Mary Barton

19th-century writer Elizabeth Gaskell is known these days for Wives and Daughters and North and South (linked to my reviews).

But her very first book was Mary Barton. Elizabeth began writing at the urging of her husband after the loss of their son. But she was also motivated by “a deep sympathy with the care-worn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and want; tossed to and fro by circumstances . . . Whether the bitter complaints made by them, of the neglect which they experienced from the prosperous—especially from the masters whose fortunes they had helped to build up—were well-founded or no, it is not for me to judge. It is enough to say, that this belief of the injustice and unkindness which they endure from their fellow-creatures, taints what might be resignation to God’s will, and turns it to revenge in too many of the poor uneducated factory-workers of Manchester (from the preface to Mary Barton).

Mary’s father is a mill worker who is critical of the rich in general and the “masters” (mill owners) in particular. He feels it’s unfair that the working class puts in so much effort with so little in return. The rich unfairly (it seems to him) not only have more, by seemingly little or no merit of their own, but they don’t help the poor in their need. The death of John’s wife and son fuels his views and his anger. He’s left to raise his daughter alone.

The story fast-fowards several years. Mary is now a teenager working in a dress shop. Jem, the son of family friends, has loved her since they were children. But she thinks of him as a brother. Henry Carson, the mill owner’s son, has noticed Mary and flirts with her on her breaks and after work. Mary is flattered by Henry’s attentions. She knows her father’s feelings about rich people. But she feels that once she marries Henry and her father experiences the benefit of his riches, he’ll be all right with her marriage.

Several issues between the mill owners and workers come to a head, with the workers threatening to strike. Some of the owners feel they need to concede to some of the workers’ demands. However, most of the owners, including Henry Carson, feel they need to stand firm; if they relent on any of these issues, the workers will just strike whenever they want something.

When the workers’ appeals fail, a group of them decides more drastic measures are needed.

Meanwhile, Jem comes to Mary to plead his case for her hand. She decisively tells him there is no hope. She could never love him. Not long after he leaves, however, she realizes she does love him. She agonizes over how to let him know and decides that it wouldn’t be right to go after him. She’ll just have to convey to him in more quiet manners her change of heart when they see each other. She tries to break things off with Henry, who doesn’t take no for an answer.

But Jem, taking her at her word, arranges to be away from home when Mary comes to visit his mother.

Then, suddenly, Henry is shot.

Jem is accused of the crime because his gun was found at the scene and because he was heard threatening Henry over Mary a few days earlier.

But Mary is sure she knows who the real killer is. How can she help Jem without betraying someone else?

Besides the industrial and romantic plot lines, Mary’s friend, Margaret, lives with her wise and level-headed grandfather, Job Legh. Margaret has a beautiful singing voice and but is going blind. Alice Wilson is an older lady who is everyone’s friend and the go-to helper when someone is sick, until she falls ill herself. Esther is Mary’s aunt, who disappeared from the family early on but shows up again. Jem’s mother, Jane, lose her twins and then her husband.

Elizabeth tries to help both sides of the industrial concerns to see the other truthfully. She definitely thinks the masters can be more compassionate and do more, and she spends more time on their shortcomings than the workers’. But she cautions that they have their troubles, too. In one scene, John Barton is going to a druggist’s for a friend.

It is a pretty sight to walk through a street with lighted shops; the gas is so brilliant, the display of goods so much more vividly shown than by day, and of all shops a druggist’s looks the most like the tales of our childhood, from Aladdin’s garden of enchanted fruits to the charming Rosamond with her purple jar. No such associations had Barton; yet he felt the contrast between the well-filled, well-lighted shops and the dim gloomy cellar, and it made him moody that such contrasts should exist. They are the mysterious problem of life to more than him. He wondered if any in all the hurrying crowd had come from such a house of mourning. He thought they all looked joyous, and he was angry with them. But he could not, you cannot, read the lot of those who daily pass you by in the street. How do you know the wild romances of their lives; the trials, the temptations they are even now enduring, resisting, sinking under? You may be elbowed one instant by the girl desperate in her abandonment, laughing in mad merriment with her outward gesture, while her soul is longing for the rest of the dead, and bringing itself to think of the cold-flowing river as the only mercy of God remaining to her here. You may pass the criminal, meditating crimes at which you will to-morrow shudder with horror as you read them. You may push against one, humble and unnoticed, the last upon earth, who in Heaven will for ever be in the immediate light of God’s countenance. Errands of mercy—errands of sin—did you ever think where all the thousands of people you daily meet are bound? Barton’s was an errand of mercy; but the thoughts of his heart were touched by sin, by bitter hatred of the happy, whom he, for the time, confounded with the selfish.

Just occasionally, the narrator (possibly Gaskell herself) might come across as a little preachy by today’s standards. But I think in her time, she wasn’t trying to “preach” as much as to open people’s eyes to the plight of others.

Though Wives and Daughters and North and South are still my favorite Gaskell books, I did enjoy Mary Barton very much, especially the last half.

I listened to the audiobook, which was included as part of my Audible subscription. Juliet Stevenson did a superb job with the narration and different dialects. But I also got the free Kindle version to read parts there. the novel is also only via Project Gutenberg here.

Have you read Mary Barton? What did you think?

5 thoughts on “Mary Barton

  1. I have not read Mary Barton, but that name sounds vaguely familiar … I think? I always think first of Mrs. Gaskell as Charlotte Bronte’s friend (and first biographer, I think?). I too enjoyed North and South. Your review of this one intrigues me!

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