Literary Relish's Reviews > Mary Barton

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
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May 08, 12

Read from April 06 to 22, 2012

Central to this 'tale of Manchester life' is a self-declared love triangle, one which, on the blurb on the back of the book, promises chapter upon chapter of drama and tragedy as Mary Barton is torn between Jem Wilson, her childhood friend and sweetheart and the charming Harry Carson, son of a Manchester mill-owner, when Carson is murdered down a Manchester alley and Jem becomes the prime suspect. Sounds exciting doesn't it?

The sad truth is that this blurb was one of the most deceptive I have ever had the misfortune to be drawn in by. I feel as though I've been ambushed by mud, melodrama and misery. To adequately explain the plot of this book to anyone leaves me in a bit of a muddle because frankly, for 200-300 pages, there is no plot at all. What follows from Chapter 1 is a lengthy diatribe against the condition of the working class in Manchester, the injustices they faced at the hands of the 'masters' and a pitch-perfect depiction of just what an awful place the city was to be at the time.

For about 100 pages a part of me appreciated the bold subject matter and, although Gaskell's resolve seemed to waiver about two thirds of the way through the novel (which, having read the criticism she faced from her contemporaries, I can reluctantly understand) I enjoyed what I saw to be a fairly faithful portrayal of industrial Manchester in the early 19th century. It proved both intriguing to hear the names of the roads and areas I know so well and utterly staggering to learn that mill workers were often so poor that they could not feed their children or themselves and died in a state of poverty that, certainly in the eyes of Elizabeth Gaskell, would be so easy to avoid. However, the problem I had was that these harrowing and very real issues jarred severely with a lacklustre story line, unendearing characters and a feckless, doll-like 'heroine' who really did nothing more than create a whole load of trouble for an innocent young man.


The main questions I seem to be left with are, first of all, how could such an interesting woman write such a dull novel and, second of all, how can I stop myself from feeling bad about disliking Mary Barton so much? Some good excuses that's what. Interestingly enough it appears Gaskell was pressurised into changing the title of the book from John Barton (Mary's father) to Mary Barton, perhaps in an attempt to make the book more attractive and romantic, with a focus on the love triangle rather than her highly politicised, highly volatile father? In hindsight, had she not been pressured by her publisher all that time ago, disappointment may not be reigning supreme right now as I would have expected the murder/love plotline to be given the slightly rushed, secondary treatment it does in the last third of the book. As Simon quite rightly pointed out, this was her first novel, and clearly not the best if feedback on North and South and Cranford are anything to go by; a project to throw herself into following the death of her son. If all I achieved from reading this frenzied account of the lot of the working classes was to learn just how bad things were at the time then I have gained something from reading Mary Barton...but I'll be reading Friedrich Engels next time love...

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Reading Progress

04/16/2012 page 345
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