Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Mary Barton’ and the Concept of Religious Naivety

In her fictitious account of working class existence in the mid 19th Century, Elizabeth Gaskell imparts an elucidatory, if naively pious, portrait of the ‘social problems’ of the Victorian Era and in [attempting] ‘to persuade her readers to view her working-class characters as individuals’[1] hopes to ‘eradicate evils by arousing the conscience of all those who professed to be Christians’[2]. In her preface to ‘Mary Barton’, Gaskell eludes to her religious leanings with an admittance to having diverted her initially pastoral narrative, this set ‘on the borders of Yorkshire’[3] to something all the more sympathetic, prompted by her ‘deep sympathy with the care-worn men’[4], a text ‘so structured to entice or trap…readers into a change of mind, a reformation of view, a “conversion”’[5].

The existential growth of Non-Conformist sentiment in the earlier part of the 19th Century, namely in the mid 1820s and onwards, led to what one would denote an evangelical emergence, this characterised by the ‘fusion of ancient and modern thinking, biblical and practical instincts’[6], a sentiment echoed by Gaskell in her ‘Unitarian stance’[7] evident in the profound curiosity ‘Mary Barton’ displays in the ‘Christian paradigm of brotherhood, a paradigm that appears fundamentally at odds with the realities of revolutionary, working-class violence’[8]. This misconception of the ability for religious consciousness to alter political and prejudiced consciousness can ultimately be seen to balm the novel’s ability to affect any form of social change, and addresses whether ‘literature’s relationship to concrete [this] social change’[9] is in fact viable at all, or whether the novelist’s interpretation of the world is relevant when ‘the point is to change it’[10].

However, in the most significant social protest novel of the 19th century, Les Misérables, Hugo himself addresses the relevance of such fiction in bringing about social change ‘So long as…the three problems of the age…poverty…starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood…are not solved; so long as…ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot by useless’[11], and thus is prefaced in his historical epic. Yet surely, as Gaskell does, to define the goodness of man by his perceived piety, or thereby lack of, and prescribing remission for sin for wanton naivety cannot be designated as synonymous with social change. The idea that should one realise the bad of the earth, it is inherent one will react with charity. Gaskell’s belief that the suffering endured by the Manchester workers ‘taints what might be resignation to God’s will, and turns it to revenge’[12] implies a resolve in acceptance of ‘God’s will’ as tantamount to affecting some semblance of resolution comparable to ‘enlightenment’. Catherine Gallagher suggests that ‘Gaskell’s Christianity obscures her tragic vision’[13], turning the calamity of John’s tragedy into a ‘religious homily’[14], and thus negates the importance of choice for John in his fate, a ‘crucial component of tragic theory’[15].

Gaskell’s religious motive is apparent not only in her writings surrounding the text, but also through Biblical referencing which pervades the novel, particularly notable in the use of the Dives and Lazarus parable, used by John Barton in the opening chapter, an allegory suggesting that ‘if the Rich Man…had truly been committed..they would have recognized that the sharing of possessions with the poor among the people was at the heart of…God’s people…and the Rich Man would have fed and clothed the man he passed every day at his gate’[16] (concepts of Luke 16:17 – The Parable of the Shrewd Manager – and 16:19). In placing the concept of morality as the antithesis to Capitalism and the rapid industrial fervour of the Victorian Era, and negating the concept that the move away from devout Christianity was materialising in ‘the power of divine nature [being] transferred to the power of human technology’[17], Gaskell reveals her lack of understanding or engagement with the modern social-political climate of her age, though she somewhat eludes to this in her preface to the text: ‘I know nothing of Political Economy, of the theories of trade. I have to write truthfully’[18]. It is, then, appropriate to consider Gaskell merely writing of what she knows, her desire for the dislocated population to ‘acknowledge the Spirit of Christ as the regulating law’[19], a desire to better the ‘new and complex social order’[20] that ‘obscured, complicated, [and] mystified’[21] human relations to the extent of indifference. For how could Gaskell have ‘witnessed the utter destitution and degradation prevailing…among the very poorest’[22]? If she had done, perhaps she would have authored a very different novel.


[1][1]Edited by Ben Marsden, Hazel Hutchinson, Ralph O’Connor Uncommon Contexts: Encounters Between Science and Literature, 1800-1914 (London and Brookfield: Pickering & Chatto: Routledge, 2013), p. 126

[2] Monica Correa Fryckstedt, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton and Ruth : A Challenge to Christian England (Uppsala: Almqvist and Wiksell International, 1982), p. 86

[3] Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton, (London, Penguin Classics: 1848), Preface

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. Macdonald Daly, Introduction I to Mary Barton, [citing] Bernard Sharratt, The Literary Labyrinth: Contemporary Critical Discourses (Brighton, Harvester Press, 1984), pp. 51-2, 34.

[6] Dominic Erdozain, The Problem of Pleasure: Sport, Recreation and the Crisis of Victorian Religion, Volume 22, Studies in Modern British Religious History (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2010), p. 2, Introduction

[7] Monica Correa Fryckstedt, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton and Ruth : A Challenge to Christian England (Uppsala: Almqvist and Wiksell International, 1982), p. 88

[8] Lynn Shakinovsky, Christianity and Class in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 (Baltimore: Vol. 58, Iss. 4: 2018) p. 900

[9] Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton, (London, Penguin Classics: 1848), Macdonald Daly, Introduction I to Mary Barton

[10] Karl Marx, translated by W. Lough, Theses On Feuerbach, Appendix to Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy ([Originally] Germany: Die Neue Zeit, 1886); (Moscow, USSR: Progress Publishers, 1969), Eleventh

[11] Victor Hugo, Les Miserables; Fantine, Volumes 1-2 (New York: Colton, 1862), p. 7, Preface

[12] Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton, (London, Penguin Classics: 1848), Preface

[13] Lynn Shakinovsky, Christianity and Class in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 (Baltimore: Vol. 58, Iss. 4: 2018) p. 902

[14] Catherine Gallagher, The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction: Social Discourse and Narrative Form, 1832–1867 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985), pp. 66–7.

[15] Lynn Shakinovsky, Christianity and Class in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 (Baltimore: Vol. 58, Iss. 4: 2018) p. 902

[16] Luke T. Johnson, Contested Issues in Christian Origins and the New Testament: Collected Essays (Leiden, Boston: BRILL, 2013) p. 236

[17] Jos de Mul, The (Bio)Technological Sublime, Diogenes, Volume 59, Issue 1-2, pages 32-40: May 2013

[18] Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton, (London, Penguin Classics: 1848), Preface

[19] Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton, (London, Penguin Classics: 1848), p. 388

[20] Raymond Williams, The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (The Hogarth Press, London:1987), p. 33.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Monica Correa Fryckstedt, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton and Ruth : A Challenge to Christian England (Uppsala: Almqvist and Wiksell International, 1982), p. 92