Nicky Penttila's Reviews > Mary Barton

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
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Jun 05, 12

Read in September, 2009

Just finished MARY BARTON, by Elizabeth Gaskell, first published in 1848 based on events in 1837-42 in Manchester, England. I have the Norton Critical edition (2008), but before I wander through its learned criticism, here are a few thoughts.

Wow, what a difference from SHIRLEY. Though both Bronte and Gaskell use a chatty omniscient first-person narrator as a frame and talk about mill owners and workers, Bronte’s feels more internal, more about character growth and, even as it is angry and biting, more hopeful. In Gaskell’s story, the happy people leave England for Canada at the end, leaving us with a cold dish of hope. Life for working-class people in Manchester was so hard they had their own word for pinched with hunger, starving to death: “clemming.”

Gaskell starts slowly, setting her characters at home and among friends, building empathy for them in us, and then grinds us down in the intimate details of their wasting poverty or deluded riches. By the end, though, we’re galloping, over the waves in a race to catch a sailing ship, and in the courtroom as a man is tried for murder and other melodrama. All her characters are closely woven, from Mary and her stormy love-life to little Charley, the boy who soaks up all the town’s gossip. Jem’s mother, for example, is loyal and true, but also broken and short-tempered and not above a little maternal blackmail, and we empathize with both of them:

"Thou'rt old enough to please thyself. Old mothers are cast aside, and what they've borne forgotten, as soon as a pretty face comes across. I might have thought of that last Tuesday, when I felt as if thou wert all my own, and the judge were some wild animal trying to rend thee from me. I spoke up for thee then; but it's all forgotten now, I suppose."

"Mother! you know all this while, you know I can never forget any kindness you've ever done for me; and they've been many. Why should you think I've only room for one love in my heart? I can love you as dearly as ever, and Mary too, as much as man ever loved woman."
(from MARY BARTON, Norton Critical edition 2008 (1858))


Can you believe a guy says that beautiful line -- “only room for one love in my heart”? Tough Jem (who performs a daring rescue during a fire) and dandy Harry Carson can seem a bit verbally overexpressive, but there are plenty who can be more reticent:


Job had never written; indeed, any necessity for his so doing had never entered his head. If Mary died, he would announce it personally; if she recovered, he meant to bring her home with him. Writing was to him little more than an auxiliary to natural history; a way of ticketing specimens, not of expressing thoughts.
(MARY BARTON, p. 294)


One of my favorite scenes is too long to quote here, but starts on the last line of the Norton edition page 208 and runs through 213. Mary opens the door to her long-missing Aunt Esther and they have a surreal visit, both of them so full of the terrors of being found out by the other and the pretendings in their own minds that they miss or misinterpret every gesture and word of the other, for the whole scene. It’s a funereal Monty Python scene.

The text carries a lot of Manchester dialect and describes how people dropped in on each other and offered one another tea, how the table was set and how much tea-things cost, all in service to the story. I hope I can do this sort of meaningful description half as well in my settings. But I don’t know that I can give as good advice, such as why we shouldn’t comfort the grieving with the words, “it can’t be helped:”

Of all trite, worn-out, hollow mockeries of comfort that were ever uttered by people who will not take the trouble of sympathising with others, the one I dislike the most is the exhortation not to grieve over an event, "for it cannot be helped." Do you think if I could help it, I would sit still with folded hands, content to mourn? Do you not believe that as long as hope remained I would be up and doing? I mourn because what has occurred cannot be helped. The reason you give me for not grieving, is the very sole reason of my grief. Give me nobler and higher reasons for enduring meekly what my Father sees fit to send, and I will try earnestly and faithfully to be patient; but mock me not, or any other mourner, with the speech, "Do not grieve, for it cannot be helped. It is past remedy."
(MARY BARTON, p. 215)
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