“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.