Back in November last year, I took part in The Classics Club’s 25th Spin event, for which my result was to read Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life by Elizabeth Gaskell, the first novel she wrote and had published in 1848. Having previously loved The Cranford Chronicles and enjoyed North and South as well, I was again very happy with my result. 😁
For this Spin we were given a longer deadline to finish our resulting book, which was a perfect opportunity to tick off one of our more daunting tomes left on our lists. While Mary Barton isn’t daunting in length, it is about a difficult subject matter: poverty, death and industrialisation. All told through the young eyes of poor Mary Barton and her family and friends, who scrape a living in the factories, workings and shops of the industrious northern city of Manchester during very difficult times.
Things begin rosily enough, with an opening scene of two working-class families: the Bartons and their good friends the Wilsons, on a pleasant stroll home from a fair with their young children. Tragedy hits not long after with the death of Mrs Barton, which leaves John Barton to raise their one remaining child, Mary alone. Things start well enough as John is a kind, hardworking father, who really does try his best to provide a good home and better prospects for his daughter, but over time this becomes harder and harder.
First the work starts drying up at the factories and mills, as demand for British produce lessens due to cheaper imports, this in turn drives down wages and hours offered to workers. It is pretty harrowing to watch as John’s mental health dramatically declines, as he struggles to earn a living and helplessly watches as friends and colleagues starve and die around him. Eventually this leads John to become more and more involved with the Chartist trade-union movement, that calls for strikes and ever more violent protests, culminating in a shocking murder!
As for Mary, now a young woman, she diligently continues her work as an apprentice seamstress and caring thanklessly for her wayward father. She is not without her faults though, as she spurns the love of her childhood friend, Jem Wilson in favour of the flirtatious attentions of a wealthy millowner’s son, Harry Carson; realising too late the terrible mistake she has made. However I had to admire how she doesn’t give up and really comes into her own after the murder: moving heaven and earth to try to make amends and stop an awful miscarriage of justice.
Overall, I thought Mary Barton was a truly harrowing tale and not one you could really say you ‘enjoy’, however it did deeply move and grip me. Especially towards the end where I was so fearful what might happen – If it was a film I would have been watching from behind a cushion! I also think you can definitely see how Gaskell’s writing developed from this first book to her better known North and South, and I look forward to reading more of her work. Good read ⭐⭐
Now I’d love to hear from you: Have you read this? Or any of Elizabeth Gaskell’s other novels or novellas? If you took part, have you finished your Spin book?