In chapter nine of Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell, through the mouth of John Barton, comments on the schematic layout of houses in London: “They’re sadly puzzled how to build houses though in London; there’d be an opening for a good steady master builder there, as know’d his business. For yo see the houses are many on’em built without any proper shape for a body to live in; some on em they’ve after thought would fall down, so they’ve stuck great ugly pillars out before ‘em” (146-147). This certainly illustrates the quaint uneducated working class perspective that Gaskell attempted to capture, adding a splash of humor to a depressing narrative of upper class callousness.
However, the question of city planning and architecture carries more than just a passing bearing on the sharp division of the classes. Freidrich Engels, in his essay “The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844,” paints a vivid and disturbing portrait of the squalid conditions in the city of Manchester in which the poor subsisted. Engel continues, saying that “whenever a nook or corner was free, a house has been run up…without reference to the health or comfort of the inhabitants, with sole reference to the highest possible profit, on the principle that no hole is so bad but that some poor creature must take it who can pay for nothing better” (584). Engel contends that this frenzy to consume every available space for housing is driven by the bottom line, allowing the landowners and builders to minimize the conditions required to make a room habitable in order to maximize the profit they can extort. Every last square inch of real estate must be consumed; no one percent for art.
The contrasting ethos of John Barton and Freidrich Engels would be comical if not for the content. Barton marvels at the wasted space, the decorative pillars, and the sculptures decorating the lawns; he is completely oblivious of the luxury of aesthetic value. And how could he be familiar with such values anyway? Peasants like John Barton, when confronted with the privilege of space, conclude that poor planning and construction are to blame. It is an interesting study in ignorance and how inaccurate and unfortunate conclusions may be drawn from them.
But as I ponder it, another aspect of their poverty, which hitherto had not occurred to me, now arises. Gaskell goes to great lengths to provide a preponderance of proof of the plebian poverty which plagues the poor peasants. The poverty is seemingly limited to the purely physical requirements: food, medicine, employment, and so forth. But herein lies another aspect of their plight of poverty: education and thereby an appreciation for the aesthetic. I do not say that they were unaware of the beauty found in natural things, but it is perhaps the final death-knell to the poor’s humanity when they can find no beauty in the artistic endeavors of their fellow man. But poetry, art, music are all the accoutrements of life; the necessities must be present before aesthetic concerns may be addressed. Perhaps Gaskell is attempting a further plea to the more educated classes that were more likely to encounter her novel, that poverty in body is terrible enough, but poverty in soul and mind removes virtually all semblance of humanity, and possibly the divine.
Given the intense contrast between the rich and poor, the strange inversion of the dynamic of a poor person critiquing the wealthy on the grounds of aesthetic and architectural choices, I was intrigued by this one example of class tension. The inversion of the poor judging the rich not on economic or moral grounds was a refreshing and surprising respite for the usual resentment expressed by John Barton.
Engels, Freidrich. “The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844.”
Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Literary Texts, 2000. Print