David Jones English II Victorian & Early Modernist Literature

Tutor: David Jenkins Handy Question: To What Extent Are Mary Barton & Hard Times Agendas For Social Change 3011 Words.
October 2001

Social Agendas In Mary Barton and Hard Times: Authorial Intention & Narrative Conflict
Mid-Victorian novels are often regarded as sociology, yet any working class content reveals more about middle class perceptions than about the workers themselves. The validity of class distinction is never discussed; social change within the existing system cannot be prescribed as no explicit solutions are offered to the explicit problems portrayed. Consequently, Mary Barton and Hard Times are not primarily “agendas for social change”. They are, instead, commentaries on contemporary issues inspired by each authors’ social agenda. This essay will mainly identify the social agendas fuelling Mary Barton and Hard Times. It will then investigate their place in each novel as a whole and the way in which both offer similar, apolitical, solutions. The social agendas behind Mary Barton and Hard Times are different, and are incorporated in different ways. To identify them is to examine authorial intention. Dickens is more straightforward - Hard Times is a dramatised critique of political economy and utilitarianism. Association with caricatures of “hard-headed, solid-fisted people” defines these concepts. Gradgrind personifies the new authoritarianism that destroys positive humanity, “a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow [“the innocents”] clean out of the regions of childhood”. Bitzer is his system’s “unwholesomely deficient” product. Bounderby represents aggressive selfdetermination; “nobody to help for my being here, but myself". Dickens unites these under his Philosophy of Fact. His exaggerated condemnation echoes the rhetorical

David Jones English II Social Agendas In Mary Barton & Hard Times: Authorial Intention & Narrative Conflict

style of Carlyle, to whom the novel is dedicated; “Utilitarian economists, skeletons of schoolmasters, Commissioners of Fact, genteel and used-up infidels, gabblers of many little dog's-eared creeds”i. The targets are real, the grandfathers of utilitarianism condemned in Gradgrind naming some offspring Adam Smith and Malthus. Dickens’ bold style is born of an established reputation and unencumbered by external restraintsii. Mary Barton’s social agenda is to recordiii the suffering industrialisation has caused the poor, “doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and want”, to “give some utterance” to a “dumb people” as far as the bourgeoisie are concerned. An opening Carlyle quote presents a didactic purpose, “instilling somewhat” upon the reader. The documentary style evokes non-sentimental sympathy. The interiors of workers’ homes receive long descriptive passages. This is a world in which people get by on the smallest possible means, “triangular pieces of glass to save knives and forks from dirtying table-cloths”, bricks for pillows. Book I gives full insights into working class life; Mary and Margaret stitching, John Barton attending union meetings, Bible reading on a Sunday. The social agenda is reinforced by the Marxist ideal of presenting “typical people in typical circumstances”. Job Legh represents “a class of men” whose scientific obsessions refute prejudices that the workers are unintelligent. John Barton is initially “a thorough specimen of a Manchester man”, an exemplar of factory workers. The Oldham Weaver legitimates this sentiment:

Oi'm tellin' 'yo' true, Oi can find folk enow, As wur livin' na better nor me Gaskell does not however allow her documentary to speak for itself. Not only


David Jones English II Social Agendas In Mary Barton & Hard Times: Authorial Intention & Narrative Conflict

does the novel’s object language centre on “this time of trouble”, its metalanguage extends to sympathy for workers that often derrides mastersiv. This directly contradicts several polemical statements, but can be reached by locating a disparity between what Gaskell preaches and what she portrays. Gaskell initially distances herself from social agendasv; “Whether the bitter complaints made by [the workers] of the neglect which they experienced from the prosperous . . . were well-founded or no, it is not for me to judge”vi. But judge she does, within a few lines she describes this working class view as “so miserable a misapprehension”. We are in danger here of succumbing to the ageold intentional fallacy, of employing external clues about an author’s intention, such as this post-production Preface, rather than the internal realization of that intention in the language of the text itself. But this disparity does continue in the novel’s metalanguage, between judgemental polemics and the patterning of events themselves. Gaskell conveys the workers’ point of view in an almost Marxist polemic:

At all times it is a bewildering thing to the poor weaver to see his employer removing from house to house, each one grander than the last, till he ends in building one more magnificent than all, or withdraws his money from the concern . . . while all the time the weaver . . . is struggling on for bread for his children . . . he would bear and endure much without complaining, could he also see that his employers were bearing their share; he is, I say, bewildered and (to use his own word) “aggravated” to see that all goes on just as usual with the millowners. She stresses that this is not her opinion: “I know that this is not really the case”. So why does she portray labour and capital, after the mill fire, in a similar fashion to the discredited polemic?

The partners had more leisure than they had known for years; and promised wives and daughters all manner of pleasant excursions . . . It was a pleasant thing to be able to lounge over breakfast with a review or newspaper in hand; to have time for becoming acquainted with agreeable and accomplished daughters.


David Jones English II Social Agendas In Mary Barton & Hard Times: Authorial Intention & Narrative Conflict

. . There were happy family evenings, now that the men of business had time for domestic enjoyments. There is another side to the picture. There were homes over which Carsons’ fire threw a deep, terrible gloom; the homes of those who would fain work, and no man gave unto them. Contrary to the earlier polemic, the employers are not “bearing their share” of hardships. Working class perceptions are dramatised: “carriages still roll along the streets, concerts are still crowded by subscribers, the shops for expensive luxuries still find daily customers”. The discrediting of John Barton’s rhetoric has itself been discredited. The narrator claims this is “what the workman feels and thinks”, rather than its own political slant. Yet throughout the novel it is poor at psychologising concepts out of line with its own ideology. Mary’s woe and love for her father are described in detail, but there is notably less exposition on her disastrous affection for Harry Carson. The polemical passages are necessary to prevent the impression that Gaskell is directly attacking her readership. The events and narration of the novel reflect mistreatment of the workers to a greater extent the narrator’s explicit thesis that the workers are misguided. In passing, the Bartons and Wilsons are described as “our friends”. Enforcing the feeling of documentary, Gaskell plays down her authority as narrator, “the foolishest of existing mortals”vii. She does not know “whether [the opening scene] was on a holiday seized in right of nature and her beautiful spring time”. The possibly arises that events are independent of her narration; she is merely recording them. So declarations about the “misapprehension” of the poor are just a point of view. True authority, the social agenda behind the social commentary, is instead placed in community doctrine. In descriptions of Green Heys Fields omniscient descriptions are replaced with “there runs a tale that . . . ”. We learn most when characters take over the narrative. Margaret defines Job Legh in her scorpion


David Jones English II Social Agendas In Mary Barton & Hard Times: Authorial Intention & Narrative Conflict

annecdote; the primary importance of nurture is established in Job recounting Margaret’s origins. This ties in with Patsy Stoneman’s idea that communication is one of the novel's key elements. When John Barton is prevented from speaking in London, the masters are prevented from hearing working class truths in the form that has most impact, in sayings like “it's the poor, and the poor only, as does such things for the poor”. Esther is partially empowered – though still condemned by the narrator and herself – when she is able to shift community doctrine about prostitution into the realm of economic necessity. Hard Times’ narrator is, by contrast, a powerful, unifying voice of moral authority. It judges each protagonist, decreeing of Mr M'Choakumchildviii “If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!”ix. It belittles Mrs Gradgrind, often reporting her dialogue as indirect speech: " . . .nobody to thank for being here, but myself." Mrs. Gradgrind meekly and weakly hoped that his mother"My mother? Bolted, ma'am!" said Bounderbyx Dickens’ coverage of the industrial theme barely scratches the surface of Gaskell’s portrait, but this is not his purpose. Industry is, for him, one facet of utilitarian malaise. Gaskell’s lengthy descriptions are replaced with figurative language, extending Hard Times' general pattern of imageryxi: “the chimneys, for want of air to make a draught, were built in an immense variety of stunted and crooked shapes, as though every house put out a sign of the people likely to have been born in it”. Unlike Mary Barton with its catalogue of dying friends and infants, Dickens uses metonymics of death, such as the undertaker’s ladder. He does not describe working class hardship but alludes to it: “it was a room, not unaquainted with the black ladder”. Though Dickens deconstructs the synecdoche that dehumanises workers as “the Hands”, he fails to portray them as fully-fledged human beings himself. Stephen


David Jones English II Social Agendas In Mary Barton & Hard Times: Authorial Intention & Narrative Conflict

Blackpool barely exists outside industrialisation: “the old sensation upon him which the stoppage of the machinery always produced - the sensation of its having worked and stopped in his own head”. Both novels describe a polarised society with “hostile classes, with large appetites and no dinners at one extreme and large dinners and no appetites at the other”xii. Workers are dehumanised. Masters continue production during slack periods “to keep the machinery, human and metal, in some kind of order”. Carson is unashamed that he cannot recognise loyal Davenport: “I don't pretend to know the names of the men I employ”xiii. The rich are not evil - Carson is sympathetic once Davenport is individualised - but ignorant. They live outside urban squalor. Stone Lodge is “situated on a moor within a mile or two of a great town”, Wilson has a two mile walk to reach the Carson residence. As we see in John Barton's framed narrative of London, the working classes are also ignorant of upper class culture, but here ignorance has comic rather than damaging effect. Stoneman claims that, in Gaskell’s work, middle class ideology heightens differentiation producing infantilised women. Mary endures misery, but proves herself a fully capable woman. Carson’s daughter, “little Amy with her pretty jokes and her bird like songs” is indulged by her father until she “can't live without flowers and scents”. The same infantilisation through middle class ideology is present in Hard Times, but there is a role reversal between headstrong Louisa and her brother, “the Whelp”, who is trapped in a childish state. The narrator opines, “It was very strange that a young gentleman who had never been left to his own guidance for five consecutive minutes should be incapable of at least governing himself”. Tom Gradgrind ends up in a typical piece of Dickensian imagery, seeking refuge in a circus disguised as a clown.


David Jones English II Social Agendas In Mary Barton & Hard Times: Authorial Intention & Narrative Conflict

Even so, neither novel challenges the class system. Numerous critics identify negative presentation of trade unions. Dickens is suspicious of working class autonomy. Blackpool is noble because “He held no station among the Hands who could make speeches and carry on debates”. This conviction oddly echoes Bounderby – the character we despise most – with his conviction that discontent workers want “to be set up in a coach and six, and to be fed on turtle soup and venison, with a gold spoon”. Masters are actually community leaders. Stricken workers visit them in both texts, Wilson during Davenport's illness and Blackpool when trying to divorce his wife. But these masters do not fulfil their guiding role. Gaskell condemns Carson's excesses, his “good house . . . furnished with disregard to expense”, viewing it through the eyes of a bedraggled Wilson. Dickens, by contrast, does not condemn his protagonists for their wealth alone. The only thing remarkable about Stone Lodge’s wings, lawns and garden are that they resemble their master and his “uncompromising fact”. Bounderby’s response to Blackpool’s marital woes does, however, reflect negatively on the class divide. Institutions of authority conflict with both novels’ social agenda. Bounderby confirms that there are countless laws to “punish” Blackpool’s attempts at improvement. No answer is given to his response, “Now, a’ God’s name . . . show me the law to help me!”. For Dickens increasing disregard for humanity correlates with the ascending echelons of political authority, culminating in the House of Commons. His Commons is not a place of Fact but idiocy, yet it imposes utilitarian messengers on local communities, such as the “professed pugilist” in Coketown school. Harthouse’s brother demonstrates politicians’ empty self-congratulation: . . . the most careful officers ever known, employed by the most liberal managers ever heard of, assisted by the finest mechanical contrivances ever devised, the whole in action on the best line ever constructed, had killed five


David Jones English II Social Agendas In Mary Barton & Hard Times: Authorial Intention & Narrative Conflict

people and wounded thirty-two. . . The narrator oscillates between farce and tragedy. The “delicate” humour of the House, “tickled” by the obscene image of a widow’s hat on a dead cow, leads to the graver observation that the house consequently “became impatient of any serious reference to the Coroner’s inquest”. The rich cannot appreciate the poor's plight. This is also reflected when the masters in Mary Barton belittle workers by drawing a caricature. Having recently completed Bleak House, it is unsurprising Dickens continues the theme that “The one great principle of the English law is to make business for itself”xiv. This sentiment is echoed in Gaskell’s trial scene. The “life-and-death court” is a game for Jem’s barrister, motivated “not so much out of earnestness to save the prisoner, of whose innocence he was still doubtful, as because he saw the opportunities for the display of forensic eloquence which were presented by the facts”. The sailor Will Wilson plays a similar role to Dickens’ circus, a force outside conventionality that embodies the voice of Truth. His response to the lawyers who attempt to belittle him with their “garb of unaccustomed words” is a powerful piece of rhetoric: “Will you tell the judge and jury how much money you’ve been paid for your impudence towards one who has told God’s blessed truth and who would scorn to tell a lie, or blackguard any one, for the biggest fee as ever got for doing a lawyer’s dirty work?” Wilson identifies the absurdity of authoritarian [should have been "institutionalized"] power: “Would somebody with a wig on please to ask him how much he can say for me?” Stoneman claims that by attacking the masculine authority of the court, while lauding “female” concepts like nurture and interdependence, Gaskell challenges patriarchy itselfxv. This may be true on an abstract level, as Gaskell had no language


David Jones English II Social Agendas In Mary Barton & Hard Times: Authorial Intention & Narrative Conflict

with which she could articulate female emancipationxvi. However, Anna Walter’s claim that “we are left so often in Gaskell’s work with the impression of what women can do rather than the reverse” cannot be supported by the diegesis of the text. Jane Wilson is invariably miserable, John beating Mary is as relevant to her development as his, and Esther’s attempts to become a lady end in prostitution. If Mary Barton is a pre-feminist investigation of what womanhood means, Gaskell sends out mixed messages. Social agendas are, however, one of multitudinous elements in both novels. Gaskell incorporates her documentary inside conventions of the Nineteenth Century novel. Daly identifies the implementation of a “fabular narrative or parable”. This includes the love-across-social-boundaries archetype of Mary’s affection for Carson, her adventure in Liverpool, and the murder plotxvii. Mary Barton over-arching structure is that of a Christian morality tale, in which industrialisation is emblematic of broader evils. The opprobrious actions of both labour and capital are motivated by revenge. Religious imagery dominates, Carson’s ultimate amoral deed is his reversal of the Lord’s prayer. Unlike treatment of the class divide, Gaskell’s polemic and remaining metalanguage are united here. Religious sanctity is tantamount: “There are blasphemous actions as well as blasphemous words: all unloving, cruel deeds, are acted blasphemy”. Stoneman points out that “political activism in both men and women stems from thwarted parental love”. A middle class woman with a middle class readership, she cannot discuss labour without commenting on her own class. Gaskell elevates morality to an abstract level, industrial relations becoming a metaphor for the social bond. She thus avoids presenting an “agenda for social change”. Despite negative critical focus of the romance element, it does in some ways


David Jones English II Social Agendas In Mary Barton & Hard Times: Authorial Intention & Narrative Conflict

complement the social agenda’s realism. Gaskell anticipates kitchen-sink realism in contemplating “how deep might be the romance in the lives of some of those who elbow me daily in the busy streets of the town in which I resided”. The murder plot places the tragedy of the working class – the death of one's children – into the realm of the middle class, increasing the sympathy of Gaskell's readership: “Rich and poor, masters and men, were then brothers in the deep suffering of the heart”. More often, however, it leads to conflicts in the narrative. Margaret and Mary's conversation while stitching the Odgen funeral dresses is a true insight into working class domesticity, but shifts awkwardly mid-chapter to the suspense-based dramatics of the fire at the mill. Gaskell contantly destroys suspense with her documentary-style chapter headings: “The Trial And Verdict – Not Guilty”. Mary, as heroin, embodies this conflict. She is the correct eponym for the novelxviii. Her father is the antithesis of a hero, a generalisation. Yet problems arise, for while Gaskell utilises a typical romance mode, the unconventional setting renders conventional heroism impossible. Mary is impetuous and dynamic, but can never be a Louisa Gradgrind or Eustacia Vye as her repression is in no way exceptional. Sally Leadbitter demonstrates the problems of high romance in a working class setting: “one would think you were the first girl that ever had a lover; have you never heard what other girls do and think no shame of?” Dickens, however, takes advantage of inherent problems of social agendas in entertainment discourses. He blurs his agenda behind melodrama and caricature. Utilitarianism and political economy are rarely described directly but inferred. The narrator defines the broader purpose of his industrial theme: “Is it possible, I wonder, that there was an analogy between the case of the Coketown children and the case of the little Gradgrinds?” Industrialisation is one facet of the damage caused by the


David Jones English II Social Agendas In Mary Barton & Hard Times: Authorial Intention & Narrative Conflict

philosophy of Fact. The main interest is in its legacy upon the middle class protagonists. Both novels provide apolitical solutions to the problems portrayed xix. These problems are explicit and detailed, but their solutions are abstract. One is the importance of nurture and the family. In Mary Barton children are the most important part of most characters’ lives, across the social spectrum. John Barton's son is “the cynosure of all his strong power of love”, Carson declares “Have not I toiled and struggled even to these years with hopes in my heart that all centred in my boy?” John Barton and Jane Wilson are reluctant to give up their children, even once they are grown. Bounderby’s false denial of nurture: “my grandmother was the wickedest and the worst old woman that ever lived”, extends his catalogue of faults. Nurture extends beyond the family bond however, through the unconventional relationships identified by Stoneman, to incorporate those not typically in the communityxx. Neither novel reflects typical Victorian concern about stepfamilies. Surogacy causes enlightenment, Mary “little knows the pleasure o’ helping others” before Alice’s maternal care. Sissy may be a “cuckoo”xxi in the Gradgrind household, but her anti-utilitarian good humour highlights for Gradgrind the failings of his system, whilst prompting Louisa’s emotional development. The other solution is nostalgic, the representation of a rural idyll, that “speaks of other times and other occupations”. Alice Wilson romanticises past rural life, but the narrative also embodies this contemporary feeling. Louisa and Sissy go into the country where “the great wheel of earth seemed to revolve without the shocks and noises of another time”. Though the scars of industrialisation are all too clearly felt, they are muted on the day of rest and the scene becomes heavenly:


David Jones English II Social Agendas In Mary Barton & Hard Times: Authorial Intention & Narrative Conflict

there were trees to see and there were larks singing . . . and there were pleasant scents in the air, and all was over-arched by a bright blue sky . . . In another distance hills began to rise ; in a third, there was a faint change in the light of the horizon where it shone upon the far-off sea. Under their feet, the grass was free ; beautiful shadows of branches flickered upon it, and speckled it; hedgerows were luxuriant; everything was at peace. Gaskell’s tragedy is similarly framed by the countryside. It opens with the Green Heys Field excursion and closes with the protagonists transposed from industry to the vast open spaces of Toronto, as Edenic as Dickens’ countryside. Amid “primeval trees” they seem to have gone back in time to pre-industrialised purity. The burgeoning New World economy provides a new start for the working man, on a higher material level. Yet romanticising the countryside is neither an adequate criticism of industrialisation nor a suitable solution to it. Reviewing Southey, Babington Macauley dismisses this

romanticisation: Mr. Southey has found a way . . . in which the effects of manufactures and agriculture may be compared. And what is this way? To stand on a hill, to look at a cottage and a factory, and to see which is the prettier. Does Mr. Southey think that the body of the English peasantry live, or ever lived, in substantial or ornamented cottages, with boxhedges, gardens, beehives and orchards?xxii In conclusion, Mary Barton and Hard Times are commentaries on social issues that do not prescribe social change. Gaskell’s portrait of the working class is expanded into a Christian morality tale, while Dickens manipulates his depiction of society to blatantly reflect the evils of utilitarianism and political economy. Though Mary Barton draws a more realistic portrait of society than Dickens’ dramatised philosophy, it presents solutions that are equally abstract.


David Jones English II Social Agendas In Mary Barton & Hard Times: Authorial Intention & Narrative Conflict


Bibliography: Belsey, Catherine Critical Practice England: Routledge, 1980 Carlyle, Thomas “Captains Of Industry” in Abrams, M.H. & Greenblatt, S. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Seventh Edition: Volume 2 USA: Norton, 1999 Dickens, Charles Hard Times USA: Oxford University Press, 1998 Gaskell, Elizabeth Mary Barton England: Penguin, 1996 Gilbert, Sandra M. & Gubar, Susan The Madwoman In The Attic New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1979 Harrison, John R. “Dickens's literary architecture: patterns of ideas and imagery in Hard Times”Papers on Language & Literature: a quarterly journal for scholars and critics of language and literature (36:2) [Spring 2000], p.115-138. Macaulay, Babington, “From A Review Of Southey's Colloquies” in Abrams, M.H. & Greenblatt, S. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Seventh Edition: Volume 2 USA: Norton, 1999 Perdue, David (2000) “Bleak House” Charles Dickens Page <http://www.fidnet.com/~dap1955/dickens/bleakhouse.html> Stoneman, Patsy Elizabeth Gaskell Sussex: Harvester, 1987 Williams, Raymond Culture & Society 1780-1950 London: Chatto & Windus, 1960

i This similar to, for instance, “"let the Captains of Industry consider: once again, are they born of other clay than the old Captains of Slaughter ; doomed forever to be no Chivalry, but a mere goldplated Doggery . . . with more or less gold carrion at its disposal" in Captains Of Industry. ii Hard Times appeared in Household Words, which Dickens edited himself. iii Raymond Williams defines Gaskell’s “Method of documentary record, as may be seen in such details as the carefully noted reproduction of dialect, the carefully included details of food prices in the account of the tea-party, the itemised description of the furniture of the Barton's living-room and the annotated transcription of the ballad The Oldham Weaver” p.87 iv Collin Macabe defines a key component of Victorian “classic realism” as the distinction between object language and metalanguage. Object Language is the diegesis of the novel; plot events, the story. Metalanguage is the language used by the omnsicient third person narrator; characters’ thinking, their motivation. It speaks over character and plot to tell the reader how to do things. It interpolates us. There categories do overlap, as David Lodge has pointed out, but are a suitable distinction here. v One cannot, however, produce an apolitical novel that opens with a Carlyle quote. As in Hard Times, it immediately aligns the novel with socialist ideas. vi Preface. Italics my own. vii From the Carlye quote of the title page viii A product of the teacher-training scheme of the Minute of 1846 ix Book 1. Chapter II Murdering The Innocents x Book 1. Chapter IV Mr Bounderby xi See Harrison, John R Dickens’ Literary Architecture xii Bernard Shaw in Norton Anthology, p.1808 xiii Book 1, Chapter VI Poverty & Death xiv Perdue, David Bleak House xv Stoneman, p.56 xvi Gilbert & Gubar, The Madwoman In The Attic xvii Archetypal figures also provide familiarity for the reader. Alice Wilson possesses the authority of Jung’s Wise Old Man, a kind of pagan capacity for well-doing: “gathering wild herbs for drinks and medicine in addition to her invaluable qualities as a sick nurse”. Job Legh also possesses qualities of a wise elder. Mary is initially suspicious that he might be “a fortune teller”. Margaret represents the archetype of folk song as a means to liberation. This idea has recurred in literature about poor, repressed Afro-Americans of this century. In The Color Purple a supporting character, Squeak, liberates herself by travelling the country singing the blues. Margaret's songs also have allegorical value, the kind of authority found in aphorism throughout the novel. Her song, "Oh what a word can do" emphasises the communication theme identified by Stoneman. xviii

Various critics have discussed the title change of the novel from John Barton to Mary Barton, especially Williams xix These do not amount to “agendas for social change” but may inspire change in a non-simplistic way. For some Marxists social commentary is a form of praxis as “interpretation” and “change” are a false opposition [As suggested in the introduction to the Oxford edition of Hard Times, p.1]. Bernard Sharrat sees Gaskell's solution as simpler. Once she has drawn attention to it, it becomes our problem. xx Raymond Williams recognises Gaskell’s portrayal of the new set of urban migrants as one of the most realistic elements of Mary Barton. xxi This is the typical Victorian image of surrogacy. In Wuthering Heights Heathcliff is "a cuckoo" in the Earnshaw family, a new member who tears them apart. Catherine Earnshaw subsequently becomes a cuckoo in the Linton household with similar results. xxii Macaulay, Thomas Babington p.1700

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