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Friday, September 23, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell














BOOK REVIEW
Mary Barton
by Elizabeth Gaskell
p. 1848
Oxford World's Classics 2008 Edition
Introduction and Notes by Shirley Foster

   Like I said yesterday, the mass market makes all Modern Art possible, it is what they call "sine qua non" in the legal profession.  There is no better example of this phenomenon then the example of the so-called Rise of the Novel.  The Rise of the Novel led to the hey-day of the Novel as an autonomous art form, Richardson and De Foe,  a printer and hack writer respectively, gave way to The Bronte Sisters, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens: Self-conscious stylists who were both aware of the novel as a form of art AND the tastes and needs of the mass market.  This is a period that lasted until the "Modern" Literature revolution of 1922, a year in which T.S. Eliot published The Wasteland and James Joyce published Ulysses.  The modernist revolution carried with it a rejection of the mass market and the accompanying idea of the autonomous, independent artist/creator typically in the guise of some kind of authenticity/purity requirement.

   I would argue that this beginning of audience-less art was a wrong turn.  To give an example of how the rejection of mass market appeal began to pollute the form of the Novel, you can look at Elizabeth Gaskell's first novel, Mary Barton.  Mary Barton was published in 1848, but set in the 1830s, in Manchester during a national recession/depression.  Mary Barton is at least partially written in dialect, and it concerns the murder of a Factory owner's son and the ensuing investigation.  Mary Barton herself is a Manchester Dress Shop girl (not a factory girl) who is the shared object of attraction between the murdered and the accused.

     Mary Barton is kind of like the smash-hit book/movie The Help because Barton herself lived in Manchester and was part of the factory-owning social class in Manchester when this book was published.  Awkward talk at parties, for sure.  At the time it was published, Mary Barton was hailed for what critics call it's "realism" but that's probably because the vocabulary for expressing concerns over class disparity was in it's infancy- Marxism hadn't even "happened" when Mary Barton was published.  Realistic depiction of the living conditions of the industrial working class was definitively a "trend" when Mary Barton was written, and the similar factual depictions of these conditions- in Government and reformers reports, had been available for ten years.

     But the introduction of the labor union stuff certainly diminishes the style of the Novel.  Her third person Narrator hovers awkwardly over the proceedings, and the essential tie between the underlying economic conditions and the behavior of the characters seems forced.  At the same time, there is sheer joy in the depictions themselves, as well as the dialect of the characters.  One interesting point along this line is that the word "ask" is repeatedly written as "ax" a linguistic phenomenon that exists up until today.

    Already though in 1848 you can foresee the perilous rocks of social concern and grand artistic purpose beginning to creep into a previously joyous art form.  Critics are beginning to fence off the territory of "realism" from sloppy description and social consciousness is beginning rear its style-wrecking head.  At the end of the process, in about 1922, the novel will take it's leave from the concerns of the audience and depart on a journey into the heart of self-awareness, but in 1848 no one was there yet.

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