Mary Barton

New entry for the Wordsworth Editions Blog…

In 1848, Europe was experiencing the greatest upheaval since Napoleon. The year had begun with a revolution in the Two Sicilies; by February, the French had declared another republic and Marx and Engels had published the Communist Manifesto. By March, there were barricades in Berlin, riots in Sweden, and the Hapsburgs were looking decidedly insecure. The Danes were demanding a constitutional monarchy, and there were nationalist uprisings in the Romanian Principalities, Poland, and Ireland, now three years into the Great Famine. In England, the new industrial labouring class had organised into the Chartist movement ten years before, calling loudly for electoral reform. Now, the Chartists once more seized the moment to lobby parliament with huge outdoor gatherings across the country prefacing the presentation of a third petition. The Duke of Wellington, then 79, was tasked with defending London. Like the climax of an epic novel, societal tensions could no longer be contained; oppositional forces were moving towards inevitable collision.

This was also the year that Chapman & Hall, at the recommendation of Dickens’ friend and agent, John Forster, published the debut novel of an anonymous female author entitled Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life. Astute reviewers quickly grasped the connection. ‘When people on Turkey carpets with their three meat meals a day are wondering why working men are turning Chartist and Communist,’ wrote Charles Kingsley in Fraser’s Magazine, ‘then let them read Mary Barton.’ And he didn’t stop there. If, he continued, the rich wanted to know why men grew to hate them and turn their backs on God, why mothers gave their babies opium to assuage the pains of hunger, and what a human being looks like when he starves to death in a filthy cellar, ‘then let them read Mary Barton.’ (Kingsley would go on to write his own ‘Condition of England’ novel, Alton Locke, in 1850, which was sympathetic to the Chartist cause.) Although his readers were by then no strangers to religious tracts, government reports and earnest social investigations into the living conditions of the new urban working class, there was clearly nothing like a good novel to really raise awareness. As George Eliot would later write: ‘The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies.’ There was something in the air, and Mary Barton had clearly caught it.

Then, as now, old orders were rapidly changing for which there was no precedent. Britain was the first industrial nation; and as farm labourers, redundant artisans and economic migrants poured into the cities looking for work, by the middle of the century the urban population exceeded the rural for the first time in any country in history. No British city exemplified this change more than Manchester, which had turned traditional handloom weavers into cotton mill workers, while entrepreneurs, factory owners and their financiers amassed vast fortunes.

For some commentators, intoxicated by dynamic economic growth, Manchester was a symbol of national pride, heralding a new era of innovation and prosperity. As the hero of Disraeli’s Coningsby (1844) enters Manchester, he declares:

What Art was to the ancient world, Science is to the modern; the distinctive faculty. In the minds of men the useful has succeeded to the beautiful. Instead of the city of the Violet Crown, a Lancashire village has expanded into a mighty region of factories and warehouses. Yet rightly understood, Manchester is as great a human exploit as Athens.

But Disraeli didn’t live there. The author of Mary Barton did. As W.R. Greg noted in the Edinburgh Review, she (because he was certain the author was a woman) should not be confused with the type of writer who ‘get up the needful information, and then prepare a story as a solicitor might prepare a case.’ Instead, ‘She has evidently lived much among the people she describes, made herself intimate at their firesides, and feels a sincere, though sometimes too exclusive and undiscriminating, sympathy with them.’ Greg, who was a friend of the Gaskell’s, found much to like in the novel’s execution. His criticism, however, was representative of that of many outright negative reviewers, who simply couldn’t comprehend the world Mary Barton depicted. If only the doomed factory worker John Barton had saved his money in periods of economic boom, they said, constantly retrained to keep up with emergent technology, and tried to understand better the financial risks that manufacturers and venture capitalists took, then he would have been fine. And this ‘self-help’ argument is still wheeled out today, in defense of the brutal Darwinism of our own ‘gig’ economy, making the novel as relevant now as it was when it was written.

To a ‘sympathetic’ observer, Manchester was less Athenian, more infernal; and in the most Miltonic sense – it was also rebellious. In the last century, Manchester had welcomed the Jacobite army of the ’45, while the spirit of Peterloo hung over the place as heavily as the smog that turned the snow black. In 1831, three striking workers even assassinated the Manchester mill owner Thomas Ashton to send a message to their employers. The city was a centre for Chartist and Anti-Corn Law League protests, and while both movements hated the government, they also loathed each other. Demonstrations frequently descended into riots, not helped by the rhetoric of many activists. In a vast rally on Newcastle Town Moor in 1839, for example, the Methodist minister Joseph Rayner Stephens told a crowd of 40,000 Chartists, Leaguers, factory reformers and anti-Poor Law campaigners that he was ‘a revolutionist by fire, a revolutionist by blood,’ and should their demands be ignored they should burn the city to the ground. Stephens served 18 months of hard time for sedition and General Sir Charles Napier was sent north to restore order. ‘Poor rascals, poor rogues, drunken ragamuffins and prostitutes form the moral,’ he wrote of Manchester, ‘soot made into paste by rain and physique, and the only view is a long chimney. What a place! The entrance to hell realised!’

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