How is Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton not more radical? At face value, the novel takes the form of a marriage plot. Although the characters are mostly poor, laboring peoples, the narrative follows the titular Mary Barton as she moves through an industrializing Britain during the early Victorian era. She loves, then she longs. She learns that she doesn’t love. She longs some more, and then she loves again. Some people die along the way, but surely a happy ending ensues. Yet these romances and spectacles only dominate one part of the narrative. In this paper, I argue that Mary Barton performs a balancing act between flashy spectacle and serious, political commentary about class relations. The narrative voice does this through alternating between transparent and opaque language, and in doing so, the novel consistently comments on class issues while repeatedly claiming otherwise. Take, for example, the following passage:
“[The condition of the poor] is so impossible to describe, or even faintly to picture, the state of distress which prevailed in the town at that time, that I will not attempt it; and yet I think again that surely, in a Christian land, it was not known even so feebly as words could tell it, or the more happy and fortunate would have thronged with their sympathy and their aid.” (85)
Within the above section, there is a pattern of absence. Although the narrator claims that the conditions of the working class were “so impossible to describe,” the narrative then goes at length to monotonously not describe the impossible scene. Three consecutive times in only two lines of text, the narrator insists upon this point. Rather than withhold information, the text goes on about this elusive scene, imprinting it upon the reader. Through this repeated protest to speak, the narrative actually does much to convey the opposite. This repetition widens the void left through this absence, and the lacking text leaves the reader with a more vivid image of the distress which the poor endured than general statistics could otherwise provide.
Interestingly, the narrative then follows what had not happened with speculation. Wealthier, “more happy and fortunate” classes “would have thronged with their sympathy and their aid” if only they had known how bad the situation had gotten. It is hard not to read this passage in the context of another character, John Barton, who has often spoke on behalf of Trade Unionists and other contemporary labor groups. Yet here, the text steps out from itself. What first begun as a proclamation about impoverished peoples changes tone completely, as if to distance the narrative from radical positions while still commenting and agreeing with radical sentiments.
Every section that depicts the poor and laboring class seems to lead to some radical conclusion about inequality. Yet the text suggests that class sufferings are wholistically distinct from the very institutions which separate the different classes of Victorian England. At the same time, the very separation of classes allows for terrible hardship without relief. To be clear, I do not argue that Elizabeth Gaskell is a Radical. The ways in which Gaskell portrays working conditions and hints of a strong sympathy towards labor groups, however, raises an important question. How is she not?
Barton, Mary. Elizabeth Gaskell, edited by Macdonald Daly, Penguin Books, 1996.