Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Whatever about those that hoot for the progress of history as if some grand design were at work, the working class of the nineteenth century were more than aware of what had been lost with the onset of the industrial revolution. As someone who had lived through some of the rougher years of hunger in 1840's Manchester - albeit removed from discomfort - Mary Gaskell produced her novel Mary Barton as a reaction, capturing a world with direct memories of the "pleasant mysteries" of a romanticised rural life abandoned for the urban where, as Engel's had it "the rapid extension of manufacture demanded hands."
For a novel so remembered for its dealing with working class life, its stunning how little happens in the work place. The consequence of a middle class lady's inability to access factory life beyond a sociological or philanthropist basis, it could also be re-read as a striking concern about how the effects of work seep over into every day gossip, struggles and love - unwinding in manifold hidden injuries of class. It's through this space that Gaskell traces her tale of a love triangle, between a beautiful dress maker, a factory engineer and a masters son against the background of the second charter.
Gaskell's work is intertwined with the sociology of the day: best filtered down to us through works like Engel's The Condition of the Working Class in England but also in a plethora of titles like The White Slaves of England, Distress in Manchester and tonnes of government reports on factory conditions. Compare Engel's opening exaltation to the radical movement with Gaskell's introduction, and the tensions of her fear of new working class communities become clear. Aside from her main plot she strips Charterism to an atmosphere of hauntology bubbling in the background.
On the surface the novel hinges on a very private world interrupted by economic recession. Mary Barton tries to use her beauty to escape a classed faith through upward marriage. A missing aunt Esther returns as the "hooker with a heart of cold" to end themes whims, relating her own experience of where economics intersect with sexuality in a morality tale for the reader.
Crudely skim the surface of images and Barton's potential beau Henry Carson is very much the bourgeois vampire, sucking the life out of the living in the factories by day to fuel his life as a dandy at night. As her aunt Esther advises, she is best ignoring this sexual adventurer, who combines business and pleasure, to literally "screw" working class and settling for the simple childhood friend Jem.
Her father, the channel for the public world, is set on the path of murder and removed from the "the gentle humanities of the earth" once his wife dies, letting his "rabid politics" of Chartersim interfer with love interests that could naturally play themselves out. Gaskell's editorialises on the working of his mind steeped more in the criminology of her age, than the politics of striking workers like John Barton.
Ripped up and brought together in awkward patches of customs and commons by the new social forces of an advancing capitalism, a nod to Shelly's Frankenstien seems appropiate, but Gaskell as Raymond Williams noted, is more gripped by lurid fantasy than poetic reality in describing the Charterists as "a powerful monster, yet with out the means for peace and happiness ."
Whole subcultures of working class experience are ignored in Gaskell's pious treatment: drug abuse, petty theivery, sexual relations and alcohol are all filtered out through her religious lens. There is one glimpse of this as Jem sleuths around Esther's old haunts, discovering a rooming house where people bed down all day and roam the streets at night - the opposite of the work-a-day blues dominating the rest of the text. The gap left by the absence of the Manchester Irish is large too.
Her description of John's trade union meeting echoes her own work in gothic literary form, "strange faces of pale men, with dark glaring eyes peered into the inner darkness" - it's all disembodied beckoning hands, whispered desperate talk and ghostly voices murmouring through the floor boards. During the strike, a rough cartoon of starved strike leaders by Carson, is too sore an acknowledgement of the master's disdain, yet its very much a visual sketch of Barton's descriptive prose, and for John it is enough to justify murder against the masters.
The footnotes too are an ambiguous beveling of the text, they exoticise the voices within - making them more alien than they need appear, similar to Edgeworth's Rackrent and its treatment of the Irish peasantry. The tools of their life and trades are foreign to Gaskell - and she roots their slang in colloqialisms going back to Chaucer.
When John Barton returns from the delegation that delivered the second great petition, he grimly declines to tell "what happened when ye got to th' Parliment House" - any space is quickly subsumed to Job Leigh's vapid anecdote of his own trip there and back. From his perch as the self educated botanist he mediates through religious guff with Carson at the end for industrial optimism: "I'll never doubt that power looms and all such inventions are the gifts of god. I have lived long enough to see that it is part of his plan to send suffering to bring out a higher good."
This throw them all in the shit and let them sink or swim impulse of methodism chimes in perfect with the economic philosopy of Carson: "still facts have proved and are daily proving how much better it is for everyman to be independent of help and self-reliant." No wonder EP Thompson was driven to term it "a physic mastrabation" that was later replaced with the social Darwinism of consumerism as a new disciplining, secular religion for worker drones.
Ultimately she renders the working class as a useless parcel of the equation, a puzzle better left to a moral awaking in Manchester's masters than challenges to their rule. While she does develop a contrast between two ethical systems: that of the working class based on sharing and forced co-operation and that of the masters, based on ownership, authority and the law. Mary Barton is a good artifact of early capitalism, as Harry Cleaver noted she gives "various views of the beast in all its spiritual and fleshy reality."
This is most apparent in the journey to the Carson's house and the image of his tantrum stricken wife, bringing to mind Marx's comment that even the propertied classes share human self alienation but "feel comfortable and confirmed in this self alienation knowing that this alienation is its own power and possessing in it the semblance of a human existence." At leisure from work and need they are shown to place themselves in different dramas, the choice between this commodity or that, fractures of that social etiquettes or another.
Charterism was a dual moment, alongside a growing political voice through the vast networks of the unstamped radical press there was an aesthetic self-representation. Short stories, poems and accounts from within working communities from journo's like the work of Thomas Cooper (archived online...) . It's a pity one of the periods lasting literary impressions is the work of Elizabeth Gaskell, especially with her patronizing methodology to to "give utterance to the agony which from time to time convulses this dumb people" as she describes in the opening.
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About Soundtracksforthem specialises in iconoclastic takes on culture, politics, and more shite from the underbelly of your keyboard. A still-born group blog with a recent surge of different contributers but mainly maintained by James R. Big up all the contributers and posse regardless of churn out rate: Kyle Browne, Reeuq, Cogsy, Chief, X-ie phader/Krossie, Howard Devoto, Dara, Ronan and Mark Furlong. Send your wishes and aspirations to antropheatgmail.com
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