Introduction to the author's "Growing Heroines: Elizabeth Gaskell's Women," English Literature Senior Thesis, Hartwick College, January 1997. The illustration, by Charles M. Relyea, is the frontispiece to the 1907 Century ed. of the novel, contributed to the Internet Archive by the New York Public Library.
In Elizabeth Gaskell's first novel, Mary Barton, we are presented with a girl who has learned at a very early age that life is a struggle when one is poor. It is only natural that she should look for an escape from the hardships of poverty to the ease of wealth, though we are to understand that this could involve a fall from grace. Without a mother to guide her, and with a father who would, if he had not been forced to put other responsibilities ahead of his daughter's character, Mary Barton would be left completely to her own devices if she did not have loving friends who provide her models of moral conduct which leads her away from the dangerous route she had begun to follow. Mary Barton is a young girl living in the heart of industrial Manchester with her parents and younger brother. Her father is a weaver at one of the local mills, and the family is poor. Mary's mother has been in poor health since the disappearance of her sister, Esther, and the strain leads to her early death. Mary's Aunt Esther, who followed a vain youthful whim and in consequence fell from virtue, plays a significant role in Mary's future.
Esther first planted the ideas in Mary's head which led to Mary's early shortcomings. Before Esther abandoned her family for her lover, she asked Mary whether she would not like it if her aunt would take her up and make her into a lady someday.
The sayings of her absent, her mysterious aunt, Esther, had an unacknowledged influence over Mary. She knew she was pretty...So with this consciousness she had early determined that her beauty should make her a lady; the rank to which she firmly believed her lost Aunt Esther had arrived. (62)
The young Mary is shallow and concerned with superficial things like physical beauty because it will help her attract a gentleman lover. One can hardly blame Mary for wishing to be a lady. She has had a painful childhood and has only a difficult future to look forward to, so it is natural that she would jump at any chance to have a happy and easy life free from poverty. As well as convincing herself that her father would approve of her dream marriage to Mr. Carson, Mary is anxious to share her anticipated happiness with her father; "she would surround him with every comfort she could devise...till he should acknowledge riches to be very pleasant things, and bless his lady-daughter" (122). It is difficult to imagine John Barton approving of such a scheme as he resents the wealth of the masters, and has become a strong member of the workers' union in an attempt to improve the lives of the poor and show the mill-masters, as well as the government, the injustice and inequality that is present between the masters and the workers.
Mary's father had always been set against her working in the factories as he blamed them for her aunt's fallen character: "they can earn so much when work is plenty, that they can maintain themselves any how" (43). When the weaving trade was very poor and her father could not get work at any of the mills, Mary contracted a job with Miss Simmonds, a local dressmaker, giving them some money with which to buy food. Though she was not in a factory, Mary was still susceptible to evil which her father would have been able to see and nip in the bud if he had not been so absorbed in union business.
John Barton cares strongly about two things: his family and his livelihood. When his wife and son both die within a short time and only Mary remains to comfort him, he gets more and more deeply involved in the workers' union as a way of combatting the injustice and suffering of the poor which he feels himself and also sees around him. This leaves Mary with "more of her own way than is common in any rank with girls of her age" (59). Before his involvement with the union, however, John Barton is a very loving and devoted father to Mary. He is a proud man, too, as is shown by his answer to Mary when she wonders why he does not accept money from the town: "I don't want money, child! D — n their charity and their money! I want work, and it is my right. I want work!" (159). Mary inherits this pride but unfortunately it does not manifest itself in such a noble purpose as her father had. Mary has for a lover the son of one of the wealthiest mill owners in Manchester and "was not insensible to the pride of having attracted one so far above herself in station...Her love for him was a bubble, blown out of vanity; but it looked very real and bright" (160). Mary is not totally blind to the cause that her father has adopted because she suffers too, but rather than work to stop poverty, she dreams of leaving her poor past behind her and becoming part of the masters' class.
Another trait that Mary adopts from her father is a willingness to do something that is not right if there is a strong possibility that the effects will be positive, i.e. the end justifies the means. For instance, John Barton considers stealing an acceptable act if it means that his deathly ill child will have some food to fill his hungry belly and give him strength. In a more severe sense, John Barton's murder of the young Mr. Carson, Mary's lover, can be partially justified as being good for the morale of the repressed and depressed working men, as well as sending a pointed message at the other uncaring mill-owners. While John Barton is away in London, Mary has decided not to continue her usual meetings with Mr. Carson:
There was something crooked in her conscience afterall; for this very resolution seemed an acknowledgement that it was wrong to meet him at any time; and yet she had brought herself to think her conduct quite innocent and proper...as sure to end in her father's good and happiness. (131)
Perhaps Mary acquires her "crooked conscience" from her father as he himself is torn between being a good and honest man, and being a murderer in aid of a just cause: certainly a result of the extreme pressure he feels from the injustice of the industrial class system. Mary seems to sense that meeting with Mr. Carson is wrong and deceitful, but she, too, is caught between being a good girl, and following the path that she thinks will rescue herself and her loved ones from suffering. In these examples, Mary has adopted ideas and behaviors held by her father, pride and concern for others, but mixes them with deceit and ignorance to further her own interests and disguise their vanity.
A turning point comes when John Barton meets the lost Esther in the street. She has been watching over Mary from a distance and is distressed to find that Mary is beginning to make the same mistakes that she did. Esther tries to warn Mary's father of the danger that Mary is in, but he refuses to hear her out and flings her aside. As he walks away, Esther cries:
What shall I do? How can I keep her from being such a one as I am; such a wretched, loathsome creature! She was listening just as I listened, and loving just as I loved, and the end will be just like my end. How shall I save her? She won't hearken to warning, or heed it more than I did. (170)
Though John Barton doesn't hear what Esther has to say concerning Mary, seeing his sister-in-law again reminds him of the similarity between her and his daughter and he becomes afraid that Mary will follow her aunt's sad fate. He addresses Mary sternly about her disregard for the true, honest affection that their friend Jem Wilson holds for her and she is simply impertinent because she has the secret love of Mr. Carson.
When Jem proposes to Mary that same afternoon, something changes within her. She has been denying her feelings for Jem for so long by crowding them out with false ones for her grand lover that she has been a completely different person. Now that she has refused Jem's offer with her last vestige of pride and vanity, she realizes the mistake that she has made.
Herself, a day, an hour ago; and herself now. For we have every one of us felt how a very few minutes of the months and years called life, will sometimes suffice to place all time past and future in an entirely new light; will make us see the vanity or the criminality of the bye-gone, and so change the aspect of the coming time, that we look with loathing on the very thing we have most desired. A few moments may change our character for life, by giving a totally different direction to our aims and energies. (176)
From that moment on, all of Mary's vain fantasies are shattered as she realizes that she had been treading a dangerous path in loving Mr. Carson; now all would be right if she could only win back Jem's good favor.
Mary becomes a woman of action: putting all her strength into every cause she undertakes would help her forget and overcome her earlier transgression. When Jem Wilson is falsely accused of the Mr. Carson's murder, Mary takes on the role of his savior and longs "to do all herself; to be his liberator, his deliverer; to win him life...by her own exertions." (p.312) This is not possible of course, she needs the help of both friends and strangers, but it is the sheer motivation of helping someone she loves that drives her on to think, plan, worry, and act. In fact, it is her action that keeps her from losing her sanity at times. There is a definite change in Mary that her close friends notice now that she had adopted Jem Wilson's cause; Mary's closest friend of her own age, Margaret Jennings, "began to see in her the same, sweet, faulty, impulsive, lovable creature she had known in the former Mary Barton, but with more of dignity, self-reliance, and purpose." (p.318)
It is also interesting to note that Mary only learns the true state of her aunt's existence, that of a sick and alcoholic streetwalker, near the end of the novel, after Mary has done all and braved all to save Jem from the gallows. Now she must understand just how foolish and dangerous was her early wish to follow in her aunt's footsteps when she sees where those steps have led. Mary immediately determines that she and Jem will find her aunt, and by loving and caring for her, who has not been loved or cared for in a very long time, they will "make her good" (463).
Before we leave Mary Barton, we must look at two characters who have a positive influence on the motherless Mary. The first is Alice Wilson, an old spinster friend of the family. Alice left home as a young girl to work as a domestic servant in Manchester where her brother George said there were higher wages available. Early in the novel, when Alice describes to Mary the many duties she performed at her place including minding the children, nursing them when they had the measles, tending the family shop, cooking, and washing, "Mary was glad she had not gone into service, and said so." (p.69)
This is not an unusual response from Mary, who has only herself and her father to feed and look after since her mother and brother have died; there is no need for her to pack up and leave to seek work away from her home which is what Alice needed to do to lessen the burden on her family when there were more children than could be adequately fed. Because of their different situations in childhood, Mary and Alice think differently on the subject of going into service. To Alice, helping others is a great pleasure and one that she has sought throughout her life. The idea of going into the difficult work of service clashes with Mary's early dreams of "becoming a lady, and doing all the elegant nothings appertaining to ladyhood" (121). We have already seen that helping others will become the mature Mary's first concern as she frees Jem and simultaneously protects her father from being found out as the murderer.
At the time of the previous conversation, Mary is in Alice's little cellar home where she has been invited for tea and an introduction to a girl her own age, called Margaret Jennings. The values that Mary is espousing at this point in her life are clearly different from those of the other two women. Mary, very concerned with her appearance and its effect on other people, dresses in a new gown with linen accents to attend the simple meal of bread, butter, and tea at gentle Alice's house because she wants to impress the new girl. Margaret is described as a "sweet-looking young woman...[whose] dress was humble and very simple" (66), and she is duly impressed by Mary's beauty. Throughout the conversation about Alice's youth, Mary makes remarks and asks questions that reflect what is important to her at that time: the prettiness of something, or the gratification of a wish. Margaret has respect for Alice's memories and listens with interest, not judgment. Notwithstanding their differences in character, Margaret and Mary become close friends and confidants. Though Mary may not be aware of it, her friendship with Margaret is beneficial to her character as "Margaret had the great charm of possessing good strong common sense" (80), a value that Mary would greatly benefit from having. The closer she becomes to Margaret, the more values Mary notices that her friend possesses: Margaret is calm, steady, hard-working, loving, and sensible. Margaret helps strengthen "her [Mary's] patience and her hope" (191), and the failing health of dear old Alice Wilson helps make Mary more sensitive to the needs and wants of others. In the trials yet to come, Mary is a tower of strength to her friends as she herself becomes the model of the self-sacrificing heroine.
Though she is too absorbed in fulfilling her dreams to be fully aware of the good, wholesome, feminine values that Alice represents, as Mary matures she will become more caring and self-sacrificing in her relationships with other people: rescuing Jem at any cost, even her own health, or proposing to take her aunt home and nurse her troubled body and soul. We will see this good-natured self-sacrifice again in Ruth, as Ruth becomes a nurse for highly-infectious fever patients, including the man who led her astray as Mary Barton's Aunt Esther had unknowingly started Mary onto the same path of destruction that she herself had taken.
Last modified 24 May 2022