Header Image

Header Image

Thursday, March 12, 2009

"Mary Barton" - "Books such as this cannot fail to be of value"

The above epigram from Victor Hugo's classic novel, "Les Miserables," could also apply to Elizabeth Gaskell's first novel. Set in the city of Manchester during the industrial revolution, "Mary Barton," is as MacDonald Daly points out in the introduction to the Penguin Classic edition, really two novels. The first tells the story of the radicalization of John Barton as he watches his fellow mill workers and their families suffer as factory owners watch with indifference, if they watch at all. The second part is more of a melodrama as the reaction to a terrible crime threatens to engulf "Jem Wilson," Mary Barton's lover, as well as Mary herself. Gaskell apparently wanted to call her novel, "John Barton," but her publisher forced her to change the name.

There was certainly plenty of drama in the second part which easily held my attention, but in my view it is the description of the plight of the workers and their families that makes "Mary Barton" an enduring work. Gaskell shows clearly, if not graphically, how poverty and death were omnipresent for these families. Ironically Daly seems to feel that Gaskell does not go near far enough in proposing solutions to these problems. Ironically because the book was apparently not well received by the Manchester mill owners and leading families who made up the congregation where Gaskell's husband was an assistant minister. That kind of contemporary reaction illustrates the importance of books like this in their own time. The Victorian reading public would have consisted primarily of those in a position to do something about similar situations in real life. The book could also have sent a message to the workers themselves, but my guess is that they were both less literate and less able to afford books.

The book's relevance to its own time does not, however, guarantee relevance for future generations. That relevance can, I think, be seen in how "Mary Barton" helps keep things in balance for those of us who love Victorian fiction. Many, if not most, of the leading novelists of the time concentrated on the upper and middle classes with the working classes somewhat invisible. Reading "Mary Barton," like much of Dickens, gives us a better sense of the larger picture. As a direct descendant of the Winder (Worcester) and Proctor (Audley) families, this balance is especially important to me on a personal level. Reading this book reminds me that the working class characters are my ancestors in a literary or symbolic sense. Certainly the late 19th century members of those families did not cross the ocean by boat because things were going so well in England. The struggles of the workers in "Mary Barton" gives me a better sense of what my ancestors lives were really like.

I am very glad that I have read this book and look forward to reading the rest of Elizabeth Gaskell's work. After that is, I finish the Victorian Challenge by reading Anthony Trollope's "The Way We Live Now."



I have not read Mary Barton, but it sounds quite different from Wives and Daughtsrs and Cranford. I am reading A Dark Night's Work by Gaskell, but I am about to give up on it, as it is too dark for my tastes.

  © Blogger template 'Minimalist E' by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP