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I'm an Irish guy living in France. I like music, books, creative writing, art, history, vegetarianism, people, and chocolate.

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Monday 28 July 2008

Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton

Last week I finished a book I had started to read months ago, but never had time to finish because of coursework : Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton. Published in 1848, the novel had a lot of influence in its day, as it highlighted the plight of ordinary working people in Manchester in the 1840s. Being both a literature lover, a history enthusiast and a socialist, I had high expectations. And I wasn't disappointed.

I'm not going to say much about the plotline because I don't want to spoil the story for anyone. But the novel centres on two working class families and the struggles they go through everyday : hunger, disease, death of loved ones, appalling living and working conditions...

Elizabeth Gaskell was by no means a socialist so I wasn't expecting to find any socialist critique of capitalism in her novel. But she was a social reformer. Although she didn't want to see the end of the capitalist system, she was genuinely concerned about the plight of the less fortunate, and she set out to let England know about the terrible living conditions of the working people in Manchester. In fact, she exposed herself to a lot of criticism from the people who frequented her milieu, who were often mill owners and "masters", of the class which she berated in her novel for not being attentive to the workers' needs.

But the most important theme in the novel is arguably the theme of reconciliation. Gaskell was a Unitarian Universalist, in fact married to a Unitarian preacher, and she strongly believed in human goodness. Many have criticised her for this, but I don't think she meant it in a naïve way. She does seem to have believed in evil. But in an age when most people believed the working class to be a horde of brutish, degenerate and evil animals (remember that this was the age of phrenology and misapplied Darwinism), Gaskell was really eager to show that these people were in fact human beings, just like their masters, and she actually tried to explain why they sometimes resorted to violence. If the characters she created (both working people and "masters") are almost always redeemed from their propensity for evil, and ultimately become reconciled to their fellow human beings and to God, I don't think it's because of any naïveté on her part, but rather because she believed that it was really possible for people to change, and hoped to see it come true.

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