Thursday, 31 October 2013

Satire and Seriousness: Chartist ideas explored in Punch! And Gaskell’s Mary Barton

When reading Gaskell’s Mary Barton for the first time I was struck by the characterisation of John Barton. Barton is wholly infatuated by his idea of inequality between the working classes and the factory owners within the Manchester area.  I became interested in the motivation behind his discontent; what would make a man commit the acts Barton does?

As such, my original intention for this blog was to explore Chartist Propaganda. I wanted to uncover any possible triggers for any physical violence that may have ensued due to Chartist beliefs in the Victorian era. In order to do this I visited the British Library; I was looking to obtain a copy of the Northern Star, in which I hoped to find examples of inflammatory statements. However upon my arrival at the British Library I was to be disappointed; they told me that they didn't hold any of their newspapers in the Library itself. I had to change my aim as a result of this; I did some research and uncovered a couple of satirical sources from Punch! I found it interesting that such a serious subject could be satirised and I desired to make a comparison between the satirical tones of the Punch! cartoons and the underlying seriousness of Gaskell’s work. In order to do this I isolated some quotes from Mary Barton which I felt would stand well in comparison with the sources.

“I wish to impress what the workman feels and thinks… there are earnest men among these people, men who have endured wrongs without complaining, but without… forgetting or forgiving those who have caused this woe” (Mary Barton, 24)
"Not So Very Unreasonable!!! Eh?"

The Punch! source to the left depicts a member of the chartists presenting John Russell, the prime minister at the time, with a petition. The figures are presented in a surprising manner; the chartist is considerably larger than the man supposedly in power. The Charter he holds is almost superfluous in size. The words expressed at the bottom of the source, “Not So Very Unreasonable!!! Eh?” suggest that the artist (Leech) is satirising the meeting between the two men. It could be argued that Leech has presented these ideas in such a manner to favour the Chartist movement. The Charter is large due to the amount of signatures that supposedly fill it; the evidence for the need for change is great, yet still it is ignored.

It is in this ignorance that Gaskell’s statement becomes significant. She is giving a voice to men who have no way of voicing their opinions themselves. She is providing a warning to those in power (i.e. John Russell). The idea that the men endure “without… forgetting or forgiving” is quite foreboding; under Leech’s satirical idea lies a very serious notion. Gaskell constantly alludes to the lack of empathy between the factory owners and the factory workers in Manchester. Her statement brings to light an important issue; the treatment of the working classes at this time is driving a gulf between themselves and their employers which, if not closed, could possibly be irreparable.

“[Barton] could bear and endure much without complaining could he also see that his employers were bearing their share” (Mary Barton, 24)
"Now Mind You Know- If I Kill You, It's Nothing
But If You Kill Me, By Jingo It's Murder!"
This is another image from Leech that speaks well about the inequalities between the working and ruling classes in this period. The constable here is attempting to calm a violent chartist; stating that, “If I Kill You, It’s Nothing, But If You Kill Me, By Jingo it’s Murder”. These sentiments echo the inequality that was explored in the previous source. The policeman here knows he is in a position of power; it seems as if he abuses this position with such a statement. There is no value placed on the chartist’s life, he is “nothing”. This seems to agree with the worthlessness that Gaskell’s John Barton is portrayed to be feeling.  It is the lack of empathy once more that is significant in Gaskell’s statement; Barton would be able to go through his hardships if “his employers were bearing their share” as well.

Depiction of the Rich VS the Depiction of the Poor
Gaskell depicts this disparity between the two classes most fervently in her work when describing the seemingly insignificant pursuits of the factory owners in her novel. This is most apparent in her portrayal of Amy; Mr Carson’s sixteen year old daughter. She expresses her desire for a rose in passionate terms, “you know you did go and forget to ask Bigland for that rose… Papa will give it to me… he knows his little daughter can’t live without flowers and scents” (68). While this is happening Gaskell’s main protagonists are embroiled in trials which are literally a matter of life and death. Gaskell’s depiction of Mr Davenport’s death is hugely significant, she describes how “the fearful clay colour of death was over all… they stood round him, still and silent; even the wife checked her sobs, though her heart was likely to break” (71). The description of death as “clay coloured” serves to emphasise the disdain which this event embodies; it is plain and direct. The contrast between the two events is deliberate; Gaskell seems to implore the reader to sympathise with the poorer class in this instance. This idea is most clear when Davenport himself states, “O Lord God” I thank thee that the hard struggle of living is over” (71). This is highly emotive; there is a definitive sense of desperation about the state of the working classes here.
Kennington Common Mass Meeting, 1848

Leech’s Punch! cartoons are indeed satirical but through Gaskell one is made aware of the very reality of the issues which they wish to portray. It is satire with a very real message at its heart.

A Real Demonstration: Kennington Common Mass Meeting
The reality of these issues was arguably shown on April 10th 1848, wherein “it was claimed that over 300,000 assembled at Kennington Common” (Simkin, 1997-2013). The workers then went on to present a petition which allegedly held over” 1,975,496” signatures (Simkin, 1997-2013). The protest was peaceful, but it certainly highlights the working classes desire for change.


  1. I like your post, detailed and very interesting to read!

  2. I agree with Amra. Your post was interesting and your relation of the satirical messages in Punch to the serious displays in Mary Barton was wise.