Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Review: Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life

Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life by Elizabeth Gaskell. Edited with an introduction and notes by Shirley Foster. New York: Oxford University Press. 2006. 480 pages.

A tale of Manchester working life set in the 1830s, Mary Barton begins as bucolically as any gritty urban novel can. The Bartons, who are expecting an addition to the family, meet the Wilsons, who are carrying their infant twins, at Green Heys Fields. The charm of these low, flat, treeless tracts lies in their rural contrast to "the busy, bustling manufacturing town [he] left but half an hour ago." The couples adjourn to the Barton home for tea, where Gaskell lovingly describes every modest luxury such working folk can manage—the bright green japanned tea tray with its scarlet lovers, the cupboard of crockery and glass of which Mrs. Barton is so proud, and the hodgepodge of furniture ("sure sign of good times among the mills"). In honor of their guests, the Bartons send young Mary out for fresh eggs ("one a-piece, that will be five pence"), milk, bread, and Cumberland ham.

Thus Mary Barton commences with a self-conscious air of cautious prosperity, but underneath the pleasure of the occasion are hints of despair to come—Mrs. Barton's distress over the disappearance of her sister, and the Wilsons' "little, feeble twins, inheriting the frail appearance of their mother." In chapters I and II, Gaskell sets up the end of abundance and joy for the Bartons and the beginning of misery for their entire class in the mill city of Manchester.

Mary Barton is a novel of contrasts. While the Bartons take homely pride in their furniture and wares, the Carsons live in a "good house . . . furnished with disregard to expense . . . [with] much taste shown, and many articles chosen for their beauty and elegance. As Carson's former employee, Ben Davenport, lies dying in a filthy basement in the company of his wife and children, who are "too young to work, but not too young to be cold and hungry," Carson's youngest daughter Amy tells her brother and father that she "can't live without flowers and scents" and that "life was not worth having without flowers." They can't live without food and shelter, and she thinks she can't live without luxuries. Perhaps the most terrible contrast is between the "listless, sleepy” Carson sisters and the tragedy that interrupts their idle chatter.

The contrast and conflict between the rich and the poor, the men and the masters, is not conventionally based on envy or even class; Carson was once no better and no richer than anyone else. The men don't aspire to wealth, at least for now. They want to feed their families and perhaps to enjoy the simple comforts the Bartons once shared with the Wilsons. What keeps masters and men apart is not class or money, but a more fundamental unwillingness to acknowledge the other’s humanity. Mr. Carson can't be bothered to recall who Ben Davenport is, other than one of the many faceless men who worked for him for many years, or to give Wilson more than a useless outpatient order. Instead of approaching the masters, the men, who are powerless as individuals, join groups and send delegates like John Barton to London and Glasgow to try to gain government support for their cause. On their own, they fail.

Neither side is willing to break the communication barrier. Ignoring one of their number who wisely notes, "I don't see how our interests can be separated," the masters choose to hide the conundrum they face from the men, who are described as "cruel brutes . . . more like wild beasts than human beings." Even as the omniscient narrator shows the just causes for both groups’ anger toward one another and tries to avoid demonstrating a preference, she can't resist retorting parenthetically, "Well, who might have made them [the men] different?" It takes a murder and a near miscarriage of justice merely to open the door to redemption for the man in each side's leading role.

Mary becomes the fulcrum of the characters and plot, connecting the Bartons to the Carsons, the unforgiving John to the repentant Esther, the worldly men and the more spiritually minded women. Through positive and negative models like Alice, Job, Margaret, Esther, Mrs. Wilson, and Sally, and through her true and patient if frustrated lover, Mary avoids Esther's fate and is transformed from a heedless young girl into a courageous woman who is able to withstand the pull of her divided loyalties.

Confronted with the undeniable humanity of John Barton and the relentlessness of his unfamiliar poverty, Mr. Carson finally recognizes the need for change. As guardian of the old institutions, however, he struggles with his ambivalence toward taking action. Meanwhile, Mary Barton simply leaves the dead and the past behind to embrace an entirely different kind of future in a new country.

Mary Barton lacks some of the psychological depth and nuances that make Gaskell's Wives and Daughters more interesting and engaging; here, the characters behave consistently and predictably. Despite the ease of its characterizations and assumptions, though, Mary Barton is a surprisingly stark, unvarnished look at the poorer, seamier side of urban industrial life. Gaskell accomplishes what the masters and men have failed to do—she recognizes the humanity in each of them and hints at its potential if only it is discovered and embraced.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009.
Copyright © 2009 by Diane L. Schirf.

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