Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I want work, and it is my right. I want work. - Mary Barton, Thomas Carlyle, and work

This is "Work" (1852-65) by Ford Madox Brown, available for perusal in the City Art Gallery, Manchester.  Image, with much other information, from The Victorian Web.

I know there is too much detail in this complicated image to see what's going on.  In the center, we have some honorable, ordinary workmen, and, for some reason, several dogs.  Behind the workers are a number of representatives of the non-working class, the poshies - a mounted gentleman and his wife, a cute girl in a pretty dress, another woman distributing religious tracts.  To the left is a ragged flower-seller.  And to the right - see the smiling fellow with the hat and cane and beard? - is Thomas Carlyle himself, Victorian patron saint of Work.

It has been written, 'an endless significance lies in Work;' a man perfects himself by working. Foul jungles are cleared away, fair seedfields rise instead, and stately cities; and withal the man himself first ceases to be a jungle and foul unwholesome desert thereby.

I’m in Chapter XI of Past and Present (1843), “Labour.”  Since the passage was written by Thomas Carlyle, it goes on for a while like this, in substance repetitive but in rhetoric variable and inventive, ending: 

The man is now a man. The blessed glow of Labour in him, is it not as purifying fire, wherein all poison is burnt up, and of sour smoke itself there is made bright blessed flame!

I think it is fair to replace the exclamation with a question mark and reply “Um, no.”  But for now, I won’t argue with Carlyle.  Work is inherently virtuous and meaningful, even heroic.

Mary Barton, published in 1848, is set during the economic hard times of 1839, the period of central Carlyle works like “Chartism” and Past and Present, his diagnosis of the Condition of England.  Not that Gaskell does not have her own ideas, but Mary Barton is suffused with Carlyle.  Carlyle provided one key to understanding what, exactly, Gaskell wanted, or wanted her readers to want.

Mary Barton’s father, John, is a factory weaver.  A fire at the mill, combined with an economic downturn, leaves Barton unemployed.  Gaskell is a keen observer of unemployment, and her psychology of the unemployed is consistent with the way sociologists treat the subject today – this is one of the ways in which Mary Barton is oddly modern.  A picture of the unemployed John Barton:

Once, when she asked him as he sat, grimed, unshaven, and gaunt, after a day's fasting, over the fire, why he did not get relief from the town, he turned round, with grim wrath, and said, "I don't want money, child! D--n their charity and their money! I want work, and it is my right. I want work." (Ch. 10, 115)

The lack of work eventually perverts and destroys John.  A quite different lack of work also ruins a young gentleman who pursues the pretty Mary Barton – he can dally with her not simply because he is rich, but because he is “unfettered by work-hours” (Ch. 7, 80).

The Carlylean echo here is not simply the celebration of work itself, but its separation from money.  Gaskell brings out the Marxist in me at this point, the pure materialist – higher pay for the workers, I say!  But I’m less convinced of the inherent meaning of work, and Gaskell and Carlyle believe, I think, that whatever material changes are necessary will follow the spiritual changes, somehow. 

The argument is made unnovelistically explicit at the very end of the book, when it is claimed that what John really wanted from his employers was not money, or improved working conditions, but that they would care about him, really care.  He wanted nothing more than sympathy.  “Sympathy” is the guiding word of Mary Barton.  It’s all about sympathy.  More sympathy tomorrow.

Page numbers from the Penguin Classics edition, by the way.


  1. But higher pay for the workers will mean fewer workers!

    Allow me to quote the (highly ironical) narrator of Pierre: "Talk of drums and the fife; the echo of coin of one's own earning is more inspiring than all the trumpets of Sparta."

    I should read Carlyle, not least because I haven't yet. You've also got me more interested in Gaskell than I've really ever been before. I've always liked these condition of England novels, or at least I did back when I used to read them, though I find them almost universally misguided in one way or another.

  2. higher pay = fewer workers

    Yes, all else equal. But not if:
    1. The demand for labor grows faster than the supply (which is what actually happened over the course of the late 19th century, leading to large increases in the average wage).
    2. The owners, as members of the Brotherhood of Man, redistribute the surplus value they have extracted from the workers rather than keep it themselves.

    Carlyle has a sort of feudal model in mind - the owner protects the workers during hard times and suffers with them. In Past and Present, in which the Captains of Industry are presented as the new Heroic Class, the model is actually a medieval monastery!

    I know what you mean by misguided. Hard Times has some of Dickens' worst ideas.