Table of Contents
Brief Outline of the Historic Background
The Decline of John Barton
Gaskell’s Solution to the Social Question
Although her first novel “Mary Barton – A Tale of Manchester Life“ was immensely popular when it was published in 1848, Elizabeth Gaskell does not range among the most widely known mid-Victorian writers. In retrospect, beside literary masters like Charles Dickens or her personnel friend Charlotte Brontë, Mrs. Gaskell’s stylistic artistry seems to pale a little.
Accordingly, I will not focus on the novel’s aesthetic qualities but rather on its referential function. Mary Barton offers valuable insights into Victorian society, especially into the living conditions of the working classes. And it reflects one of the most important and most controversial discussions of the 19th century: the discussion on the Social Question. It can be read as Gaskell’s contribution to this discussion, as a plea for harmony among the different classes of society, and against hatred on whatever side.
The Social Question arose with the Industrial Revolution. The term refers to the problems arising from the underprivileged position of the working classes in the social, political, and economic field, and to the resulting conflicts. This topic is still of interest because, to name only two points, the various attempts at solving this conflict (one way or another) have shaped the face of the 20th century, and one could argue with some right that the Social Question is still not solved.
There are two main plots in Mary Barton: the conflict between masters and workers constructed around the character of John Barton, and the plot based on the character of Mary Barton. Initially, the book was to be called “John Barton”, but Gaskell, as Raymond Williams notes, changed the title and the emphasis in the book to Mary Barton. Gaskell did thereby meet a request by her publisher who, in terms of Mary Barton as an act of communication, takes the function of mediator between the author (transmitter of the message) and the public (receiver). For the Victorian public, a worker from the poor districts of Manchester, who was on top of that a Chartist, was not acceptable as the (albeit negative and tragic) hero of a novel.
The plot constructed around Mary Barton can thus be seen as Gaskell’s concession to her middle- and upper-class readership. Her main concern was surely to tell the story of John Barton in order to present her view of the Social Question. But to be able to publish her book, she had to insert (or expand) the story of Mary Barton. Nonetheless, Mrs. Gaskell has endowed also this part of the novel with a moral that represents her general approach to individual or social problems: the rediscovery of Christian morals as a guiding principle for real life, as opposed to the restriction of religion to service on Sunday – a development she criticized among her contemporaries. A moralistic story like that of Mary, dealing with the topic of the individual and his conscience, is conceivable in different epochs and with different cultural backgrounds, and has thus lost some of its significance and interest. Therefore, I will mainly deal with the character of John Barton and its development.
The two plots are linked only by the identical characters and the murder, but beyond that, there is hardly any real connection. Apart from the murder, the first plot hardly adds anything to the development of the second one, and vice versa. The book contains two separate morals and two stories which could have supplied ample material for two separate books.
Brief Outline of the Historic Background
Economically, politically, and militarily Britain was the leading nation of the 19th century, the richest country in the world, and the birthplace of Industrialization. But it was also a country of sharp social contrasts. Whereas the owners of factories, mines etc. were among the richest in the world, the majority of the working class lived in very poor conditions. The actual living conditions did, however, depend on the economic situation. The 1830s, and particularly the 1840s – the historic background of the Mary Barton –, saw an economic downturn that lead to high unemployment. As in economic crises the contrast between working class and bourgeoisie stands out more clearly, it is not surprising that the 1840s were the Heyday of Chartism. Chartism was a mass movement which mainly demanded universal male suffrage, i.e. the extension of the right to vote to the poorer classes. Political equality of the poorer classes was than to bring about a change of their social status and an improvement of their living conditions. With the economic upturn in the 1850s, the Chartist movement disintegrated.
Elizabeth Gaskell came to Manchester in 1832 and was to live there until her death in 1865. She and her husband, William Gaskell, gave lessons to the poor who, in contrast to the upper classes, had no proper access to education. So, many of her descriptions of working-class life are based on her immediate contact to workers and their living conditions.
Whereas in times of economic growth, the workers normally did not get a corresponding share, they had to bear the brunt of the economic downswing. That is also described in Mary Barton: While the Carsons were not “over-much grieved” by the loss of production caused by a fire in their factory, the workers who had lost their jobs were threatened in their very existence. One of them, Davenport, lives with his family in a damp, cold, and almost unfurnished cellar. Too poor to buy food for himself or his family and sick because of poor sanitary conditions, Davenport dies. These conditions were by no means exceptional in the poor quarters of Manchester.
The Bartons are, however, more representative of the average working-class family of the time. After John Barton loses his job, the family’s living conditions deteriorate. They have to pawn many of their household goods, and almost have to vacate their home because they cannot pay the rent. Sometimes they do not even have enough money to buy decent food which is why one of Barton’s sons dies and one of the reasons for his turning to opium. The average worker lives on the edge of social decline. He lives under the constant threat of sharing the Davenport’s fate.
Of course, these conditions were criticized not only by the Chartists but also by many members of the middle and upper classes. There were various motives for this criticism and many concepts for its solution. There was the incipient socialist and communist current, pointing to the causes of the misery within the economic and social system and demanding its radical alteration. There was the liberal movement advocating free trade, and maintaining that workers and mill-owners essentially had the same interests and that an economic upturn would remedy the worker’s misery. And there was the Christian current to which Elizabeth Gaskell belonged that pleaded for charity and understanding between the social classes.
Mrs. Gaskell came from a Unitarian background. Unitarianism, a dissenting Protestant current, had a long tradition in her family and her husband was a Unitarian minister. Cornerstones of Unitarianism are the stress of reason as a guiding principle, an orientation towards earthly life, and the belief that Christian faith should manifest in deeds. To Unitarians, going to church was less important than leading a life according to Christian values and morals such as honesty, charity, and temperance. In her knowledgeable study on Mary Barton and Ruth, Monica Frycksedt points out “that in Mary Barton her [Gaskell’s] message is identical with the official Unitarian view of the causes of, as well as the remedy for, the distress of the industrial poor.”
 Williams, Raymond. “The Industrial Novels,“ in: Culture and Society. 1780-1950 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961), 100.
 Davoudzadeh, Morteza. The Novels of Elizabeth Gaskell in Perspective (Zurich: Juris Druck + Verlag Zurich, 1979), 94.
 See Fryckstedt, Monica Correa. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton and Ruth : A Challenge to Christian England (Uppsala: Almqvist and Wiksell International, 1982), 74ff.
 Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton (London: Penguin Books, 1848, 1994), 52.
 A good summary of the living conditions of the working class in: Fryckstedt: 1982.
 In Manchester the life expectancy of operatives was 17, and “57 working-class children out of 100 died before the age of five.” Fryckstedt: 1982, 47.
 Fryckstedt: 1982, 54.