Josh Feit: Family Secrets, Crime and Social Justice in Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Mary Barton”

Back in college, my Dickens’ seminar prof took me aside and told me he thought I’d like Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels better. Well, it took me decades, but I finally took him up on it. He had recommended her debut novel, Mary Barton, written in 1848, the same dramatic year a series of democratic revolutions spread across Europe. It’s also the year Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto.   

Fans of Manchester novels, a sub-genre of Victorian fiction that explicitly deals with owner-worker conflict during the Industrial Revolution, undoubtedly put Gaskell’s Mary Barton—as my knowing prof did — on their list of classics right alongside Dickens’ 1854 novel Hard Times.

Of all the similarities between these two Communist Manifesto-era standard-bearers — the beshitten backstreets, the righteous working-class heroes, the saintly women, the pompous, oblivious privilege of the master class — one curious plot device quietly figures in both novels: the good guys’ unquestioned decisions to shield a family member from the law.

In Hard Times, the nearly spectral protagonist Loo Gradgrind helps her remorseless, selfish brother, Tom Jr., elude the police after he embezzles money from his fancy bank job. And in Mary Barton, hero Mary conceals evidence — she burns it — that will clearly implicate her father in the cold-blooded murder of callous young capitalist, Harry Carson.

Yes, the victims in these crimes are bad guys — a bank and the noxious wealthy son of a capitalist. But the whole point of both novels is the Christian tenet of forgiving your enemies; Christianity is a term that was synonymous with social justice during this period.

As if serious crimes weren’t shocking enough in the morally black-and-white 19th Century (and used as literary symbols of depravity), both Dickens and Gaskell make it extra clear to the reader that these respective crimes are “abominable.”

In the case of Tom Jr.’s crime, Dickens points out that this wayward lout robbed hard-working depositors. As for the murder in Mary Barton, not only does Gaskell give us the gruesome head wound autopsy report—”they lifted up some of the thick chestnut curls, and showed a blue spot (you could hardly call it a hole, the flesh had closed so much over it) in the left temple. A deadly aim!”— but she writes about the murder in the unequivocal terms of sin.

Why then are both cover-ups presented as logically coherent givens for the protagonists, as they go unquestioned by the author and presumably, the audience?

Is the intent to foster a debate about the justness of desperate acts within a morally bankrupt capitalist society?  tThat’d be great. But, again, in both instances, there’s no discussion of a moral conflict whatsoever, either by the narrator or in the lead character’s brain. It’s presumed without question that eluding the law by saving her brother (Loo Gradgrind in Hard Times) or father (Mary in Mary Barton) is the protagonist’s natural priority.

In Mary’s case, turning her father in to the law — as he himself later intends to do — wouldn’t only match the Christian themes of the novel, but it would exonerate her lover, who is falsely accused of the crime. Gaskell, in fact, uses the evidently unthinkable option of turning over the evidence as a binding condition that creates the literary poetics of her mental torture: visions of watching her condemned fiancé hang at the gallows.

The only rationale I can come up with here is that private forgiveness — that is, overlooking the crime as an extension of familial love — is more Christian than participation in the formal legal system.

Gaskell’s confusion on this point is both more palatable and more complex: The criminal in Mary Barton, Mary’s oppressed, hard-working father (as opposed to the reprobate brat in Hard Times), and the victim, a toxic playboy who not only exploits workers, but cavalierly, sexually exploits Mary herself, make the murder more comprehensible.

However, the crime, cold-blooded murder (as opposed to the sneaky, sad sack theft in Hard Times) is more abhorrent. This, I suppose, raises the stakes of the question itself. This story line, in turn, is a better thematic match to Gaskell’s novel, the more pensive and philosophical book of the two. And again, the stakes of the plot twist are already higher than in the Dickens novel; the question of her father’s guilt has dire ramifications for Mary’s own future in terms of her pending marriage to her lifelong friend and now fiancee, Jem Wilson. Conversely, in Hard Times, Tom Jr.’s fate is not super germane to Loo’s future, which is entwined instead with her spiritual comrade, former circus outcast, Sissy Jupe.

For me, the ways in which these similar plot devices differ when you game them out, serves as a symbol for how these novels are ultimately distinct. Overall, there’s more at stake in Mary Barton.

I actually got to the less-well-known Gaskell, Mrs. Gaskell, as she was known at the time, through Dickens; her name comes up in all the academic essays and intros to Dickens’ books. It turns out, Gaskell’s narrative is calmer, wiser, and has a more contemporary sensibility when it comes to the human condition.

I will say, even though, for hundreds of pages, Christian/Marxist Gaskell’s Mary Barton seems on track to be a Victorian Brit lit masterpiece, the hurried concluding chapters do trip it up a bit; they’re also marred in turn by some cheap literary symbolism (a blind character regains her sight).

That said, for 35 chapters or so (there are 38), Mrs. Gaskell is a patient, concerned and artistic narrator, who expertly unfurls stories about star-crossed love, intimate family tragedies, potent proletarian immiseration, along with a Nancy Drew mystery to boot, complete with epistolary ciphering.

The disappointing ending is an ironic misstep because it’s here that Gaskell re-introduces the novel’s most compelling character, Esther, Mary Barton’s long-lost aunt. Esther, who sets off the novel’s spiral of heartbreaks in Chapter 1 by abandoning her family to marry a soldier (not gonna happen, even though he promised), subsequently shows up in pivotal scenes as Mary’s jinxed angel. She’s an outcast, alcoholic prostitute who lives on the damp, gas-lamp streets of Industrial-Revolution-era Manchester watching over young seamstress Mary from the shadows. Unfortunately, and surprisingly, Gaskell misplays Esther’s final appearance by rushing the drama rather than taking her time with the complex character she initially created.

But my disappointment in that final turn just speaks to how invested I was in this great novel.

I savored this book; I wrote a couple of iterative takes as I lovingly read the novel throughout December and January. The tidy TV-series-wrap-up (Gaskell fast-forwards a decade after the drama to a hokey scene of domestic bliss) notwithstanding, Mary Barton brims with literary craft. Gaskell is particularly skilled at creating meaningful parallels within the natural flow of the plot, such as when Jane Wilson, busy tending to her sick sister-in law Alice, first learns that her son Jem has been arrested for murder. Stricken, she unburdens her sorrow to Alice.

Gaskell writes: “She told the unconscious Alice, hoping to rouse her to sympathy; and then was disappointed, because, still smiling and calm, Alice murmured of her mother, and the happy days of infancy.”

This knack for telling two stories at once seems to mark every scene as the novel’s main concern—owners versus workers—is replicated with binary after binary such as vengeance versus forgiveness and hope versus despair. Mary’s own story line is plagued by another stark binary: innocence versus guilt. Her lover Jem is falsely accused of murder, but again, as only she knows, it’s her beloved and morose father, mill worker John Barton, who’s guilty.

Gaskell’s poetic 19th Century prose — “the men were nowhere to be seen, but the wind appeared” — successfully immerses readers in the private worlds of her anxious characters’ inner monologues, all the while set in the visible world of bleak lanes, cellar flats, seamstress workshops, foundry shop floors, pubs, candle-lit kitchen tables and glimpses of the wealthy reclining on divans in the drawing rooms of their estates. The ultimate setting, however —spiraling downward in fustian rags and opium addiction toward murder — is class war.

And class analysis! In the big trial scene, wrongly accused working man Jem Wilson is defended with powerful exculpating testimony from an eye-witness sailor. When the no-expenses-spared prosecuting attorney (working for factory master Mr. Carson) cross examines, asking the sailor if he’d “have the kindness to inform the gentlemen of the jury … [h]ow much good coin of Her Majesty’s realm have you received, or will you receive, for walking up from the docks, or some less creditable place, and uttering the tale you have just now repeated.…” The sailor, Will Wilson (Jem’s long lost cousin) responds with a withering juxtaposition class conscious rejoinder that exposes the unbalanced scales of justice:

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 lawyer got for doing dirty work? Will you tell, sir?–But I’m ready, my lord judge, to take my oath as many times as your lordship or the jury would like, to testify to things having happened just as I said.

This is a particularly satisfying for readers to hear because we know that Mr. Carson already offered double the typical reward money (one thousand pounds as opposed to five hundred). And bent on vengeance, Carson told the police: “Spare no money. The only purpose for which I now value wealth is to have the murderer arrested… My hope in life now is to see him sentenced to death. Offer any rewards. Name a thousand pounds in the placards.”

By contrast, Mary got Will Wilson’s testimony through a shoe leather labor of love and not through any high-paid legal team of her own.

Meanwhile, the sailor angle isn’t merely a working-class plot device. It also brings the story a-train-ride-away to British port town, Liverpool, which sets the novel’s immediate Manchester-based factory strike narrative in the broader setting of national and international capitalist markets. This geographically expansive theme (again, a binary juxtaposition to Gaskell’s hyper local “Tale of Manchester Life,” the novel’s subtitle) is established early on. In addition to Mary’s patron saint Job Legh’s tragic London-based origin story (Legh is Mary’s best friend’s grandfather), and weaver union member John Barton’s eye-opening and dispiriting trip to London to plead the workers’ cause to an inattentive parliament (the weaver is also turned off by the hipster fashions), Gaskell makes it plain that forces beyond Manchester are always present.

Most prominently, Mr. Carson cuts wages to compete for “an order for goods from a new foreign market [which was] necessary to execute speedily and at as low prices as possible [because] the masters had reason to believe a duplicate order had been sent to one of the continental manufacturing towns.”

Certainly, Gaskell, who opens the novel with a comparison between the local countryside and the city, does an expert job focusing on Manchester itself, especially on its filthy gloom — á la Friedrich Engels’ influential The Condition of the Working Class in England, published in 1845, three years before Mary Barton — penning sentences like this: “As they passed, women from their doors tossed household slops of every description into the gutter; they ran into the next pool, which overflowed and stagnated. Heaps of ashes were the stepping-stones….”

But it’s actually the climactic Liverpool chapters, when Gaskell introduces a sort of Jane Jacobs civic pride tour guide (a street-smart teenage boy named Charley who’s on a first-name basis with the Liverpool stevedores), that readers are able to place Manchester, now set in relief against its neighboring port town, fully in its own sunken context.

At both the macro and micro level, this novel lives on conjunctions like these, including my favorite passage of all, which also gives you an idea of Gaskell’s intoxicating city prose:

It is a pretty sight to walk through a street with lighted shops; the gas is so brilliant, the display of goods so much more vividly shown than by day, and of all shops a druggist’s looks the most like the tales of our childhood, from Aladdin’s garden of enchanted fruits to the charming Rosamond with her purple jar. No such associations had Barton; yet he felt the contrast between the well-filled, well-lighted shops and the dim gloomy cellar, and it made him moody that such contrasts should exist.

As for the social justice Christianity I noted in passing (Christian/Marxist binary!), Gaskell rolls out this showstopping line about the evil of pursuing vengeance, which concludes a chapter titled “Murder,” symbolically transmogrifying mortal sin into a discussion about forgiveness.

Ay! to avenge his wrongs the murderer had singled out his victim, and with one fell action had taken away the life that God had given. To avenge his child’s death, the old man lived on; with the single purpose in his heart of vengeance on the murderer. True, his vengeance was sanctioned by law, but was it the less revenge?

Are ye worshippers of Christ? or of Alecto?

Oh! Orestes, you would have made a very tolerable Christian of the nineteenth century!

By the way, this social justice novel also has a sense of humor. Mary’s confusion (and my own) about the “pilot-boat” plan, the mermaid story (!), and Harry Carson’s utter bewilderment at Jem Wilson’s confusing motives are just a few of the goofy moments in this wonderful book.


Josh Feit has published two books of city planning poetry, Shops Close Too Early (Cathexis NW Press, 2022) and The Night of Electric Bikes (Finishing Line Press, 2023). He is the speechwriter at Sound Transit, Seattle’s regional mass transit agency. You can find him online at

Illustration based on the frontispiece to the 1907 Century ed. of the novel, by Charles M. Relyea, contributed to the Internet Archive by the New York Public Library.

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