Friday, July 23, 2010

Elizabeth Gaskell and Herman Melville aid the English poor

For some reason, I have been claiming that Mary Barton was published in 1849, which is wrong.  October 1848, that’s the right answer, amidst revolution and Communism and so on.  Good timing.

I don’t really know that Gaskell was the first writer to treat factory workers in the manner she did, sympathetically and, in some sense, realistically.  I doubt it.  Maybe Mary Barton is simply the first canonical book of its type.  It’s the first I know.

Charles Dickens introduces the working class, the factory class, for the first time in The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), but he presents them almost abstractly, in a sort of fantasy setting, like something from The Pilgrim’s Progress or Dante.  I called it an “industrial apocalypse” – wrathful monsters and black vomit and starved children.  It’s a powerful passage, but a lot of distance is built in, like a funhouse exhibit.  It's not so easy to see any actual people behind the expert rhetoric.

Dickens returns to the subject in the early part of David Copperfield, a book I have not read, but probably should.  Is it any good?  I recently read that Dickens told no one, no one at all, that he himself had worked in the blacking factory as a child.  Is that true?  Anyway, David Copperfield began serialization in March 1849.  How much had he learned from Gaskell?

Maybe nothing.  I know of one other 1849 novel that has, in just one scene, an uncanny resemblance to Mary Barton.  Had Herman Melville read Gaskell?  One of the early deathbed scenes in Mary Barton, in the “Poverty and Death” chapter I mentioned a couple of days ago, takes place in a dark, stinking cellar.

Quickly recovering themselves, as those inured to such things do, they began to penetrate the thick darkness of the place, and to see three or four little children rolling on the damp, nay wet brick floor, through which the stagnant, filthy moisture of the street oozed up; the fire-place was empty and black; the wife sat on her husband's lair, and cried in the dark loneliness. (Ch. 6, 60)

The husband is dying from typhoid, and the woman and baby are literally starving.  One paragraph tells us how John Barton and his friend feed the family drop by drop, like modern aid workers.  Another paragraph describes the “back apartment” of the cellar, “down which dropped the moisture from pigsties, and worse abominations,” and for which the family “paid threepence more for having two rooms” (64).

In his “first time at sea” novel Redburn (1849), Herman Melville describes a strangely similar scene.  The narrator is a young American sailor, wandering about Liverpool. He discovers, in a warehouse cellar

the figure of what had been a woman. Her blue arms folded to her livid bosom two shrunken things like children, that leaned toward her, one on each side. At first, I knew not whether they were alive or dead. They made no sign; they did not move or stir; but from the vault came that soul-sickening wail. (Ch. 37)

Young Redburn does what he can to help them.  No one else in Liverpool cares.  Both scenes are used to demonstrate the superior impulses of the protagonists.  The weaver John Barton is experienced in his charity; the sailor Redburn is a novice.  Melville ends his chapter

Surrounded as we are by the wants and woes of our fellowmen, and yet given to follow our own pleasures, regardless of their pains, are we not like people sitting up with a corpse, and making merry in the house of the dead?

The author of Mary Barton would not express herself so grotesquely, or vividly, and concludes her novel on an idealistic note, while for Melville, the episode is simply one piece of the moral development of his hero.  But both Gaskell and Melville are asking for an extension of our sympathy.


  1. She's not the first. Just for example, there's Frances Trollope's Michael Armstrong, Factory Boy, which I think dates from around 1840. There are a couple of good scholarly books on industrial fiction that give all kinds of examples. But for most readers (me included), Mary Barton is first and, often, last, in the genre. It is a hugely uneven book, but the less you think of it as an aesthetic object and the more you think of it as a social intervention, the more sense it makes. The scene in the Davenports' cellar that you quote from is tremendously helpful for illustrating the difference between those two things, I think. I have a handout with the whole long page or so of Barton and his friend going to see Davenport, stepping through messes on the street and so on until they descend below even that level of civilizatito the cellar itself, and then on the other side the description of Coketown from Hard Times. Even the "slum" scenes from Hard Times have little in common with Mary Barton. Heck, even Tom-all-alone's in Bleak House is abstract fantasy compared to that cellar.

    I expect you'd love David Copperfield. It's funny, and sad, and brilliantly plotted, plus it's Dickens playing with first-person narration. Who could resist?

  2. I could tell where you were going with the comparison as soon as I read a scrap of that passage from Mary Barton; uncanny resemblance is right.

    I may have mentioned earlier in the week that Gaskell has never been at the top of my list, and I think I always saw her as Rohan Maitzen describes, more social intervention than aesthetic object. That may well not be true of her later work, which everyone seems to agree is better, but it does make me think Mary Barton is not quite for me, at least not until I decide to do a "condition of England" project (not actually in the works).

  3. Frances Trollope was right on top of things there.

    If I accomplished anything this week - and let's not investigate that claim too closely - it's been to try to understand the aesthetic basis of the novel's argument. I agree, the argument comes first with this book. It makes no sense otherwise. I had to work on it to get it to make sense at all.

    But it does, in the end, doesn't it, in a way that Hard Times just does not. What on earth does Dickens actually want his readers to do?

    On the other hand, parts of Hard Times - parts! - are typically brilliant Dickens. (I'm not sure who my joke about David Copperfield was directed at - I hope to get to it soon.)

    I would not really recommend Mary Barton to anyone as a novel. But it's not quite a period piece, either, even though it's such a capsule of Victorian themes. I don't know.

    This is why, nicole, Cranford was such a surprise. Boy howdy, is it different than Mary Barton.

    By the way - loved The Perpetual Curate. Oliphant pulls off some tricks worthy of writers of much greater reputation.