The Goodness of Grief in Mary Barton

When Mary Barton first learns of George Wilson’s death, it comes at the end of a litany of dying in the narrative—from her mother to Ben Davenport, the Wilson twins, and so many others we don’t witness whose mourning clothes Mary provides according to her trade. Gaskell writes of Mary, “Though not guarded from unnecessary sight or sound of death, as the children of the rich are, yet it had so often been brought home to her this last three or four months” (135). This implies that the frequent scenes of death and dying in Mary Barton are particular to Gaskell’s efforts to write a novel of the lower classes where premature death was an issue of injustice. But Gaskell frequently uses scenes of death and dying even in her narratives about the middle class. Margaret Hale in North and South and Molly Gibson in Wives and Daughters experience more than their fair share of grief. In fact, their encounters with death serve as signposts in the development of their characters as they mature into womanhood. Are these characters anomalies among their class? Might the same relationship between grief and character development be true for Mary Barton? Certainly there are other ways the young women in Gaskell’s novels come of age. All of them encounter public scorn and misunderstanding, the questioning of their character. They suffer the almost certain loss of the one they love because of their own stubbornness or silence. But these are purposeful plot devices. The heroines’ encounters with death, however, reflect something fundamental to the development of their characters.

The novel begins with death. “Mary Barton” is the name of both mother and daughter, and in the opening pages, a reader might wonder which of them the book’s title refers to. As the mother dies, the daughter Mary takes her place as the central figure in her household and in the reader’s attention. While we aren’t given any idea about the younger Mary’s familiarity with death at this point, we see she “mechanically helped the neighbor in all the last minute attentions to the dead” and checked her own mourning when “it flashed across her mind that her violence of grief might disturb her father” (52). If she is not already familiar with a deathbed, she is learning how to care for both the dead and the grieving through the death of her mother.

The novel names many small practices and attitudes associated with grief and death that suggest there are good and healthy ways to do both that might need to be learned. As seamstresses, both Mary and Margaret continually participate in at least one practical aspect of mourning by fitting out mourning dresses. Mourning clothes are considered a necessity, and they’re needed frequently. When Mary questions their relevance, Margaret tells her that the clothes “do good…in setting people (as is cast down by sorrow and feels themselves unable to settle to anything but crying) something to do” (82). This is a kind of education for Mary that will stand her in good stead a short while later, when she recovers from shared griefs by preparing widow’s weeds with an attitude “so busy and so glad over her task that she had, every now and then, to check herself in singing merry ditties” (112).

These mourning clothes are for Mrs. Davenport, whom Mary is asked to comfort after the death of her husband. Though Mary is unsure of what to do or say to the widow, she forgets herself in the practical work of empathy: “Mary forgot all purposed meeting with her gay lover, Harry Carson; forgot Miss Simmonds’ errands, and her anger, in the anxious desire to comfort the poor lone woman” (111). This encounter takes Mary out of herself and into the griefs of another. The things she forgets are petty, superficial, perhaps even sinful. Sharing Mrs. Davenport’s grief makes a better woman of her. Although the grieving widow is worth the novel’s attention for her own sake, and although the focus of this narrative is intended more broadly to show the ills of poverty and the carelessness of the upper classes, it is clearly also Gaskell’s intention to show the particular impact of the experience on Mary Barton. In the very next line, she observes of Mary: “Never had her sweet face looked more angelic, never had her gentle voice seemed so musical as when she murmured her broken sentences of comfort” (111). We are called to look at Mary’s beauty in the act of comforting the grieving, because it matters to our understanding of her character. Sharing in others’ suffering makes better people of us all.

But how might this relate to the novel’s aims as a whole? If Mary’s encounters with death help her to develop as a character, what do they do for the larger project of class critique? John Barton’s concerns with class divisions hindering empathy might help us here. In the opening scene of the novel, Barton clearly enunciates his grievance against the upper classes. At its heart is an objection to their carelessness about the lives and deaths of those below them: “If I am sick, do they come and nurse me? If my child lies dying, (as poor Tom lay, with his white wan lips quivering, for want of better food than I could give him), does the rich man bring the wine or broth that might save his life” (40)? In light of the emphasis Gaskell gives to character development stemming from our care for the dying, Barton’s objections take on special significance. After all, if her characters fundamentally grow in maturity—even spiritual maturity—by tending to the dying and grieving, then by extension, those who avoid this essential act of empathy do damage to their own development of character and spiritual maturity. This is a heavy accusation to lay against the upper classes, which is perhaps why it is communicated as much in the particular character of Mary Barton as it is in the angry screeds of her righteously indignant father.

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