Here was a panacea for all human woes: here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered . . . Thomas de Quincey.
During the early Victorian period, a slow and at first imperceptible euphoria spread within Great Britain’s public sphere, a delirium resulting from and contributing to a burgeoning national addiction to the sociopolitical and economic privileges of empire. A growing belief in Great Britain’s imperial destiny.
Elizabeth Gaskell made a purgative contribution to this project of national discovery in her 1848 novel of working class suffering. It is common enough to assert that Elizabeth Gaskell insists through the substance of her narrative that the material conditions and individual integrity of members of Manchester’s working class must be considered important elements in any rendering of the English social body and economic well-being.
However, Mary Barton presents not only a challenge to the domestic economic and political ideas of her contemporaries it also contains a critique of the imperial addictions and assumptions which increasingly characterized early Victorian descriptions of economic and political normalcy. Elizabeth Gaskell sets Mary Barton during one of the worst periods of economic depression in Manchester in order to depict the suffering that had heretofore gone unmarked by much of the country. The cotton economy of Lancashire experienced seemingly unpredictable cycles of boom and bust throughout the middle of the nineteenth century which caused immense suffering among the workers in the cotton manufacturing industry.
The main action of the novel occurs from 1839 – 42, a period in which a downturn in global trade contributed to widespread
unemployment and partial employment among the Manchester working class. As both a contribution to and a formulation of the ‘condition of England’ question, Mary Barton has been
evaluated primarily as a description of a local problem: what should be done about the poverty and degradation of the operatives in Manchester? Or more broadly, how should middle-class
England understand its Christian responsibilities to the laboring classes?
Gaskell’s attempt to construe the ways in which the working class was enmeshed in the construction of Britain’s overseas hegemony leads to a contradictory resolution which both interrogates and relies upon assumptions about English colonial power as interests of the workmen would have been thereby benefited.’
While Gaskell spends most of her narrative depicting the negative effects of low wages and partial or unemployment, here she subordinates her concern for working class suffering to the imperative of guaranteeing foreign demand. Foreign creatures expresses another aspect of domestic trends which served to normalize among the British their nation’s imperial relation to a world increasingly denominated as ‘colonial.’ Poverty and success in Mary Barton are thus shown to rely on participation in mechanisms of economic hegemony that reach beyond the confines of both Manchester and England.
In relation to the workers’ strike, this connectedness results in a double-bind in which both the workers and the industrialists can be seen as responding to forces apparently beyond their control. Since the narrator excuses the industrialists for lowering wages by invoking the need to guarantee foreign demand, she legitimates a world in which workers would always bear the brunt of fluctuating foreign demand. They could escape only by taking their place within the machinery of empire.
The clash of the novel’s economic and emotive imperatives here leaves Gaskell open to the charge of incoherence, for what the heart seems to reveal about the reader’s obligation to ameliorate suffering, the mind must reject in favor of economic utility. What Gaskell does not directly state in the novel, but which is implied by the historical period in which she places it, is that foreign demand is not, to borrow de Quincey’s wording, the ‘panacea . . . for all human woes’ that it first appears to be.