Goodreads: Mary Barton
Set in Manchester, Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel tells the story of Mary Barton, a working-class girl who dreams of marrying rich and thus raising up her father. Meanwhile, tensions between the factory masters and their men are running high as work slows and families begin to starve.
Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel, anticipates North and South with its depiction of life for working-class Victorians in a factory town. The division between the rich and the poor as well as the relationship between masters and their men drives the story. Though its title focuses on Mary, who works as a dressmaker and dreams of marrying a factory owner’s son, the book itself centers around the actions of Mary’s father, driven to desperate measures in an effort to reconcile the social injustices he can no longer understand.
As the book traces Mary’s growth from child to young woman, it deftly illustrates the way in which poverty destroys families. The women are alternately lead to moral ruin in an attempt to chase a better life, or sadly resigned to watching their children starve and their husbands waste away. The men, meanwhile, become depressed or restless, according to their natures, as they struggle to accept that they can no longer provide for their families. Even accepting wages from their wives or children seems to mock them with their failure. Eventually some of them find an outlet in joining the union.
Gaskell’s novels are intriguing in that they tend to advocate for a middle road when it comes to social reform. Though she sympathizes with the working class and argues that the masters should recognize that their interests are intertwined with those of their men, she does not fail to censure the unions. When violence erupts or when the unions refuse to give aid to non-members, she suggests that they are no better than the masters who look the other way when times are hard. Her ultimate solution is tied up in Christianity: the idea that men should want to help each other, out of their own good nature, simply because it is the right thing to do.
Lest the story become too heavy, however, Gaskell lightens it with a dash of romance. The romance, of course, offers its own social and moral commentary, intertwined as it is with the events of the novel. But that does not make it any the less interesting or moving. As is not unusual in her works, Gaskell offers us a pretty but giddy heroine who does not initially recognize the value of the faithful man who woos her. Her road to understanding that a man’s true worth does not lie in looks or riches is long and hard, but makes her love all the more precious.
North and South may be Gaskell’s most celebrated work. But I admit that I enjoyed Mary Barton more. Mary and Jem are admittedly less compelling than Margaret and Mr. Thornton. But the social commentary does not the form of lengthy speeches and debates. That made the novel flow more smoothly for me and enabled me to read with much more interest.