Friday, September 06, 2013

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell’s Political / Social / Industrial Novels

Industrial novels that deal with the impact of technology and technological change on society. The focus on the elements of the Industrial Revolution that are extremely transformative and disruptive, namely, steam-powered factories of “Milton” (in North and South) along with the coming of the railroad in Cranford.

North and South:
Factories have transformed the town of Milton, provided work, but have also resulted in labor problems as global pricing pressure drive wages downward, and the workers protest conditions, low wages, and the idea that workers are squeezed in order to assure huge profits of the industrialists.

The airborne cotton fibers (“fluff”) results in chronic and ultimately fatal medical conditions (seems like emphysema brought on by breathing the particulate matter); Mary dies young as a result.

Waterways are polluted with dye, which creates a ghastly impression when one of the striking workers – the one with nine starving children, who hurled a rock, hitting Margaret Hale – drowns himself, and then is dyed himself purple with the dyed factory effluent.

The great “masters” of the factories develop a political philosophy that resists interference by the government and regulation. The idea is that good practices will prevail naturally (and do not need to be legislated) because safety, fair wages, and good working conditions make sense, and in the end will lead to increased productivity. John Thornton espouses this philosophy, and delivers an extended explanation and apology to Margaret.

Mrs. Thornton, as John’s mother, suggests a new social order will emerge, which is a blend of meritocracy and capitalist.  She looks at the role of an industrialist as a very responsible one, because society itself rests on the prudent, responsible, and just administration of the business, which extends along the entire supply chain, from raw materials to transformation.

The suggestion is that labor relations will improve once the various parties sit down with each other and get to know each other, and treat each other with mutual respect.

Gaskell’s descriptions are very realistic, and the insights into the psychological conditions and the inner thoughts are insightful, compassionate, complete, and realistic. There is little melodrama – if so, it’s only in Cousin Phillis, where Phillis goes into a deep and dramatic physical decline that parallels her emotional state.

Gaskell describes the impact of the factories on the city, and does not shirk from describing the air pollution, water pollution, and the dangerous conditions within the factory. She also discusses the noise, and the oppressive, gray, depressing appearance. Margaret Hale, who has come to view Halston as a kind of idyll of England (until she returns after the death of her mother and father, and sees just how dreary and unenlightened life can be there, and comes to realize she has romanticized it), and London as a place that establishes the norm of polite living (until she returns and finds it stiff and stultifying), first encounters Milton in a state of shock. Her father has renounced his comfortable position in a crisis of faith, goes to Milton because his old friend from Oxford can help him find students to tutor.

Cousin Phillis:
Phillis is a victim of changing times; her cousin comes to visit, and they develop a brother-sister relationship. He desires to be a good engineer; his father, an inventor, has achieved significant social mobility through his ingenuity, and owns the patents on several very valuable (and profitable inventions).

Her cousin comes into her life because he is working on the construction of the railroad, ostensibly in design and engineering.

Phillis meets her cousin’s boss, who has just returned from Italy, where he was involved in railroad construction. He helps her with Dante, acknowledges and appreciates her intellectual curiosity, and gives her the impression that he will return to marry her. He leaves for Canada, where he will work on the railroad there. He meets someone and marries her; Phillis’s cousin receives a letter with the terrible news.

When he does not return, she becomes very ill after the shock – almost dies of heartache.

Phillis: educated in an eclectic, questioning way, in an inclusive, all-encompassing method of inquiry, guided by her father, a rector.

In this way, she reminds one of Frances Trollope, whose father was a rector, and who has a quick wit, a sharp, observing eye, and a solid facility with various languages, literatures, and cultures.

Phillis also echoes the protagonist, the doctor’s daughter in Wives and Daughters, who is also a self-taught, self-guided reader, who dedicates herself to the pursuit of entymology, yet also remains a dutiful, diligent daughter.

Phillis’s father, a rector and also a farmer who participates in the responsible husbandry of his working farm, is an avid reader, scholar, and thinker, but resolutely Classical. He is a perceptive judge of character, and finds Phillis’s beloved to be rather disrespectful, and his mannered way of jesting to be ultimately corrosive, and undermining of authority and the eternal verities.

Is the narrator reliable? He may be, but not entirely, as he displays resentment that Phillis did not find him attractive, and his initial puppy love is rewarded with a rather blunt denial of any possibility – ever – of their being more than friends.

Industrialization collides with traditional agrarian worlds (as it does in North and South, and also in My Lady Ludlow). The summer storms, the depictions of the flowers, birds, bees, cattle, are made in a very nostalgic way, and yet, the limited scope of life, the potentially grinding monotony, are also honestly depicted.

Harvest time is a time of dramatic change; and the scene in which Phillis, her cousin, and his boss are caught in the rain, is a turning point. The rain, a kind of baptism, brings all together, or a kind of primordial bath which strips away the skin of external difference.

Gaskell’s nostalgic view of agrarian life brings to mind some classic English landscapes, specifically The Haywain and some of Turner’s paintings. In this case, realism alternates with Romanticism.

My Lady Ludlow

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell’s My Lady Ludlow is a strangely affecting novella, which, once finished, makes the reader feel as though they really knew Lady Ludlow, and the dramatic changes which occurred during her lifetime.

The novel opens with the arrival of a poor relation whose mother has tried to place because she is unable to afford to care for her eight or nine children upon the death of her husband.

Lady Ludlow, whose nine natural children have all perished, save one, often allows the daughters of poor relations to live with her and to be educated, and to work as assistants.

The novel is essentially the chronicle of radically shifting times, and it contains a story within a story, which makes the reader aware of the dramatic changes in France (during the Revolution) as well as in England. One of Lady Ludlow’s aristocratic distant relatives flees France to stay with them, but ultimately, the son returns to France to rescue his cousin for whom he has formed an abiding tendre but whose object of love has no respect or regard for him whatsoever. Ironically, his love, Virginie, is a progressive who has a great deal of sympathy for the publicans’ desire for liberty, equality, fraternity, but they turn on her as they do all the aristocracy. Her cousin comes to rescue her, and they do find love at the end, but with a tragic outcome. They are both guillotined. I’m not doing the story justice, because there are a number of subtle narrative elements that heighten the drama and introduce a truly Romantic element in the story. What it does within the framework of the larger narrative is to reinforce the differences between the values of the ancien regime and the revolutionary, republican upstarts.

The differences in viewpoints between the pre-revolutionary world and the post-revolutionary world are telling:

--the modern person speaks of “rights” whereas before, the thought was of “duty”
--education has uplifting, transformative potential; whereas before, breeding is all; one cannot transcend one’s origins
--the Church of England is the true church (although there are fond feelings for the Catholic church), and dissenters and dissenting is not acceptable
--the aristocrat has an obligation to his or her title and place; it is important to notice and to serve, and to protect and preserve one’s grounds, position, people, property
--there are irresponsible nobles; titled men may gamble, be profligate, and ignore their responsibilities. It is important to compensate for that if possible.

Lady Ludlow changes and comes to accept changing times:

--she accepts the daughter of man who jilted Miss Golindo (and broke her heart), who subsequently died, leaving a “love” child and orphan, whom Miss Golindo took in as her own daughter
--she recognizes the efforts of a rector who has radical, seeming dissenting ideas, such as teaching the children of the poor (including poachers) to read and to do math
--she invites the local gentry ladies to tea, and when their manners are not up to the standard of 18th century aristocracy, instead of ostracizing or scorning, she accepts and embraces the practice

The description of the manners and the materials of daily life within the manor house is minute and absolutely fascinating. We learn about the daily work in the manor: preparation of medicinal potions, the putting up of preserves, jams, and special fruits; the fashioning of lace and fine needlework.

Lady Ludlow powders her hair, wears an elaborate wig, and lovely lace cap; her dress is of the 18th century, and not in the “classical” or “republican” lines of the early 19th century. She maintains her wardrobe as a matter of class. Each article of clothing has significance, and is of very high quality.

The household is run very strictly, with a certain regularity, with the goal of making sure she is a responsible mistress of the property that passed into her hands and which is her responsibility.

Industrialization intrudes in certain ways: the railroad allows quick delivery of mail; it leads to more mobility of the labor force, and a change in desirable education. It makes it necessary for individuals at all levels of society to be able to read, write, and to do math.

My Lady Ludlow is filled with illustrative vignettes and insights into the worldview and mindset of an incredibly kind-hearted, generous, and intelligent woman. She is truly a leader, and a woman born into dramatically changing times. Her story is essentially tragic and heroic; when she passes away, she has outlived her son (who was irresponsible and profligate). The stately home will most likely be destroyed; her times have irretrievably changed. Nevertheless, the acts of kindness and generosity she has been able to effect will live on.

There is keen nostalgia, and yet a recognition that the world has changed, and universal education is necessary. But, to what degree, and to what purpose?  Lady Ludlow desires above all stability, balance, dignity, and hierarchy. That said, she does show compassion and does accept those who would ordinarily not fit within her structure (Miss Golindo’s adopted daughter, and the son of the poacher).

What makes My Lady Ludlow fascinating to the 21st century reader is the resonance with extreme social changes, and the impact of industrialization on society.