Tuesday, May 14, 2019

'Mary Barton' by Elizabeth Gaskell

This is Elizabeth Gaskell's first novel, a widely acclaimed work based on the actual murder, in 1831, of a progressive mill owner. It follows Mary Barton, daughter of a man implicated in the murder, through her adolescence, when she suffers the advances of the mill owner, and later through
love and marriage. Set in Manchester, between 1837-42, it paints a powerful and moving picture of working-class life in Victorian England.

Wow, this has blown me away. I'ts my choice in the Classic by a Woman category of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge. After reading Wives and Daughters followed by this debut, Mrs Gaskell now sits at the very top of my Victorian authors ranking. I think she's become my favourite of all, and I've read widely, including Dickens, Collins, the Brontes, Eliot, Trollope, Hardy and Austen (who was a Regency author, but we love to group her with the Victorians). Maybe I love Gaskell because her maternal, caring heart stirs up my own love for my kids. None of those others were actually mothers. Do you think it takes one to know one?

I read way into the early morning hours to finish it, and then the plot still kept whirling around in my head. Few readers might associate the name of Elizabeth Gaskell with nail-biting crime thrillers, but that's just what this social commentary and romance morphs into. For several chapters, there is one 'just in the nick of time' moment after another, that left me breathless.

For a start, it's a murder case. We have a strong heroine on a vital mission to save the hero's life, while time ticks away. That's not something we often see, especially from the Victorian era. But Jem has been condemned to die. He's no weakling in distress, but quite the opposite. He's strong and loyal, willing to lay down his life to protect and save others, when it seems there's no other way out. Mary has the tricky task of preventing the man she loves from making himself a scapegoat, while keeping quiet about another awkward twist that cannot be revealed. What more can we ask for, hey?

 One of my favourite parts of the book is the romance between Mary Barton and Jem Wilson, no thanks to Mary and her vacillation. She and Jem have known each other forever, and she initially hardens herself against his familiar face to focus on Harry Carson, the son of a factory owner. In times of such horrific poverty, I can't fault Mary for wanting to secure her family's future with a rich boy, but she makes the classic mistake of realising the worth of who she's thrown aside too late. It's sort of an, 'Oh dammit,' moment at first, since he's not the one her head tells her is the wisest match. But no girl can keep lying to herself when the truth dawns on her. Especially after a proposal to melt the hardest heart.

Anyway, the instant she makes her mistake, it's all action from there. Since Mary realises she's deeply in love with Jem straight after rejecting his proposal, you might wonder why she doesn't simply tell him. The answer is all tied up with the social expectations of females in the Victorian era. It would have been far too brazen and un-ladylike, so she decides on letting time pass, and hoping he picks up on more subtle clues, such as fluttery eyelashes and sweet smiles. But it turns out that when you tell a guy, 'Once and for all, I'll never marry you,' he might take your statement on face value. If women have changed over the last century, men certainly haven't. I can't help thinking he would have been delighted if she'd told him she changed her mind, and it certainly would have saved him loads of trouble later on. But these characters didn't ask to be born in the Victorian era, and had to operate within the conventional constraints they were given.

This book's background is interesting in itself. Gaskell's husband suggested she try writing a novel to help distract her from grief following the death of their toddler son from scarlet fever. It's a wonderful result from such a sad loss, yet there are several heart-wrenching death scenes. A few times I wondered, 'How could this possibly cheer her up?' and got the feeling it must have been cathartic. Sharing Gaskell's emotional release is our gain, and in the process she shows how fiction can be a more powerful instrument to bring people's attention to social negligence than anything else.

She'd originally intended to call the book 'John Barton' after Mary's father, another crucial main character. Gaskell felt deep pity for the hopeless class of men he represents. But it was probably a wise move not to, since Mary's name embodies the optimistic future, while John's mires us in the hopeless torpor of his bleak present. Yet he's possibly the character who sticks in our minds long after the story is over.

Poor John Barton is a prime example of how a good person might become a criminal. The working class are suffering and starving, and he has the thwarted heart of a kind crusader. His total inability to do anything to relieve the plight of the people he cares for sinks him into the deepest depression. With the fervour of the Trade Union behind him, he decides to lash out at wealthy factory owners, the class that seems directly responsible for the horror that surrounds him. The story really shows how John progresses from harmless family man to dangerous vigilante.

There are several other lovable supporting characters too, including Mary's blind friend Margaret, with her angelic singing voice, and her naturalist grandfather Job Legh, who often steals the scene. Touching father/daughter moments are abundant between Mary and John, not to mention poignant mother/son moments between Jem and Jane Wilson. She's a crosspatch who really grows on us. (Having her live under their roof to share their happily-ever-after would surely be a stretch on their marriage, haha.) And there's Jem's faithful and calm Aunt Alice, who exerts her loving, peaceful influence over everyone else, even when she's out of her right mind. Early on she says, 'An anxious mind is never a holy mind.'

Characters often drop great lines about watching our attitudes, which we can grab hold of. Since their circumstances elicit them on the spot, it never comes across as preaching but clearly wise coping tools and part of the plot. There's such a powerful moral study in a dialogue between three guys towards the end, I'll be reading it over and over again.

I guess Elizabeth Gaskell mixed her genres in a way modern authors are warned not to, the reason being that we need to be clear about our target audiences. But after reading Mary Barton, I think it's a shame we don't blend them this way anymore, because her target audience is clearly anybody with a beating heart.



  1. I've never read Elizabeth Gaskell, but have watched three television series based on her books. Wives and Daughters, Cranford and North and South. They are all favourite series. I believe Cranford the TV series was a compilation of several novels, and the character of Jem sounds familiar. Perhaps this story of Mary Barton was merged into the Cranford Telemovie script. I must look the book up. Thanks Paula

    1. Hi Meredith, I read Cranford way back in Uni days and don't remember much about it any more. But I've just started reading more of Gaskell and loving her work. I watched the BBC Wives and Daughters series after reading the book, and it was a close match. Mary Barton was a perfect Christian novel, but back then it wasn't considered as such, but just a novel. They are so interesting that way 😄

  2. Super commentary. I have been meaning to read Gaskill for awhile. I will likely read one of her books soon, perhaps this one. The plot and the characters as you describe them make this book sound so good.

    The social constraints that people faced in both the Regency and Victorian eras was astounding. When one reads these books it really illustrates that.

    1. Hi Brian, this one was a beauty for a first novel. I've also read her last one, Wives and Daughters, which was also great. So I assume that everything she wrote in between must be good too 😉

      And she sure does highlight the features of her era in a way you'd hope nobody could have ignored.

  3. Gaahhhh this sounds FANTASTIC! I've had so many people recommend Gaskell to me, and I was leaning towards picking up Wives and Daughters first, but I might have to choose this one instead... or both!

    1. Hi Sheree, those two are the only books of hers I've read, and I can't choose which is my favourite 😂 It's a great decision to have. Wives and Daughters was fantastic too! 😄 It had some very interesting blended family dynamics, and a nice bit of Darwinism in the hero's occupation. Fascinating that together this pair make up her first and last novels, I'm super impressed.

  4. Excellent review of a wonderful book. Despite the recent attention she's received, I think Gaskell remains one of the most underrated classic authors.

    I love this:
    > her target audience is clearly anybody with a beating heart.

    She was talented, eloquent, compassionate as well as passionate, and maternal, as you point out.

    1. Hi Jane, it's very satisfying to see the attention her work has been enjoying recently, but I can't help wondering why she has been so underrated over time. When I was a 20yo Uni student, I got the chance to visit Great Britain and made up my mind to go to as many great Victorian authors' places as we could. But Gaskell didn't even cross my mind, because I didn't really know about her, except as a lady who wrote a biography of Charlotte Bronte 😄

      It's been great to begin catching up on her lovely novels over the last little while.