by Elizabeth Gaskell
Publication Date: October 1, 1848
Project: classics club round 2
Mary Barton, the daughter of a disillusioned trade unionist, rejects her working class lover Jem Wilson in the hope of marrying Henry Carson, the mill-owner's son, and making a better life for herself and her father. But when Henry is shot down in the street and Jem becomes the main suspect, Mary finds herself painfully torn between the two men. Through Mary's dilemma and the moving portrayal of her father the embittered and courageous activist John Barton Mary Barton (1848) powerfully dramatizes the class divisions of the 'hungry forties' as personal tragedy. In its social and political setting, it looks forward to Elizabeth Gaskell's great of the industrial revolution, in particular North and South.
This was Elizabeth Gaskell’s first book, and is the second book by her which I’ve read. It’s really two books in one – the first, concentrating on John Barton (father of the titular Mary Barton) is a screed about structural inequality and capital versus labor, and the second, a courtroom drama focused around Mary Barton’s romantic travails.
As is often the case with Victorian melodramas, Mrs. Gaskell took her time getting going – about the first third of the book, focused on John Barton and the plight of the laborers is fascinating, but not precisely action packed.
I can’t overstate how relevant this book is to the conditions between capital and labor today – it’s disturbing how so much has remained the same between the excesses of the industrial revolution and today.
At all 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, till he ends in building one more magnificent than all, or withdraws his money from the concern, or sells his mill to buy an estate in the country, while all the time the weaver, who thinks he and his fellows are the real makers of this wealth, is struggling on for bread for their children, through the vicissitudes of lowered wages, short hours, fewer hands employed, &c. And when he knows trade is bad, and could understand (at least partially) that there are not buyers enough in the market to purchase the goods already made, and consequently that there is no demand for more; when he would bear and endure much without complaining, could he also see that his employers were bearing their share; he is, I say, bewildered and (to use his own word) “aggravated” to see that all goes on just as usual with the mill-owners. Large houses are still occupied, while spinners’ and weavers’ cottages stand empty, because the families that once occupied them are obliged to live in rooms or cellars. Carriages still roll along the streets, concerts are still crowded.
We are quite literally having the same conversations in 2019 that Elizabeth Gaskell was describing in 1848 when this book was published. The single distinction is that there is at least a minimal safety net now, that didn’t exist then. John Barton had a little boy, Tom, who starved to death because his father couldn’t afford sufficient food to keep him alive.
She reminds us:
Remember, too, that though it may take much suffering to kill the able-bodied and effective members of society, it does not take much to reduce them to worn, listless, diseased creatures, who thenceforward crawl through life with moody hearts and pain-stricken bodies.
I’ve often thought to myself that “Conservatives” (at least as they self-identify in the U.S.) should better be called the “New Victorians.” They are fine with this type of extreme economic winner vs. loser scenario, and with government policies that are intended to ensure that this economic Darwinism proceeds apace (so long as they are among the winners). I think often of Dickens and Gaskell when Republican politicians talk about dismantling our barely existent safety net – because history tells us what happens when we dehumanize the poor. Rich people most emphatically do not step into the breach to ensure that children don’t die of starvation and anyone who believes otherwise needs to pick up a book written during that time.
Wealthy Victorians treated the poor and vulnerable with a harsh inhumanity that negates their very right to exist. Period. #notallrichpeople, blah, blah, blah.
When we move into the second half of the book, Elizabeth Gaskell has written a pot-boiler and it becomes unputdownable. The only son of the mill owner, Henry Carson, is murdered and it looks like a completely different story. The motive is believed to have been over Mary Barton, who has been keeping company with Henry Carson, but who has spurned him when she realizes that he had no plans to marry her. Jem Wilson, the man she truly loves, is accused of the murder, and goes on trial.
It’s hard to really talk about the genius behind this book without spoiling the story. Also, I am of a mind that people who object to spoilers in a book written in 1848 are a bit unrealistic, so here I go. Ignore what follows if you plan to read this book – and I do recommend that you read this book – and you want it unspoiled.
It isn’t Jem who has murdered Henry, it is Mary’s father, and the murder is in retribution for the mill owners ignoring the plight of the working men. The decision to murder one of the owners is a decision by a group of men who have just finished degrading themselves and begging the mill owners to put them back to work because their families are starving.
John Barton began to speak; they turned to him with great attention. “It makes me more than sad, it makes my heart burn within me, to see that folk can make a jest of earnest men; of chaps who comed to ask for a bit o’ fire for th’ old granny, as shivers in th’ cold; for a bit o’ bedding, and some warm clothing to the poor wife as lies in labour on th’ damp flags; and for victuals for the childer, whose little voices are getting too faint and weak to cry aloud wi’ hunger. For, brothers, is not them the things we ask for when we ask for more wage? We donnot want dainties, we want bellyfuls; we donnot want gimcrack coats and waistcoats, we want warm clothes, and so that we get ’em we’d not quarrel wi’ what they’re made on. We donnot want their grand houses, we want a roof to cover us from the rain, and the snow, and the storm; ay, and not alone to cover us, but the helpless ones that cling to us in the keen wind, and ask us with their eyes why we brought ’em into th’ world to suffer?” He lowered his deep voice almost to a whisper.
The owners respond, not just with a no, but with a hell no, fuck you, whatever your plight means nothing to us. They respond with mockery.
Mr. Carson responds to the murder of his son in exactly the way that you think he would – he is a powerful man who has had something he valued immeasurably taken from him. He wants vengeance, and he wants it now. And so Jem Wilson is fixed upon as the sacrificial lamb and Mary, who figures out that it is actually her father who is the murderer, is caught between Scylla and Charybdis, trying to navigate an outcome where she saves them both.
The ending of the book is almost unbearably melodramatic, but still effective. John Barton is a broken man – committing the murder of Henry Carson has destroyed him. This, yet again, demonstrates the deep humanity of the poor in contrast to the wealthy. He confesses to the elder Mr. Carson, and is truly remorseful for what he did, and then he conveniently dies. At no point, though, does he confront Mr. Carson with the argument that he was simply evening the score – that the exploitation of labor to the benefit of Mr. Carson was responsible for the death of his own beloved son. There is a symmetry there that is, I’m sure, intentional, but which is left unspoken. I really would’ve liked to have seen Mr. Carson wrestle with the reality that what he experienced was, in a sense, the “eye for an eye,” which he was demanding. That an argument can be made that the murder of his son was a re-balancing of the scales.
I plan to read more Elizabeth Gaskell this year. She is so very timely. In 1848, long before Ronald Reagan was born or the preposterous fiction that putting more money in the heads of the wealthy will spur job creation, she wrote this:
“We come to th’ masters wi’ full hearts, to ask for them things I named afore. We know that they’ve gotten money, as we’ve earned for ’em; we know trade is mending, and that they’ve large orders, for which they’ll be well paid; we ask for our share o’ th’ payment; for, say we, if th’ masters get our share of payment it will only go to keep servants and horses, to more dress and pomp. Well and good, if yo choose to be fools we’ll not hinder you, so long as you’re just; but our share we must and will have; we’ll not be cheated. We want it for daily bread, for life itself; and not for our own lives neither (for there’s many a one here, I know by mysel, as would be glad and thankful to lie down and die out o’ this weary world), but for the lives of them little ones, who don’t yet know what life is, and are afeard of death.
Which is one of the best refutations of the arguments behind “trickle down economics” and “rich people are job creators” that I’ve read. Perhaps the Democrats should start tweeting out Gaskell quotes when the Republicans talk about more tax cuts for the (already obscenely) wealthy.
Read this book. And then weep.