This was my first foray into Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels and it was coincidentally her own first work. When I first picked this book up, I was really just looking for a follow on from Austen and at the time Women’s fiction was not heavily represented in the Classic’s section (it’s getting better these days!). I had never read any Victorian literature before and didn’t really know what to expect, other than having heard that it was usually full of long, dull sentences. Still, and I’m not sure why, I decided that she couldn’t really be that different from Austen and that I’d give her a try.
How wrong I was! First of all, Elizabeth Gaskell’s main objective, from the very beginning, seems to be to highlight the dire social and political conditions of working class at the time. Secondly, following this theme, most of the characters in “Mary Barton” are working class. Mary herself is a working class girl living with her widower, trade-unionist father…in a sense about as far from Austen as you could get! As a result of undefined expectations, the first time I read this book, about six years ago, I honestly didn’t take much away from it. My only lasting memory of the book was that Gaskell didn’t shy away from representing life in an 1840s English industrial town, in all its grim reality. Without realising it, however, “Mary Barton” had engaged with me on a much deeper level and taught me so much about a section of history that is largely skimmed over in school. It was only after re-reading it recently that I really appreciated the power of this novel, and how pioneering it was at its publication in 1848. Although “North and South”is probably the best of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels “Mary Barton” works on a similar theme, and is in many ways more directly engaged than “North and South” due to it’s heroine and her immediacy with the effects of the powerlessness of the working class in this time.
To offer a little context Elizabeth Gaskell was writing at the same time, and about the same city (Manchester), that Friedrich Engels uses as a case study in his work “The Condition of the Work Class in England” which was first published in 1844. Although it’s unlikely that Gaskell would have been directly influenced by this work, as it wasn’t translated into English until much later, it cannot be a coincidence that the conditions of this industrial city in what has come to be know as England’s ‘hungry forties’ were bad enough to inspire both authors into action.
Although I wouldn’t say “Mary Barton” was a pleasant read, or even as neatly written as “North and South” I’m definitely glad I’ve read it (twice). Elizabeth Gaskell is an excellent writer, once you get used to the Victorian style of writing and the melodrama. I’d even go as far to say that I like her better than Dickens, who was actually a friend and influence on Gaskell. There is something frank, passionate and eloquent about her style that when I later came to read Dickens I missed. Plus it’s free from ridiculous, eccentric names…which really are my pet-hate with Dickens, so what more could you ask for?
That being said, should you read Gaskell? YES!
Should you read “Mary Barton”? Yes! I’m glad I read this book before North and South so that I could see how she built on the themes she explores in “Mary Barton” but I can equally see how it would be good to read “North and South” first. Read them both!