“Mere dull melodrama”? MARY BARTON and HARD TIMES, by Sally Ledger

“’Mere dull melodrama?’ Popular Aesthetics in Mary Barton and Hard Times”
Sally Ledger, Birkbeck, University of London
In January 1850, two months before the launch of Household Words, Dickens urged upon Elizabeth Gaskell his earnest hope that she would contribute a ‘short tale’ to the new magazine:
My Dear Mrs Gaskell (he wrote),
You may perhaps have seen an announcement in the papers, of my intention to start a new cheap weekly journal of general literature? … there is no living English writer whose aid I would desire to enlist, in preference to the author of Mary Barton (a book that profoundly affected and impressed me). I venture to ask whether you can give me any hope that you will write a short tale, or any number of tales, for the projected pages.
Gaskell agreed, and her four-chapter story, ‘Lizzie Leigh’, was serialised across the first three issues of the new journal.
Gaskell’s ‘Lizzie Leigh’ brings the plight of the ‘fallen woman’ to the attention of Dickens’s magazine readers right from the start: the first instalment of the story was given pride of place as the first item after the editor’s ‘Preliminary Word’. The story embraces the Romantic opposition between the country and the city: the eponymous Lizzie Leigh is a country girl who goes out to service in Manchester, becomes pregnant and, losing her place, resorts to prostitution. She abandons her baby into the nurturing arms of a woman who coincidentally goes on to be courted by Lizzie’s older brother. The child dies in a domestic accident in its adopted home, and the story closes with Lizzie weeping over her child’s grave.
Dickens’s enthusiasm after reading the first two chapters of Gaskell’s short story was unreserved: ‘I think it excellent,’ he wrote to her; ‘It interested me greatly, as I read it. And it made me cry – which I mention because I take that to be indisputable proof of its effect. ‘ Although the relationship between the editor of Household Words and the author of Mary Barton would over time become at best strained, and at worst downright fraught, his early enthusiasm for her writing tells us something about the resonances between their work, and not least their shared commitment to popular aesthetics, and to popular culture more broadly, in their respective accounts of industrial England.
In early February of 1852, two years after the publication of ‘Lizzie Leigh’ and two years before the publication of the novel on which the two novelists’ relationship would founder, North and South, Dickens descended upon Manchester with his amateur players. He invited the Gaskells to a performance of Dion Boucicault’s play, Used Up, and J. R. Planché’s Charles Xll. ‘Dickens was so good’, Gaskell enthused. Although Dickens was rather more of a theatregoer than was Gaskell – he claimed in the 1830s to have attended the theatre almost every night for two years – both writers simultaneously embrace and interrogate the melodramatic mode in their works of fiction.
Melodrama had long been established as an aesthetic of protest when Dickens, Gaskell and others began to negotiate its conventions in the Victorian period. Forged as a dramatic form during the French Revolution, the first melodrama is generally agreed to have been Boutet de Monvel’s Les victims cloitrées, written and performed in 1791. Characteristic of French Revolutionary melodrama is Sylvain Maréchal’s Le jugement dernier des rois, first performed, to great acclaim, in Paris in October 1793, two days after the execution of Marie Antoinette. The play’s melodramatic denouement involves the swallowing up of a whole crowd of European monarchs by a volcano, which ‘consumes their very bodies.’
Melodrama, with its roots in the theatrical semiotics of gesture, is a bodily aesthetic, prioritising non-verbal languages over dialogue. It is also, in Peter Brooks’s words, an ‘intense emotional and ethical’ genre, ‘based on the Manichaeistic struggle of good and evil.’ The purpose of melodrama is to ‘recognize and confront evil, to combat and expel it, to purge the social order.’ As domestic melodrama developed across the first half of the nineteenth century as a popular form, it acquired a number of readily identifiable additional characteristics: the suffering of mothers and their children, sentimental deathbed scenes, criminal elements, trial scenes and last-minute reprieves, sudden reversals of fortune, secret Wills, inheritances, the return of long-lost relatives from overseas, and so on.
Gaskell’s ‘Lizzie Leigh’ spills over with the ingredients of domestic melodrama: the coincidence at the level of plot, the sudden swings between good and bad fortune, happiness and grief, confirm the story, like Mary Barton before it, as a clear example of this popular genre. The figure of the fallen woman central to ‘Lizzie Leigh’ and that would have been so familiar to consumers of domestic melodrama haunts both Mary Barton and Hard Times, with the central female protagonists in each stalked by the possibility of seduction and moral ruin.
Catherine Gallagher has argued that in Mary Barton Gaskell ‘searches for a mode of realism adequate to her subject matter’ (p. 70), and that in so doing finally rejects melodrama as ‘a mere conventional distortion, a genre inappropriate to modern reality’ (p. 75). I find myself agreeing with the first but not the second part of this statement. For throughout Mary Barton Gaskell demonstrates a determined commitment to the popular culture of the people about whom she writes so sympathetically, a commitment that makes an implicit rejection of an aesthetic mode on which she leans so heavily rather unlikely.
What I want to argue here in relation to Mary Barton is that Gaskell aligns herself with radical melodrama of the period, a sub-section of the genre which was forged by writers such as Douglas Jerrold and GWM Reynolds and perfected by Ernest Jones, the Chartist leader and novelist, by Elizabeth Gaskell and by Dickens himself. Characteristic of radical melodrama of the period is a simultaneous embrace, interrogation and modernisation of its conventions, a determination to set up a dialectic between the public and the private spheres, and a self-consciousness in the use of melodrama’s conventions that produces an alienation effect avant la lettre.
It is easy to identify Mary Barton’s melodramatic hallmarks: the opposition between the country and the city; the seduction trope in both Esther’s and Mary’s stories; the multiple deathbed scenes; the wrongful accusation of Jem Wilson; the theatrical trial scene; and the last-minute reprieve. But Gaskell doesn’t simply reproduce the ingredients of popular melodrama – she both interrogates and extends them.
There is an excess of feeling in Mary Barton that is characteristic of the melodrama:
Mary listens to ‘the sobs of her father’s grief’ after her mother has died, which provoke in her ‘terrifed cries’ (MB, p. 21); Margaret, we are told, ‘fell into an agony of tears’ as she described her blindness to young Mary Barton (p. 47); at the death of the Wilson twins ‘the mother lifted up her voice and wept’ (p. 75) and the ‘sturdy frame’ of the older brother, Jem, ‘shook with his strong agony’ (p. 76). I could go on. The Victorians compiled a ‘Tears Index’ to Henry Mackenzie’s novel from 1771, The Man of Feeling, and could almost as readily have done so for Mary Barton. But Gaskell combines this excess of feeling with an emphasis on sympathy: her own ‘deep sympathy’ for ‘the care-worn men’ of the factories, as she describes it in her Preface to the novel, and also the sympathy of the poor for one another. The structure of feeling of Mary Barton owes something to the philosophical idealism of the eighteenth-century moral philosophers: Adam Smith’s account of Sympathy in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) is as pertinent to an understanding of Mary Barton as is the melodrama.
Sympathy is not, though, a readily available panacea in the novel, but has to be struggled for. Margaret and Job Legh struggle to sustain their sympathy for Mary when they learn about her dalliance with Harry Carson and when she rejects their assistance when her father returns from Glasgow; Jane Wilson struggles to sympathise with Jem’s desire to be at Mary’s bedside when she is ill – ‘She would not understand his feelings’, Gaskell tells us; and Henry Carson’s and John Barton’s mutual struggle towards sympathy is at the moral heart of the novel. Gaskell’s is a much more complex account of the feelings than one would encounter in popular melodramas, and yet powerfully expressed feeling is common to both.
The theatrical semiotics of gesture at the heart of melodrama importantly informs
Gaskell’s communication of feeling in the novel: the ‘inability’, in Hilary Schor’s words, readily ‘ to find a language for expression’ (Schor, p. 18) is often resolved somatically, as when Mary comforts the terror-stricken Jane Wilson through ‘kissing her over and over in a warm, loving manner’ (p. 245), or when Margaret embraces a distraught Mary Barton when Jem is arrested on suspicion of murder, and when Henry Carson physically embraces the dying John Barton – an embrace to my mind infinitely more expressive of the novel’s meanings than the industrialist’s recitation of the Lord’s Prayer over the prostrate form of the dying man.
The wrongful arrest of Jem Wilson and the doubt as to whether Mary will be able to produce alibi evidence in time to save him from the gallows creates much of the narrative suspense of Mary Barton, and allies it to other popular crime fictions of the period. Gaskell, though, is at pains to distance her novel from such productions. SHOW SLIDE After the arrest of Jem Wilson the narrator makes it clear to her readers that this is no Newgate Novel:
‘You remember the reward Mr. Carson offered for the apprehension of the murderer of his son?’ she asks, in one of many incidences of direct narratorial address to the reader. ‘It was in itself a temptation,’ she continues, ‘and to aid its efficacy came the natural sympathy for the aged parents mourning for their child, for the young man cut off in the flower of his days; and besides this, there is always a pleasure in unravelling a mystery, in catching at the gossamer clue which will guide to certainty. This feeling, I am sure, gives much impetus to the police. Their senses are ever and always on the qui-vive, and they enjoy the collecting and collating of evidence, and the life of adventure they experience; a continual unwinding of Jack Sheppard romances, always interesting to the vulgar and uneducated mind, to which the outward signs and tokens of crime are ever exciting.’ (p. 213)
However, 20 or so pages after this disavowal of the genre of murder mystery, Gaskell has Mary Barton doing – and presumably the reader enjoying – exactly the kind of detective work that the narrator has here disparaged. Searching her father’s old overcoat in an attempt to unravel the mystery of Harry Carson’s murder, Mary finds the evidence which convicts her father:
He had redeemed his better coat from the pawn-shop before he left, that she had noticed. Here was his old one. What rustled under her hand in the pocket?
The paper! ‘Oh! Father!’
Yes, it fitted; jagged end, letter to letter; and even the part which Esther had considered blank had its tallying mark with the larger piece, its tails of ys and gs.’ (MB, pp. 236-7)
Gaskell is right to distinguish her novel from Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard, a hugely popular glamorized account of an C18th criminal’s life and death which outsold even Oliver Twist which it succeeded in serial form in Bentley’s Miscellany; the act of criminal violence at the heart of Mary Barton is treated far more complexly than Ainsworth’s rollicking account of Sheppard’s misdemeanours. None the less, Gaskell’s novel not only borrows from but owes some of its power to the popular aesthetics about which she expresses considerable ambivalence in the narratorial interventions in the novel.
In a comparable way, Gaskell both draws on and re-writes popular Broadside accounts of murder trials in her description of the lead-up to the trial of Jem Wilson. She describes the ‘half-penny broadsides, giving an account of the bloody murder, the coroner’s inquest, a raw-head-and-bloody-bones picture of the suspected murderer, James Wilson’ (p. 222) Penny Broadsides of the kind that Gaskell describes here were immensely popular in the first half of the nineteenth century, and frequently detailed the trial and sentencing of lovers or husbands who had killed their sweethearts or wives through sexual jealousy; Gaskell here shows herself to be very much aware of them. But even as she leans on Broadside culture by recounting the false charges made against Jem Wilson and describing the street literature that they both produced and were produced by, Gaskell distances herself from such sensationalist literary production through the very fact that the murder of Harry Carson was not carried out by a jealous lover but by a political assassin.
That the murder of the industrialist’s son was a political rather than a private act of vengeance in the novel firmly aligns Mary Barton with a body of radical melodramatic writing of the mid-century that determinedly set up a dialectic between the private and the public spheres. By linking the two plots in the novel – John Barton’s story and Mary Barton’s story – Hilary Schor has convincingly argued that the novel demonstrates a complex understanding of ‘the connections between sexual and economic exploitation,’ (Schor, p. 14) and that the overlapping plots ‘constitute … a critique of the myth of a separate, domestic, private sphere’ (Schor, p.21). Harry Carson is an oppressor of the factory workers in the public sphere as well as of young Mary Barton in the private sphere, and the novel determinedly links the two through its plotting of the murder mystery. A doubt as to the motivation for the murder is established immediately after the event: ‘It’s the doing of those damn’d turn-outs’ is Carson’s immediate thought; ‘I imagine not’ (p. 204), is the police officer’s response, the latter thinking he has firm evidence that Jem Wilson has committed a crime of passion. Even after the identity of the murderer has been established, a doubt persists in the mind of Henry Carson as to whether John Barton murdered his son as a political or as a private act of vengeance. The overlapping of plotlines from the private and from the public sphere in Mary Barton has the effect of rearticulating the personal tragedies of melodrama as political.
The novel’s highly self-conscious engagement with popular aesthetic devices is further developed in the staging of the trial scene. When the defence counsel hears that Will Wilson has arrived in court to present his alibi, he immediately rehearses to himself the forensic tale that he will tell:
The barrister who defended Jem took new heart when he was put in possession of these striking points to be adduced, not so much out of earnestness to save the prisoner, of whose innocence he was still doubtful, as because he saw the opportunities for the display of forensic evidence which were presented by the facts; ‘a gallant tar brought back from the pathless ocean by a girl’s noble daring,’ ‘the dangers of too hastily judging from circumstantial evidence’, &c …’ (p. 318).
The putting of Mary’s heroic rescue mission into quotation marks creates the effect of a pastiche of a courtroom drama, rather than a simple duplication thereof. This distancing device throws the genuinely melodramatic arrival of Will in court, and of Mary’s collapse into delirium, into sharp relief, creating a species of alienation effect avant la lettre by jerking the reader into a sense of realism in relation to the narrative outside of the quotation marks, forcing the reader to re-see the main narrative, and thereby re-legitimising the realism of Gaskell’s deployment of melodramatic aesthetics. I am referring here to a realism of affect rather than to a representational realism. Gaskell’s novel does not ask us to ‘believe in’ Mary’s desperate flight up the Mersey to try to save Jem, or in Will Wilson’s last-minute arrival in court, at the level of incident; but, rather, she asks us to respond to the emotional affect that the narrative produces at these points.
The highly wrought affective content of Mary Barton frequently finds expression in its many deathbed scenes: I counted seven. The deathbed scene was a very familiar tableau not only in Victorian domestic melodramas but also in the wider culture. High mortality rates in general and the profound grief produced by the death of children produced a rich vein of visual and literary culture in the period, to which Mary Barton substantially contributes. George Cattermole’s illustration of the death of Little Nell you will I’m sure all be familiar with. SHOW SLIDE. The master of the deathbed scene, Dickens’s written account of the death of Little Nell caused paroxysms of grief on both sides of the Atlantic. George H. Ford has described the response of well-known men of letters to the heroine of The Old Curiosity Shop SHOW SLIDE:
Edward Fitzgerald was so moved that he copied out all the parts of the novel in which Nell appears so that he would have ‘a kind of Nelly-ad or Homeric narration.’ More violent was the reaction of Daniel O’Connell who was so upset by the death scene that he burst into tears and threw the book out of the window. […] The death scene […] affected [Francis Jeffrey] so powerfully that a visitor, who discovered the grief-stricken critic with his head on the table and eyes filled with tears, concluded that Jeffrey was mourning the death of some intimate friend or relative.
There was also a tradition of funerary photography that developed from the mid-century SHOW SLIDE: this is a Henry Peach Robinson photograph from 1858, entitled ‘Fading Away’, which depicts a young girl dying of consumption; it poignantly captures the despair of her attending relatives. SHOW SLIDE. This late-century painting by Luke Fildes, ‘The Doctor’, was inspired by the death of his son; here, though, the breaking of dawn suggests that the child has survived through the night.
The first of the deathbed scenes in Mary Barton, the death of Mrs Barton in childbirth, is uncompromising – and determinedly unconventional — in its account of her ‘cries of agony’ and of young Mary’s frozen, automaton-like attempts to assist her, her teeth chattering. (MB, p. 19). The death of Davenport from typhus fever in his putrid cellar in which ‘the filthy moisture of the street oozed up’ (p. 58), surrounded by his starving wife and children, is equally stark: John Barton is left alone with ‘a little child, crying […] for mammy; with a fainting, dead-like woman; and with the sick man, whose mutterings were rising up to screams and shrieks of agonized anxiety.’ (MB, p. 60) Not for Gaskell the soft-focus of more conventional literary and visual accounts of deathbed scenes.
It is true to say, though, that as the novel proceeds the deathbed scenes become ever more conventional as the novel heads towards its emollient close. Alice Wilson dies in a quasi pre-lapsarian Eden as her palsied brain returns her to her rural childhood – ‘how gentle and easy her death was’ Jem Wilson reflects (MB, p. 333). In John Barton’s deathbed repentance and Carson’s forgiveness of his sins – ‘God be merciful to us sinners. – Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us’ (MB, p. 359) – a Christian ethics is overlaid onto the essentially secular moral universe of the melodrama.
Dickens would never resort to anything so orthodox.
Or would he?
If one recalls the profoundly discomfiting effect, in Bleak House, of the well-meaning Dr Woodcourt’s attempt to teach Jo the Crossing Sweeper the Lord’s Prayer as the fever-stricken child lays dying, it is quite remarkable that in his very next novel we should come upon the trite assurance of heavenly compensation that hovers over Stephen Blackpool’s death scene. Here it is: SHOW SLIDE: Stephen has been recounting to his rescuers how looking upon a brightly shining star in the night sky has comforted him:
‘Often as I coom to myseln, and found it shinin on me down there in my trouble, I thowt it were the star as guided to Our Saviour’s home. I awmust think it be the very star!’
They lifted him up, and he was overjoyed to find that they were about to take him in the direction whither the star seemed to him to lead.
[…]
They carried him very gently along the fields, and down the lanes, and over the wide landscape; Rachael always holding the hand in hers. Very few whispers broke the mournful silence. It was soon to be a funeral procession. The star had shown him where to find the God of the poor; and through humility, and sorrow, and forgiveness, he had gone to his Redeemer’s rest.’ (HT, p. 265)
As Robert Lougy has pointed out, the promise here of ‘heavenly compensation for earthly suffering’ is ‘similar to the one offered by the bulk of Evangelical literature written in defense of the status quo.’ (Lougy, p. 243) Stephen’s death scene is as anomalous in a novel that offers so little in the way of piety and platitudes, as Stephen himself is in a work of fiction in which to demand to be a man rather than a ‘Hand’, and to prescribe ‘love, kindness, humility, and patience’ (Lougy, p. 243) as a means of uniting rich and poor, can only lead to his expulsion from the world of Coketown and from the novel itself. Whilst Mary Barton embraces exactly such a vision as that proposed by Stephen to the incredulous Mr Bounderby, Hard Times has none of the moral and philosophical idealism that had underpinned Dickens’s works of fiction to varying degrees up until and including Bleak House. To this extent, it is a profoundly different novel to Mary Barton.
Hard Times is like Mary Barton, however, in its simultaneous embrace and interrogation of the conventions of melodrama. SHOW SLIDE An early reviewer of Dickens’s novel dismissed it as ‘a mere dull melodrama, in which character is caricature, sentiment tinsel, and moral (if any) unsound. It is a thousand pities Mr. Dickens does not confine himself to amusing his readers, instead of … trying to instruct them.’ The irony is of course that in writing a ‘melodrama’ Dickens was drawing on a popular form of entertainment that might well have been expected to ‘amuse’ his readership; and the whole apparent thematic thrust of the novel is in favour of ‘amusement’ over and above ‘instruction’. The seduction trope played out in James Harthouse’s dalliance with Louisa Bounderby; the wrongful accusation of Stephen Blackpool; the mistaking of identity that leads Mrs Peglar, Bounderby’s long-suffering mother, to be misapprehended as a criminal; and Bounderby’s disputed will – Hard Times is in some ways as indebted to the melodrama as Mary Barton.
The highly compressed, fable-like quality of Hard Times means that its debt to melodrama is very visible. And Dickens, like Gaskell before him, simultaneously embraces and builds upon the basic building blocks of popular aesthetics. One such instance of Dickens’s ability at once to identify with and to transform popular aesthetics is the strange, hallucinatory sequence in the novel in which Stephen Blackpool has a nightmarish vision of the course of his tragic life. The vision culminates in a melodramatic tableau that clearly draws on Newgate fiction; but it is at the same time a highly complex, psychological piece of writing. SHOW SLIDE
He thought that he, and some one on whom his heart had long been set – but she was not Rachael, and that surprised him, even in the midst of his imaginary happiness – stood in the church being married. While the ceremony was performing, and while he recognised among the witnesses some one whom he knew to be living, and many whom he knew to be dead, darkness came on, succeeded by the shining of a tremendous light. It broke from one line in the table of commandments at the altar, and illuminated the building with words. They were sounded through the church, too, as if there were voices in the fiery letters. Upon this, the whole appearance before him and around him changed, and nothing was left as it had been, but himself and the clergyman. They stood in the daylight before a crowd so vast, that if all the people in the world could have been brought together into one space, they could not have looked, he thought, more numerous.; and they all abhorred him , and there was not one pitying or friendly eye among the millions that were fastened on his face. He stood on a raised stage, under his own loom; and, looking up at the shape the loom took, and hearing the burial service distinctly read, he knew that he was there to suffer death. In an instant what he stood on fell below him, and he was gone. (HT, p. 86)
At the start of the passage Stephen revisits his marriage ceremony in a long-gone happy past. His present desire for his wife’s death, and his feelings of guilt in relation to this, produce the blazing religious experience in the church in which a table of commandments fills the building with fiery light and sound. Stephen then imagines himself exposed in front of a huge, malevolent crowd, in a phantasmagoric scenario that blends the Day of Judgment with a Newgate hanging, the clergyman from the church now about to preside over his hanging instead of his marriage. In the space between the two is his barely repressed desire to murder his wife. The hanging at the end of the highly compressed dream sequence would have been immediately recognizable to Dickens’s readers as deriving from Newgate fiction; but in Hard Times he doesn’t allow such a simple melodramatic plotline to take hold of the novel. Stephen – albeit rather fortuitously – doesn’t murder his wife and instead has to endure the death-in-life that is his marital tie and – coinciding with the topical themes of the novel – dies in an industrial accident.
Whilst Dickens does partially accede, in the novel, to the happy, emollient endings of popular melodrama – the virtuous simplicity of Sissy Jupe utterly defeats James Harthouse, Thomas Gradgrind (like Mr Dombey before him) has a ‘change of heart’ and belatedly becomes a better parent, and Bounderby and Mrs Sparsit get their just deserts – the figure of Louisa Bounderby disallows a full melodramatic close. The most interesting figure in the novel, Louisa is left troublingly bereft at the close: ‘Herself again a wife – a mother – lovingly watchful of her children … Such a thing was never to be’ (p. 287). The happy ending of popular melodrama is reserved for the more two-dimensional Sissy Jupe – ‘happy Sissy’s happy children loving her; all children loving her’ (p. 287), which as Kate Flint has remarked belongs rather to the realm of tongue-twisters than to realist fiction.
As Hilary Schor has reflected, the sexually resentful Mrs Sparsit devises a plotline for Louisa in which she is ‘patently a melodramatic heroine’ (Schor, p. 74). The faded harridan of the pseudo-aristocracy imagines for Louisa a staircase down which she is inevitably to slide to seduction, elopement and perdition. Louisa, though, unknowingly confounds Mrs Sparsit’s melodramatic script, for she is not in fact rushing headlong into sexual and social disgrace, but, rather, to the refuge of her father’s house. Louisa doesn’t take on the melodramatic mantle of fallen womanhood, but neither, unlike Mary Barton, is she rescued by a virtuous hero: her father is as broken and confused by her predicament as she is.
Hard Times, with its three books sequentially entitled ‘Sowing’, ‘Reaping’, ‘Garnering’, is arguably more parable than novel; and arguably more satire than melodrama. Its aesthetic register is in certain ways, then, very different to that of Mary Barton. Both authors are, though, centrally concerned with the cultural lives of the working classes, and it is to this preoccupation that I want to turn in the last part of this talk.
Mary Barton is partly an attempt on Gaskell’s part to present an affirmative account of working-class culture to her readers. The epigraphs to each chapter taken from poetry by the weaver activist Samuel Bamford, by Ebenezer Elliott, a self-taught radical, by the writer of popular protest verse, Thomas Hood, and so on, cumulatively build up a rich texture of non-élite cultural matter that infuses the novel. As Shirley Foster has remarked, the ‘portrayal of characters such as Margaret, Job, and the artisan inventor Jem Wilson, is given credibility by reference to historical individuals’ such as Bamford and Elliott, whom I’ve already mentioned, and to Deborah Travis, the mill-girl singer. ‘The fictional figures’, as Foster puts it, ‘thus become exemplary of an actual working-class culture of self-development and self-improvement’. (Foster Intro, p. xiii).
Gaskell’s sympathetic engagement with working-class culture more generally is demonstrated in the early domestic scenes in the novel that affectionately detail Mrs Barton’s pride in her ‘crockery and glass’, the neatly hung ‘blue-and-white check curtains’, and the ‘bright green japanned tea tray, having a couple of scarlet lovers embracing in the middle’ (MB, pp. 14-15). The faithfully reproduced Lancashire dialect is similarly suggestive of Gaskell’s respect for the living culture of working-class Manchester.
A series of editors’ commentaries on Mary Barton has noted that Gaskell’s selection and editing of the epigraphic material to some extent presents a sanitised account of working-class culture, tailored to be readily digested by a middle-class readership. SHOW SLIDE The epigraph to chapter 5 is an extract from an Ebenezer Elliott poem from 1834, from ‘The Splendid Village’. The working-class natural historian celebrated in these lines closely resembles Gaskell’s Job Legh:
Learned he was; nor bird, nor insect flew,
But he its leafy home and history knew:
Nor wild –flower decked the rock, nor moss the well,
But he its name and qualities could tell.

Here as in other epigraphs, Gaskell leaves out the social injustices described elsewhere Elliott’s poetic output, most notably in his Corn Law Rhymes. Just as typical of Elliott would have been a poem called ‘The Taxed Cake’ SHOW SLIDE:
THE TAXED CAKE
GIVE, give, they cry—and take!
For wilful men are they
Who tax’d our cake, and took our cake,
To throw our cake away.
[…]
They mix our bread with bran,
They call potatoes bread;
And, get who may, or keep who can,
The starved, they say, are fed
Ebenezer Elliott and Samuel Bamford are representative of a newly literate, artisan working-class culture of the early Victorian period. Gaskell’s inclusion in the main body of a chapter of a dialect poem composed after the Napoleonic wars, ‘Th’Owdham Weaver’, is a rare instance of the novelist drawing on dialect poetry as opposed to the more polished diction of the autodidacts. But even here Gaskell quotes a less radical version of the poem than had earlier been circulated: many other variants of the poem show the narrator’s interlocutor, Margaret, prepared to fight to the bitter end, whereas in the version Gaskell gives us she resigns herself to her fate.
Sanitized or not, what is significant about Gaskell’s infusion of her novel with working-class culture is that clearly she firmly believed that modern industrialization and mechanization do not preclude the existence of a culture of the people. Dickens, in 1854, was not so sure.
One of the most striking, and to me disturbing aspects of Hard Times is the almost total absence of anything that could be described as working-class culture. The novel appeared, as I am sure you all know, in weekly parts in Household Words, a magazine whose manifesto essays determinedly embraced both high and low culture, and more especially endorsing the latter. In the first of his ‘Amusements of the People’ essays written in 1850, Dickens plays off theatrical amusements against the instruction offered by a ‘Polytechnic Institution in Regent Street’. SHOW SLIDE The essay’s central argument is that:
The Polytechnic Institution in Regent Street, where an infinite variety of ingenious models are exhibited and explained, and where lectures comprising a quantity of useful information on many practical subjects are delivered, is a great public benefit and a wonderful place, but we think a people formed entirely in their hours of leisure by Polytechnic Institutions would be an uncomfortable community.
And so it proves in the case of Bitzer in Hard Times.
Evidence of Dickens’s commitment to a culture of the people and to a theory of moral sentiments remains in evidence in the novel, through the agency of the circus and its people. Dickens’s careful researching of circus slang in preparation for his writing of the novel, along with the satirically entitled penultimate ‘Philosophical’ chapter of the novel, in which Bitzer’s creed of philosophical utilitarianism is unfavourably juxtaposed with Mr Sleary’s philosophy of love; between them these work counter to the logic and culture of Coketown. The circus, though, is on the scrubland ‘on the neutral ground upon the outskirts of the town’ (HT, p. 17); it is marginal to Coketown, the town being a symbolic space that represents nothing less, in the novel, than industrial modernity itself. It is no coincidence that the clown, a central figure in any circus show, leaves Coketown a broken, rejected man.
But Dickens’s continuing commitment to a culture of the people is overwhelmed in Hard Times by the juggernaut of modernity that creates a space in which ‘You saw nothing … but what was severely workful’ (p. 28). The only music to be heard in Coketown is the ‘barbarous jangling of bells on a Sunday morning’ (p. 29) at the 18 denominations that none of the factory workers attend. The workers are even denied, to the narrator’s consternation, ‘an honest dance to a stirring band of music’ (p. 30).
Where elements of a popular culture of the people seep into the texture of the novel, they are hurriedly suppressed by the representatives of Coketown. Sissy Jupe’s account of her reading of the Arabian Nights to her father in happier times, is brusquely curtailed by Gradgind; there’s no place for one of Dickens’s most beloved texts in the world of Coketown: SHOW SLIDE
‘Never mind Merrylegs, Jupe,’ said Mr Gradgrind, with a passing frown. ‘I don’t ask about him. I understand you to have been in the habit, now, of reading to your father?’
‘O, yes, sir, thousands of times. They were the happiest – O, of all the happy times we had together, sir!’
It was only now, when her sorrow broke out, that Louisa looked at her.
‘And what,’ asked Mr Gradgrind, in a still lower voice, ‘did you read to your father, Jupe?’
‘About the Fairies, sir, and the Dwarf, and the Hunchback, and the Genies,’ she sobbed out; ‘and about – ‘
‘Hush!’ said Mr Gradgrind, ‘that is enough. Never breathe a word of such destructive nonsense any more. […]’ (HT, p. 52)
Dickens’s startlingly imaginative evocation of the factories as ‘fairy palaces’ that [I quote], ‘burst into illumination, before pale morning showed the monstrous serpents of smoke trailing themselves over Coketown’ (HT, p. 71), has itself something of the Arabian Nights about it. John Drew has argued that the Arabian Nights became central to Dickens’s editorial policy at Household Words. Drew has described how Dickens rewrote a submission by Henry Morley that had described a visit to a smelting works in the East End of London. Dickens found the article too baldly informative and utilitarian and complained in a letter to Morley that a more attractive, more literary style was needed so as to attract what he described as ‘the mass of readers.’ Dickens’s revision of Morley’s essay resulted in a co-authored leader, called ‘Discovery of a Treasure Near Cheapside’, in which, in John Drew’s words, ‘a dreamer descends into a metropolitan Aladdin’s Cave, couched in allusions to Grimm’s fairytales, classical mythology, Gulliver’s Travels, Candide and Arabian Nights.’
Dickens’s description of the ‘fairy palaces’ in Hard Times would seem to suggest that industrial modernity and the realm of the imagination are not mutually excluding. But they none the less seem to be so in the symbolic space of Coketown, a space shorn of culture, shorn of imagination, and even of the power of love.
The uncompromising parable that is Hard Times did not hinder its popularity in the magazine that Dickens created to promote a culture for and of the people. It greatly outsold Elizabeth Gaskell’s more ameliorative response to industrial modernity, North and South, that succeeded Hard Times as the weekly serial in Household Words. The process of publishing North and South brought the once warm relationship between Gaskell and Dickens almost to an end. Gaskell felt Dickens had stolen her thunder in his representation of a strike scene in the antecedent Hard Times; Dickens was frustrated by her refusal to change the second section of the new novel in which John Hale leaves the Church, a subject [I quote] too ‘difficult and dangerous’ for Dickens’s liking; and author and editor quarrelled over the length of North and South. The man who had once affectionately referred to his fellow novelist as Scheherazade now grew almost violent in his frustration with her: in a letter to his assistant editor at Household Words he declared that ‘If I were Mr Gaskell, O heaven how I should beat her!’
The souring of the relationship should not obscure the fact, though, that Elizabeth Gaskell was one of Dickens’s most regular contributors, with Dickens in turn becoming the chief publisher of Gaskell’s works: of 40 stories and articles published between 1850 and her death in 1865, two-thirds were published by Dickens. The high profile of Gaskell’s writing in both Household Words and All the Year Round is a lasting testament to both authors’ enduring commitment to popular cultural production.

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