Subtitled A Tale of Manchester Life, Mary Barton is the story of working class poverty in the industrial city of Manchester during the early to mid 1800’s. It was Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel and in the preface she writes:
‘Three years ago I became anxious (from circumstances that need not be more fully alluded to) to employ myself in writing a work of fiction.’
The circumstances she referred to was the death of her infant son from Scarlet Fever and her husband’s encouragement to turn to writing to distract her from her grief as she’d previously had some work published in a magazine. And so out of her own grief comes this powerful first-hand account of the poverty-stricken inhabitants of Manchester, the first Industrial City.
‘I had always felt a deep sympathy with the care-worn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and want; tossed to and fro by circumstances, apparently in even a greater degree than other men…
I saw that they were sore and irritable against the rich, the even tenor of whose seemingly happy lives appeared to increase the anguish caused by the lottery-like nature of their own.’
There are some similarities to North and South which was published about six years later – the agitations between the factory workers and the mill owners, the setting of industrial Manchester where she herself lived, and a romance – but Mary Barton is much bleaker and focuses on the plight of the working class during the depressed times of the ‘hungry forties.’
Mary’s life starts off quite well, with her father, John, in work and the family reasonably provided for, but tragedy enters their lives when Aunt Esther, her mother’s sister, disappears. The shock contributes to the death of Mary’s mother and with her death, John Barton’s life takes a downward turn.
‘One of the good influences over John Barton’s life had departed that night. One of the ties which bound him down to the gentle humanities of earth was loosened, and henceforward the neighbours all remarked he was a changed man. His gloom and his sternness became habitual instead of occasional.’
‘He would bear it all, he said to himself. And he did bear it, but not meekly; that was too much to expect. Real meekness of character is called out by experience of kindness. And few had been kind to him.’
Mary, who is a real beauty, catches the eye of the son of a rich mill owner and he pursues her. She is so caught up with the idea of a better life and becoming a lady that she spurns her childhood friend, Jem, who has his heart set on marrying her. The rich young man is infatuated with Mary but he has no plans for marriage. This situation echoes that of her Aunt Esther, although Mary does not yet know the circumstances of her Aunt’s disappearance.
‘Herself, a day, an hour ago; and herself now. For we have every one of us felt how a very few minutes of the months and years called life, will sometimes suffice to place all time past and future in an entirely new light; will make us see the vanity or the criminality of the bye-gone, and so change the aspect of the coming time, that we look with loathing on the very thing we have most desired. A few moments may change our character for life, by giving a totally different direction to our aims and energies.’
John Barton becomes a Chartist and spokesman for the trade union and becomes more bitter as time goes on and he witnesses the suffering of his fellow workers and their families.
‘So class distrusted class, and their want of mutual confidence wrought sorrow to both. The masters would not be bullied, and compelled to reveal why they felt it wisest and best to offer only such low wages; they would not be made to tell that they were even sacrificing capital to obtain a decisive victory over the continental manufacturers. And the workmen sat silent and stern with folded hands, refusing to work for such pay. There was a strike in Manchester.’
Mrs Gaskell was a contemporary of Charles Dickens and tackled many of the same issues that he did, but her characters were portrayed unsentimentally with balance, realism, sympathy, and without satire.
She was also a contemporary of Friedrich Engels (the co-author of The Communist Manifesto) who also wrote about the conditions of the working class during his 1842-1844 stay in Manchester.
The two authors had very different responses to the situation as may be seen in the story of Mary Barton.
As I mentioned earlier, Mary Barton is a bleak story. There are multiple deaths due to poverty, poor choices which lead to dire consequences, a murder mystery and a court-room scene. I was beginning to think everything was going to finish tragically, but it ended well. I thoroughly enjoyed this story and it kept me hooked throughout. Do yourself a favour and listen to the superb and authentic rendering by Tony Foster at Librivox.
This is part of the summary I found at LibriVox:
‘Tony Foster is a resident of Manchester and a near-neighbour of Mrs Gaskell (allowing for their separation in time). His superb narration renders the native speech of her characters with an authenticity which ideally conveys the spirit of this book. A truly moving experience awaits everyone who gives ear to this ‘Tale of Manchester Life’.
For information on Elizabeth Gaskell see the Timeline of her life and other areas of interest.