Mary Barton is the very first novel written by Elizabeth Gaskell. Living in the industrial city of Manchester and having firsthand witnessed the poor living condition and suffering of the working class, Gaskell was inspired to write a novel that brings to light their poverty and suffering.
In Mary Barton, Gaskell gives a true and heartfelt account of the lives of these working-class men and women. The suffering they undergo due to the want of the basic needs for human survival, such as food, proper clothing, and other basic facilities to warm them against the chilly English weather and the sicknesses and death which are so common due to their unhygienic living conditions and lack of nutritious food, is sympathetically and passionately portrayed that it was an emotional struggle to read of them. One can only imagine how keenly the author felt on these matters having personally witnessed their lives and living conditions.
Amidst this dire setting, Gaskell weaves a beautiful story of love and loyalty. When Mary Barton, a working-class girl, is pursued by two lovers, the young beauty, in her vanity, chooses the rich and powerful. Soon, however, she understands to whom her heart truly belongs. But when her true love is wrongfully accused of murder, her loyalty, courage, and strength are tested.
The character of Mary Barton was not likable at first. She is vain and is driven by an ambitious heart. Her beauty being her only asset, she makes conscious use of it hoping to remove herself from the class to which she belongs and to step into the world of the rich. Many a time I felt that she needs a good shaking to make her see her foolishness. However, Gaskell lifts her from there and slowly and steadily develops her character from the vain and silly young girl to a brave and courageous young woman who, armed with love and loyalty, walks through a difficult path to save the life of the man she loves, making her yet another lovable Gaskell heroine.
Most of the rest of the characters of the novel were chosen from different sections of the working class. Gaskell’s reason behind this choice is to show the world the different sides of men and women belonging to this class, their talents, and their interests. She wanted the world to know that these are human beings, equally worthy of recognition.
There is also a subplot developed on the relationship between masters and workers. The Working-class laid all their miseries on the doorstep of the masters. They believed that the masters didn’t do enough to alleviate their suffering. This settled idea was one major reason for the constant rift between the two sides. This led to many forceful demands being made by the workers on their masters which were proudly and indignantly met and ignored. And the lack of proper communication and the ego of both sides led to some detrimental actions being made by both sides with certain dreadful consequences. Gaskell presents all this through her subplot earning major criticism in her day that her portrayal of the matter was far-fetched. However, for the author’s part, she firmly believed the lack of communication to be a major barrier to the peaceable relations between the two fractions.
In Mary Barton, Gaskell tells her tale with so much feeling. Her sympathy for the working class is obvious. The beautiful and passionate writing of hers pours this sympathy into the hearts of the readers connecting them with the story and the characters and through them, with the working class. It is also full of suspense with the murder and the race against the time to clear the falsely accused before his innocent life is taken.
This was an excellent read overall. I was truly surprised by the outcome, for I was not expecting it given the lesser popularity of this novel. And I also see this novel as a sort of a prequel to her more popular work, North and South where the theme of master-worker conflict was taken up again and developed.