Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Mary Barton

“There is always a pleasure in unravelling a mystery, in catching at the gossamer clue which will guide to certainty.” 

As most people know, the Victorian era was a time of great change in the Western world.  It was a time of invention, of industry, of power, and of great wealth.  It was also a time of social upheaval, of intense poverty, and of class division.  And while our minds might immediately envision the narrow, dirty streets of Dickens' London, another author asked us to turn our eyes to the north and see the squalor, the heartbreak, and the division that was eating away at the heart of England's manufacturing district.

The Plot:

Mary Barton is the only living child of John Barton, a mill worker in Manchester.  Her mother died when Mary was young and her father blames her death on the sudden disappearance of his sister-in-law, Esther.  John is heavily involved in the trades union in Manchester and has become more and more depressed over time as the industry has hit a rough patch and paying jobs are scarce.  Mary takes a job at a dressmakers and to help support herself and her father.  

Mary's long-time friend, Jem Wilson, has loved her for years but is turned down when he proposes.  Mary has her sights set higher and is enjoying the secret admiration of Harry Carson, the son of a prominent mill owner.  But when Harry is murdered and Jem is arrested for it, Mary realizes where her affections truly lie and she sets out to do everything in her power to save the man she loves.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

The first novel by Elizabeth Gaskell that I read was North and South, which I absolutely loved.  I was pretty excited to read this novel, which was her first.  Though this one didn't affect me the way that one did, it is still a solid read.

It's neat to see a female Victorian author take on the issues of social justice and economic inequality as passionately as some of the male authors (like Dickens and Trollope).  Gaskell comes out swinging, showing us the abject squalor that was the reality for so many people of that time.  And while she doesn't blame the mill owners and wealthy for the economic situation that is causing it, she does fault them for refusing to see and help the needy people all around them.  John Barton goes to extremes in his retaliation, but one can imagine the desperation one might be driven to if you watch others live in lavish comfort when your own friends and loved ones are dying.  It was also interesting to see the geographical disconnect between London and Manchester.  Even today, it is easy for those who live in the seat of power to simply turn a blind eye to the needs of those who live further away.

While the social aspect of this story is as solid as that of North and South, the narrative is not.  It is harder to connect to these characters the way we do Margaret Hale and John Thornton.  Mary comes off as rather flighty and seems to have less spirit than Margaret.  And while Jem is a sweet guy, he lacks that quality of strength and passion that John Thornton embodies.  As a whole, the narrative seems less tight and comes off as rather heavy handed at times.

This is certainly a solid read and a must for anyone who loves Gaskell or Victorian lit.  If you are new to Gaskell's works, however, I would suggest you start with North and South.  You'll get the same social message with a better story and stronger characters.      

1 comment:

hopeinbrazil said...

I've had North and South on my TBR list for ages. Maybe over the Christmas holidays I can finally get to it! I loved Wives and Daughters, but not Ruth.