Category Archives: Elizabeth Gaskell

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?

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