"Victorian Cities" and a New Historicism Critique of "Mary Barton"
Copyright 2019 by Michael W. Rickard II
Asa Briggs’ Victorian Cities illustrates the power of new historicism in evaluating literary texts as Briggs’ chapter on Manchester helps to show the historical background depicted in Mary Barton. Briggs provides useful information to help a critic analyze Gaskell’s Mary Barton using new historicism criticism. New Historicism attends, “…primarily to the historical and cultural conditions of its production, its meanings, its effects, and also of its later critical interpretations and evaluations” (Abrams and Harpham 244). Comparing Victorian Cities' third chapter to the text of Mary Barton allows significant insight into the text’s portrayal of factory life and the struggle between factory workers and factory owners. It also shows the market forces at play that made each text financially viable, a topic which will be addressed here.
Victorian Cities provides background on industrial life during the time of Mary Barton as well as critical reactions to the novels. These factors serve the purpose of new historicism and illustrate its effectiveness in better understanding and evaluating texts.
Briggs discusses the factors that led to writing about Manchester and its industrial problems. The first being, “…the inevitable lag in imaginative response to the most interesting new phenomena of the age. Writing about English society as a whole was more vivid and more influential during the 1840’s than it had been during the 1820’s or the early 1830’s” (96). Briggs discusses how “a demand for social rather than for purely political explanations and for social rather than purely political remedies” led to writings about the social ills caused by the Industrial Revolution. This is seen in not only John Barton, but his fellow workers’ struggles to survive in economically lean times. While Gaskell claims not to offer any solutions, her comparisons between the impoverished factor workers and the wealthy factory owner (as well as his family who live in luxury) notes a wide gap in income.
Briggs notes, “…the economic depression in Manchester and the industrial districts which followed the financial crisis of 1836” (97) as another reason why Manchester became such a popular subject for novels. The Industrial Revolution presented challenges for factory workers as factory owners utilized mechanization to improve efficiency, often with the result of reducing the workforce and impoverishing former workers who had no other work to find. This became a significant concern for unemployed workers and England in general. As discussed in class, the poor had scant options for relief other than charity and public workhouses. The poor’s growing discontentment had the public wondering whether order could be maintained or if societal upheaval was imminent.
Finally, Briggs links, “Chartism and the Anti-Corn Law League, which attracted national attention” (97) with the focus on Manchester. Mary Barton is heavily influenced by John Barton and his fellow workers’ efforts to unionize via the Chartist movement. Mary Barton’s depiction of the workers’ efforts and John Barton’s blacklisting reflect actual events of the time.
Briggs explains how, “Manchester was exciting enough to attract writers as the older themes lost their point, for a time much more exciting than London. Equally important, it was exciting—and mysterious enough—to attract readers” (99). One of the functions of New Historicism is to evaluate the reaction to a novel. Briggs’ Victorian Cities offers deep insights into the market forces that may have influenced authors.
There is also discussion of reactions to the text by those depicted in the novel. Briggs notes how factory owners felt Gaskell was out of touch with facts (103). Briggs discusses the, “…more substantial indictment against the social critics of the 1840’s is that they presented not a profile but a simplified model of a whole society” (105).
Although this analysis focuses on Mary Barton, new historicism can also use Victorian Cities to evaluate other industrial texts discussed in class such as Shirley, London Labour and the London Poor, Hard Times and Factory Lives: Four Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiographies. Briggs examines a number of Victorian era cities, providing a rich body of data for critics using new historicism to evaluate the production, meanings, effects, and critical interpretations and evaluations of these texts.
Abrams, M.H. and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 11th ed., Cengage Learning, 2015.
Briggs, Asa. Victorian Cities. University of California Press, 1995.
Cuddon, J.A. Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory. Penguin Books, 2013.
Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. Penguin Books, 1995.
Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Penguin Classics Edition, 1997.