Mary Barton and the Value of Neighborly Love

From Friedrich Engels’ disheartening report on the living conditions of the working class in England one would think that spirits in the working-class districts of Manchester would be similarly dire. However, we find that this is not the case in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton. For sure, there is some degree of grief and discomfort, as is natural with the quality of life one condemned to poverty may expect to enjoy, but Gaskell takes pains to avoid allowing her main characters to fall into wretchedness.  I think one of elements that keeps the working-class from utter despair is the community of neighbors and friends that seems to have organically formed around most of our main characters.

When you read Engels assessment of the working-class districts and hear tell of the conditions that faced the workmen and their families in what Engels terms “The Industrial Epoch (584), it is easy to wonder how any individual could withstand things such as the “lone string of the most disgusting blackish-green slime pools…from the depths of which bubbles of miasmatic gas constantly arise and give forth a stench unendurable” (584). Yet for Mary Barton and her ilk, though they are not exactly living in the lap of luxury there seems to be a certain contentment afforded to those beings that live within a community.

The practical implications of living well within community are obvious and examples of such are replete in the novel, but to name an instance of neighborly assistance in action that is particularly vivid: we have repeated statements and evidence that Jem’s Aunt Alice is a tireless care-giver and nurse to the sick in her community (even those she does not hold as personal friends or relation) and is often out of her house for days on end tending to those in need, in addition to the manual labour and other domestic duties she performs daily.  Or if we are desirous of a less selfless example of neighborly good we can examine the practice of neighbors keeping their neighbors house keys and/or relaying messages or receiving packages for the occupant when he or she is unavailable as we see with both the Wilson’s neighbor Mrs. Davenport and the Barton’s neighbor (whose name slips past my recollection at this point).

But beyond practical assistance this community of people (mainly women though not entirely) also offer a great deal of psychological assistance in the form of frequent and varied social visits. At the beginning of the novel Mary Barton seems to be constantly engaged in the making of visits or reception of visitors, both male and female.  It seems that after a long and tedious day, in the mills and warehouses for men and possibly at the factories, shops or homes for women, it is some sort of balm to a worn body and mind to chat amicably over tea and tea-stuffs (what do they eat here anyway?) by the fire, or share a meal or merely to pop-in to commiserate over some misfortune or celebrate some triumph.  This friendly practice allows those who have little in the way of monetary comforts to offer comfort to their fellow workpersons in a more intangible but just as meaningful (could we argue moreso?) sense.

Because, as Engels illuminates in his article, the abodes of many of these working-class people were literally built right on top of one another it was less of an ordeal to go a-visitin’ then I imagine it would be for those bourgeoisie folk whose living quarters were less spread out and their visitations more ceremonious.  So even the architectural design of the working districts encourage this practice.

It is to this sense of neighborly obligation and affection that I attribute the unbelievably bright outlook of most of our main characters in the first half of Mary Barton.

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