Books Read: Mary Barton

Since I had read North & South, Wives & Daughters, and Cranford (sadly, there’s no “and” in that title) I decided it was time to tackle Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton.

While the title gives the impression that the story will mostly be about the titular girl, and the book is partially centered around her, this is a book that deals more with class divide in the manufacturing town of Manchester, UK in the mid-nineteenth century.

Mary is the daughter of a working-class man, and the book focuses a good bit in the first half on her father, John,  with his depression over the lot of the workman and the difference between the wealthy factory owners and their employees.

Gaskell describes the incredible poverty of the factory workers and the horror of their living conditions, their constant hunger, and the high mortality rate. She also focuses on the Bartons and another family, the Wilsons, and the way that these poor band together to survive.

The second half of the book takes a turn which I don’t want to spoil — while it still is about Mary and her family and her father’s trade union, she becomes involved in a scandal which occupies most of the rest of the book.

I enjoyed this first book of Gaskell’s, though I think she definitely improved with her later novels. Apparently she wrote this novel after the death of her infant son, and I can certainly see echoes of this grief in the mouths and actions of parents in this book, trying desperately to keep their children alive, and often not succeeding.

Overall I found it worthwhile, and I enjoyed the audio version narrated by Juliet Stevenson, who gave a wonderful warmth to the narration.

★ ★ ★

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