The Fallen Woman

In Tess of the D’Ubervilles, Lady Audley’s Secret and Mary Barton, the author writes about the character development of a fallen woman. Each of these texts critiques the society of the time period the author writes in. Within these critiques, there are models for how people of the society should act and also as a counter to the models, the characters that show how not to act. The fallen woman does something that society deems as unforgivable so they are cast from society. Mary Barton’s Ester becomes a prostitute to take care of her baby, Lady Audley represents a fallen woman who keeps a secret and betrays her family, and Tess is raped by Alec which leads complications in her marriage. Each of these fallen women act out of necessity, have a secret to keep and feel ashamed through out the novels.

In Mary Barton, Mary serves as the model woman who is loyal, dedicated and hard working despite the poverty and horror around her. Ester and Mary’s lives parallel. They both work hard to provide for their family because the man in their life left (or is unable to work, in Mary’s case of her father); however, because Ester does so in a way deemed wrong by society, she is cast out. They also both fall for an upper-class man. Marrying a richer man is the only way women have agency in the society. If the man Ester fell for had stayed, her life would have been set. Since the man left her, Ester had no other option and she was forced to act out of necessity to provide for her child. She then flees from her family and keeps it a secret because she is so ashamed. When she sees Mary going down her same path, she desparetly tries to warn Mary. Mary and Ester parallel because any woman could turn into a fallen woman. There are only so many options for a woman. While Ester succumbed to a life of poverty and shame, she was able to warn Mary and help give her a better life.

Similar to Ester, Lucy tries to marry a rich man to get out of poverty, however, her secret comes back to haunt her. When Sir Michael Audley proposes, she tries to refuse and say she doesn’t love him but he persists. Like Ester, marrying rich does not make one a fallen woman. It is what the woman does when something goes wrong that makes her a fallen woman. When Lucy, or Helen’s secret comes out is when she must act of necessity. When George comes back, Lucy fakes her death; when he finds her out, she tries to kill him; and when Robert confronts her, she tries to set a hotel on fire to kill both him and Luke. On top of these acts, she hides another secret: her mother’s heredity madness. All of these things do add up to a fallen woman, so much so, Sir Michael Audley basically flees the moment he finds out. When Ester knew she could not get that life back, she gave up. Lucy fought hard to keep her life in luxury, but it backfired and her real secret of madness came out. Madness is another option for a woman, and in this novel, it seems to be an excuse. The author allows her to die peacefully in a institution despite her actions, and leaves the reader wondering if she learned her lesson like Ester did.

While each of these reasons the women “fell” happened because of a man, the same is true for Tess. Despite her constant decline of Alec’s love, he still rapes her which leaves Tess a tarnished woman. Just as with Ester, society cast her away and she believed it. Tess continues to work, though her self worth is devalued in her eyes, which is why she is distant and removed from Angel, even though she has real feelings for him. When she tells him the truth, he sleepwalks and imagines her as dead. The scene is so obviously how Angel really feels about Tess. Even though he leaves her, Tess is faced with the same problem as Ester and Lucy: marrying a richer man. As we have seen with these two, it does not go well. Tess fights to succumb to the temptation of being taken care of by Alec until he finally convinces her Angel isn’t ever coming back. When Angel comes back, Tess fully surrenders to the “fallen woman” image and kills Alec, though it is out of love of Angel, unlike Lady Audley who does it for selfish reasons. Like Lucy, Tess is able to have a time of peace with Angel where they fall back in love, but unlike Lucy’s death, Tess is taken by the police to face her punishment. Tess battles with temptation throughout the entire book, but with her “moral woman” image being taken from her in the beginning, her fate is set.

Even though, Tess is labeled as a “fallen woman” by society in the very first phase, Thomas Hardy labels her as a “pure woman” before the novel even starts on the title page. This is the difference between Tess and the other fallen women: she is pure despite what she has done. While there are very few options for a woman, Ester does not seem to look very hard before becoming a prostitute. She does not ask her family for help nor does she seek other work. Though it seems she learned her lesson when she tries to save Mary, the author paints a negative picture of her when she implies Ester fleeing is the reason for Mary’s mother’s death. Ester is a fallen woman from the beginning. Several different times the author implies there is something wrong with Lady Audley. The most notable being the dog doesn’t like her. Also, the end of the very first chapter, the author allows the reader to suspect she is hiding something with the description of the lock of hair and locket. Again, from the very beginning, Lady Audley is a fallen woman. Ester and Lucy both act out of necessity but seem to do it easily. The author makes it clear Tess does not love Alec before he rapes her. Tess has preserverance and denies Alec’s proposals many times despite what is happening in her family. Even though Tess eventually succumbs to Alec and then killing Alec, she surrenders to her punishment. She goes willinglingly when the police show up: “I am ready” she says (487). Tess understands what she has done wrong because all along she is a pure woman.

 

The usage of setting as it relates to characterization

An author’s use of form in his or her creation of a novel’s setting is of course necessary for any plot-driven text, but it can also strengthen the development of its characters and play a role in the novel’s thematic points. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Frankenstein, and Mary Barton, each author uses setting to further develop its main characters. Thomas Hardy uses setting to illustrate his protagonist’s purity and normalcy, while Mary Shelley does the exact opposite to characterize Frankenstein’s monster and the detachment from the world around him. Elizabeth Gaskell, on the other hand, uses her setting as a middle ground from which Mary can experience a spectrum of settings and their designated social and monetary statuses.

In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, setting plays an important role in demonstrating the heart of Tess’s morality. Hardy uses the environment as an interesting parallel to Tess, making her a part of nature and of the novel’s setting. She is a farm girl, and is comfortable around nature as such – making it a contrast as she finds similarity to the portraits in the ancestral mansions. Instead, Tess “felt akin to the landscape” (Hardy 61) in the country. Hardy illustrates how Tess and nature are related in purity, as they are both of this earth and, by definition, natural. While Tess often takes omens from the behavior of animals, she is also often wrong. The narrator explains that “it was not the expression of the valley’s consciousness that beautiful Tess had arrived, but the ordinary announcement of milking-time” (Hardy 63). By allowing the environment to mirror Tess, he transcends her over the social climate of the time and makes her everlasting, just as the laws of nature are. Any rejection of her from the environment is false, and “this encompassment of her own characterization, based on shreds of convention, peopled by phantoms and voices antipathetic to her, was a sorry and mistaken creation of Tess’s fancy…it was they that were out of harmony with the actual world, not she…she had been made to break an accepted social law, but no law known to the environment in which she fancied herself such an anomaly” (Hardy 51). This mirroring can also be seen in the tragic darkness of Tess’s original fall at the hands of Alec, where “everything was blackness alike” (Hardy 44) in that forest. Through his descriptions of setting and nature, Hardy provides the reader with further characterization as to Tess’s humble purity and her congruence with the natural world.

Shelley’s use of setting is emphatically different from Hardy’s, as she uses the gothic imagery of the monster’s surroundings to illustrate how he is unable to assimilate with others. On his own, the monster is immediately subject to the dark and cold, without shelter. The harsh environment rejects him, mirroring his isolation but condemning his unnatural being. Following the additional rejection from the De Lacey family, darkness falls and “as the night advanced, a fierce wind arose from the woods, and quickly dispersed the clouds that had loitered in the heavens; the blast tore along like a mighty avalanche, and produced a kind of insanity in [the monster’s] spirits” (Shelley 151). As anger and betrayal excite him, so too does his surroundings surge with this emotion, and the wind and clouds mimic the monster’s strong feelings of isolation and paranoia. Even though the monster finds refuge in the forest, he recognizes that there is no place for him. Frankenstein’s monster reflects that “with the world before [him,] whither should [he] bend [his] steps? [Although he had] resolved to fly far from the scene of [his] misfortunes…every country must be equally horrible” (Shelley 151). Therefore his ending is somewhat fitting, as the monster resolves to commit to the eternal surroundings of the endless ocean. He places himself “upon the ice-raft…[and] he was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance” (Shelley 221). Although both Hardy and Shelley do allow the description of setting and nature to deepen the reader’s understanding of the characters’ places in their world, they do so by expressing its acceptance or rejection of the character, respectively.

Gaskell’s use of setting differs from both Hardy’s and Shelley’s in that it does not take an extreme stance. Where Tess exemplifies the normality of nature, and Frankenstein’s monster represents the opposition to normal natural law, Gaskell’s protagonist Mary Barton finds herself in middle ground. The setting passively accepts her, as Gaskell does not use setting to comment on Mary’s specific place in her world. Instead, Mary here represents the entire middle class as a whole, and these surroundings illustrate that Mary is an “every-day-man” of sorts that can transcend social class boundaries because of it. The setting of Mary’s house allows the reader to look into her private life and character, as the interior is described, that “resting against the wall, was a bright green japanned tea-tray…[on which] the fire-light danced merrily” and “gave a richness of colouring to that side of the room” (Gaskell 14). The warmth and simplicity of the house mirrors the comfort of Mary. However, this middle-class setting is contrasted by two sides of the spectrum, and Gaskell shows the reader two other households and how they compare. In the Davenport home, the door “led to a black cellar, with a grating instead of a window…the floor was one mass of bad smelling mud…[and] there was not an article of furniture in it” (Gaskell 60). Through seeing the pitiable living conditions of the Davenports, the reader can contextualize the privilege of Mary’s upbringing, and how this corresponds with her perspective. On the other side of the spectrum at the Carson house, it “was a good house, and furnished with disregard to expense…[where] a roaring fire burnt merrily” (Gaskell 63). Through being able to experience the other neighborhood surroundings of different class distinctions, the reader is better equipped to perceive the world as Mary does. Therefore, through exposing these three different settings, Gaskell caters sympathy to Mary and the goal of the middle class to blur the lines among these settings.

Hardy’s use of setting in Tess of the D’Urbervilles differs from the other two novels’ usages in that its layers radically help illustrate the notion of purity in Tess. The setting as it relates to nature makes claims regarding Tess’s normalcy and place in the world, and argues against any social stigma. The added layer of setting includes its Victorian landscape, and the present social climate that had every preparation to condemn Tess for the so-called “seduction,” while preserving Alec. Unlike in the other novels, the setting both sets up an argument against Tess, while also making a case for her. Whereas one factor of the novel’s setting speaks to her breaking of social code and social law for females at the time, the other factor of the novel’s setting speaks to how this perception will come to pass, but that the natural world claims Tess’s purity as its own forever. Hardy’s duality of setting only deepens the reader’s relationship with Tess, as her surrounding either condemns or accepts her, and attempts to sway the reader into a side as to her intentions, personality, and purity.

The Setting of the Home in Mary Barton

In her industrial novel Mary Barton, author Elizabeth Gaskell effectively uses a realist setting of home life through imagery and diction so as to illustrate the class distinction of the owners. Throughout the novel, Gaskell guides the reader through the homes of the Bartons, Davenports, and Carsons to demonstrate the class to which each house belongs. In the Barton’s home specifically, this realistic and vivid description of home life depicts the effect of the strained economy on the working class through the changes that the indoor endures.

Initially, the Barton home is described as comfortable and in little want. When entering, the family brings life into the house, shown when “Mrs. Barton lighted a dip by sticking it in the fire…on hospitable thoughts intent” (Gaskell 14). The reader enters with them, now able to see that “the room was tolerably large, and possessed many conveniences,” such as “a longish window, with a broad ledge,” “blue-and-white check curtains, which were now drawn,” and “two geraniums, unpruned and leafy, which stood on the sill” (Gaskell 14). This ample imagery rhetorically provides a realistic portrayal of the home. The reader is almost privy to this home tour through its vividness of detail. The specifics of the Barton’s home even go so far as to describe that “resting against the wall, was a bright green japanned tea-tray…[on which] the fire-light danced merrily” and “gave a richness of colouring to that side of the room” (Gaskell 14). The diction of “bright green,” “fire-light,” and a “richness of colouring” all contribute to the happy and illuminated sense of home life. The further claim that “the place seemed almost crammed with furniture (sure sign of good times among the mills)” explores the monetary consequences of indoor decoration. This description changes, however, as the novel continues and the economy’s poor state affects those in the industrial working-class realm. As the story progresses, the house is “dingy and comfortless” (Gaskell 109). Gaskell recalls the past, noting that “the house wanted the cheerful look it had had in the days when money was never wanted to purchase soap and brushes, black-lead and pipe-clay” (Gaskell 109). Through exploring the physical changes in the home, she also aids the political plot in the narrative by illustrating the direct effect of the increasing poverty. Even the bright nature of the past is sorely missed, as now “there was not even the dumb familiar home-friend, a fire” (Gaskell 109).

Gaskell’s use of setting to advance the invocation of sympathy in the reader is well skilled. I would love to further explore how deeply the setting of the indoor home life specifically influences this rhetorical goal, as well as how it speaks to the characterization of the owners. The contrast of the dynamic portrayal of the Barton house would be interesting to contrast between the two ends of the spectrum, with the Davenport and Carson homes respectively.

Mr. Carson’s Character Development

Though many characters grow throughout Mary Barton, Mr. Carson’s Bildungsroman is perhaps the most notable. While he is not a main character, his change of heart is the greatest. In the beginning, Mr. Carson is the factory owner and the father of Mary’s fling, Harry Carson, and known for being a cruel and power hungry master. When a fire burns down his factory, he is not worried for “the insurance money would amply pay” and lays off his workers, including Mr. Wilson. Mr. Carson is not concerned with the “deep, terrible gloom” of “no wages to pay for the bread the children cried aloud for in their young impatience suffering” (95). For the rich, no work meant “leisure” that was a “pleasant thing” and meant “happy family evenings” (95). Rich families, including Mr. Carson’s, do not attempt to understand the intense weight of having no money. Rather than compensating for lost time, because the factory workers need it so badly, it is considered a luxury to not work. Meanwhile, Davenport falls ill and Wilson goes to the Carson’s to ask for medicine. Mr. Carson fails to recognize his name and doesn’t “pretend to know the names of the men [he] employ[s],” even though Davenport had worked for him for three years. He is unconcerned with the needs of his workers while in this time period, the people working in the factories need all the help they can get.

Carson continues to be ignorant of the workers’ conditions and needs until it directly affects him in the murder of his son, Henry. After he finds out his son has been shot, he reverts to using his money. He offers a “handsome reward [that] might accelerate the discovery of the murderer” (273). Rather than grieving his son’s death, comforting his hysterical wife or reflecting on how short life is, Mr. Carson seeks vengeance on the murderer: “My son! My son…but you shall be avenged, my poor murdered boy” (277). It is “a speedy conviction, a speedy execution” that “seemed to be the only things that would satisfy his craving thirst for blood” (286). This shows immaturity, recklessness and again a lack of concern for those around him. The death of his son has not so far as changed Mr. Carson but rather encouraged him to use his power and money to further fight fire with fire.

At the trial, Mr. Carson shows glimpses of emotions when he contemplates over his son’s love of Mary. He “abhorred her and her rumored loveliness” and “grew jealous of the love with which she had inspired his son” (402). Instead of pitying her and considering her loss of her “lover,” he felt a “severe” “satisfaction” when she is about to come testify against Jem. The narrator leaves out his reaction when the court rules Jem not guilty, maybe because the reader is not concerned with Mr. Carson at the moment—only Mary and Jem— or because his emotion would bring down the happiness of the reader. It is not until several chapters later that the narrator explores the reactions of Mr. Carson. This is when Mr. Carson has a change of heart and actually considers another person’s point of view: “But suddenly, while he was deliberating, and searching for motives which should be effective to compel him to exertion and action once more…suddenly I say, the thought arose within him that more yet remained to be learned about the circumstances and feelings which prompted John Barton’s crime” (466-7).

He then calls for Will Wilson and Job Leigh to help Mr. Carson understand. Once they explain it to him, the first thing he says is, “Now how in the world can we help it?” (471). Instead of getting angry or blowing them off as he might have done earlier, he asks what he can do. This shows immense growth in Mr. Carson’s character. He allows Wilson and Job to explain John Barton’s reasons and thanks them “for speaking candidly” about “the power, or want of power in masters, to remedy the evils the men complain of” (474). The death of Henry opened his eyes to the hurt, hunger and hate that ultimately comes from being poor and knowing there is nothing one can solely do about it. Yet with the power that Mr. Carson has from being a master and having money, he understands how he is one of the people who can actually do something about it. This development in Mr. Carson is a total change in his character. This gives the reader hope because of this growth. Mr. Carson is not a main character but he is an impressionable character because of his Bildungsroman.

Accepting Kindness

Kindness is a big focus for Elisabeth Gaskell in her novel Mary Barton. In fact, it is the main point she tries to make, with Job Legh telling Mr. Carson “If we saw the masters try for our sakes to find a remedy… [even if they] could only say, ‘Poor fellows, our hearts are sore for ye;…’ – we’d bear up like men through bad times” (474). Here Job is asserting that all the poor want from the upper classes is kindness and sympathy. Kindness is used in other ways throughout the novel though, with the poor helping each other. In this Gaskell ends up showing that it is just as important to accept the kindness of others as it is to give it out.

Gaskell establishes both John and Mary Barton as kind individuals willing to help their fellow men. When Wilson comes to ask John for money to help the dying Mr. Davenport, John asserts he has no money. After he takes a bit of food to the suffering family, however, he goes and gathers up all the belongings he can spare and “pawned them for five shillings” (98). Even in the beginning when he said he had no money to spare, he was still willing to spare some food for the suffering family. Then, upon seeing the extreme case of the Davenports, he went and sold what he could to help them. This shows a kindness and willingness to help, something that Mary also shares.

When Mary hears about the murder of the younger Mr. Carson, she is distraught mainly because she suspects Jem of being the murderer. On her way home after hearing this, she runs across a hungry boy on the road who asks for food. At first she claims that “hunger is nothing” and rushes past, but then “her heart upbraided her… and she hastily entered her door and seized the scanty remnant of food which the cupboard contained, and she retraced her steps” to go give the food to the boy (296-297). Mary is shown here to be kind of heart as well, but both she and her father have trouble accepting kindness in return.

Job says “John Barton was not a man to take counsel with people” showing that he did not get advice from others (470). He also did not accept money from his union, wishing it to go to other families instead. So when he was the one in need, he did not get help, he just retreated further into himself. Mary has the same inclination. When Jem is considered to be a murderer, she feels that she has to clear his name and that she has to do it all by herself. In this mind set, Margaret offers Mary money to help Jem. Mary does accept it, but reluctantly taking it “for Jem”, but not even taking all the money offered (333). This causes Margaret to expound upon the idea of kindness.

Margaret claims that we should say ‘let others do unto you, as you would do unto them” (333). She asserts that helping others can make one happy and that depriving them of the ability to help hurts them. This shows a bit of where the Bartons have been going wrong. John thinks he has to do things by himself, but that only makes him more irritable and angry towards the world, to the point of even hitting his daughter. Mary runs around trying to save Jem only to end up fainting at his trial from exhaustion and needing to be tended to by strangers. Gaskell seems to be saying that, while the upper class does need to step up and help the poor, the poor also need to accept the help and perhaps even ask for it, if not from the unhelpful lawmakers than at least from their neighbors.

Kindness is shown throughout Mary Barton, and the intricacies of it help to show not only that the poor are kind to each other and that the rich should be kind to them too, but also that they need to accept kindness so that they don’t end up getting hurt in the end.

Mary Barton and Her Struggle with Love and Money

     “Mary Barton”, written by Elizabeth Gaskell, is an industrial novel that not only touches on the financial statuses of the working and upper classes, but it also contains a theme of love and struggle that comes along with it with the characters of Mary Barton, Jem Wilson, and Henry Carson.  In the beginning of the novel, Mary is a bright “bonny lassie of thirteen or so, who came bounding along”, full of energy and positivity toward life (Ch. 1).  When Mary thinks of love at this point in her life, she dreams of being a married lady, rich enough from her husband’s wealth to take care of herself and receive a better standing in life, and to take care of loved ones.  She is “fond of power… [and] the money-spending”, which will later come into play with Jem Wilson and Henry Carson, a lower-class man and an upper-class man, begin to propose marriage to this young girl years later (Ch. 2).  Mary, like most young people, want to be able to have money and material items because owning items that cost money indicates your social and financial status and level of happiness, to an extent.  One aspect of her life that seems to be more important than money and material things is family.  Mary loves her father, John Barton, and she “knew his ways, and coaxed and planned for the future so cheerily” when John started to look into apprenticeships for his daughter (Ch. 3).  Mary and her father have a very close relationship, which only strengthens after the untimely death of her mother, Mrs. Mary Barton. With her growing into a young woman throughout the novel, Mary begins to think about her duty as a woman in this era, and she receives not one, but two marriage proposals from two young men in her life.  The first one to propose was Jem Wilson, a lower-class man who has a “heart as true as ever man had to love” Mary, although his financial status is on the same level of Mary (Ch. 11).  This equality of money between the two indirectly causes Mary to shut down and become agitated with Jem.  She rejects this proposal, not yet knowing her true emotions regarding Jem, determined to show the people around her who she should  marry, which is a man more similar to Henry Carson. However, as soon as Jem leaves, Mary breaks down with “her head hidden in her hands, and every part of her body shaking with the violence of her sobs” because she has realized that she truly loves Jem instead of the wealthy Henry (Ch. 11).  This is the major turning point in Mary’s love life, because shortly after, Henry comes to her with his own marriage proposal.  She immediately rejects him and his proposal, telling him to never speak to her or think of her ever again.  This shows a maturity in her emotions because she does not accept the wealthy man’s proposal over her true love’s proposal just because of the financial status.  Mary has grown from the beginning of the novel in this sense because she had planned to marry into the upper-class and has since come to the realization that marriage should occur out of love, and not money.  

Wagging Tongues, Working Women: Gossip in Cranford and Mary Barton

People will talk.

Elizabeth Gaskell understood firsthand that gossip was a common feature of Victorian society, and she uses it to narrative advantage in both Cranford and Mary Barton. Yet the kinds of gossips she employs are very different: in Cranford, gossip is generally innocuous and even redemptive; in Mary Barton, gossip becomes the twisting and the destruction of the truth. These different kinds of gossips reflect two contrasting communities: the mutually supportive small-town community of idle women, and the hardened, desperate, and uneducated community of the working class.

American WWII propaganda poster. "Tell NOBODY - not even HER" by The National Archives UK - Tell NOBODY - not even HER. Via Wikimedia Commons.

American WWII propaganda poster. “Tell NOBODY – not even HER” by The National Archives UK – Tell NOBODY – not even HER. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In Cranford, gossip is generally innocuous, although Gaskell sometimes uses it as an instrument of humor. For example, when the ladies of Cranford are panicking about being robbed, “every time [Miss Pole] went over the story, some fresh trait of villainy was added to their appearance” (Cranford 95). The story becomes so exaggerated that it turns into a fabulous fiction, as entertaining to the storyteller as the listeners. However, her exaggerations have merely comic consequences.

Likewise, Gaskell takes the opportunity to “redeem” gossip when Miss Matty falls on hard times. In the ladies’ show of generosity, there are still several little confidences: “Of course this piece of intelligence [from Miss Pole] could not be communicated before Mrs. Fitz-Adam,” and then Mrs. Forrester approached the narrator “at the entrance to the dining parlour; she drew me in, and when the door was shut, she tried two or three times to begin on some subject,” and then “Mrs. Fitz-Adam… had also her confidence to make” (136-137). These instances of private communication do not have any detrimental effects on Cranford society; they are merely a fact of life, and Gaskell expects us to smile along with the development of her characters’ wagging tongues.

In Mary Barton, however, gossip becomes a malicious force, capable of destroying Mary. The gossip centers around Sally Leadbitter and the girls at the dress shop, and it becomes (figurative) vitriol. At the beginning, Sally’s gossip eggs Mary into the love affair with Henry Carson, which becomes the central factor responsible for Jem’s arrest in the murder case and the central tarnish on Mary’s character. When Mary wants to break up with Carson, Sally twists the truth, encouraging him to keep pursuing her. She “laughed in her sleeve at them both, and wondered how it would all end– whether Mary would gain her point of marriage, with her sly affectation of believing such to be Mr. Carson’s intention in courting her” (135). Because Sally is incapable of innocence, she is unable to recognize it in others; thus, her gossip continually twists the truth to fit her own character and entertainment.

When Carson is murdered, Sally turns the weapon of gossip against Mary, blaming her in front of all the girls: She “made no secret now of Mary’s conduct, more blameable to her fellow-workwomen for its latter changeableness, than for its former giddy flirting. ‘Poor young gentleman,’ said one, as Sally recounted Mary’s last interview with Mr. Carson….’That’s what I call regular jilting,’ said a third. ‘And he lying cold and bloody in his coffin now!'” Mary’s character assassination is now complete, and the reader is left with the feeling that if such is said to Mary’s face, much worse must be said behind her back.

What makes the difference between these two gossips? Is it that Sally Leadbitter is not constrained by the rules of aristocratic society? Is it merely that more is at stake in the melodramatic and murderous gossip of Mary Barton than in the quotidian everyday happenings of Cranford? Or is the survival-of-the fittest society in Mary Barton to blame? Perhaps, for Gaskell, it is a combination of all these factors. Either way, she seems to accept gossip as a fact of society– people simply will talk about one another– and to draw the line in the content and intent of the gossip itself.

Idleness born from “Enchanted Fruit”

Clearly, Elizabeth Gaskell takes great pains in Mary Barton to emphasize the divide between the poor and the rich in industrial Manchester during the hungry forties. The description of the Davenport’s cellar ‘home’ with its back room where pigs could barely live, much less humans, aligns with Engel’s depiction of the city in The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 as rife with ‘living spaces’ he characterizes as “holes” for “some poor creature…who can pay for nothing better” (584). As Engels asserts, these are holes that are hidden that they might not “affront the eye and the nerves of the bourgeoisie” (583).

I want to consider this divide as Carlyle characterizes it in Book 1 of Past and Present. He names the riches produced in England during this period “enchanted fruit” which can benefit none (552).  Elaborating, he continues on to say, “in Poor and Rich, instead of noble thrift and plenty, there is idle luxury alternating with mean scarcity and inability” (553).  The rich squander their earnings, while those of the working class labor in vain, rarely making enough to survive even when there are jobs to be had.

As a primary example in this limited space, consider the contrasting images of an evening at the Carson’s and an evening at the Barton’s. The opening of chapter eighteen provides a glimpse into the idle of lives of Mrs. Carson and the “three Miss Carsons,” while the middle of chapter five details a busy evening of Mary and Margaret. In the former, Mrs. Carson suffers from “the luxury of a headache,” a malady, the narrator informs readers, which is a “natural consequence of the state of mental and bodily idleness in which she was placed.” The narrator then continues her intrusion into the scene, suggesting offhandedly that Mrs. Carson might take on the “work of one of her housemaids for a week” as a cure (237). (As a side note, it is interesting to consider that Mrs. Carson was once a member of the working class, a factory girl. It seems Carlyle’s “enchanted fruit” got the best of her, turning her to idleness despite (presumably) her knowledge of greater hardship.) The Misses Carson lounge about attempting to read or thumbing through music scores. Their only hardships are overtiredness from the previous night’s dancing and whether they should ring for tea. This contrasts starkly with the evening Margaret and Mary spend sewing mourning dresses in the dim light. Instead of an idle headache, Margaret suffers from a true malady—her failing eyesight threatening to steal her livelihood. Contrasting with Mrs. Carson’s headache, this illness arises not from a lack of work, but rather too much and at a high cost. Like Alice and other women in the working class, Margaret needs all of her senses to make her living, lest she and Job fall victim to the all too real consequence of death. Furthermore, for her, singing is not an idle past time, but becomes her only option once she is too blind to sew.

With the narrator’s intrusion into the scene at the Carson’s home (which culminates in the revelation of the consequences for Harry Carson’s treatment of the divide), it is clear that Gaskell intends to emphasize not only the “scarity and inability” on the side of the working class, but the ill effects of the “enchanted fruit” on the rich as manifest specifically in their idleness. It would be interesting to look at other scenes in Mary Barton through this Carlylian lens.

Works Cited:

Black, Joseph et al, eds. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature Concise Edition. Vol. B. Broadview Press, 2007.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

 

Mary Barton. By David Smith

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