This Week in My Classes: Worlds in Crisis–Mary Barton and P. D. James

After last week’s big effort towards launching the students in my survey class on their research assignments, we spent our first two classes this week with Mary Barton: no PowerPoint, no overheads, just me, them, and the novel. My impression (though it is necessarily impressionistic, since I can’t even really focus on most of their faces in our particular room) is that they are finding the reading a bit of a slog right now. This is not really surprising, since for many of them this is their first experience reading Victorian fiction (probably, any long fiction, though since many of them are English majors, I shouldn’t assume the worst, I suppose). And even those who have ventured into the nineteenth century before are more likely to have read Austen or the Brontes than any Gaskell, much less Gaskell at her most sentimental and didactic. Wait–that’s probably Ruth, so they should consider themselves lucky to be reading a novel in which there is a lot of action, including a fire (with a daring rescue), a murder, a boat chase, a trial scene, and a touching deathbed reconciliation. In Ruth, as I actually told them yesterday, the basic story is that Ruth is seduced and then spends 400 pages being very, very sorry. On Monday I focused on Gaskell’s strategies for softening her readers up to the working-class families who make up the large majority of the novel’s population, only, once she’s made us all cozy with them, to start bumping them off in large numbers. The string of deaths in the first 90 pages of the novel really is quite shocking, which of course is the point: we need to ask, as the characters themselves as, why their lives are so precarious. We looked also at John Barton and the process by which he becomes a radical, a Chartist, and eventually a [spoiler alert!] murderer. Gaskell is careful to show the social and economic causes of his alienation, hostility, and violence: his Chartism is not the result of any moral failing on his part, but of his desperate circumstances, and, most important to her analysis, of his perception (largely justified) that those around him with power and money do not listen or care. Communication between the classes: this is, essentially, Gaskell’s prescription for solving the ‘condition of England’ problem, and of course her novel is explicitly offered as an aid to that conciliatory process. Mary Barton is another example, that is, of a novel in which the characters have difficulties that would be solved if only they had the opportunity to read the novel they inhabit. (Vanity Fair is another one, or so I have argued.) Is there a name for this kind of self-referential intertextuality?

If Mary Barton were called John Barton, as Gaskell once planned, then it would be a more radical book than it is, but in Mary Barton John’s story is–not sidelined, exactly, but nearly overwhelmed by Mary’s story, which is in some ways a predictable love triangle. Yesterday we (well, I–Monday, I hope to really bring them into the discussion, since by then they should have read the whole book!) focused on how that story, and women more generally, fit into the novel’s larger interests. I looked especially at Mary’s Aunt Esther, who is lured by her experience of financial independence (she worked in a factory) to desire more social mobility than the novel sees fit: she eventually falls for a rich man and then becomes a fallen woman, and she wanders the margins of the town, and the novel, as a cautionary tale for Mary. Tomorrow we will spend our tutorials on the ever-exciting topic of proper MLA-style citations, then Monday we wrap up our class work on the novel with, I hope, some vigorous debate about the novel’s proposed solution to its problems.

In Women and Detective Fiction we’re reading P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. I very much admire this novel, which exemplifies James’s desire to use the structure of the mystery novel as a frame on which to hang (an unfortunate verb, in this particular case!) issues of character and theme. I was rereading its conclusion today soon after reading this eloquent and depressing post at Tales from the Reading Room about the recent catastrophic budget cuts being proposed for higher education in the UK, which include potentially reductions of as much as 100% for humanities education. This juxtaposition gave unusual resonance to the confrontation between Cordelia and Sir Ronald Callender, who has murdered his own son in order to protect the funding for his laboratory. In response to Cordelia’s appeal to love, Callender makes an overtly utilitarian argument for his crime:

[D]on’t say that what I’m doing here isn’t worth one single human life. . . The greatest good of the greatest number. Beside that fundamental declaration of common sense all other philosophies are metaphysical abstractions.

Callender is a ‘conservationist,’ that is, an environmentalist. So in some sense he is pursuing the ‘greatest good of the greatest number.’ But Cordelia confronts his narrow definition of ‘good’ with an appeal to humanity (‘what is the use of making the world more beautiful if the people who live in it can’t love one another?’), and it’s surely no accident that the individual victim here is a humanist and that one of the battlegrounds is Cambridge, which Cordelia idealizes as “ordered beauty for the service of learning” before she realizes that its scholarly pursuits have at least two faces: in Bunyan’s words, which she quotes, “then I saw that there was a way to hell even from the gates of heaven.” That James takes Cordelia’s side is suggested by Sir Ronald’s role as the villain of the piece. He has created his own Frankenstein’s monster in the person of his lab assistant, Lunn, whose subservience to his scientific master nearly leads to Cordelia’s death. In a genre that typically rewards objectivity and detachment, Cordelia (though just barely) survives and succeeds because of her attachments and loyalties, her refusal to allow love to be devalued, even after death. Though in the end she causes at least one, arguably two, deaths, and lies even to the point of becoming an accomplice to a murder, Dalgliesh concludes that “she’s absolutely without guilt.” Using the skeletal apparatus of a crime novel, then, James has in fact written a novel about values, and in particular about the conflict between two visions of learning, one coldly scientific and the other youthful, naive, idealistic, but ultimately worth fighting for–a novel, as it turns out, well suited for the current moment.

One thought on “This Week in My Classes: Worlds in Crisis–Mary Barton and P. D. James

  1. litlove October 22, 2010 / 4:21 am

    I haven’t read that particular P.D. James – I can see I really must!


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