Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel, Mary Barton, is a critique of social inequalities and social ambition in early Victorian Manchester. This might seem a strange place to look for clues about the meaning of and attitudes towards comfort, but the domestic context and the traumatic events faced by its key characters provide us with much to ponder.
Physical comforts are, unsurprisingly, in short supply in the houses of Manchester’s working classes. Those which are itemised by Gaskell are basic and visceral: coming from her cellar dwelling, Alice basks in ‘the delicious glow of the fire, the bright light that revelled in every corner of the room, the savoury smells, the comfortable sounds of a boiling kettle, and the hissing, frizzling ham’. Heat and light are the kind of things frequently highlighted by historians as symbols of a growing prioritisation of physical ease in the eighteenth century. Many would agree with Mary in thinking that her home ‘was dingy and comfortless; for, of course, there was not even the dumb familiar home−friend, a fire’.
Less apparent in historians’ discussions is the association that Gaskell makes between comfort and eating. Comfort food has clear meanings for us today, but the comfort derived from food and drink was also important to the working people of Gaskell’s Manchester. Part of Alice’s delight in the Barton’s home is the smell of ham being fried. And food was also associated with companionship: making an argument against married women working in the mills, John Barton asserts that Prince Albert himself would be most unhappy if his wife was ‘never to be at home to see to th’ cleaning of his house, or to keep a bright fire in his grate. Let alone his meals being all hugger−mugger and comfortless’.
Comfort in a material sense was limited by the resources available, as is apparent in the discussions about how best to help the widowed Mrs Davenport. More dramatic is the contrast between Jem’s belief that ‘He was in a condition to maintain a wife in comfort’, although this would mean sharing the house with his mother and aunt, and Mary’s hope for an easier and more comfortable life if she marries the wealthy Mr Carson. This ambition, of course, reflects her own declining fortunes and underscores a strong link between wealth and material wellbeing.
Given her own background and the development of the plot, it is unsurprising that Gaskell offers a critique of this material comfort. Towards the end of the story, John Barton declares that ‘did not care for goods, nor wealth’. What mattered more to him than ‘any creature-comforts’ was the idea that men who were materially wealthy cared nothing about his physical or spiritual well-being. This view – that wealth, and the comforts which it could bring, were socially divisive – offers a very different perspective on the idea that comfort might be viewed as the acceptable face of luxury.
So, physical comfort – or the lack of it – was a concern for the working-class families fictionalised by Gaskell; yet, in terms of the frequency with which it is mentioned and its significance to the characters involved, emotional comfort was far more important. This takes us to older understandings of comfort as consolation and emotional support.
Some of this comfort came from within. When faced by the scolding of Mrs Simmons, Mary takes comfort from the thought of a future life with the wealthy Mr Carson. Here, the promise of a better future offers hope in a comfortless present. Given her own family life – the wife of a Unitarian minister – it is no surprise that Gaskell leads her characters to find comfort in their faith. For example, when she hears Margaret singing ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God’, Mary felt that the ‘old Hebrew prophetic words fell like dew’ on her heart; ‘She stood listening and comforted’.
Significantly – and again in the spirit of Unitarianism – faith is something that galvanises her attempts to help others. And this is where we arrive at the heart of what comfort means in Mary Barton: the ‘kindly meant words’ that offered consolation and support during times of difficulty. Enumerating all of these would be a tedious exercise – there are about 50 in total – so two examples will have to suffice. In the first, Mary is instructed by her father to comfort a poor woman; she ‘did not know what to say, or how to comfort; but she knelt down by her, and put her arm round her neck, and in a little while fell to crying herself so bitterly that the source of tears was opened by sympathy in the widow, and her full heart was, for a time, relieved’. Here it is simple empathy that offers a route to comfort. The second example highlights the way in which comfort could also involve practical assistance. When Esther is released from prison, Jem relates a story about an overseer of a foundry’ who ‘has spent his Sabbaths, for many years, in visiting the prisoners and the afflicted in Manchester New Bailey; not merely advising and comforting, but putting means into their power of regaining the virtue and the peace they had lost’.
Comfort, then, is a deceptively simple word that carries enormous baggage of meanings and associations. This is nowhere more evident than when Mary is imagining a possible life, married to Mr Carson. As we have already seen, looking forward to this idealised future offers Mary emotional comfort, but this was intimately bound up with material comfort. She would bring her father to live with them and surround him with ‘every comfort she could devise … till he should acknowledge that riches to be very pleasant things’. Comfort was gained from material things, other people and thoughts of past and future.
Manchester Metropolitan University