Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

Mary Barton Gaskell

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.

3.5*

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.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

Wives and Daughters

 Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell was my Classics Club Spin book for March and April and I was rather daunted when I realised that the e-book version I had downloaded about six years ago has over 800 pages, but it’s really easy reading. It’s only the second book of hers that I’ve read – the other book is Cranford, but I think Wives and Daughters is so much better. Elizabeth Gaskell is a superb storyteller and I loved this book.

Today there are many editions of Wives and Daughters available. It was first first published in serial form in The Cornhill Magazine from August 1864 to January 1866. Elizabeth Gaskell had died in August 1865 leaving Wives and Daughters unfinished. The final chapter was added by the editor of The Cornhill. In his concluding remarks he stated that little remained to be added to the story ‘and that little has been distinctly reflected into our minds.‘ He continued that he had summarised in his remarks all that what was ‘known of her designs for the story which would have been completed in another chapter.

It is set in the late 1820s to the early 1830s in the village of Hollingford (based on Knutsford), a close-knit community much like Cranford, and centres around Molly Gibson, the only daughter of the neighbourhood doctor. The characters are all fully rounded and believable people, most certainly not perfect people with all their faults exposed through their dialogue and Elizabeth Gaskell’s ironic descriptions. There is gentle humour and the plot carries the novel at a fairly brisk pace despite the length of the book – I was eager to find out how everything was resolved.

The story opens when Molly, an only child, is twelve and eagerly anticipating her visit to Cumnor Towers (based on Tatton Hall) for the yearly festivities hosted by Lady Cumnor and her daughters. But her enjoyment is spoiled when she gets lost in the house. She is found but then is overlooked when the carriages arrive to take all the visitors home and she has to wait for her father to come for her. This little episode provides an introduction to the other side of the village – the aristocracy.

Molly is very close to her father. When she is seventeen the doctor becomes concerned that one of his pupils wanted to declare his feelings for her and so he sends her to stay with the local squire and his wife and two sons at Hamley Hall. Mrs Hamley becomes very fond of her and treats her like a daughter and Molly becomes very friendly with the second son Roger. However, she knows she isn’t considered a suitable match for the Hamleys and thinks of him and Osborne as her brothers.

All is going well until Dr Gibson marries Hyacinth Clare (a former governess to Lord Cumner’s daughters), hoping she will be a mother to Molly. But Hyacinth is a selfish, socially ambitious and manipulative woman and Molly’s life is no longer happy and carefree, even though she does get on well with Hyacinth’s beautiful daughter, Cynthia. The two girls become good friends. Cynthia, though gets involved in a number of romantic entanglements which then gets Molly into trouble.

I don’t want to go into more detail about the various sub-plots and romances other than to say I enjoyed it all immensely. The fact that Elizabeth Gaskell did not finish the book didn’t spoil the book at all for me. She had all but drawn all the threads together so that the editor’s concluding remarks coincided with the way I had hoped everything would be resolved. Needless to say really, but Molly was my favourite character, which says a lot about Elizabeth Gaskell’s skill and understanding in portraying a ‘good’ character. I was completely absorbed in the world that she had created.

As well as being my Classics Club Spin book, Wives and Daughters is also one of my TBRs so it qualifies for Bev’s Mount TBR Reading Challenge.