The Clare Spark Blog

November 25, 2011

Gaskell’s Mary Barton and the road to family values

Numerous Victorian novelists and other artists lamented the switch from cottages ensconced in small farms and supported by home-based industry (e.g. hand-loom weaving) to the degradation resulting from  material inequality in such industrial cities as Manchester. Foregrounded was the heartlessness of its money-mad nouveaux riches and the potentially savage new industrial working class.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel, the sentimental, melodramatic Mary Barton (1848) marks yet another milestone in the march toward social democracy and the paternalistic welfare state, but this time, with an explicit view of the unifying power of religion that explains its appeal to social conservatives in industrializing Britain. Gaskell is ideologically linked to the critique of class warfare that blames the rising bourgeoisie and the “cash nexus” for urban poverty and mayhem. Look to Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present, Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, or the Two Nations, then Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke with moral reform (the purified Heart) as the preferred solution to violent class struggle of the type imagined by Mrs. Gaskell. It was novelists such as she who lamented  material inequality in such industrial cities as Manchester, attributing it to the heartlessness of the frivolous, hard-hearted, self-absorbed glitterati of the day.

For a detailed plot summary see Gaskell is no Jane Austen, celebrating accomplishments, learning, and wit in her middle-class heroines.  Rather, it is the selfless heroism and the capacity for a regenerated heart that characterizes the golden-haired seamstress Mary Barton. Mary makes the transition from vanity in her beauty and the delusion that Harry Carson, the flirtatious and caddish only son of a local mill owner, might marry her, to a super-heroine. She braves and survives the most awful dangers and trials in order to exonerate her true love, a working class hero, James Wilson, from the verdict of murder of her phantom lover, a crime actually committed by Mary’s widower father John Barton, an embittered worker who acts under orders from a mysterious Union man from London, organizing and enraging the recently laid-off starving workers from Carson’s factory.

Gaskell does not offer a material solution to the class struggle; rather she looks to religion and Christian family values, as in these lines from Chapter 37. The bereaved father, Mr. Carson, wishes “…that none might suffer from the cause from which he had suffered [i.e., vindictive class warfare]; 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 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.”

Enter the aversion to studies of political economy and the dread economic determinism that guided the institution building of such American Founders as Alexander Hamilton. This was not the preferred education for either labor or their employers, though Gaskell herself understood that English competition with European manufactures was a factor in the unemployment that is the backdrop of her novel.

It was only nine years later that Melville’s novel The Confidence-Man, His Masquerade was published. Its most memorable words: “NO TRUST.” At the same time, his competition was singing “Home, Sweet Home.” (!_Sweet_Home!) (If Wiki redirects you, just go with it. Some detail is really there, but not with all the lyrics. I might dig them up and add to this blog.)

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