Mary Barton is the only living child of John Barton, poor factory worker and Union leader in Manchester. He hoped for better for her, so he apprenticed her to a dressmaker, hoping that she could avoid the dreary life of a factory girl. Mary has high ambitions, hoping to snare the attentions of the young Harry Carsons, son of the mill owner, and thereby rise above poverty once and for all. However, because her neighbor and childhood friend Jem Wilson also adores her, and Mary must determine where her true affections lie.
While I can say in retrospect that I enjoyed reading Mary Barton, I really struggled for the first 200 pages. I could not connect to the characters, nor did I find anything in the plot engaging. At about page 200, things start to happen and I didn’t need to force myself to read for the last 300 pages, as I had for the beginning portion.
Mary Barton was Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel, and I wonder if the developmental flaws are sincere, rather than the frustrations just being my problem. I felt the characters were described very beautifully, but from a distance: that made it hard to engage myself in their lives. Besides that, Gaskell literally took 200 pages to set the stage for the main plot of the novel. The way things were resolved in the last 300 pages was rather unrealistic, but satisfactory to me all the same.
I read somewhere that Gaksell’s husband encouraged her to write this as a part of the grieving process after the death of one of her sons. This book is full of grief. Most of it is lower-class grief, in which we see the dire circumstances of those living at the poverty level. There is some upper-class grief from the mill owner, but it did not seem sincere to me. I wonder if Gaskell was not as familiar with those people or if she just did not take enough time to introduce those characters properly.
The mill worker versus mill owner conflict seems to be a theme in Gaskell novels, as North and South (which I read a few weeks ago) also examined the plight of the mill workers and the conflict that arise from Unions. However, I personally preferred the complexities that were examined in North and South. While Mary Barton did have some lovely writing and interesting characters, I found the focus of North and South to be much more satisfying overall. The relationships developed in a more realistic way, and we had sufficient time to get to know the characters as the action unfolded. To me, Mary Barton seemed like a first attempt.
I read Mary Barton as part of the Elizabeth Gaskell Classics Circuit. Two other bloggers read Mary Barton for the Circuit as well: Becky’s Book Reviews and Kay’s Bookshelf.
Have the first books by your favorite authors ever disappointed you?