Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
Filed under: Book Reviews,Infinite TBR,Reader of the Stack Goes Canonical — Ibis at 6:50 pm on Sunday, August 8, 2010

From the publisher:
“Mary Barton, the daughter of disillusioned trade unionist, rejects her working-class lover Jem Wilson in the hope of marrying Henry Carson, the mill owner’s son, and making a better life for herself and her father. But when Henry is shot down in the street and Jem becomes the main suspect, Mary finds herself painfully torn between the two men. Through Mary’s dilemma, and the moving portrayal of her father, the embittered and courageous activist John Barton, Mary Barton (1848) powerfully dramatizes the class divides of the ‘hungry forties’ as personal tragedy. In its social and political setting, it looks towards Elizabeth Gaskell’s great novels of the industrial revolution, in particular North and South.”

My thoughts:
This novel was a bit of a mixed bag for me. I started reading it at a time when I was looking for something fairly light-hearted. The murder element didn’t deter me because from the description it didn’t appear that we would get too attached to Mr. Carson before his untimely demise. I was, however, quite surprised to find nearly the first third of the book to be depressing and distressing as characters we’ve come to care about dropped off like flies, and all for the simple want of food, shelter, and adequate medical care (which alas, is still with us today). After the dismal beginning, however, the story followed along the lines I had initially been expecting and I ended up enjoying it quite a bit.

As a social commentary, I imagine it would have come across like gangbusters at the time, with an empathetic understanding of working class life and how intimate with utter poverty it really is. You wouldn’t find this in Jane Austen or, I think (I haven’t read ’em all) George Eliot. And though Dickens often covers the same territory, his mechanism is satire rather than strict realism.

And then just for pleasure, we get a bit of a sensation novel in the last half, though it’s not as sensational as, say, a Wilkie Collins or R. D. Blackmore—Gaskell’s penchant for realism comes into play there too. A good novel for fans of nineteenth century literature (especially if you’re looking for something shorter than the typical Collins or Dickens).

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