Category Archives: reading

Book Review: Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

“The rich know nothing of the trials of the poor; I say, if they don’t know, they ought to know. We’re their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows, and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds”

Mary Barton, the heroine of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, is beautiful but has been born poor. Her father fights for the rights of his fellow workers, but Mary wants to make a better life for them both. She rashly decides to reject her lover Jem, a struggling engineer, in the hope of marrying the rich mill-owner’s son Henry Carson and securing a safe future. But when Henry is shot down in the street and Jem becomes the main suspect, Mary finds herself hopelessly torn between them. She also discovers an unpleasant truth – one that could bring tragedy upon everyone, and threatens to destroy her.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s debut novel is my first classic novel of the year, having set myself a goal of reading more classic literature, particularly focusing on nineteenth century novelists. I must say that prior to reading this I was already a fan of Gaskell’s work, having greatly enjoyed reading North and South, and watching the TV adaptations of both this and Cranford.

Mary Barton is set in early Victorian Manchester, a grimy, industrial place, where life is hard and poverty is rife. Those familiar with North and South will recognise the early emergence of similar themes: the plight of the poor, the apparent indifference of the wealthy, and the class tensions bred in large part by the socio-economic precarity faced by all. As in her subsequent novel, Mrs Gaskell addresses these overarching themes with sympathy and understanding, giving them context through her setting and relevance to her characters, thus demonstrating both their complexity and dire consequences.

The novel is written with a third-person omniscient narrative voice, a highly fashionable choice of narrative in Mrs Gaskell’s era. As a result, the narrator knows all of the characters’ thoughts, feelings and motivations, as well as their pasts, presents and futures. For modern readers, used to the more limited omniscience and the subtleties of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ which are common traits in modern literature, this can take a bit of getting used to. However, the narrative style doesn’t detract from the dramatic elements of the story, as the novel is well structured to ensure that the reader doesn’t learn everything all at once.

The title character, Mary, is a well-drawn and sympathetic heroine, who develops through the novel from a naive girl who makes some youthful mistakes into a brave young woman who, despite facing impossible choices, determines to chart the correct course. Like most of Gaskell’s characters Mary isn’t perfect, which serves to make her more endearing. The supporting cast around her is also wonderful, and I particularly warmed to Mary’s friend, Margaret, and her grandfather, Job Legh. At times I found Mary’s two love interests, Henry and Jem, a little two-dimensional; Henry’s sudden death means that his feelings towards Mary are never fully explored, whilst Jem is absent for great swathes of the novel, only really coming into his own towards the end. I would have liked to have known them both better, but overall this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the novel.

Finally, the dialogue is rich and authentic, filled with wonderful dialect words and expressions from the period. As a Lancastrian it was a joy to read; I could hear those Mancunian accents clearly in my head. For those less familiar with northern English dialects, the public domain edition I purchased included a glossary of terms embedded in the text, which at times proved useful.

A compelling read which clearly evokes nineteenth century northern life. Five stars.

Short Pieces and Classic Fiction

Happy Monday to you all. It’s still January, the loooongest month of the year (well, not technically, but you know what I mean). It’s dark outside, and it’s cold, and it keeps threatening to snow (yuck).

But on the bright side, the weather is a perfect reason to stay indoors with a good book, or working on a bit of writing. And, so…

What am I writing?

At the moment, mostly poetry. I’m on to Part 3 of my Open University course now, and it’s all about lines, stanzas and iambic pentameters. I have to admit to being quite nervous about starting this part of the course. It’s been a very long time since I crafted much poetry, and I’ve never felt as confident with it as I do with prose. However, so far, I have surprised myself, and I’m very much enjoying it. With my next assignment due in a few weeks I am knuckling down to a poetry project; something a little bit supernatural, and a little bit Byronic. Loving it.

I’ve spent some time recently having a look over my writing from the past few years. Aside from the novels I have written, I have realised that I have a wealth of short stories, flash fiction and poetry. In fact I have so much that I’m now giving serious consideration to polishing up some of these pieces into a collection of fiction. So, watch this space – there might be a publication from me in 2020, after all.

What am I reading?

Currently I’m reading Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell. Mrs Gaskell is one of my favourite nineteenth century novelists, and has been ever since I read North and South. One of my aims this year is to expand my repertoire of classic fiction, as well continuing to read widely across modern genres. As a result, the top of my TBR list is looking pretty eclectic right now, with everything from Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, to CJ Sansom’s Tombland, to The Dead Girl’s Stilettos by Quinn Avery. As they say, variety is the spice of life!

I’d love to hear what you’re all reading, and any recommendations of great books you’ve read over the winter. Please feel free to comment below!