The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

XI. The Political and Social Novel

§ 14. Mary Barton

Mary Barton, a Tale of Manchester Life, was written in 1845–7, when there was still great distress in the manufacturing districts, and when the abolition of the corn laws was only beginning to exercise its remedial effects; and it was published in 1848, when the political and social fabric of this country stood unshaken, though not unmoved, by the convulsions of the continent. When, or just before, Mrs. Gaskell was beginning her story, Disraeli had published Coningsby and was preparing to follow it by Sybil; but Mrs. Gaskell was unacquainted with either of these works, though she might have given them at least as friendly a reception as was accorded to the later of them by her contemporary George Eliot. It is, however, clear that Mrs. Gaskell’s story was concerned with a rather earlier period of British social history—the years 1842–3; and this was recognised by the most powerful, though not by the most violent, among its critics. The troubles of these years really dated from the series of bad harvests which had begun so far back as 1837, and which had led, in 1838, to the great chartist meeting on Kersal moor, Manchester, and, in the following year, amidst continued distress, to the rejection, by a large parliamentary majority, of a monster chartist petition, agreed upon by a national convention of working men’s delegates. It cannot be said that (though, as John Barton and other less prejudiced observers noted, royal drawing-rooms and other social functions were not suspended) these occurrences made no impression even in London; but, at Manchester and elsewhere in the manufacturing districts, there ensued much agitation and violence, and, when, in 1840 and 1841, the distress among the working classes continued and, in the following year, reached its height, a great part of Lancashire fell into a condition approaching to riot, though the queen’s speech stated that the sufferings and privations of the manufacturing districts had been borne “with exemplary patience and fortitude.” After another petition—this time bearing more than three million signatures— had been rejected by a sweeping majority of the house of commons, a wild riot broke out at Manchester, and a general strike was for a few days enforced.

It was the impression of these events, and of the efforts which followed to allay the almost unprecedented sufferings, as well as the perilous excitement, of the working classes, especially in the manufacturing districts, which was upon Mrs. Gaskell when she wrote her “tale of Manchester life.” For it should not be overlooked that, if the preceding years had brought with them sore suffering and savage wrath, 1842 and the years immediately following, at all events, were full, not only of charitable effort, but of legislative endeavour to find remedies for the existing condition of things; that, in a word, the conscience of the country was awake, and the system by which things (including wages) were left to right themselves had been definitely put on its defence. This is the point of view from which the authoress of Mary Barton addressed herself to the problem of the early forties, which she did not so much as profess to understand in all its economical bearings; and this is what the eminent political and economical thinker who was the sternest critic of the book failed to see when he tried to shift the chief blame for the patent evils of the situation from the masters to the workmen, and, more especially, to the ex-workmen “who form the acting staff of trades’ unions and delegations.” Mrs. Gaskell’s panacea—the bringing-about of a good understanding (in every sense of the term) between masters and men —had only begun to be put into operation in the period with which Mary Barton deals; and even to these beginnings she pays a tribute, though not in a particularly decisive form.

Still, it is obvious enough that, in Mary Barton, there is no very manifest intention of holding a careful balance between the two sides, and that, as was inevitable, the sympathies of the reader are engaged on the side of those who have “to stint in things for life.” The writer did not plead their cause as deserving, or deprived of, particular rights; chartist, or even democratic, dreams were far away from her mind; she and many of the working men and women would probably even have disagreed as to the protection which the law should give to wives and children. But she thought that the men should be treated “as brethren and friends” by their employers, and that, so long as this remained untried, there could be no desire for peace and, consequently, no hope of better things.