tale (completed above a year ago), has received some confirmation from the events which have so recently occurred among a similar class on the Continent.

The workers of the world were uniting. Europe was on fire. Will they, Elizabeth seems to be asking, want equality or revenge?

Mary Barton, then, is a political novel descriptively, but not prescriptively. It shows the reality of the free market, manufacturing, and a boom or bust economy, as well as accurately portraying the very different lives of the workers and the industrialists. It does not, however, propose a political solution; although this representational social accuracy was mistaken for political bias by her many critics, just as similarly factual reports by journalists, academics and charities still are today. The symbol she chooses above all others to represent the relationship between classes is the parable of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), which begins: ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table…’

This is introduced in the first chapter in a dialogue between best friends George Wilson and John Barton, triggered by Wilson’s affectionate jibe, ‘Thou never could abide the gentlefolk.’ Barton’s reply, however, is deathly serious:

‘And what good have they ever done me that I should like them? If I am sick, do they come and nurse me? If my child lies dying (as poor Tom lay, with his white wan lips quivering, for want of better food than I could give him), does the rich man bring the wine or broth that might save his life? If I am out of work for weeks in the bad times, and winter comes, with a black frost, and keen east wind, and there is no coal for the grate, and no clothes for the bed, and the thin bones are seen through the ragged clothes, does the rich man share his plenty with me, as he ought to do, if his religion wasn’t a humbug? When I lie on my deathbed, and Mary (bless her) stands fretting, as I know she will fret, will a rich lady come and take her to her own home if need be, till she can look round, and see what best to do? No, I tell you, it’s poor, and the poor only, as does such things for the poor. Don’t think to come over me with th’ old tale, that the rich know nothing of the trials of the poor. I say, if they don’t know, they ought to know. We’re their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows; and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds; ay, as separate as Dives and Lazarus, with a great gulf betwixt us: but I know who was best off then.’

(Like Elizabeth, John has lost a son – Tom – to scarlet fever.) John, the intended protagonist of the novel (which was called John Barton until Chapman & Hall suggested it be changed to Mary Barton to avoid making a murderer the hero), cannot see past imagining the rich in hell, which will ultimately be his downfall. Elizabeth, however, is making a much more complex point. In the original parable, the social dialectics are clearly outlined with ‘between us and you a great chasm has been set in place.’ Understanding, empathy and communication might bridge this chasm, but only if the wealthy are willing to talk and listen, which they don’t seem inclined to do. Dives (not actually a name, but a word for ‘rich man’), ignores the starving Lazarus until he, himself, is in distress and needs help. He also understands that it would literally take a miracle to make his family members listen and take notice. John picks this theme up with his bitter comment that ‘the rich know nothing of the trials of the poor. I say, if they don’t know, they ought to know.’ This is the central message of Mary Barton.

Throughout the novel, ignorance subverts communication. When Wilson visits the home of the rich mill owner, John Carson, to request an infirmary order for one of his workers, Ben Davenport, who is dying of fever, he first waits in the kitchen. Wilson, who is out of work at this point, like Davenport and Barton, is starving. He has to watch Carson’s servants preparing a lavish breakfast, but ‘If the servants had known this, they would have willingly given him meat and bread in abundance; but they were like the rest of us, and not feeling hunger themselves, forgot it was possible another might.’ Wilson, meanwhile, is either too proud or too embarrassed to ask. When he’s presented to Carson and his son, Harry, in their opulent family dining room, the mill owner has no idea who Davenport even is. All he offers is an out-patient order for the following Monday, which is far later than Davenport has, having no real conception of the seriousness of the other man’s condition. Harry has five shillings in loose change in his pocket (notably the same amount John received for pawning everything he owned bar the clothes he stood up in). He gives this to Wilson for the ‘poor fellow’, which is almost as inadequate as his father’s response. Neither, Elizabeth implies, can possibly imagine a starving man in rags dying of typhus on the dirty floor of a freezing cellar, a scene she goes on to show the reader in vivid and heart-rending detail, juxtaposing the squalid basement apartment with the splendour of Carson’s home. And even if Harry’s sympathy is genuine, he’s still intent on seducing Barton’s daughter Mary on a whim, ruining then abandoning her as her Aunt Esther’s rich lover had done. And later, it is a clever joke at the expense of a trade union delegation that seals his fate; he cannot understand their grievances, they cannot understand his humour.

Davenport’s inevitable death is one of a chain of bitter experiences that radicalises John Barton. He is undoubtedly the primary character in the first half of the novel, which documents his world, his involvement with Chartism, and his disillusionment after the failure of the second petition, at which he is one of the northern delegates. He has lost his son, his wife, his job, his possessions, and several of his friends, who have died by plague or famine while the idle rich continue their untroubled existence and the politicians that represent them ignore the entreaties of the working poor. Worse, one of them is sham-wooing his daughter, who dreams naively of marriage and a better life. And as Elizabeth depicts his descent into what would nowadays be called an act of domestic terrorism, she also shows his growing depression, a feeling she understood all too well. This narrative is a masterpiece of brooding character study and evocative setting.

The rest of the novel largely belongs to Mary, with the social realism giving way to a faster-paced and nail-biting courtroom drama. Twentieth-century critics like Raymond Williams and Stephen Gill consider this something of a cop-out, the author leading her reader out of the real world of the 1840s into the much less demanding realm of the romantic novel, the irony being that while many Victorian critics viewed Mary Barton as too radical, post-war Marxists like Williams didn’t think it was radical enough. But Elizabeth had planned her main plot line meticulously, and the melodrama of Mary’s narrative convey her key moral themes in an engaging and memorable way that gritty social realism and earnest cultural study alone could never do. And as she later wrote to a friend about her novel Ruth (1853), which was burned by some members of her husband’s flock because its heroine was a prostitute: ‘I did feel as if I had something to say about it that I must say, and you know I can tell stories better than any other way of expressing myself.’

Only in the novel’s resolution does the plot feel a little forced, although we can hardly disagree with Elizabeth’s symbolic gesture of reconciliation between the classes. At the end of the day, after all the anger, conflict and even violence, this is what opposing sides must always do, and was always going to have to do: talk to each other; because, Mary Barton ultimately shows us, the only way anyone can live in peace is if they’re prepared to forgive. And this is as good advice today as it was in 1848.

Image: Snowfall on the sculpture of a mill girl outside the George Lawton Hall in the village of Mossley, Greater Manchester

Credit: Matthew Wilkinson / Alamy Stock Photo