Mary Barton – Elizabeth Gaskell

I haven’t reported back on how the Manchester Book Club’s second meeting yet have I? In part that is because I have been busy yet I will admit that I have also veered away from discussing our first group read, chosen by Lucy, which was ‘Mary Barton’ by Elizabeth Gaskell. This choice was one I was quite looking forward to, I don’t read enough classics, and being a ‘Manchester tale’ seemed completely apt. Well, I am sorry to report that I hated it (but in a rather healthy loved to hate it way) and I don’t like writing slating, if constructive, but I am going to and as she is dead I don’t feel as bad, though I know she has a legion of fans who will probably now think I am a philistine.

Vintage Classics, paperback, 1848 (republished 2008), fiction, 496 pages, borrowed from the library

I am not someone who tends to read blurbs before I read a book, a topic for another time, yet as ‘Mary Barton’ was a book group choice and we vote on one of three titles chosen by a member and so we read the blurbs to decide. I voted for ‘Mary Barton’ because it sounded like it had all the elements of a great classic. There was a love triangle, a murder and a tale of mystery, injustice and a city in the grip of an industrial revolution. It sounded really epic and Mary Barton herself sounded like she could be a fantastic heroine struggling in the face of adversity. I did think it might be a rather stereotypical Victorian classic, but it would be fun to read one set in the city in which I live. I wasn’t expecting such a grim and depressing book which would also bore me rigid.

What makes it really hard to write about Mary Barton is that fact that, if we are all being honest, nothing actually happens in the book until the murder (and that isn’t giving anything away because you know one is coming from the blurb) yet that doesn’t actually take place for about 250 or more pages. So what are the first few hundred pages about? Well mainly how miserable everyone is and how it is ‘grim up north’ really. I know people say Manchester can be a rainy and slightly overcast place but this was too much.

‘The next evening it was a warm, pattering, incessant rain – just rain to waken up the flowers. But in Manchester, where alas! there are no flowers, the rain had only a disheartening and gloomy effect; the streets were wet and dirty, the drippings from the houses were wet and dirty, and the people were wet and dirty.’

I will admit the opening chapters are of a slightly lighter nature, the first describing the countryside around Manchester, and while initially I thought it was interesting to see the names of places I knew this waned and I was hoping for some plot or characters, if this book was going to be endless descriptions I wasn’t going to get on with it. The second chapter from its very title ‘A Manchester Tea Party’ suggests we will be getting characters and a situation, yes we do but for me it was a sudden mass of characters and initially I was cross and confused until I had figured out who everyone was.

As we do get to meet and know a character, which doesn’t happen too often as everyone seems to die a few pages after we get to know them, we are given insight into the social history of Manchester at the time. I can’t say I know much, or have ever been keen to know much, about the Industrial Revolution yet discovering about it became a glimmer of hope in what was fast becoming a book I was falling swiftly out of love with it. I did learn a lot I have to admit and I think in its day this book would have been somewhat of an eye opener. Gaskell was clearly doing something to make a point in the first half, alas after the murder she seems to give up, of what people were going through at the time. Good for her, and back then great reading I am sure, in the present day however someone would write a lengthy essay rather than have the same issues repeated over and over again for a few hundred pages and in such huge chunks you almost can’t take it in, or simply get bored and bogged down by it.

 ‘For three years past trade had been getting worse and worse, and the price of provisions higher and higher. This disparity between the amount of the earnings of the working classes and the price of their food, occasioned, in more cases than could well be imagined, disease and death. Whole families went through a gradual starvation. They only wanted a Dante to record their sufferings. And yet even his words would fall short of the awful truth; they could only present an outline of the tremendous facts of the destitution that surrounded thousands upon thousands in the terrible years 1839, 1840, and 1841. Even philanthropists who had studied the subject, were forced to own themselves perplexed in their endeavour to ascertain the real causes of the misery; the whole matter was of so complicated a nature, that it became next to impossible to understand it thoroughly. It need excite no surprise, then, to learn that a bad feeling between working-men and the upper classes became very strong in this season of privation. The indigence and sufferings of the operatives induced a suspicion in the minds of many of them, that their legislators, their magistrates, their employers, and even the ministers of religion, were, in general, their oppressors and enemies; and were in league for their prostration and enthralment. The most deplorable and enduring evil that arose out of the period of commercial depression to which I refer, was this feeling of alienation between the different classes of society.’

See what I mean, and that’s only half of that paragraph. I spared you the rest.

I could be lenient and say that this was a debut novel, so it is probably a book written from ideas and ideals. I also think I should state that it is a book of its time that hasn’t really aged very well. Yet forgive it all that and actually ‘Mary Barton’ isn’t really a novel, it’s more an overlong view of the Industrial Revolution and I think at heart that is really what Gaskell wanted to write. I am sure there will be academics up in arms at that sweeping statement but it’s true. Mary isn’t really a fully formed character, we learn more about those around her and their situations than we do her, she seems to simply be a tool for Gaskell to observe, fair enough, but give her some gumption.

 In fact that said I think that might be my big issue with ‘Mary Barton’ as a whole, it seems a half baked book. My reasons for such a critique are as I mentioned above Mary as a central character with no real central drive, just an observer, a murder which happens so late and becomes so clear who did it that it’s inconsequential, as is the trial later. These things are padding to a book that is far too padded with observational opinion already. If Gaskell had fully formed everything around the central issue of society at the time and in her area this could have been incredible, as it stands it’s a bit of a ‘moral guide to…’ instead. Sorry Mary.

What was interesting was that I rather enjoyed how much I disliked it in the end. It reminded me why we need bad books and to get cross now and again. I also rather naughtily felt pleased I could write off another writer, is that bad? I was also pleased to see that the feelings were felt unanimously between the twelve of us who met for book group, it was quite bonding. You can see a review from Lucy, who chose the book, here and another from Alex here.

Have you read ‘Mary Barton’ and what did you think? What other Gaskell novels have you read? I am bad to feel relief that I can write off an author after enjoying loathing one book so much?


Filed under Elizabeth Gaskell, Review, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics

32 responses to “Mary Barton – Elizabeth Gaskell

  1. So you finally got through it, I remember you mentioned in previous posts that you were struggling with it. Mmm, yes, a bit too much social realism and Victorian verbosity, and not one of her best efforts. Perhaps when a novel tries too much to be about ‘ideas’ or a social message, it goes all wrong somehow. I have problems with some of Zola’s and George Eliot’s novels too. And is ‘Shirley’ ever remembered as one of Charlotte Bronte’s novels?

    • I actually finished it back at the end of April if I am honest Marina. I just couldn’t write about it objectively initially and I think, for some reason, classics need a lot more thought as you have to think of writing at that time.

      I don’t mind ideas books at all, as long as they have some meat and don’t feel like an over extended lecture.

  2. As a novelist who’s also a mother of teenagers, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Mrs Gaskell, because she wrote in and around her big family (at the kitchen table, apparently) – but I have to admit, that I find the books crushingly difficult to read and have never finished one. (I feel terrible admitting that I also struggle with George Eliot …)

    • I do find that an admirable quality I have to admit, though I don’t think she was a mother when she wrote ‘Mary Barton’ though. Plus a book you can’t finish (or do but it makes you incredibly angry) isn’t really a good book is it? Though of course it is all subjective.

  3. Col

    Your review made me laugh out loud and make a mental note to self “Avoid Gaskell!”. I particularly enjoyed the ‘bored rigid’ bit, the almost masochistic pleasure you got from enjoying disliking it and of course any review that gets in the word ‘gumption’ is good by me!

    • Hahahaha well I glad that you got the humour and thta you could tell that it was coming from a good place. I don’t want people to think I am laughing ‘at’ the book, more trying to make light of the fact that I reacted to it so badly. Isn’t gumpton a great word?

  4. Oh, this does not sound great! I read North and South, and quite liked it, in spite of it sometimes being a bit heavy on the mawkishness (honestly, there’s this sick young girl who made me want to hurl). I do recognise the “it’s grim up North” element, though!

    • I was told by the lovely Granny Savidge Reads that I should have avoided this one like the plague and read North and South. I kept explaining that it was for book group but she wasn’t quite getting it, or maybe she just zoned out that happens a lot when I talk to people about books hahaha. I don’t have any desire to read another Gaskell I am afraid.

  5. gaskella

    My late Mother-in-law was called Margaret Mary Barton, and then she married Mr Gaskell! Although I liked my M-in-law, somehow I find it reassuring that you didn’t get on with my literary namesake (by marriage too). Apart from Cranford which is on my shelf, I don’t feel the need to try any of her books!

    • Oh crumbs, now there is a story! That is so bizarre isn’t it? From a Mary Barton to a Mrs Gaskell, well I never.

      If I had to read a Gaskell ever again, unlikely, then I think Cranford would be the one that I would go for.

  6. david73277

    The rapidly growing city of Manchester was a quite horrendous place to live in the early nineteenth century. I speak not from personal experience, of course, but recalling an exhibition I saw at MOSI many years ago (I think it might be the one they now call “Underground Manchester”). The city grew far faster than its ability to cope with its effluence, with all that entailed for public health. Given Elizabeth Gaskell’s Unitarian background, and her church’s strong belief in social action, it is hardly surprising that she felt driven to write a novel to try and draw attention to the terrible conditions endured by the city’s population. Of course, that does not excuse her writing a bad novel on the subject. I haven’t read it, so I can’t comment. I really liked the “issues” aspect of Bronte’s Shirley, so it could be that I might actually like Mary Barton. I’m not in the mood for gloomy books right now though, so I think I’ll leave it for another time.

    • I completely get that Manchester would have been pretty horrid place during that time, I think most cities were, its the fact that a) she forced the subject too much, initially I enjoyed it but it became repetitive and b) the fact she was a unitarian actually hindered the book. We actually discussed the latter point at book group, which I should have mentioned in the post (but it was getting a bit long), as in the first half she is angry and passionate but suddenly in the second it fizzles out and just dies, like she didn’t have the (my word of the day) gumption to really go for it. Such a frustrating read in so many ways.

  7. I still think it would be a mistake to judge Mrs Gaskell on the strength of this book – try North and South, or Wives and Daughters.

    • Really? I don’t know you know Christine. Someone would have to really, really sell them to me if I am honest. They are both huge which doesn’t help, and I have heard that North and South is very similar to Mary Barton. I think sometimes we just don’t get on with certain authors and thats fine too.

  8. I loved North and South. Maybe give yourself a couple of years to get over Mary Barton and then try that one?

  9. drharrietd

    Well I love Elizabeth Gaskell and while I agree that North and South and Wives and Daughters may be better novels, I also enjoyed Mary Barton. But if you didn’t, well, never mind, Don’t force yourself to read an author who is uncongenial to you — just chalk it up to experience and read someone you do like.

    • You see that makes me feel so much better Harriet, no lecture just an understanding even if you don’t agree with me! I might try her again one day… Very very very far in the distance, maybe.

  10. This sounds very very similar to North And South, in fact all I can see as being different is that the heroine in N&S is a focus, and there is no big murder. But there are deaths, and depression, and social issues during the Industrial Revolution. I think had Gaskell written an essay, as you suggest, it would have been brilliant, because she has the skill for it. From what you’ve said here, I wouldn’t recommend North And South.

    • I completely concur, she would have been a marvellous essayist, and I would have preferred her as such I think. Not often you hear me say something like that.

      I think I might cut my losses with Gaskell I have to say.

  11. Mary Barton was my first introduction to Elizabeth Gaskell and I absolutely loved it. Of course, we’ve all got different likes and dislikes (I absolutely can’t stand Wuthering Heights and I’m not greatly enamoured of Jane Eyre), but if you’d like to try her again, Cranford is superb and it’s a very short collection of vignettes about middle class village life. You might fare better with one of her short stories too.

    • I don’t like Wuthering Heights either Julie, though I have to admit that I do absolutely love Jane Eyre, I think its one of my favourite books of all time, maybe.

      I saw a collection of her short stories in a charity shop the other day, I can’t say with full honesty I was tempted. Though I have heard she write ghost stories, though I could have made that up.

  12. Woot! I’ve been waiting on this *Savidge* review for ages 🙂 Isn’t it cathartic to stop gushing about literature for an hour or so and really LET RIP! 😀 Glad I could be of service….at least you didn’t waste good English squids buying the b***dy thing. Very good to hear from those who enjoyed it though…would have been a nice polemic for BookClub.

    Am also v pleased you pointed out you weren’t the only one duped by the blurb….clearly I’m very easily sold. It’s difficult to see clearly through all this rain and Manchester grime …

    • Hahahaha that bit about the Manchester rain and grime made me laugh, its all that grime thats making me leave for a nicer cleaner and more seaside surrounded sunshiney city, hahahaha if you can call Liverpool that.

      Oddly though I am thankful for you choosing this book as a) you are right it was lovely to rant and b) it was a very bonding experience for the second book group.

  13. Ah yes, I recently had to give up on a book for similar reasons. The Last Man by Mary Shelley is supposedly about a plague killing off mankind but 150 pages in there was no sign yet of a plague, just a whole lot of boring boring boring. Maybe I should have read all these classics as a teenager. I was way more forgiving. And persevering.

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  17. Jessica

    I think it all depends on what kind of literature you like. If you already tended not to like classic Victorian literature then I would say that you shouldn’t read Gaskell or any other authors/authoresses of that time, except for maybe Jane Austen. And that is the thing with Elizabeth Gaskell, she is a mix up between Austen and Dickens. If you like the romantic, easygoing writing of Jane Austen and hate the slow, gritty, seriousness of Charles Dickens, then Elizabeth Gaskell is really wrong for you. Mary Barton rings out more Dickens than any of her other novels. I have read a lot of Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby and Great Expectations, all of which may be a bit hard to get through at points but are brilliant in the end. Mary Barton is one of my favorite novels because it is such a mix up between those two authors. I am sorry you did not enjoy it, and I would say you should try at least one of her other novels, just to see, but if you do not like that, then you might have to stay away from that genre and time period in general.

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