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Mary Barton: A bold novel of social turmoil [review]

Mary Barton By Elizabeth Gaskell 

In the early 1840s, the city of Manchester was the engine house of the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

Its huge cotton mills were a magnate for people from the countryside who saw in them an opportunity to improve their lives, particularly since industrial employees were paid more than agricultural workers.

But when demand for cotton began to fall away in the mid 40s, thousands of workers were put on reduced hours or dismissed. Dissatisfaction mounted as newly unionised workers began to demand a better deal.

The social turmoil of strikes and lockouts added to the misery of overcrowded streets, inadequate water and poor sanitation.

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell, the wife of a Unitarian minister in Manchester, saw at first hand the consequences: starvation, disease, early death.

In the preface to Mary Barton: a Tale of Manchester Life she confessed that she knew nothing of political economy or the theories of trade, but she 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.”

Her intent in the novel was to give a voice to those care-worn men in order to reveal the common humanity that could serve to unite social classes.

The more I reflected on this unhappy state of things between those so bound to each other by common interests, as the employers and the employed must ever be, the more anxious I became to give some utterance to the agony which from time to time convulsed this dumb people.

Driven to desperation

Gaskell uses the figure of John Barton, a mill worker, to illustrate how even honest men are driven to desperation in such a climate.

At the start of the novel Barton is an intelligent, thoughtful man who cares strongly about two things: his family and his livelihood. He goes into a rapid decline when his wife dies in childbirth and  then the factory where he works is closed. He cannot find a job anywhere else.

He is a proud man. When his daughter asks why he does not accept money from the town so he can buy food, he replies angrily: “I don’t want money, child! D — n their charity and their money! I want work, and it is my right. I want work!”

In anger and frustration he succumbs to the temptation of opium and becomes heavily involved in the burgeoning trade union movement and the Chartist cause.

When all efforts fail to get politicians and mill owners to listen, he concludes that the only way to get their attention is through an act of violent rebellion.  He turns murderer, killing Harry Carson, the handsome but arrogant son of a mill owner.

Is violence a solution?

Gaskell rejects such violence as the solution to the problems of the working poor of Manchester.  The core of the issue for her is that workers and employers simply don’t understand each other.  As John Barton says early in the novel:

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 …

Through her narrator Elizabeth Gaskell openly pleads for the two sides to come to a meeting of the minds through communication. In the final stages of the novel she puts this idea into the mouth of one of her worker characters, an intelligent and rational man. After a meeting with the mill owner Mr Carson, father of the murdered man :

You say our talk has done no good. I say it has. I see the view you take of things from the place where you stand. I can remember that, when the time comes for judging you; I sha’n’t think any longer, does he act right on my views of a thing, but does he act right on his own. It has done me good in that way.

It’s a worthy sentiment but it’s hard to see how improved communication can have any practical application as a solution to poor wages and slum conditions.

Love and devotion

Gaskell’s other solution to the problem of the poor is revealed in the novel’s parallel plot of the problematic love life of John Barton’s daughter Mary.

Mary Barton is a good girl at heart, a hard working seamstress who is devoted to caring for the father. But she has her head turned when Harry Carson, the mill owner’s son begins paying her attention.

The silly girl thinks she can marry him and thus secure a comfortable life for herself and her father. Only after she rejects a proposal from Jem Wilson, a hard working boy she’s known all her life, does she realise it’s Jem she loves after all. But it’s almost too late.

Jem gets arrested on suspicion of Carson’s murder and it takes all of Mary’s courage to find a way of saving him. It all ends happily ever after with Jem, who had been a much respected foreman at a forge, and Mary setting up home in Canada.

It’s meant to seem a reward from his boss for his loyalty and dedication but is Gaskell suggesting that the only way out of the poverty in Manchester is to leave the country? It’s not exactly a vote of confidence in England and can surely only have limited application. Emigration was for sure an escape route for many (particularly the Irish) but how many of them really found live on the other side of the Atlantic a bed of roses?

Power of redemption

The book’s conclusion, with its emphasis on the power of redemption and heavily sentimental tone,  is the one flaw in an otherwise perfectly constructed and engaging novel that depicts real, rather than idealised Victorian family life.

The world of Mary Barton is one in which mothers die in the agony of childbirth, children suffer starvation and scarlet fever and women abandoned by their lovers end up wandering the streets as gin-soaked prostitutes. Gaskell’s characters speak in a natural voice using Lancashire colloquialisms and dialect.

It’s a bold move.

Other Victorian novelists, such as Charles Dickens, often had their protagonists and most virtuous characters speak in ‘standard English’, regardless of their social or regional background. But Gaskell’s decision gives her novel an added dimension of realism. Some of her most frequently used words such as ‘clem’ which means to suffer from extreme hunger and ‘frabbit’ which apparently means peevish, convey sentiments that would be difficult to fully capture in ‘standard English’.

Mary Barton is a novel with multiple elements.

It has a love triangle, a murder,  a tale of a wronged woman and a life and death chase, all set in a city in the grip of an industrial revolution.  It does tend towards the polemic and the melodramatic at times but fortunately it doesn’t spoil what is otherwise a powerful and moving picture of working-class life in Victorian England.

Publication history of Mary Barton

Elizabeth_Gaskell

Mary Barton was the first novel to be published by Elizabeth Gaskell.  She wrote it at the suggestion of her husband as a response to the death in infancy of  her  son from scarlet fever. It was published anonymously in 1848 though relates the events of a few years earlier and is believed to have been based on the real-life murder of a progressive mill owner in 1831.

Why I read this novel

The first novel by Elizabeth Gaskell that I read was North and South which I thoroughly enjoyed.  But having been disappointed by Wives and Daughters and Cranford, I wanted to get back to her gritty realism. Mary Barton features in my Classics Club list.

Best selling novel or a classic? What I’ll read next

Time for another  WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

What are you currently reading?

I’m almost at the end of The Salt Path by Raynor Winn.  This was one of the books I received as a present last Christmas having heard about it via one of the national newspapers in the UK. It’s proving as superb as their review indicated. It’s the true story of a couple in their fifties who lose their farm, their home and their business after an investment in a friend’s company went belly up. Then they get told the husband (who labours under the strange name of Moth) has a serious brain disease for which there is no cure. Homeless and penniless they decide to walk the South West Coastal Path – a trail of 630 miles, camping wild as they tramped. It’s a fantastic tale about courage but also makes some insightful comments about the way in which homeless people are viewed in the UK.

I’m also reading Punch, a collection of short stories by Kate North, one of the authors from Wales I’ve highlighted in my Cwtch Corner feature. Kate described the book as “A collection of strange and unsettling stories exploring the unexpected in the everyday.” I’ve read two so far and they are definitely strange – one involves an author who takes a rental cottage in France to complete her latest commission but has to share the premises with a very unfriendly mask. Another is about a man who develops a weird growth on his hand….

 

What did you recently finish reading?

Mary Barton was the first novel by Elizabeth Gaskell although her authorship was not known at the time of its publication in 1849. It’s set in Manchester and is partly a romance but, far more interesting, is that depicts the problems experienced by the working class in the city and the growth of trade unionism. The final sections do become a little heavy on the message of redemption and the need for increased understanding between workers and employers but otherwise this was a beautifully written and constructed tale.

 

What do you think you’ll read next?

I don’t have to think too hard about this for once. We have a book club meeting at the weekend and I haven’t yet opened the chosen novel – Kate Atkinson’s Transcription.  My last experience with Atkinson via Life After Life wasn’t a good one so I’m hoping Transcription proves to be more akin to the earlier Atkinson novels that I loved.

 

After that comes Evelina by Francis Burney which was the novel I ended up with as a result of the last Classics Club spin and which I’m *supposed* to read by end of May. But I won’t feel compelled to read it if I don’t feel in the mood at the time. I keep eyeing all the books I’ve bought in recent weeks and they’re calling to me more than Miss Burney.

 

From football terrace to coal disaster [#6Degrees]

fever-pitch

Before he became Mr Darcy, Colin Firth was seen on the football terraces.

We begin this month’s Six Degrees of Separation chain (#6Degrees)  with Fever Pitch, a 1992 debut book by the British author Nick Hornby in which he told the story of his relationship with football, and in particular with one club – Arsenal. The book was a huge success not surprisingly, football being almost a religion for a large part of the British population, and went on to become a successful film.

I’ve never read it. While I’ve watched a few matches in the past and can appreciate the excitement, I have little interest in the niceties of the sport. I despair enough when I hear the amateur pundits in the pub talk about a recent match so the idea of reading a book structured chronologically around specific matches fills me with horror. Definitely not a book that will be on my wishlist.

Moving swiftly on however, the first book in my chain maintains the connection to sport.

1The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a short story by Alan Sillitoe that was published as part of a collection of the same name that came out in 1959. Its protagonist is a teenager who comes from a poor family in a working class area of Nottingham in England. His prospects are bleak. Sentenced to time in a young offenders institute he takes up long-distance running – his prowess brings him to the attention of the institution’s ambitious governor. This is a novel about rebellious youth and a refusal to conform. It’s gritty realism is compelling.

Sillitoe was one of the so-called “angry young men” – a group of mostly working and middle class playwrights and novelists prominent in the 1950s that were united by their disillusionment with traditional British society. Sillitoe disliked the label as did most of the other writers to whom it was applied, such as John Osborne, particularly when their work became more divergent in style and theme.

2The angry young men also included John Braine whose novel Room at the Top provides me with my second link. Braine was a Yorkshireman by birth who left school at the age of 16 to work in variously as a shop assistant, factory hand and librarian before turning his hand to writing.  Like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Room at the Top provides a realistic portrayal of life in a working class community. It’s central character is Joe Lampton, an ambitious young man of humble origins who is determined to make something of himself and leave behind former acquaintances who he despises for their lack of life and character. But his complex relationship with two women shows he is a man of dubious morality. By the end of the novel, he is forced to consider the question of his responsibility for a tragic event. This is a novel which deals brilliantly with questions of morality and social mobility.

3My third link comes from another writer whose work is characterised by a social ‘edginess’. Stan Barstow wrote A Kind of Loving (1960) as  the first part of a trilogy featuring Vic Brown, a young  man from Yorkshire who is slowly inching his way up from his working class roots through a white-collar job. Vic finds himself trapped when his girlfriend becomes pregnant and they are forced, by the social rules of the time, into marrying. A housing shortage in northern England means they have to live with Ingrid’s domineering mother which further cramps Vic’s style.  This is a novel very much of its time which deals with ambition, consequences and compromises.

4

Social realism of course was not the exclusive purview of male writers. Almost a century before the angry young men made their mark, Elizabeth Gaskell  turned her attention to the brutality of life in the industrialised towns of northern England. My fourth link in the chain is one of her best known novels, North and South. Set in Manchester (Gaskell novel calls it  Milton) the novel looks at the troubled relationship between workers and and mill owners as seen through the eyes of one woman, the clergyman’s daughter Margaret Hale. Forced to move north from her childhood home in the leafy south of England, Margaret’s senses and sensibilities are shocked by the poverty and suffering she witnesses. It’s fair to say that Charles Dickens, Gaskell’s contemporary, covered some of the same issues but I preferred the more nuanced approach adopted by Gaskell – while she detailed the social misery experienced in the slum dwellings of the workers, she balanced this by showing that not all mill owners were oblivious to the suffering of their workers.   If all you know of Gaskell is her Cranford novels, you may be as surprised by North and South as I was when I read it about five years ago (see my review here).  

5Let stick with books set in the industrial heartland of the UK as we move onto number 5 in the chain.  The Stars Look Down is a 1935 novel by A. J. Cronin which takes place in a coal mining community in Northumberland. It traces various injustices experienced by its inhabitants over a period from just before World War 1 until the 1930s. Cronin conveys his theme through three principal figures who represent different points of view: one is a miner’s son who follows a political career to try and improve the life of people around him , the second is a miner who goes into business but is accused of being a war profiteer, and the third is the son of an unscrupulous colliery owner. Cronin’s story includes a number of pivotal moments which force these people, and the community to question its values. Like Gaskell he doesn’t come down unequivocally on one side or another – broadly you can see his sympathies lie with the workers but he also shows a recognition that some of the mine owners can be decent human beings.

6 I can’t get to the end of this chain and ignore fiction written about social conditions in my own part of the world – Wales. So for my final choice I’m selecting a novel that was one of the most highly talked about among my parent’s generation.  How Green Was My Valley is a 1939 novel by Richard Llewellyn about the Morgan family whose male members all earn their living in the dangerous world of coal mining.  It’s a story told by one of of the sons, Huw, whose academic ability sets him apart from his brothers and gives him a chance to build a future away from the mines. This is a family saga so we get the usual quota of thwarted love affairs, sibling rivalry etc but its the background of the harsh working conditions experienced by this family (and their neighbours) and their total dependancy on the mines, that provide the main interest. Cronin claimed he based the book on his personal experience though this was hotly disputed. Nevertheless the world he depicts is one my parents recognised and felt was authentic, from crippling strikes that caused hunger and set father against son, to questions about whether mine owners compromised safety in the interests of cost cutting and, inevitably to a disaster underground. The title of the book is a recognition that while coal mining brought jobs it also turned the green hillsides into black mountains, a situation that lasted well into my adult years.

Terraced houses, South Wales

Terraced houses, South Wales

And there we must end this chain. We’ve come a long way from the terraces of a London football club, travelling via northern England to Wales, encountering social disruption, class warfare and (mercifully) not much sport……I didn’t think I would be able to link book number six in the chain back to Fever Pitch but just as I was about to press ‘publish’ I had one of those light bulb moments. Fever Pitch is set on the terraces of various football clubs. Much of the action of How Green was My Valley takes places within the terraced houses of the South Wales valleys. How about that for a connection???

Clearing the review backlog: Three short reviews

Jason at We Need to Talk About Books hit on a great idea with his “books read but not reviewed” posts. Such a great idea that I’ve borrowed it to deal with a backlog of reviews that I never seem to be able to get through. I’ll start with which was the first year of this blog. Luckily I had a few notes scribbled on a document to help me recall the books.

cranfordCranford by Elizabeth Gaskell . This became a much talked about book when it was turned into a highly successful television series in the UK. Broadcast in three series from 2007, it featured some class actors like Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins and Imelda Staunton. The story is set in the early 1840s in the fictional village of Cranford in the county of Cheshire in North West England, and focuses mainly on the town’s single and widowed middle class female inhabitants who are comfortable with their traditional way of life and place great store in propriety and maintaining an appearance of gentility.

There is clearly an opportunity to reflect changes in the world around them but that never came across to me in the first few episodes I watched.  It felt too whimsical amd cosy for my tastes. The book, when  I got around to reading it left me with the same impression (just to be clear I read book one of what is  series in effect). I was missing the depth of social understanding that I’d found in Gaskell’s North and South (reviewed here)

womaninblack

Woman in Black by Susan Hill. The play of this book was one of my best theatre experiences of the late 1980s. It’s still doing the rounds so I won’t give any details away thet will spoil the surprise and shock. It’s far superior to the  later film adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe by the way. The book upon which both versions were  based was published in 1983. It’s a relatively slim volume written in the style of a traditional Gothic novel about The Woman in Black is a 1983 horror novella by Susan Hill, written in the style of a traditional Gothic novel about a mysterious spectre that haunts a small English town, heralding the death of children. The suspense is handled well and it kept me engaged theiughout a red eyed flight when I couldn’t sleep. But I wouldn’t give it many marks for quality of writing. Susan Hill seemed to think stuffing the narrative with lots of adjectives  was the best way to conjure up the atmosphere. It didn’t. It just left me feeling irritated.

witchhunter

 

The Witch Hunter by Bernard Knight. This is part of his Crowner John series which revolves around the figure of a coroner based in Exeter, England in the twelfth century. I’ve read or listened to audio versions of about half of them and they are all excellent at conjuring up the spirit of those times. I dont recall the plots usually, preferring the way Bernard Knight in eyes the uncertainties of life in those times, the struggles of a monarch trying to extort his power across the whole country in the face of opposition by the powerful barons and vested interests. Knight shows the coroner as a man of principle, determined to fulfill the responsibilities for this newly established role even if thet means he comes head to head with the county sheriff who happen so be his brother in law. In The Witch Hunter he has to contend with a community that views the death  of a prominent burgess as a signof witchcraft. Personal interests intervene when the coroners beloved mistress Nesta is implicated. I’m surprised this series doesn’t have more visibility because it’s highly readable. I’ve posted about the series in general here.

 

When do I get the sound of silence?

This seems to happen to me every Christmas. In the run up to the festivities I contemplate all those hours when, sans work pressures,  I’ll be able to indulge in nothing more demanding than picking up a book.  I even list in my head the books that will be my companions during this time.

Seven days into the holiday now and my bookish idyll has yet to materialise. I forget just how much preparation the two days of Christmas seem to require so instead of reading I found myself in a seemingly endless cycle of gift shopping, food shopping, gift wrapping and cooking. Followed by a few days when it felt as if I was either preparing a meal, eating it, or clearing away. The closest I got to a moment of silence was an hour on Boxing Day but even that was a bit of a guilty moment since when you’re staying with members of the family it seems rude to shut yourself off from the conversations.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that now the big day is over and the visitors have gone, I can get some more relaxation time. And particularly some time to get acquainted with the new additions to my book collection courtesy of generous relatives.

books2014The newcomers to my bookshelves are a mix of genres from authors originating from three continents.

From Europe comes Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton. This was recommended by a number of bloggers who read my recent review of Wives and Daughters so I shall look forward to this. I’m told its more akin to North and South which I preferred to Wives and Daughters.  A review by Stu of Winstondad’s blog   led me to request The Search Warrant by the Nobel Literature prize winner Patrick Modiano  which traces the author’s attempts to discover the fate of a young girl who vanished from a convent school during the Occupation of France in 1941. Thanks to a review by Guy at SwiftlyTiltingPlanet I became the owner of The Four Corners of Palermo by Giuseppe di Piazza which will take me to Sicily in the 1980s, an island plagued by drugs, death and – of course – the Mafia. My fourth book from the European continent is by the Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurdardottir whose novel The Silence of the Sea by which has been described as ‘a corker of a locked room mystery with one of the most dramatic twists in recent crime fiction.

The two remaining gifts are both going to be emotional reads I suspect because of their subject matter. From Australia I am welcoming Richard Flanagan and his 2014 Man Booker prize winning novel,  The Narrow Road to the Deep North which the publishers describe as ‘a savagely beautiful novel’ partly set in a Japanese POW camp on the Burma Death Railway. Death is also prevalent in my last acquisition, Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink. This is a true life account of the five days  at a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina. I remember reading an extract in a Sunday newspaper supplement and being moved to tears by her depiction of the ethical dilemmas encountered by the hospital staff who knew that they could not save all of those patients in their care.

Now my only dilemma is which of these tremendous books to read first. What would you choose?

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell

How could Elizabeth Gaskell do this to me? Seven hundred pages into Wives and Daughters (published in 1866) and her tale of life in a provincial English town came to an abrupt halt, leaving me with too many dangling plot lines. It was very inconvenient of her to go and die before finishing this novel; couldn’t she have just hung on a week or so? She could easily have wrapped the whole thing up in another 10 pages at a pinch. Fellow writer Frederick Greenwood tried his best at picking up where Mrs Gaskell left off but for all his skills, he couldn’t rise to the occasion.

I’m not so much bothered that I didn’t get to find out if the heroine Molly Gibson, managed to make it to the altar with Roger, the Squire’s son that she’d adored for years. Or if this sweet-natured doctor’s daughter also got rewarded for her loyalty to her friends and all her selfless acts of kindness.

What disappointed me more was that Mrs Gaskell left me wondering whether she would deal out some justice to Molly’s egocentric, socially pretentious stepmother Hyacinth.  She was quite the most delicious character in the whole novel, bringing a spark to all the scenes in which she appeared. We first meet her as the impoverished owner of a small school, desperately trying to make ends meet and maintain certain genteel ways. She quickly spies a way of out her predicament in the shape of Dr Gibson, a well-respected widowed doctor, that she sets about ‘improving’. The comfortable life and companionship once enjoyed by Dr Gibson and Molly are brought to an end once Hyacinth gets her way. Hyacinth starts by redecorating the doctor’s home and progresses to refinements such as moving the time of the main meal from the countryside norm of midday to six o’clock in line with the practices of London society. The doctor even finds his favourite  diet of bread and cheese is banned, replaced with the more refined French recipes and delicacies that the cook, more used to staple fair, always manages to ruin.

Hyacinth is a woman whose desire to rub shoulders with the great and the good overcame any maternal feelings towards her own daughter Cynthia. In her early years the poor girl was often left at home alone while her mother went hob-nobbing with the titled family for whom she was once a governess. Subsequently packed off to school in France, its not surprising that poor Cynthia turns out a vain, empty-headed flirt unable to form any meaningful relationships with men. Even Molly’s influence can only make a marginal impact on this girl.

What we have in Wives and Daughters is a collection of perfectly drawn characters within a narrative that charts the story of a young girl’s growth and the influence of her life on those around her. It’s not a historical novel but Gaskell deftly gives details that locate her action in the late 1820s-30s at the cusp of some momentous changes in English society. England is at peace with France though there is still bitterness and suspicion towards the French, the balance of power is still with the landed families and the protocols surrounding social calls is still prevalent. But Gaskell shows change is in the wind – the railways are starting to emerge and the Whigs and Tories are wrestling for power. It’s the glimpses of this society that Gaskell provides that I found the most interesting part of the book. They are not as evident as in George Eliot’s Middlemarch published eight years later but they are there if you keep an eye open for them.

 

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