Elizabeth Gaskell feature image

Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton

Bethany Shaffer
English 6923: Working-Class Literature
Fall 2005

Introduction

Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson Gaskell was born in 1810 in Manchester, England. She eventually married a Unitarian minister named William Gaskell. Following the Unitarian belief that women should not be submissive to their husbands, Elizabeth was given the freedom to develop her own talents and promote them. However, in the beginning of her marriage, she mainly focused on the domestic side of life, raising the four of seven children who survived into adulthood. Together, the Gaskells used their religion to reach into the surrounding communities that mainly contained working-class mill families. Gaskell often stated her sympathy for the poor situations her attendees faced. Then, after the untimely death of her son Willie, Elizabeth focused her efforts on writing away her grief. She turned to what she knew. Her first novel, Mary Barton, originally published in 1848, dealt with the lives of the mill workers she spent so much time with. With this book, Gaskell was welcomed into the literary circle of Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte (of whom she would later write a biography ). Literary critics recognized her talent and encouraged her to write as much as possible. She published over 90 works of literature in the final 25 years of her life.

Though Gaskell was not working-class herself, Mary Barton truly captures the lives of those who worked, lived, and struggled as working-class citizens. Though the novel reflects the popular romantic and mystery genres of the time, thus capturing her initial audience, the depictions of working-class life and the people involved in the textile mill clearly suggest the significance of the book in working-class literature. In writing the book, Gaskell learned of the terrible bosses and unsafe machinery in the mills, along with the extremely low wages paid for such hard work. Gaskell felt pitty for the workers and the conditions they suffered through. She not only wrote about their lives, but she also participated in charity work to help aid those most in need. Though Mary Barton initially shocked many members of British Victorian society, Gaskell was adamant about bringing issues of unfair labor and horrendous living conditions to an audience that knew little about it.

Discussion of author's work

Elizabeth Gaskell doesn’t fit the typical model of a working-class author. Financially, she was middle-class, and the majority of her novels do not address working-class themes and issues. However, Mary Barton very much speaks to, for, and about the working class in nineteenth century Manchester. Gaskell wanted to write about the experiences she had with her husband's parishioners. Through this novel, she acts as a spokesperson for those who were not given a voice. The characters are believable; their values and attitudes seem realistic for millworkers of the time. Gaskell knew that people would become interested in the working class if their lives were presented in the proper manner. She takes a the traditional form of the sentimental novel and twists it with pleas and stories from the suffering working-class mill workers. Taking a stand and bringing society's attention to the working class made Elizabeth Gaskell a revered artist. She took a genre that was never looked at seriously, and made it respectable, and in the process, she helped make the working class more visible.

Two main working-class themes can be found throughout Mary Barton. The first is class conflict. One of the main plot lines of the novel involves John Barton’s murder of one of the mill owner’s sons, a political action taken in response to the starving condition of many of the mill employees. Through this plot line, Gaskell highlights the feelings of extreme hatred and disgust between the mill workers and the mill owners. However, dialogue that reflects these views are typically spoken when the owners are not close enough to hear them. In the presence of the owners, most of the workers are polite and deferential. These scenes, especially the ones where John and his friend Legh visit a starving family, are powerful enough to engage even the least political readers into thinking about working-class issues.

The second theme is class consciousness. When John Barton returns from a conference where he attempted to push through safety and wage reforms empty handed, the mill workers come to realize that they will never be on the same level as the mill owners. Also, Mary Barton displays her class consciousness when she is forced to choose between a poor man and a rich man. She is in love with a mill worker, but one of the mill owner’s sons, Henry Carson, would love to make her his wife. Mary knows that by choosing Jem, the mill worker, she will forever remain in the working class. If she could choose Henry, her class status would be elevated as soon as she married. It is the turmoil of possibly living among a class of people who treat her class so badly that allows her heart to choose its true love, regardless of class.

One of the biggest successes of the novel is that it gives the working class of the 1840's a voice. Mark Girouard, author of "Manchester and the Industrial City", recommends that anyone interested in what life was really like in Manchester in the nineteenth century to read Mary Barton: "Do they want to know why poor men...learn to hate law and order, Queens, Lords and Commons, country party and corn-law league alike -to hate the rich, in short? Then let them read Mary Barton. Do they want to know what can madden brave, honest, industrious north-country hearts, into self-imposed suicidal strike, into conspiracy, vitriol-throwing and midnight murder? Then let them read Mary Barton. Do they want to get a detailed insight into the whole science of starving? Let them read Mary Barton" (257). Girouard believes that Mary Barton offers an accurate portrayal of the people and the issues of the mill workers in Manchester in the 1840's. As one of the first women authors to represent such a serious issue, Gaskell took a step for both working-class people and women everywhere.

List of Key Works by Elizabeth Gaskell

Mary Barton (1848) Takes the perspective of mill workers in the 1840's in Manchester, England. Addresses the issues of working class life and struggle while maintaining a sentimental attitude throughout.

Cranford (1853) Gaskell's most famous work of nonfiction. Tells of the uneventful lives of the inhabitants of a small country town in Victoria. She uses irony to examine the diverse experiences of both men and women.

North and South (1855) Almost the opposite of Mary Barton in that it take the role of the upper class sense and sensibility.

The Life of Charlotte Bronte (1857) Gaskell is most known for this biography. Though she attempts to let Bronte tell her own story through her letters, Gaskell gives the highest honor to one of her best friends.

Annotated Bibliography

Girouard, Mark. "Manchester and the Industrial City", Cities and People: A Social and Architectural History. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1985:257-270.

Girouard is explicit about the working-class themes in Mary Barton. He pays specific attention to themes of starvation, poverty, and death in the novel. He compares events in the novel with events from history. Nothing is held back about the disparity of the people of Manchester and the accurate way in which Gaskell portrays the issues and characters.

Hopkins, Annette. "Mary Barton: A Victorian Best Seller". The Gaskell Society Journal. 18.2 (2004).

This is an excellent article provides a useful overview of Mary Barton. Hopkins gives a detailed character description and analysis, offers commentary on its groundbreaking insight, and cites specific examples of the working-class themes within the novel. She focuses on the plight of mill worker John Barton and his struggle with authority, the upper class, and his eventual breakdown.

Hotz, Mary Elizabeth. "A Grave with No Name: Representations of Death in Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton". Nineteenth Century Studies. 15:37-56 (2001).

This article focused on how the novel addresses the issue of death. Hotz examines how the working class dies without dignity throughout Mary Barton and the significance this plays on the social themes within the novel.

Matsuoka, Mitsuhari. The Gaskell Web. http://lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/Gaskell.html

This website provides an in-depth look at all things concerning Elizabeth Gaskell. It includes links to academic articles, lesson plans, and journal clubs. Any reader who is not familiar with Gaskell should visit this site to learn more about her life, her novels, and her themes. Particular attention should be focused on the link that goes to "Elizabeth Gaskell's Manchester" because it provide photos and specific themes found in Mary Barton.

Ohno, Tatsuhiro. "Is Mary Barton an Industrial Novel?". The Gaskell Society Journal. 15:14-29 (2001).

Ohno looks at the treatment of both John and Mary Barton and compares the treatment of men against women. The article also provides excellent criteria for why Mary Barton should be read as an industrial/working-class novel, with emphasis on the intimate depictions of characters, settings, and accuracy.