Monday, July 19, 2010

I know nothing of Political Economy, or the theories of trade - Elizabeth Gaskell, liar

Fiction writers are such liars.  That title is from Elizabeth Gaskell’s Preface to her first novel, Mary Barton (1848), a novel at times fascinating, often aggravating, and occasionally dull.  Yet it is, I now see, an Essential Victorian Text.  If only it were a better novel.  Well, sometimes you gets the one thing, and sometimes you gets t’other.

I’ll try to avoid going on and on and on about the aggravating and dullish parts.  It was a relief to learn that the single worst chapter in the novel, genuinely bad, was forced on Gaskell by her publisher.  Same thing happened to John Galt twenty-five years earlier, leading to the one bad bit of The Entail.  That willfully naïve preface was a publisher’s demand as well.  Writers, when cranky, are not often at their best.

I at times could hardly believe that the first chapters of Cranford, light and sparkly and trickily rich, were only two years in the future.  Gaskell learned fast.  Or, she found a style she thought was appropriate for the grim Mary Barton and stuck with it, for better and worse.  Eh, it’s a first novel with a lot of typical first novel problems.  The amazing thing is what Gaskell does well, which is to tie together so many Important Victorian Themes that one wonders if the novel had been commissioned by time traveling literature professors.  I’ll make a list, for my own benefit.

- Manchester.  I don’t know if this is the first novel set out in the new industrial cities.  It’s the earliest one I know.  But in 1848 they were not really so new anymore, so it was about time.  This single innovation, writing a novel about working class Mancunians, is by itself worthwhile.  The Manchester of Mary Barton is unfortunately not imagined at the artistic level of, say, the London of Dombey and Son (1847) or the Cranford of Cranford, but I thought it was sufficiently real.  It does not feel like a transplanted London, at least.

- Gaskell’s working class characters are her own, too, not reworked Dickens.  Gaskell sentimentalizes them in some ways, but it’s her own sentimentality, something new.  And Gaskell has almost no mediating characters, meaning we spend our time with the seamstress Mary Barton and her weaver father John on their own terms, in their own lives, not through the eyes of a more "respectable" character.

- And as soon as I write that, I realize that it is not true.  The respectable mediator is our narrator, who I’ll call Elizabeth Gaskell, who is endlessly intrusive, reassuring us that we can spend our time with these questionable people.  The narrator is so weird in places that I sometimes wondered if I was reading the novel correctly.

- A prostitute is treated with a great deal of sympathy, which I’m told is new.

- Good or bad, Mary Barton is a political novel with a serious purpose.  The reader, it is clear, is meant to be changed by the novel, by knowing more about these people.  I assume that much of this effect is lost on the modern reader.  The argument – the political argument – is odd, too.  Despite some fascinating echoes of Marx (the Communist Manifesto appeared a few months earlier) and plenty of Thomas Carlyle, the change Gaskell wants is fundamentally Christian.  I found this hard to understand, at first, but Gaskell led me through the argument, successfully.  She knew plenty about Political Economy.

Well, this is plenty vague to anyone who has not read the book.  I’ll spend part of the week making some sort of argument about Mary Barton.


  1. I got the same impression from "North and South"- that she knew bloody well what she was talking about, but didn't really want to appear so. Maybe she was worried about not looking enough like a Lady? Because, as you know, ladies isn't gots smarts.

  2. Perhaps Political Economy was not in the category of Things With Which Ladies Should Concern Themselves. Or at least not Unitarian clergymen's wives.

    The veil is pretty thin, though. If I can see through it, so could her contemporary readers. So it's a rhetorical effect, a deliberately undeceptive deception.

  3. I read this last fall and was alternatively unimpressed/kind of bored/well entertained. It was okay as a whole. I think you're right about the narrator being weird at parts.

    I read that she wrote the novel soon after one of her children died; her husband encouraged her to start something so she turned to writing. I think in this novel is obvious she has *something* she really wants to discuss.

    Definitely not a strongest novel but certain one that showed promise. I'm looking forward to your other posts!

  4. Well, this is plenty vague to anyone who has not read the book. I’ll spend part of the week making some sort of argument about Mary Barton.

    Oh good, I was starting to get interested! Looking forward to hearing Gaskell's argument...

  5. Well, you can see if I made any more sense today.

    Rebecca, you highlighted the grief in the novel, and I'm going to use that tomorrow. This is a good one to have under your belt if you're exploring Victorian literature.