27 February 2012

Life in a Lancashire Mining Town

Hardcover, 340 pages
Published 1914 (originally 1877)
Acquired and read January 2012
That Lass o' Lowrie's
by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Right now I'm in a seminar that's reading the fiction of Elizabeth Gaskell and Frances Hodgson Burnett. Not Burnett's children's literature, but her mostly-forgotten and never-reprinted adult fiction. Doing this obviously makes it completely impossible to not draw comparisons between the two writers. And so far, these comparisons are always to Burnett's disadvantage.

The problem is that, quite simply, Gaskell's ability to render character is leaps and bounds above Burnett's. This can be mostly clearly seen by comparing Gaskell's attempts to depict the Lancashire poor in her first novel, Mary Barton, to Burnett's attempts to do the same in her first novel, That Lass o' Lowrie's. The poor characters in Mary Barton are, well, characters. They're people with problems and conditions that have shaped them in certain ways, understandable even when those ways are negatives, but they're not eternal victims; they act to help one another or themselves or no one at all, depending. Of all the characters in Lass, only one is poor, and that character falls into the typical Victorian trap of being recognized by every other character as not of her own class. Joan Lowrie, the lass of the title, is virtuous, religious, and selfless, whereas every other poor character in the novel is irrational, dirty, and faceless (with two exceptions).

One of those exceptions is Joan's father, and once again I draw comparison to Mary Barton. Both novels' title characters attempt to murder (or do murder) an upper-class character connected with the town's industry. Mary's father does this because he's seen so many of his fellow laborers' lives ruined by suffering, negotiations with the mill-owners have broken down, and he can't take it all anymore. Joan's father, on the other hand, does this because... well... he's poor and drunk, and that's what poor people do, you know? Can't trust a poor person, unless their nature is that of someone from the upper classes.

The bizarre part of all this is that Elizabeth Gaskell was comfortably middle class (at least) her whole life, whereas Frances Hodgson Burnett spent much of her childhood in poverty. To read That Lass o' Lowrie's, though, you'd think that poor people were something Burnett had only encountered by reading Oliver Twist.

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