Mary Meynieu's Review of Mary Barton, Paris 1849

Article excerpt

Introduction

'Who has not heard of Manchester, whose rapid growth, vast development, influence and wealth are quoted with pride by devotees of the manufacturing system?' This confident rhetorical question launches a 33-page review of Mary Barton by Mary Meynieu that appeared eleven months after the novel's publication in a journal printed simultaneously in Geneva, Paris and brussels, a translation of which, excluding the plot summary, can be found below. The review article comprises four sections: an encomium of Manchester and its inhabitants; a résumé of the novel amply illustrated with quotations; a discussion of the book's contribution to the social Question (the French equivalent of the 'condition of england'); and the author's own prescriptions for defusing class conflict. It is a fascinating evaluation that has been generally overlooked, perhaps because it figures neither in robert selig's Reference Guide nor in angus easson's Critical Heritage. yet Meynieu's pioneering critique which introduced the French-speaking world to a tale of Manchester life deserves to be better known. It is the earliest continental response to Mary Barton, published four years before emile Montégut's review in the Revue des Deux Mondes.1and it 'anticipates the approach of all subsequent criticism of the social novels' in France, where Gaskell was to enjoy great popularity in the 1850s and 1860s as translations of her major works were published, to widespread acclaim.2 evidence of critics apart from Montégut following in Meynieu's footsteps can be found inter alia in the important study by charles de Mouy, who rates Gaskell amongst the finest of contemporary english novelists.3

Who was the writer who signed herself Mme Mary Meynieu? she proves to be a remarkable woman: an english-born economist and religious commentator who wrote predominantly in French, in an elegant prose style commended by native speakers. she produced two textbooks, one of which was the first to popularise political economy in France,4 published a scholarly study of the causes of distress in britain's industrial cities,5 and contributed with distinction to French intellectual debate through her learned articles and reviews. In her obituary, the prestigious Journal des Économistes considered her 'one of [the] most worthy representatives of the science of economics'.6 unfortunately, the relative obscurity into which her Gaskell review has fallen is paralleled by the paucity of information about her life, since published sources reveal only the scantiest of biographical details. For instance, the catalogue of the bibliothèque nationale de France gives no date of birth or death, and two economics dictionaries give no date of birth, and incorrectly record the year of her death.7 However, thanks to clues provided by her marriage announcement in The Times and a notification of her husband's death preserved in the national archives at Kew, it is possible to establish her floruit.8 she was born Mary coates in bristol in 1798, the eldest daughter of Matthew Mills coates and susanna coates.9 a unitarian, she married the historian bernard Meynieu in london in 1829, and moved with him first to dieppe where he was appointed Principal of the teacher training college (école normale primaire), then to dunkerque, and later to Paris where she died in 1876.10

Why did Meynieu choose to publicise a work that had 'created a sensation in britain' in the Bibliothèque Universelle de Genève? The journal's mission was to communicate foreign intellectual developments to a French-speaking audience, in which category it was, 'alongside the Journal des Savants, about the only critical and analytical publication of distinction published in French'.11 Its coverage was genuinely world-wide, with articles on a large range of social, historical and literary subjects; its stance was liberal in economics, conservative in politics and aesthetics, and Protestant in ethics.12 The editor of the journal's 'literary bulletin' was the bookseller-publisher Joël cherbuliez, the son of Meynieu's publisher. …