Friday, January 26, 2007

Mary Barton, pt. 1

I'm currently reading Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton for the Classics Challenge, and posting thoughts on the first twenty chapters. (Jill, have you started it yet?) [Correction: Make that the first ten chapters; must've been seeing double when I looked at the roman numerals in the chapter heading...]

Random thoughts: The preface makes it evident this is a novel of social justice, "to give some utterance to the agony which from time to time convulses [the Manchester factory workers]," to illustrate (and perhaps bring about some means to alleviate) their plight.

Oh! 'tis hard, 'tis hard to be working
The whole of the live-long day,
When all the neighbors about one
Are off to their jaunts and play.

The above, a Manchester song which serves as an epigraph for chapter 1, introduces two of Gaskell's techniques. Although her preface refers to the workers as "dumb," or voiceless, Gaskell incorporates songs and poems giving them a voice and reiterating (or baldly stating) their hardships. Her use of Manchester dialect adds verisimilitude and again acknowledges the distinctive voice of her subject.

As does the song, Gaskell frequently constructs contrasting scenes and situations. The opening paragraph even speaks of "the effect of contrast in these [. . .] thoroughly rural fields, with the busy, bustling manufacturing town [of Manchester]." The garden in this pleasant rural environment grows "in most republican and indiscriminate order" and all things flourish: "the young green leaves . . . almost visibly fluttered into life." The main characters (and first mention of moral dangers of factory life) are introduced into this happy setting, but death (of the first Mary Barton, the title character's mother) arrives almost as soon as they return to the city. This tragedy brings about more contrasts: after the death of his wife, John Barton is "a changed man," a situation exacerbated by economics:

At times it is a bewildering thing to the poor weaver to see his employer removing from house to house, each one grander than the last . . . concerts are still crowded by the subscribers, the shops for expensive luxuries still find daily customers, while the workman loiters away his unemployed time in watching these things and thinking of the pale, uncomplaining wife at home, and the wailing children asking in vain for enough of food, -- of the sinking health, of the dying life of those near and dear to him. The contrast is too great. (emphasis added)

The situation worsens after a mill fire: the employers have "happy family evenings" and pleasant leisure while the workers' "family music was hungry wails [and] the very closest bonds of nature were snapt."

Mary's aspiring suitors provide yet another contrast. They are Harry Carson, the son of the owner of the mill that burned, and Jem Wilson, the son of one of Carson's factory workers. Mentions of the former are frequently accompanied by authorial comments foreshadowing disaster from the relationship, an idea perhaps reinforced via the differences between Mary's two girlfriends. Margaret, friend of Jem's family, seems to embody all positive virtues, while the deceitful Sally, who helps Carson in wooing Mary, is "vulgar-minded to the last degree."

Stylistically, Gaskell occasionally adopts an intrusive narrative voice to reinforce her points ("And when I hear, as I have heard, of the sufferings and privations of the poor . . . can I wonder that many of them, in such times of misery and destitution, spoke and acted with ferocious precipitation?")

Miscellaneous connections to other works/situations: an early reference to "an acuteness and intelligence of countenance, which has often been noticed in a manufacturing population" calls up memories of the Lowell mill girls and their writings and interest in education; the movement for shorter work hours also parallels events in the Lowell mills; there's an intriguing statement -- italicized in Gaskell's text -- that "'far th' greater part o' the accidents as comed in, happened in th' last two hours o' work' when people were tired and careless" (which the editor's notes attribute to Lord Ashley "during the debate of the Factory Bill, 1844"), an argument I don't remember encountering in the Ten-Hour Movement in the US.


Blogger Jill said...

I have not yet started Mary Barton, Didi, but expect to do so soon. I've been real slow these past few days as I succumbed to a winter cold. Blech.

12:23 PM  

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