Little reviews on little (and big!) books

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

on May 23, 2014

What do I love the most about Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels? It could be the way that she develops her characters so we really care about every single one of them; it could be the fact she writes on topics that she herself has witnessed. For me, it is, quite simply, the way I can lose myself in her novels. I’m a fussy reader, and a hard one to please, but I’m just in awe of her work! 🙂 I never want to put a Gaskell novel down and this is certainly no exception. In fact, I felt more gripped reading Mary Barton than I did reading North and South (but this doesn’t take away from the fact that I absolutely loved North and South too!) I was actually surprised at how much happened within the story. It’s quite a lengthy book, just under 400 pages in my edition, but it doesn’t feel long to read at all. The events Gaskell portrays within the text had me hooked from start to finish, and the whodunnit case is excellent. Before I get to that, let’s hear a little bit more about the plot…

This is Gaskell’s first novel, but it honestly feels like she’s been writing for years. As a witness of the injustices and social tensions between worker and factory owner in the nineteenth century, Elizabeth Gaskell was in a great position to write about what she saw. In her preface to the novel, she tells us that ‘I had always felt a deep sympathy with the careworn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alterations between work and want…’ She believes that by showing this sympathy to others, she has grown closer to those workers who struggle on a daily basis – ‘I saw that they were sore and irritable against the rich.’ Gaskell regards her novel as putting a voice to these disillusioned creatures who simply are not being heard by their masters. She states,

‘the more I reflected on this unhappy state of things between those so bound to each other by common interests, as the employers and the employed must ever be, the more anxious I became to give some utterance to the agony which, from time to time, convulses this dumb people; the agony of suffering without the sympathy of the happy, or of erroneously believing that such is the case.’

Here, Gaskell does not judge who is right and who is wrong; she simply wants to show that in grievances, there are always two sides. How are the workers ever to know what the masters (and vice versa) truly feel if they are taught to just instinctively detest everything they stand for? This was essentially Gaskell’s hope in North and South also. By showing the previously hidden life of the mill-owner Thornton, she chipped away at the tough exterior of the master and really analysed the bond between mill-owner and worker.

The story of Mary Barton centres around, not surprisingly, the life of Mary Barton 🙂 She lives with her father, John, who has always done his utmost to provide for the family. After his wife passes, he falls deeper and deeper into depression and becomes a more active part of the trade unions associated with his job at the local mill. Meanwhile, Mary faces a relationship dilemma; does she choose Jem Wilson, her friend since girlhood who is head over heels in love with her, or does she opt for Harry Carson, the son of a mill-owner and quite frankly one of the most pretentious men you will come across in literature? Ideally, Mary sees her union with Carson as the best thing to pull her and her father out of poverty, but she doesn’t count on Jem’s confession of love for her and his proposal. Shocked by his actions, Mary turns him down, perhaps seeing a marriage to Jem, in my view, as continuing in a cycle of never-ending poverty. It all becomes a bit of a mess from here! After declining Jem, Mary comes to the realisation that she truly does love him – I’ve always wondered why these women can’t just realise their feelings BEFORE crushing a man’s heart! However, I digress 🙂 Jem finds out who his love rival is and confronts Harry Carson in the middle of the street one night. They proceed to have a massive argument over Mary which culminates in a fight witnessed by a policeman.

At the same time, Mary’s father John has been roped into a union scheme to make a statement to the masters over working conditions and pay. The workers have been laughed at when they have voiced their demands for greater rights, and turn to revenge. They won’t be humiliated and the target of their anger is none other than… Harry Carson. In fact, John Barton is one of the more reasonable men amongst the workers. The men have been turning on the ‘scabs’ – those who have been continuing to work for the masters whilst the others strike. The measures they have been adopting to get their point across is too much for John. Several of the men have been taking it upon themselves to throw vitriol (or acid) on the men who continue to work causing injuries and blindness. John feels this is a step too far. At a meeting, he states,

‘What I would like, and what I would do, would be to fight the masters. There’s one among yo called me a coward. Well! every man has a right to his opinion; but since I’ve thought on th’ matter today I’ve thought we han all on us been more like cowards in attacking the poor like ourselves; them as has none to help, but mun choose between vitriol and starvation. I say we’re more cowardly in doing that than in leaving them alone. No! what I would do is this. Have at the masters!’

John shows himself to be the moral backbone of the group here, despite still plotting revenge. The men who continue to work are simply trying to care for their own families and are getting maimed as a result. I think John very eloquently puts across what a fruitless endeavour turning their anger against men like themselves would be. Oh, and in case anybody thinks I misspelled that quote, the novel is written in Northern English dialect 🙂 That night, the union anonymously chooses one member to go and put an end to Harry Carson, and guess who draws the short straw? [*SPOILER*] That’s right, it’s John Barton. Unable to now back down, he shoots Harry the same night that Jem had got into the fight with him, and of course all fingers then point to Jem after the fight was witnessed. It doesn’t help matters when the police discover that Jem’s gun is the murder weapon! However, as the reader, we all know Jem is entirely innocent. We know that one member of the trade union committed the murder, but it is not until Mary takes it upon herself to try and clear Jem’s name that she and the reader discover that John is the culprit.

Gaskell actually plays out the investigation into the murder very well – I was absolutely hooked to find out what had happened on that fateful night – especially when the discovery was made of John Barton’s involvement through the wadding paper that was used in the gun, but I’ll leave you to have a little read of that for yourselves 🙂 Mary then has to rely on finding the nephew of a local woman, the sailor Will Wilson, to provide the alibi for Jem on the night of the murder as the two men were meant to have walked together. Upon hearing that Will’s ship has already sailed, she eventually tracks him down in Liverpool and pleads with some men to sail with her until they reach Will’s ship. Jem’s trial begins the next day, and honestly Gaskell created some great suspense. We never know if Mary or Will is going to make it, or what they will say. Fortunately, they do arrive in time for Mary to proclaim her love for Jem, and Will to clear Jem of all doubt.

Happy ending? Almost. The stresses have been so great on Mary as she still bears the burden of knowing her father is the true murderer. She collapses after Jem is acquitted and has to be cared for before she can return home to Manchester. On her arrival back home, she discovers her father is also ill and persuades him to admit his part in the murder now they both know that he doesn’t have much time left. John Barton calls the mill-owner Carson, Harry’s father, to his bedside, and confesses his sin. Carson, who has been mourning his son’s death for quite some time, and after an initial refusal, has an epiphany about kindness to others after reading his Bible, and eventually takes the dying man’s apology into his heart. John passes away with the forgiveness he needed.

What’s notable about the end of the novel is that we see Carson, like Thornton, learn the error of his ways. He endeavours to try and help others to improve their lives, and at the end of the novel, we read that

‘to his dying day Mr Carson was considered hard and cold by those who only casually saw him or superficially knew him. But those who were admitted into his confidence were aware that the wish that lay nearest to his heart was that none might suffer from the cause from which he had suffered; that a perfect understanding, and complete confidence and love, might exist between masters and men; that the truth might be recognised that the interests of one were the interests of all, and, as such, required the consideration and deliberation of all… to have them bound to their employers by the ties of respect and affection, not by mere money bargains alone.’

I think this is an excellent point Gaskell puts across. Workers are not simply ignorant machines; they have their role to play just as much as the masters. Work requires compromise and respect from both parties, and I think Gaskell shows us this in Mary Barton. Such suffering and pain could all have been avoided if two sides hadn’t been so unwilling to just talk to one another and appreciate where the other stood. Her novel acts as a moral lesson to those who just won’t listen.

What happens to Mary and Jem? Well, they move to Canada, are married, and have a son at the close of the book 🙂 A happy ending if ever I read one! Honestly, I don’t know how many other ways I can say: go and read this book 🙂 Read Elizabeth Gaskell. Her novels are heart-warming, full of suspense, plenty of action, fantastic characterisation, and quite simply, they’re great stories. Have a read for yourself and see if you agree 🙂 As a first novel goes, it’s definitely a masterpiece for me!


4 responses to “Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

  1. genusrosa says:

    I loved this book. It was my introduction to Elizabeth Gaskell. I think it’s time to get it out and re-read it! Thank you for the thoughtful review.

  2. Janette McInned says:

    I enjoyed Mary Barton and am looking forward to seeing the adaption of this novel by the wonderful Heidi Thomas. Heidi Thomas also did Cranford. My favourite Gaskell, however is her unfinished novel Wives and Daughters. Perfect!

  3. mariaawrites says:

    I’ve just finished North and South and loved it! Now I must add Mary Barton to my to-be-read list 🙂

  4. […] Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell ( […]

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