Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life by Elizabeth Gaskell was my Classics Club Spin book for September and October. It was her first novel, published in two volumes in 1848, bringing her to the attention of Charles Dickens who was looking for contributors to his new periodical Household Words. It’s the third book of hers that I have read. It is a long book and begins slowly, developing the characters and building up to the main story.
It covers the years 1837 to 1842, a time that saw the growth of trade unions and of Chartism, of industrial city expansion and a time of extreme economic depression. The structure of society and social attitudes were changing with the growth of materialism and class antagonism. As people moved away from the countryside and into Manchester to work in the cotton mills, the city grew from 75,000 in 1800 to 400,000 in 1848 when Mary Barton was published, creating great wealth for the mill owners whilst the mill workers were housed in horrendous slums.
Mary Barton is the story of ordinary working people struggling with the rapid social change and terrible working and living conditions. Mary is the daughter of John Barton, a mill worker and trade unionist. John is a hard worker, but he is determined that she should never work in a factory, so she works as an apprentice to a dressmaker and milliner. She is flattered by the attentions of Henry Carson, a mill owner’s son and believes he will marry he and that she will live in luxury and she spurns Jem Wilson, her childhood friend, only later realising that it is him she loves.
However, work for the factory dries up and it closes down. The workers are desperate and John becomes an active trade unionist and a Chartist. (Gaskell gives a detailed picture of the Chartist Movement and their demands for political reform.) Eventually he turns to opium to relieve his situation. Things go from bad to worse – Henry is murdered and suspicion falls on Jem. Mary realises the mistakes she had made and that it is Jem that she loves, and when her efforts to prove his innocence lead her to suspect the real culprit, she is left with a terrible dilemma.
I have only just touched the surface of this novel and there are many strands that I have left out. There is a mystery surrounding the disappearance of Mary’s Aunt Esther, the story of Mary’s friend Margaret, who is slowly going blind, and her grandfather, Job, Jem’s mother and his Aunt Alice country women who came to Manchester to work, a factory fire and the illnesses and diseases that were endemic at the time, amongst others. It is a touch melodramatic in parts and does include quite lengthy rhetorical passages and commentary in Gaskell’s own voice as narrator. But on the whole her style is clear and detailed giving a sense of reality. It is a powerful novel, a love story, as well as a tragedy, presenting a moving picture of the lives of working people in the middle of the nineteenth century.
As well as being my Classics Club Spin book, Mary Barton is also one of my TBRs so it qualifies for Bev’s Mount TBR Reading Challenge.