Ellan Read

sometimes witty book reviews

Mary Barton

Mary barton-mine

First published: 1848

Found: Given to me by a friend as a farewell present before leaving for Bejing

Pages/read time: 417 (24 of which are references), 10 months on and off between multiple pieces of Chinese literature


If you read the same Penguin Classics edition as I did, don’t read the blurb. It reduces this insightful historical text concerning the lives and labourers of Manchester during the mid-nineteenth century’s famine years to an insipid love triangle between Mary, Young Carson and Jem (seamstress, son of a mill owner and young foundry worker respectfully). If you’d like to read it for this subject matter alone, I’ll sum it up in a fraction of the time it took me to wade through this text:

Mary and Jem’s impoverished families have been close for years, Jem loves Mary, Mary has the attentions of a wealthy man’s son named Mr Carson, Jem backs off, suddenly Young Carson is dead and everyone suspects Jem, angst-angst-angst, resolution.

A few moments may change our character for life, by giving a totally different direction to our aims and energies.

But if you’re excited about the prospect of a deep and detailed portrayal of industrial life from the perspective of micro-interpersonal reactions and situations, this is it. Gaskell perhaps didn’t realise it at the time, but what she has crafted is a nuanced history of the home and hearth from the perspectives of the people history forgets: the female, the disabled, the elderly, and the poor. Though she’s not exactly completely objective, she is wholesomely empathetic to all her characters without becoming simperingly pity-stricken by their respective plights.

There is always a pleasure in unravelling a mystery, in catching at the gossamer clue which will guide to certainty.

The text is dense. The plot is slow. But the slow release of dialogue, descriptions, characters and grizzly diseases is definitely worth the slow-burn paragraphs. Gaskell is insightful, humorous, and sometimes downright sassy. Any paragraphs and pretty words injected into the manuscript at the time to get the thing published as a romance novel for young women readers are superfluous – this feels as much a compelling historical document as a novel.

Reading Suggestions: Break it up with some smaller texts – this is a lot to take in at once.


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This entry was posted on August 25, 2018 by in Bit of Both, British, Classics, Women Authors and tagged , , , , , , .

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