Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

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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?

Reviewed on December 14, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • To date, Mary Barton is the only Gaskell novel I have yet read and I enjoyed the Victorian setting and the typical melodrama that abounds in Victorian literature; it was far more realist than sensational and I liked the gritty setting.

  • This review (and all the others I’ve read in the Gaskell circuit) is really helpful to me, as I’ve been wondering where to start with Gaskell. Sounds like North and South might be a good option.

  • I kind of can’t fathom struggling through 200 pages of a novel only to continue on! That takes some real dedication, Rebecca! 😉 I haven’t read any Gaskell, but I would like to… only I don’t think I’ll start with this one. Especially at this time of year, I don’t really seek out dreary/sad books… I think they are immensely important, but during the holidays, I’d rather read things that are holly and jolly! 🙂

  • Readers are a hopeful bunch, aren’t we? I mean you slogged through 200 pages before things picked up, no doubt hoping that there would eventually be a payoff to all your efforts. I think I might have this one on my shelf at home somewhere but I’ll save it until I am completely enamored of Gaskell and then read it. Perhaps then the faults will be more bearable.

  • I’ve only ever read North & South by Gaskell, though I have her unfinished Wives & Daughters on my shelf, too. I really like how she is so upfront on class conflict.

  • I also had a hard time connecting with the story/characters in the beginning. But because I’d read Wives & Daughters I knew that sooner or later things would really get going, and once they did, it would be worth it 🙂

    I did enjoy it in the end, but I do question whether or not most readers would stick with this one long enough to get there.

  • Well, Mary Barton is my least favorite Gaskell, and Northanger Abbey is my least favorite Austen. I think Gaskell grew enormously as an author over time, and her later books are far superior to the early ones, imo. I admire what Gaskell was trying to do in MB, though, giving a human face to a downtrodden set of people.

    I also agree that the number of deaths in MB can be overwhelming.

    Good review. Thanks.

  • Reading about this one in the Letters, she apparently made a big stir with it – people were shocked by it being so honest and realistic. Also interesting: she originally had the working title ‘John Barton’ because she wanted to write the book about him, but it evolved later on. I can’t wait to read this one 🙂

  • Thanks for the great review. This book is on my list to read. I’ve read and really enjoyed Gaskell’s other books, but when I picked this one up I just couldn’t get into it. Now I know why. Oh well, I’m going to give it another try in 2010. 🙂

  • I had an uber up-and-down experience with Ruth. It didn’t help that I was listening on CD, so I couldn’t skim over the preachy bits. 😉 I think my next Gaskell will be Wives & Daughters-even though she didn’t finish it, it just sounds more my style (like Cranford! hehe). Or maybe some of her novellas.

    As far as first novels by authors…none are coming to mind right now, but I do love seeing how authors evolve over time! Unlike JaneGS, I LOVE Northanger Abbey! 🙂

  • claire, I think Gaskell is definitely the opposite of the “sensational” novel! Very realistic in comparison. If you enjoyed this, I think you’d enjoy North and South too.

    Emily, I do think North and South would be a good starting point!

    Steph, well, if it helps, it has a happy ending! LOL but I understand the desire for a happy book. Yeah, probably not this one!

    Stefanie, I felt obligated to keep reading, as I’d said I’d do it for the Circuit. I guess I just wasn’t feeling in the mood when I picked it up. But yes, by the end, it was rewarding!

    Aarti, I find the class conflicts fascinating! I look forward to reading Wives and Daughters some day. Curious to see how the unfinished aspect affects it.

    Becky, I saw that you enjoyed it very much, but I’m with you on wondering how many would stick with it!

    JaneGS, I think it’s telling that this book made a name for her! She obviously caught a niche by focusing on the poor/class conflicts! It’s a worthy start!

    Trisha,Well, I was very curious how it would develop! So I wanted to know what would happen!! (Plus, the back cover had a spoiler, so i knew what was going to happen…)

    Jason Gignac, The title issue is a good example of why this book felt like it lacked focus: she sometimes followed Mary’s thoughts, and sometimes John’s. So I felt I didn’t know either of them! Fascinating facts. I can imagine it causing a stir!

    Kathy, yes, it was hard!

    Sarah, if you make it to page 200 or so, you’ll want to know what happens, probably!

    Eva, yes, I don’t think I could have handled this on CD. It was beautifully written, but slow enough reading it!! I too think I’ll try Wives and Daughters — although I didn’t really enjoy Cranford, so that might not be a favorite either! I’m thinking Gaskell is just not a favorite for me!

  • North and South was my first Gaskell, and I think it was a good starting point. I enjoyed Wives and Daughters and thought the publisher did a nice job of wrapping it up on her behalf. I haven’t read >Mary Barton but W&D is another chunkster that got off to a slow start (sounds similar to that in MB). I felt my patience was rewarded, but was glad I’d started with N&S.

    Thanks for the review!

  • I congratulate you on getting through 200 pages you didn’t enjoy and not quitting- I’m not sure I could do the same. I read very little Victorian lit and I appreciate learning about books like this through your blog! 🙂

  • This was my second Gaskell (after Ruth), and it was probably my least favorite. I appreciated how she was trying to raise some important concerns, but I never felt emotionally invested, as I did with Ruth. I think North and South, which I finished yesterday, is my favorite, but I did love Ruth. It’s hard to compare because I read it more than 15 years ago (Still haven’t read Wives and Daughters and thought Cranford was pleasant and fun but not her best.)

  • Laura, thanks for the warning about W&D starting slow. I’ll have to keep that in mind and not give up!

    Marie, yes, I don’t always persevere, but I decide to this time! Thanks for the visit!

    Kailana, I hope you enjoy whichever you try first!

    Teresa, I’m glad to hear you enjoyed Ruth! I’ll have to see about that one!

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