Mary Barton

Before I get on to what is no doubt going to be an incredibly painful review of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, a book that happily (*coughs*) became my very special choice (*coughs*) for the Manchester Book Group, I would first of all like to say a big hello to all the lovely new faces who materialised for our second meeting last Tuesday which, if I do say so myself, I think went swimmingly! To my horror (this horror will be justified within the next few paragraphs) these new peeps had all made the effort to pick up ‘bonkers Barton’ (as Simon is now calling her) and to my delight had plenty to say! In the end, like most people, I struggled to finish this book, and it was a real relief to get the various conflicting thoughts and feelings swimming around my head out into the open….and now to commit them to paper/the blogosphere…

*At least my edition is pretty!
I’m quite a laid back soul at heart, however, the amount of deliberation I suffered through just to pick three book choices for a group of people I had never met was really quite something. Back in the heady days of working at the John Rylands Library archives, I was lucky enough to know a lady who is the Elizabeth Gaskell expert and works very closely with the manuscript collection bequeathed to the library by the author’s daughter. This exposure to Gaskell along with sharp little snippets of her writing I had encountered, meant that her ‘Manchester novel’ Mary Barton was at the forefront of my mind when choosing a classic book for the group to read.

Central to this ‘tale of Manchester life’ is a self-declared love triangle, one which, on the blurb on the back of the book, promises chapter upon chapter of drama and tragedy as Mary Barton is torn between Jem Wilson, her childhood friend and sweetheart and the charming Harry Carson, son of a Manchester mill-owner, when Carson is murdered down a Manchester alley and Jem becomes the prime suspect. Sounds exciting doesn’t it?

The sad truth is that this blurb was one of the most deceptive I have ever had the misfortune to be drawn in by. I feel as though I’ve been ambushed by mud, melodrama and misery. To adequately explain the plot of this book to anyone leaves me in a bit of a muddle because frankly, for 200-300 pages, there is no plot at all. What follows from Chapter 1 is a lengthy diatribe against the condition of the working class in Manchester, the injustices they faced at the hands of the ‘masters’ and a pitch-perfect depiction of just what an awful place the city was to be at the time.

For about 100 pages a part of me appreciated the bold subject matter and, although Gaskell’s resolve seemed to waiver about two thirds of the way through the novel (which, having read the criticism she faced from her contemporaries, I can reluctantly understand) I enjoyed what I saw to be a fairly faithful portrayal of industrial Manchester in the early 19th century. It proved both intriguing to hear the names of the roads and areas I know so well and utterly staggering to learn that mill workers were often so poor that they could not feed their children or themselves and died in a state of poverty that, certainly in the eyes of Elizabeth Gaskell, would be so easy to avoid. However, the problem I had was that these harrowing and very real issues jarred severely with a lacklustre story line, unendearing characters and a feckless, doll-like ‘heroine’ who really did nothing more than create a whole load of trouble for an innocent young man.

The main questions I seem to be left with are, first of all, how could such an interesting woman write such a dull novel and, second of all, how can I stop myself from feeling bad about disliking Mary Barton so much?  Some good excuses that’s what. Interestingly enough it appears Gaskell was pressurised into changing the title of the book from John Barton (Mary’s father) to Mary Barton, perhaps in an attempt to make the book more attractive and romantic, with a focus on the love triangle rather than her highly politicised, highly volatile father? In hindsight, had she not been pressured by her publisher all that time ago, disappointment may not be reigning supreme right now as I would have expected the murder/love plotline to be given the slightly rushed, secondary treatment it does in the last third of the book. As Simon quite rightly pointed out, this was her first novel, and clearly not the best if feedback on North and South and Cranford  are anything to go by; a project to throw herself into following the death of her son. If all I achieved from reading this frenzied account of the lot of the working classes was to learn just how bad things were at the time then I have gained something from reading Mary Barton…but I’ll be reading Friedrich Engels next time love…

14 thoughts on “Mary Barton

  1. Hi There!I recently had the same thing happen to me. I know what it's like to read a misleading synopsis and the book is nothing like what its supposed to be. So sorry you had to go through that!Anyway, I received your group message from blogaholics and wanted to say hi. I am your newest follower. Feel free to check out my blog and follow when you get time!Best Wishes!Mia at The Muses Circle


  2. Hi Mia!Thanks for your condolences πŸ™‚ It was a painful process but I feel like a stronger person for it! You have a lovely website. Am you newest Twitter follower! (my Google Friend Connect is not working at the moment for some reason…)


  3. This sounds like an absolutely dreadful experience, so sorry you had to go through it. Now we know what will not be making it anywhere near my to-read list!


  4. Hi Violet! Are her other offerings a bit more bit enjoyable then? Which would you advise because I'd hate to have been put off her entirely. (Nice use of 'mawkish' by the way:))


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