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Thread: Mary Barton - an industrial novel

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    Mary Barton - an industrial novel

    I have started reading Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell. It's odd. When I started reading it, it seemed not very different to some present day writers. for example Anne Tyler. Then, as I continued, I thought you would not have a plot turn on a wife dying in childbirth, or a child dying of scarlet fever in a realistic, 21st century book. I think Gaskell points out better than Dickens how proper poor many people really were. The Bartons and Miss Wilson seemed quite middle class to me, but not when you read how much of theit income it took to buy food. In one chapter, a Miss Wilson invited two young girls for tea. The little bit of tea, butter and bread cost her half a morning's wages, and she had difficulty finding enough crockery to serve it on. One thing that is not like a present-day book is the way Gaskell starts commenting on the scenes she has just written. For example, she describes how angry John Barton is with the factory bosses because a child of his died through lack of substanance when he was out of work. Then she seems to anticipate her middle-class readers' objections and write that this is how the working classes felt, whether or not they were justified in feeling it. Then in a following chapter, a girl sings a song about working-class woe set in Lancashire. I've seen songs written out in other books, so that was not so surprising, but then Gaskell starts writing about how you would have had to be there to appreciate it properly, and how the singer was as good as some more famous singer of the time that nobody had ever heard of these days.

    I gather this book is considered an interesting failure. I have read that it goes wrong in the second half. It is quite good so far.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    Blimey, I'm only about six chapters in and there have already been four deaths. One death in childbirth and three from infectious diseases.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    There's an interesting bit on page 74 (chap 6). John Barton was a poor factory worker and trade union leader until he was laid off. In this bit he is remonstrating to his friend, George Wilson:

    "You'll say (at least many a one does), they'n getten capital an' we'n getten none. I say, our labour's our capital, and we ought to draw interest on that. They get interest on their capital somehow a' this time, while ourn is lying idle, else how could they all live as they do? Besides there's many on 'em has had nought to begin wi'; there's Carsons, and Duncombes, and Mengies, and many another, as comed into Manchester with clothes to their back, and they were all, and now they're worth their tens of thousands, a' getten out of our labour; why, the very land as fetched but sixty pound twenty year ago is now worth six hundred, and that too, is owing to our labour; but look at yo, and see me, and poor Davenport yonder; whatten better are we: They'n screwed us down to th' lowest peg, in order to make their great big fortunes, and build their great big houses, and we, why we're just clemming, many and many of us. Can you say there's nought wrong in this?"

    This does not sound too far away from Marx's surplus theory of labour. Mary Barton was written in 1848.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    Friedrich Engels lived in Manchester around the same time as Gaskell. I wonder if they ever met.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    In chapter 15, it says John Barton had become a Chartist and a Communist. I thought Communism was a term coined by Karl Marx, but I see The Communist Manifesto was not published until 1948, the same year Mary Barton was published. The idea of Communism must have been around for some time before Marx and Engles then.

    Strange, we did the Industrial Revolution to death when we were at school, but I can't remember ever being taught about the Chartists. According to Wikipedia, Chartism was a working class movement for political reform. There were mass meetings and petitions with millions of signatures handed to the House of Commons. Mary Barton describes one of these marches. John Barton was one of the delegates. However, the Members of Parliament refused to listen to them. It looks like eventually the Chartists got most of what they wanted, including:

    • votes for every man over 21
    • paid Members of Parliament
    • no need to own property to vote
    • secret ballot
    • equal constituencies
    Last edited by kev67; 11-16-2014 at 09:37 AM.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Chap 28 was quite interesting. Mary goes to Liverpool. I thought she was going to walk, but she caught a train. It's about the earliest description of a train journey I have read about. In addition she overhears two lawyers talking about the murder case. They talk about having read it in The Guardian. Presumably this was The Manchester Guardian, which in now just The Guardian, a national newspaper.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    Not a bad book. It was interesting from a social history point of view. The narrator is very intrusive. The plot was quite a good one. The only thing I found unconvincing were the trial and some of the policework leading up to it. OTOH, I did find Mary's desparate quest to find a trial witness exciting. Dickens liked the book so much he wrote to Gaskell to ask her to write for his magazine, Household Words. I suspect Dickens was inspired to write Hard Times by Mary Barton. In the penultimate chapter, there is a discussion between a factory master and two working class men about economics and the greater good. The factory master, Mr Carson, talks about facts, but then they cannot decide on what morally should be done to relieve suffering. At the start of Hard Times, Mr Gradgrind talks about the importance only teaching 'facts'. However, I thought Dickens' point was rather confused. He did criticize hard-hearted economic theory being presented as fact, but I thought his main target was form of education that was so intensive in technical subjects, that it left no room to impart human values or time for children to develop social skills or just enjoy themselves.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Quote Originally Posted by kev67 View Post
    I have started reading Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell. It's odd. When I started reading it, it seemed not very different to some present day writers. for example Anne Tyler. Then, as I continued, I thought you would not have a plot turn on a wife dying in childbirth, or a child dying of scarlet fever in a realistic, 21st century book. I think Gaskell points out better than Dickens how proper poor many people really were. The Bartons and Miss Wilson seemed quite middle class to me, but not when you read how much of theit income it took to buy food. In one chapter, a Miss Wilson invited two young girls for tea. The little bit of tea, butter and bread cost her half a morning's wages, and she had difficulty finding enough crockery to serve it on. One thing that is not like a present-day book is the way Gaskell starts commenting on the scenes she has just written. For example, she describes how angry John Barton is with the factory bosses because a child of his died through lack of substanance when he was out of work. Then she seems to anticipate her middle-class readers' objections and write that this is how the working classes felt, whether or not they were justified in feeling it. Then in a following chapter, a girl sings a song about working-class woe set in Lancashire. I've seen songs written out in other books, so that was not so surprising, but then Gaskell starts writing about how you would have had to be there to appreciate it properly, and how the singer was as good as some more famous singer of the time that nobody had ever heard of these days.

    I gather this book is considered an interesting failure. I have read that it goes wrong in the second half. It is quite good so far.
    I'm reading this book. I find it very interesting, and illuminating on the poverty people suffered at that time and how they strived to cope with it. I haven't read all your posts because I think you give the plot away.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Carmilla View Post
    I'm reading this book. I find it very interesting, and illuminating on the poverty people suffered at that time and how they strived to cope with it. I haven't read all your posts because I think you give the plot away.
    Fair enough. That is always the danger with these threads.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Hello kev!

    When I finish reading Mary Barton I'll read all your posts.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Carmilla View Post
    Hello kev!

    When I finish reading Mary Barton I'll read all your posts.
    I look forward to it.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Hello kev!

    Well, I finally finished reading Mary Barton.

    I must tell you that it was a bit of a challenge to read it because there were so many deaths and so much suffering that at times I found it somewhat depressing. But, on the whole, I liked the book very much.
    Last edited by Carmilla; 01-29-2015 at 04:09 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by kev67 View Post
    In chapter 15, it says John Barton had become a Chartist and a Communist. I thought Communism was a term coined by Karl Marx, but I see The Communist Manifesto was not published until 1948, the same year Mary Barton was published. The idea of Communism must have been around for some time before Marx and Engles then.

    Strange, we did the Industrial Revolution to death when we were at school, but I can't remember ever being taught about the Chartists. According to Wikipedia, Chartism was a working class movement for political reform. There were mass meetings and petitions with millions of signatures handed to the House of Commons. Mary Barton describes one of these marches. John Barton was one of the delegates. However, the Members of Parliament refused to listen to them. It looks like eventually the Chartists got most of what they wanted, including:

    • votes for every man over 21
    • paid Members of Parliament
    • no need to own property to vote
    • secret ballot
    • equal constituencies
    In one of the notes in my copy of the book it explains that:

    'a Communist: Gaskell probably uses the term to refer to followers of the Socialist principles of Robert Owen (1771-1858) the utopian reformer. Communism was not established formally in Britain until 1847, when the Communist League established a Central Committee in London.'

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    Quote Originally Posted by kev67 View Post
    Chap 28 was quite interesting. Mary goes to Liverpool. I thought she was going to walk, but she caught a train. It's about the earliest description of a train journey I have read about. In addition she overhears two lawyers talking about the murder case. They talk about having read it in The Guardian. Presumably this was The Manchester Guardian, which in now just The Guardian, a national newspaper.
    Again, in another note in my copy, in Chapter 26 it says:

    the Guardian the Manchester Guardian, at this time a weekly newspaper, founded in 1821, the forerunner of the current daily newspaper, the Guardian.'

    So, you are right.
    Last edited by Carmilla; 01-29-2015 at 04:20 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Carmilla View Post
    Hello kev!

    Well, I finally finished reading Mary Barton.

    I must tell you that it was a bit of a challenge to read it because there were so many deaths and so much suffering that at times I found it somewhat depressing. But, on the whole, I liked the book very much.
    I thought so myself, regarding the mortality rate. Thankfully, the rate of death started to slow down a bit after the first few chapters. There were a fair few deaths in North and South too. It is shocking to think such a plot would be plausible in a realistic (for the most part) novel.

    It wasn't the case everyone died young in them days. I was struck while reading a biography of Florence Nightingale, the C19th health reformer, how many of her family lived to very old age. Florence lived until she was 90. When I read a book about the history of economics, I was quite surprised by how old so many eminent economists were when they died. I suppose Florence and the economists were from pretty well-off backgrounds. They had enough to eat and did not have to live in overcrowded or insanitary conditions. All the same, I was surprised.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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