Germane to the study of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain is the story of the people who witnessed it and how they represented it through a variety of avenues. Whether through inventiveness and ingenuity in the form of new mills and machines, beehive coke ovens, crucible steel, or through art and literature, there is a story to be told of the people who lived, observed, and endured first-hand the Industrial Age. Through the writings of Elizabeth Gaskell – particularly through her celebrated work, Mary Barton, Mrs.Gaskell reflects both the good and bad that the Industrial Revolution produced.
Published anonymously in 1848, Gaskell’s novel, Mary Barton, was a sensational, damning indictment of industrialization in the British mill-towns of the north. “Gaskell used her fiction to draw attention to the plight of the factory workers in Manchester, and to argue for reconciliation between employers and workers”. Written during a time of Chartism, Mary Barton appealed to its middle-class readers for a compassionate response to “turbulent working-class feelings, even as it also represents the working classes as lacking control over their emotions”.While Gaskell was not the first woman to tackle industrial strife and expose the suffering of the workers in fiction,Mary Bartonpainted a grim picture of working life in which mill owners grew rich on the back of their long-suffering workers. The novel “turned a drama of conflict between classes into an examination of humanity’s essentially divided nature”.
In Mary Barton, Mrs. Gaskell writes about the Bartons, who struggle, and betimes fail, to maintain themselves physically, mentally and morally in an industrialized environment. Gaskell chose to write about their attempts to fight sickness, unsanitary living conditions, unemployment, starvation, attempts to take advantage of their poor condition, and even death. In writing this story, Gaskell was writing about something she had experienced during her charitable work among the poor of Manchester. She was full of concern for their lot and what she saw as misunderstanding and lack of sympathy between the poor and the masters, where “masters” does not only signify the actual employers of these workers, but the wealthier classes in general. This is indicated by John Barton’s attitude: he “never could abide the gentlefolk,” who go “to bed without having done a good turn to any one of God’s creatures save themselves”. This is only one example of the “vehemence” of Barton’s dislike for the masters which becomes increasingly manifest in the course of the novel, an attitude which Gaskell argues is a result of misunderstanding between masters and workers. For Gaskell it was this misunderstanding and misinformation which resulted in the lack of sympathy and even harsh feelings between these two classes. ‘Mary Barton’ thus is an attempt to reveal to its middle class readership the true lives of the poor in every aspect, their love, marriage, work, family, childbearing, and death. The novel also reveals other appalling “effects of industrial poverty, including prostitution, drug addiction, starvation, and murder”.
Among these effects is the poorer classes’ use of opium. In her portrayal of an opium- addicted character, John Barton, Gaskell challenges both the Romantic depiction of opium and the view which derides lower class usage as indicative of a predisposition toward filth and deviant behaviour. In challenging contemporary views, Gaskell also posits a different attitude toward lower class usage, insisting that we must recognize why they use opium, and arguing that these reasons would give rise to sympathy instead of blame. At the time when Gaskell wrote the novel, opium was “as readily available as aspirin today, and just as cheap. For one penny a man could purchase a pint of beer and, for the same sum, a quarter of an ounce of laudanum, containing about ten grains of opium” when the “medicinal dose of opium, for an adult, varied from half a grain to two grains”. In the 1830s and 40s the middle class began to be increasingly aware of working class use of the drug, as newspaper after newspaper recounted incidents of opium poisoning, accidental overdose, and suicide among the lower class.
Similarly, she takes up the issues of women labourers. Her social-problem novel not only criticizes unfettered industrial capitalism, but also criticizes the precarious position it caused for the working-class women. Gaskell, like her contemporaries, wrote mainly to her middle-class readers, however, she particularly chose to write about the vulnerable condition of the working class women. There were three main occupations for working class women in the Victorian Age; needlework, domestic service and factory work. She accurately presents these professions in Mary Barton. Through her fiction, Gaskell suggests that women, regardless of class, could find fulfilment through serving others, whether in the home or outside the home. While it is clear that Gaskell advocated “domestic” work as the natural work for women, her views on non-domestic labour and wage-earning labour vary. At times she depicts wage-earning work as positive and fulfilling, while at others, she portrays this type of work as physically and emotionally harmful for women. Gaskell’s work indicates that she viewed domesticity as the ideal and natural role for women, although she considered more domestic occupations (i.e. nursing, governess, and domestic servant) as adequate options.
Mary Barton was particularly shocking because it delved into questions of suffering and explored the proverbial fall from grace by challenging and blurring moral absolutes. It questioned the very nature of sin by asking whether it was sinful for a father to steal to feed his dying son, or for a mother to give opium to her starving children, or to turn to prostitution to buy medicine for her sick daughter. These paradoxes touched and shocked middle-class workers who were shown for the first time how the poor suffered not only in the mills or factories, but in their very own homes. Elizabeth Gaskell was, indeed, the ‘hitherto unseen phenomenon’, the woman novelist writing of the manufacturing poor to possess both “great powers of delineation” and “intimate and prolonged acquaintance with the working classes”.