You carry two copies of a Jane Austen novel everywhere, one for your handbag and the other to lose in the hotel room (does that happen to you?); or open your Nook and discover Charlotte M Yonge’s The Daisy Chain, William Morris’s News from Nowhere, and Irrepressible, a biography of Jessica Mitford, should you feel like reading them.
But back home you’re happy to sit down with Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, a novel about a cotton factory and its workers, among other things.
I would rather read Victorian novels than almost anything. It's another century; characters struggle to be good; they deal with important social issues; and there are rocky romances. I'm astonished by how political Gaskell's books are. In North and South, Margaret, the heroine, becomes involved with a mill owner and striking workers. In Mary Barton, Gaskell's first novel, set in Manchester in the 1840s, she writes from the point of view of factory workers, documenting unemployment, social injustice, and the struggles of the poor. Mary is the daughter of John Barton, a brilliant, unemployed factory worker. He helps the poor, makes sacrifices to assist the starving, and is naively certain that if he points out the facts to Parliament they’ll bring relief to the workers.
Mary at 16 is a beautiful girl who finds herself a job as a dressmaker’s apprentice. It is the best she can do: her father won’t let her work in a factory, and he hates the idea of service because of class issues. Mary, who hopes to rise in the world, wants to be independent, but she is also a frivolous and immature girl. She dreams of rising in the world by her beauty. And that, as we aficionados of Victorian lit could tell her, is unrealistic.
“I am afraid that Mary’s determination not to go to service arose from less sensible thoughts on the subject than her father’s. Three years of independence of action (since her mother’s death such a time had now elapsed) had little inclined her to submit to to rules as to hours and associates, to regulate her dress by a mistress’s idea of propriety, to lose the dear privileges of gossiping with a merry neighbor, and working night and day to serve one who was sorrowful.... She knew she was very pretty...so with this consciousness she had early determined that her beauty should make her a lady...”
There are many moving scenes in which John Barton helps the starving family of an unemployed "Methody" who is dying of of typhoid in a clammy basement. Gaskell vividly describes the streets brimming with slops and waste, and the damp freezing basement flats. Mary, good-hearted and hard-working, helps the hysterical widow and her children.
Mary has friends who are wiser than she. Margaret, a singer and a seamstress who is going blind (so Victorian, I know, but very sad), understands the connection beween poverty and disaster much better than Mary. Mary is very excited when one of the mills catches fire, and though Margaret cautions her about the danger and significance, they go to see the fire. When Mary witnesses her friend Jem’s trying to save his father from the flames, she understands it is not just a pretty sight. She faints.
But Mary gets involved with a mill owner's son. One knows that nothing good can come of that.
More on this later...