The Politics of Dirt in Mary Barton and Ruth

By Freeland, Natalka | Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview
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The Politics of Dirt in Mary Barton and Ruth


Freeland, Natalka, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900


Social problem fiction is defined by its dirtiness: transgressively graphic accounts of filth and waste herald a novel's entry into the Condition of England debate. Early examples of the genre spell out the polemical importance of filth, as in the preface to Oliver Twist (1837-38), where Charles Dickens insists that portraying "miserable reality" entails focusing on "the squalid ... dirtiest paths of life." (1) Contemporary critics have confirmed the equation of social problems and dirt: Louis Cazamian, for instance, asserts that Elizabeth Gaskell's "Mary Barton lays down irrefutable concrete evidence for thinking intervention to be necessary. . . There is no scene in any novel of the time which more powerfully evokes the conditions of social distress than that in which Barton and Wilson go to the aid of their comrade Davenport's family. . . We are shown a street littered with filth and ashes. . . The broken window-panes are stuffed with rags, and a fetid smell almost overpowers the visitors as they enter." ( 2) The sanitary conditions Mary Barton (1848) describes are undeniably deplorable; but since the novel also details much worse effects of industrial poverty, including prostitution, drug addiction, starvation, and murder, we should question the emphasis placed by novelists and critics alike on mere dirt. Often invoked as a definitive social problem novel, Mary Barton is a particularly fruitful place to start this investigation: while Gaskell's novel appears to conform to generic expectations in its lurid representation of filthy slums, in the course of the narrative this filth acquires surprisingly positive connotations. As we shall see, the suggestion that dirt may not be the most pressing social problem radically revises the project of the industrial novel. Along with Condition of England fiction more generally, Gaskell's novels have routinely been criticized for accurately identifying real social problems but then retreating to imaginary, romanticized resolutions. In particular, these novels supposedly celebrate a middle-class ideal of domesticity (signaled by cleanliness and its moral corollary, decency). (3) Yet critics have failed to perceive that instead of endorsing these imaginary solutions, Gaskell's novels systematically expose their inadequacy by demonstrating that the terms in which middle-class observers formulated social problems elided the reality of working-class experience. Gaskell's transvaluation of dirt forecloses the possibility that social problems can be reduced to sanitary problems; her description of middle-class housekeeping further registers the inefficacy of cleanliness as a guarantor of moral authority. Finally, Ruth (1853) proposes an analogy between the ideologies of sanitation and domestic morality (as embodied in female sexual purity), revealing that projects aiming to clean up both dirty streets and dirty women distract attention from the social problems they ostensibly address.

Mary Barton's descriptions of filth and refuse are shockingly explicit:

[Berry Street] was unpaved; and down the middle a gutter forced its way, every now and then forming pools in the holes with which the street abounded. Never was the old Edinburgh cry of 'Gardez l'eau!' more necessary than in this street. As they passed, women from their doors tossed household scraps of every description into the gutter; they ran into the next pool, which overflowed and stagnated. Heaps of ashes were the stepping-stones, on which the passer-by, who cared in the least for cleanliness, took care not to put his foot. Our friends were not dainty, but even they picked their way. (4)

Although passages such as this one rely on a middle-class readership's prurient interest in the squalid living conditions of its social inferiors, Gaskell explicitly rejects this middle-class perspective. (5) Oddly downplaying the disgust that it works so hard to elicit, the novel maintains that George Wilson and John Barton, who would otherwise incite sympathy and reforming zeal, are not particularly troubled by their dirty surroundings.

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