Mary Barton: Trials and Tribulations of the English Working Class

Mary Barton is a novel by Elizabeth Gaskell written in 1848. It is the story of the English working class, represented by John Barton and his daughter Mary Barton, in the city of Manchester during the period 1839 and 1842. Elizabeth Gaskell paints a very real picture of the life, trails and tribulations of the English Working Class of the period. This was the early Victorian period in which Charles Dickens wrote his famous novels Oliver Twist and The Great Expectations, depicting the poor living condition of the working class in London.

This was also the period just before Frederick Engels arrived in Manchester in 1842 and chronicled his book The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1845. On one of my visits to Manchester I had this fascinating encounter with Engels and Marx in the Chetham Library. I made this “fascinating discovery that Karl Marx had visited Manchester in 1845 and he and Frederich Engels used the Chetham’s Library (that I visited in Manchester) as a meeting place. The books that they read are set aside and the alcove they sat in preserved!! Our heads whirled at the thought that we were sitting in the very spot where Marx and Engels probably read and discussed about the famous theories they later propounded which changed the world. Marx may also have used the industrial scene and conditions of the working class in Manchester during the industrial revolution to propound his views on private property and the class struggle. Marx was all of 27 years old at that time! See post here

John Barton was a passionate trade unionist who loses his job in the crisis of the period. The textile mills of Manchester are in trouble, the workers are faced with insufferable conditions and many are laid off. The Unionists seek to make a presentation in the Parliament in London. However, Parliament refused to listen to the workers.

Vincent Van Gogh: Worker on the Loom

I was impressed by the description of the conditions of the English working class, their negotiations tactics, and the behaviour of the capitalist class in the book. The workers decide to strike when their appeals are not heard. The Chapter ‘Meeting Between Masters and Workmen’ is a fascinating account of the negotiations between the capitalists and workers on wages and the conditions of labour. The meeting took place in a public room at a Hotel. The workers had given a charter of demands to the Mill owners.

The Mill owners were divided in their opinion ranging from giving a slight concession to the demand of the workers ‘just a sugar plum to quieten the naughty child’ to stiff opposition to the ‘dangerous precedent of yielding one jot…teaching the work people how to become masters’. They forgot that the strike was due to unjust suffering. There was no Mill owner who thought to treat the workmen like friends and openly appeal to them stating the exact circumstances faced by the Mill Owners. The chosen negotiating team of five workers read out the statement of their case, their complaints and demands. They were asked to leave the room and the Mill owners consulted each other. The owners opting for some concession won the day by a narrow majority of one, while the rest haughtily expressed their dissent. The delegate re-entered and ‘their words, looks and names were registered in bitter hearts’ of the Mill owners.

The concession was too little and the workers declined any compromise of their demands. Then the villain of the piece, Henry Carson, jumped up and proposed withdrawal of the concessions and declared an end to all communication with that particular Trade Union. He declared that no worker would be employed unless he signed a declaration that he did not belong to any Trade Union. He further derided the workers, while the latter quietly looked on furiously, but held their tongue. The motion was seconded and the Chairman walked out. What followed in the lives of the workers can be imagined.

The description of the negotiations between workers and mill owners in the novel ‘Mary Barton’ is a classic case of traditional organizing tactics of trade unions when workers were mainly based in large factories. While the conditions of the working class in that period in Manchester were bleak, the Trade Unions and their negotiating tactics was the beginning of what can be termed ‘traditional organizing’. Many decades later the welfare state in United Kingdom and Europe developed and the workers gained many ‘rights’.

Spoiler Alert for those who may wish to read the book: Mary does not join the English factory system. She preferred to work with a tailoring unit that made fancy dresses for the well to do women. The working conditions were definitely better for her though she had very long working hours and earned very little. Mary is very pretty and by some chance the arrogant mill owner Harry Carson takes a fancy to her and she enjoys the attention. Her own childhood friend, Jem, loves her and is very disappointed when he discovers this and assumes that Mary is equally interested in Harry Carson.

By a strange turn of events Harry Carton is murdered and Jem is accused of the murder with the motive being jealousy. He is tried in court, but Mary manages to find an alibi and gets him out of custody. Mary discovers that it is her father who has murdered Harry Carson, but does not reveal this to anyone. Jem suspects the same, but does not reveal his suspicions in court.

John Barton, Mary’s father, is very disappointed with the negotiations. He is particularly upset with the arrogance of the owners. Interesting view of the author is that if the owners would have treated the workers as ‘friends’ or at least talked to them in a civil fashion, the workers would have been willing to negotiate further. John Barton, in a moment of frenzy commits the act and disappears for a while. Unfortunately, he had borrowed the gun of Jem’s father and so the finger of accusation points to the young man. Jem suspects that the killer is John, but does not reveal this due to his love for Mary.

While the plot takes many twists and turns, what fascinated me was the description of the life of the English working class. In the character of Mary’s aunt, Esther, who turns into a prostitute after being jilted by her lover, the author provides another interesting view of the world in those times. Esther is homeless, wanders the streets at night, and takes refuge in strange places during the day. But she keeps an eye on Mary while the latter has no idea that her aunt is even alive.

The writing style is intriguing. The author employs a narrator who tell us the story as it unfolds. The character of Mary is dealt with sympathetically and amid all the poverty and squalor she manages to maintain her innocence. I would recommend the book to those interested in that period of history and has a fascination for the life of the English working class.

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