Thursday, June 4, 2015

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell


Mary Barton was the first novel published by Elizabeth Gaskell, author of one of my very favorite books, Wives and Daughters. I'd had it on the TBR shelves for several years, and now that I'm getting down to the final books on my Classics Club list, I thought it was time to give it a try. (This also counts for the Reading England Challenge.)

Set mostly in Manchester around 1840, Mary Barton is the story of two working-class families, the Bartons and the Wilsons. Barton and Wilson both work for the mills. Mr. Barton has a pregnant wife, a daughter Mary, aged about 13. Mr. Wilson has small twin sons, probably toddlers, and an older son, Jem, who's about 18. Mrs. Wilson has a disability from an accident she suffered before she was married. 

Mrs. Barton is grieving because her sister, Esther, has run off to be with a man, and they fear the worst. Soon after, tragedy strikes both families; Mr. Barton is depressed and becomes more and more involved with labor unions and the Chartist movement. 

Meanwhile, Mary has grown into a beautiful young woman, apprenticed at a dressmaker. Jem becomes a skilled worker, working with the factory machines. He's in love with Mary but her head's been turned by the attentions of Harry Carson, the mill owner. Times are bad at the mills, with job cuts at the worst possible time. Resentment between the workers and the mill owners comes to a head just as Mary's two lovers have a confrontation. After another tragedy, Mary is caught up in the middle of all this, and her loyalties are tested.



I liked this book, but it doesn't have nearly the charm or the characters of Wives and DaughtersNorth and South, or even the quirky Cranford. I found the characters rather one-dimensional, especially Mary, and the story itself is on the preachy side. It's also a little melodramatic and predictable. Still, it's interesting to read one of her early works. Mary Barton shows glimmers of  Elizabeth Gaskell's great talent as a writer. I still have Sylvia's Lovers on the TBR shelves, plus some of her Gothic tales. Has anyone read either of those?

13 comments:

  1. I have read Sylvia's Lovers, but I'm afraid I have no recollection of it one way or the other. Wives and Daughters and Cranford are still my favorites.

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    1. I love, love, love Wives & Daughters. I liked Cranford but I think I actually like the BBC miniseries better!

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  2. I read Sylvia's Lovers a few years ago and remember liking it, although it was very depressing. Wives and Daughters is on my Classics Club list - I must read it soon!

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    1. Wives & Daughters is wonderful!! I've never met anyone who read it and didn't like it. Sorry to hear about Sylvia's Lovers, I guess I'll put it toward the end of my Classics Club list.

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  3. I liked this one too, but agree that it's not as great as Wives and Daughters or North and South. But, it was her first! It showed her promise as you said :)

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    1. The beginning was slow but it really picked up near the end, though I did find it predictable. I was surprised at how strongly pro-worker it was.

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    2. I think there's quite a few novels of that time that were very pro-worker, addressing the 'condition of England question'. Mary Barton was one of the big ones to do that, North and South as well. I was surprised myself when I discovered this 'genre' - there is quite a few of them, I've learned :)

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  4. This on is on my Classic Club list too:) I love it when authors' grow as writers. Cranford is also on my list and my husband and I watched the BBC version of North and South. It was pretty good.

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  5. Oh I agree, when I told my friend (who did her dissertation on Elizabeth Gaskell) that I was reading Mary Barton because I loved Cranford she did warn me that the industrial novels are very different. Still, it was interesting and she wrote very well about the health risks in the cotton mills.

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  6. I agree--Mary Barton is interesting as a first novel, but lacks charm and depth, and does read as a fable rather than a novel.

    I really enjoyed Sylvia's Lovers but I did find the dialect a bit daunting but the story is really very good and Sylvia an interesting, troubling heroine. She's not of the stuff that Margaret Hale and Molly Gibson are made of, but still interesting.

    The Gothic Tales can be depressing if read one after another--I loved The Old Nurse's Story and The Grey Woman the best. Lois the Witch is interesting in that it is set mostly in America in the 1700s, but bleak! Some of the other stories contain themes that Gaskell fleshed out and reused and reworked in her longer works, so they feel a bit repetitive.

    Have you read her Life of Charlotte Bronte? It's a wonderful bio of CB, and interesting in that Gaskell was actually a friend of hers and met most of the family members and was sanctioned by Patrick to write the bio.

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  7. Interesting! I've been wondering about this one. I'm working through Ruth as my Classic with a name as a title.

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  8. I thought Mary Barton was quite interesting, though bleak. But I'm glad that Mary, a quite typical 'fallen' woman got to live and quite happily too at the end of the novel. As to 'fallen' women novels, I though Ruth was better, I find this actually the strongest of Gaskell's novels, thematically.

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  9. The books has its flaws, especially in the narrative style that E.G has chosen. However, I found it highly enjoyable. This is my review, if you are interested: https://chrsvg.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/mary-barton-a-review/

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