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‘in Her Preface to Mary Barton, Gaskell Writes “i Know Nothing of Political Economy of the Theories of Trade.I Have Tried to Write Truthfully.” What Kinds of Truths Does She Attempt to Convey?

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Although ‘Mary Barton’ is a novel the revolves around the effects of the industrialisation in and around Manchester, Gaskell is right in claiming that she rejects the notions of political economy and trade theories. It is a novel that is centralised around the people involved, rather than the trade itself. She uses the lives and the ups and downs of the people of Manchester to paint a vision of the effects of the politics and economy of the time and these are the ‘truths’ she tries to convey. This shows a very different side to what can be gained from the scientific and statistical interpretations of this age.

Gaskell writes the truths of what was happening to the everyday working man as a result of the great changes and effects of the ‘hungry forties’, and Mary Barton is seen as ‘a sympathetic, truthful portrayal of ordinary people struggling with rapid social change and overcrowded cities’. This is shown on several different levels, with the most prominent being through Gaskell’s setting of historical context, her clear and vivid descriptions of domestic life and surroundings, and her methods of characterisation.

Gaskell’s frequent implications and mentions of the radical movements of this age are very effective in gaining an insight into the working classes view of the political, economic and social truths of 1840s Britain. As later discussed concerning the character of John Barton, Gaskell incorporates the consequences and strains of the radical Chartist movement into the lives of many characters and their families. References of real life marches in major cities such as the one in London ‘we were all set to walk in procession, and a time it took to put us in order, two and two, and the petition, as was yards long, carried by the foremost pairs.’ And the travelling of delegates sets the novel into a non-fictional based historical context which provides an accurate truth of the time. The major involvement of developed characters like John Barton and Job Legh makes it closer into a domestic and ‘real’ context as the reader sees the upsetting effect radicalism can have when it starts to become more of a priority than personal issues. Mary’s relationship with her father in particular, deteriorates over time and although one can believe they remain to love each other very much, John becomes distanced from his only family member. This is illustrated clearly through her feelings on discovery of her father’s guilt to murder; ‘Her love for her father seemed to return with painful force, mixed up as it was with the horror of his crime.’ The tool of historical fact makes the truths of everyday working class life all the more authentic to the time, integration of the effects of political influence into a domestic and emotional environment.

The truths of the destitution and poverty linked with the political, economic and social aspects of the age are clearly conveyed through Gaskell’s accurate and vivid descriptions of contrasting domestic environments. This can be divided into groups namely the lowest, with Old Alice and the Davenports, the more comfortable such as the Barton’s and Wilson’s then the sickening selfish grandeur of the Carson’s household. Old Alice’s dwellings, although the ‘perfection of cleanliness’, consist of a dark and damp cellar room. The Davenports household is even more dire and paints a picture of the worst kind of poverty, with the ‘damp, nay wet, brick floor; through which the stagnant, filthy moisture of the street oozed up’ which becomes a catalyst for Barton’s mission against the oppression of the rich. Although Barton’s and Wilson’s houses are modest they seem a lot more comforting and homely in comparison, although it is obvious through the constant sickness and hunger that they fall into the bracket of the working class in need to change. The Carson house is an image of grandeur and luxury, where the ambience is always rosy and full of cheer which points most blame onto them for their extravagance during the working classes’ most desperate times of need. These truths of settings and lifestyle provide a basis for much of the storyline of the novel as well as setting the opposing classes worlds apart.

Throughout the novel, the key characters are developed in such a way that they seem personify and caricature the different elements of the working classes. The three main ones that seem to display the most ‘truth’ of the time are Mary Barton, John Barton and Harry Carson. Mary Barton represents the developing modern woman of the age. Brought up without a mother, she becomes everything to her father but at the same time develops her own mind and independence which defines her as one of the strongest female characters of the novel. Living in meagre conditions with her father often unemployed and only earning from his wages from the Union, Mary has grown up in the reality of everyday poverty.

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