Tuesday, 18 February 2014

'Mary Barton' by Elizabeth Gaskell (1848)

Synopsis: Mary Barton is set in Manchester during the years from 1837 to 1842. The eponymous heroine is a seamstress and the beautiful daughter of a disillusioned mill worker and chartist. Mary's childhood friend, the working-class Jem Wilson, is deeply in love with her and offers her his hand in marriage. However, Mary rejects Jem's marriage proposal because she wishes to marry a handsome mill owner's son called Henry Carson. Henry is then murdered and Jem becomes the prime suspect. Mary is convinced that Jem is innocent and now realises that she's loved him all along. She's desperate to save him from being hanged. But when Mary discovers who the real murderer is her efforts to save Jem are made more difficult.

Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South is one of my favourite books of all-time and now I'm trying to seek out more of Gaskell's other works. Mary Barton was Elizabeth Gaskell's debut novel and you can tell. For the most part the book felt just like North and South. Mary Barton is set in the same area as North and South and it has almost all of the same themes as North and South but it's just nowhere near as good as that book. The writing is far less polished, the characters are nowhere near as well-developed, and it has a very slow-moving first half. The entire first half of the book is basically a very lengthy tirade against the appalling living conditions of the Manchester working-classes. Although Gaskell's obvious compassion for the poor is admirable, the social commentary is much too heavy-handed. North and South has plenty of social commentary as well of course but I never felt like I was being preached too with that book because Gaskell managed to weave the social commentary into the plot and romance. With Mary Barton she didn't manage to do it. However, about halfway through, Mary Barton finally became a lot more interesting and turned into quite a dramatic legal drama. The book's second half is much better than its first and because of that I've added an extra star to its rating.

I suppose Gaskell was still finding her feet as an author when she wrote Mary Barton and I still want to read more of her books. I've heard great things about Wives and Daughters.

Rating: 3/5


Hamlette said...

I keep hearing good things about "Wives and Daughters" and "North and South," but haven't actually read any of Gaskell's novels yet. I did get a copy of W&D for Christmas, so I'll be getting to it soonish. I hope.

Hannah said...

I LOVE "North and South"! Both the book and the 2004 adaptation. And I'll definitely be reading your "Wives and Daughters" review when you do eventually get round to it :)