Sunday, July 16, 2017

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell and the Manchester Cotton Mills

Elizabeth Gaskell, like Charles Dickens, wrote novels that addressed the social and economic issues of the Victorian Age with the intent of humanizing the plight of the poor and changing hearts and policy.

In 1832 the beautiful young Gaskell married the minister of a Manchester church and together they worked among the poor in the heart of the city, teaching reading and writing through the Sunday school.

The Industrial Revolution spurred the development of a huge cotton mill industry drawing workers from the countryside to cities like Manchester. The infrastructure could not keep up. Workers housing was in short supply and living conditions were unhealthy. As economic pressures closed some mills the workers were left without a safety net. The poor helped the poorer as families died of disease, starvation, and exposure. Meanwhile, industrialists and capitalists had become rich and isolated themselves from the harsh realities of the suffering around them.

Gaskell published her first novel, Mary Barton, anonymously in 1848. The novel is at once a social commentary and a traditional romance. Gaskell went on to publish North and South and Cranford. She became close friends with Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens recruited her work for his magazines. We may not be as familiar with Gaskell as Dickens and Bronte, but her impact was important.

I love that Gaskell as a clergy wife did not shy from controversy. Gaskell was progressive for her time and I am very sure she upset quite a few in her husband's church. Unitarians did not believe women should submit to their husbands and Gaskell's husband not only shared her values but supported her work. She did not take on the traditional role of clergy wife, concentrating instead on relief work, visiting the prisons, and teaching.

Mary Barton begins with an idyllic holiday in the countryside outside of Manchester. With lovely, poetic language Gaskell extols the beauty of nature. Two families meet and return to have a late tea at the Barton home. It is a quaint and sweet vision of working class hospitality.

Gaskell then shows us the life of the mill workers in the city. It is not very pretty. Children 'clem to death'--starve-- before parent's eyes. The community helps those in dire need as best they can, visiting the damp and unheated basement rooms where parents and children are dying of disease and starvation, the ill tossing on damp beds under piled clothing for lack of warm blankets, the baby playing on brick floor damp with effluvium.

Mary Barton is the daughter of a mill worker. They have a respectable life and a comfortable home with the luxury of a cheap enameled tea tray and tea caddy and a small deal table. Then the mill burns down and her father is without work. He wants no charity; he wants to earn his bread. They sell off their little niceties. Luckily, Mary is apprenticed to a milliner, She works for free in exchange for her training but her meals are provided. Her father becomes bitter and turns to opium to numb his hunger pains. He is involved with the Chartist Movement and goes to London with other mill workers to present their concerns; they are rejected, unheard.

The honest Jem loves Mary, but she shuns him because she has been secretly meeting the mill owner's son and has dreams of becoming a rich man's wife. Mary rejects Jem's offer of marriage only to learn her rich beau had not intended to marry her. Too late she realizes she did love Jem, but he is pursuing his career abroad. The domestic story becomes melodrama, but the ending brings understanding.

My Greenwood ancestors were from just outside of Manchester, and include generations of mill workers. My great-grandfather Cropper Greenwood worked in a quarry as a mechanic, but his parents and grandparents and siblings were mill workers. When Cropper met my great-grandmother she was a domestic servant working in Manchester.

Cropper and immigrated to America with women from his home town. The women were joining their men who immigrated to New York State for mill jobs. The pay and living conditions were much better than in Manchester. Cropper was hired as a chauffeur and sent money for his fiance to join him in America. They married the next month.

My great-grandfather Cropper Greenwood is the young man on the far right.
His father and siblings worked in cotton mills. 
Cropper's father William Greenwood was a sizer when he married Elizabeth Ann Hacking in 1875. William's father Hartley Greenwood was a weaver when he married; the 1861 census shows he was a cotton warp sizer. And his grandfather was a weaver.
William Greenwood
One of Cropper's younger sisters had worked in the mill doing a very dangerous job. She had to get on the floor under the machines to clear away the lint.

Reading Mary Barton helped me connect with my personal family history. The novel also addresses the continuing problem of capitalism and industry: why do the owners get rich and the workers languish and struggle and live in want? And it embodies Gaskell's Unitarian beliefs and her desire to spur Christians to change their hearts toward the poor, hoping to lead to reform.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Mary Barton
Elizabeth Gaskell
Dover Publications
EDITION Paperback
ISBN 9780486812496
PRICE $7.00 (USD)