Elizabeth Gaskell

does the rich man share his plenty with me, as he ought to do, if his religion wasn’t a humbug?

Title: Mary Barton
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Published 1848
Page count: 393

Plot summary from Goodreads: 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.

Let them eat . . . cake?

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.

Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Post previously published on August 29, 2015

Title: North and South
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
First published 1855

Summary from Goodreads: ‘How am I to dress up in my finery, and go off and away to smart parties, after the sorrow I have seen today?’

When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill-workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice. This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over his treatment of his employees masks a deeper attraction. In North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell skillfully fused individual feeling with social concern, and in Margaret Hale created one of the most original heroines of Victorian literature.

I read this all the way back in January, and I loved it so much and I had so much to say that I never managed to say any of it. So, settle in. Because this is my favorite Victorian novel of all time. I adore Middlemarch, which comes close, but nothing by Dickens or Collins or Hardy or Trollope can approach the love that I feel for North and South. I can’t believe that I’d never read it.

If I must make full confession, I have to admit that this:

May have something to do with my love for John Thornton. Yes, I’m shallow.

But Richard Armitage isn’t the only reason that I fell in love with North and South. The reasons are numerous:

First, I love the fact that it is set in the industrial north of England, which is a change from much Victorian literature that is set in London. Added to that, the fact that some of the characters are “working class” was a tremendous treat. Nicholas Higgins was a complex character who was treated respectfully by Gaskell, which delighted me. Uneducated though he was, and a bit of a political firebrand, he was willing to humble himself in an effort to get his job back when he took on the obligation of supporting the children of a fellow mill worker who had died.

Second, Mrs. Thornton was a bad ass Victorian lady. After John Thornton’s father speculated badly and lost his money, committing suicide in despair, she was left to raise two children basically by her wits alone. Her son, hardworking and ambitious, is ultimately able to buy the mill and become the owner. He says about his mother:

“My mother managed so that I put by three out of these fifteen shillings regularly. This made the beginning; this taught me self-denial. Now that I am able to afford my mother such comforts as her age, rather than her own wish, requires, I thank her silently on each occasion for the early training she gave me.”

When I take a moment to reflect on how difficult it would have been for a woman like Mrs. Thornton to not merely survive, but to thrive and remain unbowed and unbroken, I am even more impressed by Mrs. Gaskell. Mrs. Thornton has a backbone of steel – talk about strong female characters. In addition, though, she is complex and flawed, which makes her even more compelling.

Finally, the romance between John Thornton and Margaret Hale brings out the best in both of them – eventually. Margaret begins the book haughty, upset at being moved to Milton, missing the sophisticated society of southern England. She is out of her element in the industrial north, and looks down on the working class mill workers. Over time, however, she begins to see the value in their lack of sophistication, plain speech and work ethic.

This same transition occurs with her opinion of Mr. Thornton who proves himself to be more than worthy of Margaret. It is a reversal of the Lizzie Bennett/Mr. Darcy conflict. As Darcy must come to recognize that Lizzie is his equal in spite of her lack of fortune and crazy family, so must Margaret come to the conclusion that Mr. Thornton is her equal, even if he is in trade. He proves again and again that a gentleman is not born, but is made – including when he initially proposes to her, and she rejects summarily rejects him, rather than responding with anger, he takes a different approach:

“Miss Hale might love another — was indifferent and contemptuous to him — but he would yet do her faithful acts of service of which she should never know. He might despise her, but the woman whom he had once loved should be kept from shame; and shame it would be to pledge herself to a lie in a public court, or otherwise to stand and acknowledge her reason for desiring darkness rather than light.”

It takes many months for her to realize that she has fallen in love with him, as he has fallen in love with her.

“At that third call she turned her face, still covered with her small white hands, towards him, and laid it on his shoulder, hiding it even there; and it was too delicious to feel her soft cheek against his, for him to wish to see either deep blushes or loving eyes. He clasped her close. But they both kept silence.

At length she murmured in a broken voice: ‘Oh, Mr. Thornton, I am not good enough!’ ‘Not good enough! Don’t mock my own deep feeling of unworthiness.’”

And she’s right, really – society will think she is marrying down, but it is Thornton who has proven himself to be the more noble person. In the end, they both stand up to their families and declare their love for one another

‘How shall I ever tell Aunt Shaw?’ she whispered, after some time of delicious silence. ‘Let me speak to her.’ ‘Oh, no! I owe to her, — but what will she say?’

‘I can guess. Her first exclamation will be, “That man!”‘

‘Hush!’ said Margaret, ‘or I shall try and show you your mother’s indignant tones as she says, “That woman!”‘

Overall, I highly recommend this book to fans of Austen or Eliot. It is a novel of manners, but tackles significant themes as well: the struggle between modernity and tradition, the plight of the working class, appearance of virtue versus appearance of vice, and other things. I predict that it will turn out to be one of those books that I reread frequently.