Poverty. Murder. Alcoholism. Political disenchantment. Class strife. Wealth inequality. Opiate abuse. Domestic violence. No, Mary Barton is not set in the troubled 2010s, though at times it felt as if it would fit within the current conversation, proving only that while we may have come some ways since then (the dire poverty and starvation scenes are, I hope, more extreme than any currently found in Europe or the US), we are still troubled by many of the same challenges that have plagued humanity throughout our history.
He had hesitated between the purchase of meal or opium, and had chosen the latter, for its use had become a necessity with him. He wanted it to relieve him from the terrible depression its absence occasioned. (Chapter X)
Gaskell’s debut novel, Mary Barton does not appear to me to be as well-known as several of her others. Nor do I believe the writing to be a prime example of top-notch Victorian literature (based on my limited knowledge/experience; I may be off-base!), though Gaskell was clearly a keen observer of character. But it seems an important novel nonetheless, as it presented to her Victorian middle-class readers a vivid picture of the lives of the working poor, people whose desperation they were perhaps otherwise unaware of.
And when I hear, as I have heard, of the sufferings and privations of the poor, of provision shops where ha’porths of tea, sugar, butter, and even flour, were sold to accommodate the indigent,–of parents sitting in their clothes by the fireside during the whole night for seven weeks together, in order that their only bed and bedding might be reserved for the use of their large family,–of others sleeping upon the cold hearthstone for weeks in succession, without adequate means of providing themselves with food or fuel (and this in the depth of winter),–of others being compelled to fast for days together, uncheered by any hope of better fortune, living, moreover, or rather starving, in a crowded garret, or damp cellar, and gradually sinking under the pressure of want and despair into a premature grave; and when this has been confirmed by the evidence of their careworn looks, their exciting feelings, and their desolate homes,–can I wonder that many of them, in such times of misery and destitution, spoke and acted with ferocious precipitation? (chapter VIII)
Set in the mill town of Manchester, 1839-42, Mary Barton centers largely around the story of Mary, a young, sometimes naïve seamstress, and her millworker, unionist father John, as well as pieces of the lives of their friends, the Wilsons (George and Jane, their son Jem, George’s sister Alice and her foster son Will), and Margaret Jennings and her grandfather Job Legh. John has grown embittered by the hardships of his life, including the deaths of his young son, and later, his wife in childbirth. A secondary thread of the novel follows his descent from a decent, hardworking man, to a man poisoned by his hate for “the masters.” But the real story is that of Mary’s romantic entanglement with Harry Carson, the son of one of the millowners, the devotion of Jem Wilson to her nonetheless, and the consequences of their respective interactions. Unlike the love triangles of fluffier novels, this is a story that seems doomed only for despair.
Indeed, much of the novel is dark. The poverty of the millworkers—especially in times when work was scarce—was keen. Mortality was high. It seems a depressing sort of novel, yet Gaskell provided notes of hope throughout, whether the kindness of friends or complete strangers or the positive and cheerful attitude of another. And the through line of romance balances the political aspects of the story. It is clearly a political story, one that resonates over 150 years later, but it is also an entertainment, though one that illuminates a world that may be far different than the reader’s own. Somehow Gaskell balances these competing interests seamlessly, only dipping into the maudlin or overly-coincidental at select times. In the end, a satisfying read.
“Working folk won’t be ground to the dust much longer. We’n a’ had as much to bear as human nature can bear. So, if th’ masters can’t do us no good, and they say they can’t, we mun try higher folk.” (Chapter VIII)
Besides, the starving multitudes had heard, that the very existence of their distress had been denied in Parliament; and though they felt this strange and inexplicable, yet the idea that their misery had still to be revealed in all its depths, and that then some remedy would be found, soothed their aching hearts, and kept down their rising fury. (Chapter VIII)
“Aye, dear; being patient is the hardest work we, any on us, have to do through life, I take it. Waiting is far more difficult than doing. (Chapter XII)
Then uprose the guilty longing for blood!–The frenzy of jealousy!–Some one should die. He would rather Mary were dead, cold in her grave, than that she were another’s. (Chapter XIV)
…he beset Mary more than ever. She was weary of her life for him. From blandishments he had even gone to threats–threats that whether she would or not she should be his; he showed an indifference that was almost insulting to her everything which might attract attention and injure her character. (Chapter XV)
“It’s not much I can say for myself in t’other world. God forgive me; but I can say this, I would fain have gone after the Bible rules if I’d seen folk credit it; they all spoke up for it, and went and did clean contrary.” (Chapter XXXV)
(I started Mary Barton for The Classic’s Club’s end-of-the-year classic spin. Alas, I both underestimated the length of the novel and started it too late to successfully finish by the December 31 deadline! Part of my Classics Club list.)