Mary Barton / Elizabeth Gaskell

Title / Mary Barton
Author / Elizabeth Gaskell
Publication Date / 1848 (first published)
Page no. / 484
Star Rating / ★★
Mary Barton is the daughter of a factory work who dreams of a better life, so when she catches the eye of the mill-owner’s charming son Henry, she hopes it will be her way out of the hard life of the workers who are resentfully dependant on the mill-owners for their livelihoods. In the process of courting, she rejects the affectations of her childhood friend, Jem. When Henry is shot dead and Jem is the main suspect, Mary’s loyalties are tested to the limit. This review is non-spoiler.
I believe that this was Elizabeth Gaskell’s first published book and in my opinion it shows. Don’t get me wrong I really love Gaskell and her books, but I felt this was her weakest. Firstly I found the pacing a bit of an issue. It starts of very slowly and doesn’t really pick up throughout the book. I felt that it was too long and got quite preachy at some points. Now I am perfectly fine with books that have slow pacing – I actually quite enjoy them but with this I just felt that the plot really dragged and there were some predictable plot points. It took me quite a while to get into the book – this was partly due to the language. It took me longer to adjust to the language than in her other books. I didn’t find myself eager to pick it up again once I’d put it down, and I sometimes had to force myself to pick it up because I wanted to finish it by the end of the month. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood for this book and the commentary on the conditions of the working class. It was interesting and the vivid descriptions create a wonderful backdrop for the plot. However the plot had a few loopholes for me – I am not going to go into detail because of spoilers but mostly the motives behind the murderer kind of confused me. I question the motives and the possibility  of the person actually murdering someone – I personally don’t believe the person is capable but perhaps that’s just my opinion. Overall I did enjoy the plot and found the commentary interesting, however I did have a few issues with it.
A big part of my struggle with this book was that I didn’t fell connected with the characters or engaged with the plot. I was interested to see where they would all end up by the end of the book, but throughout reading it I felt distanced from the characters. I was interested but I didn’t necessarily care, especially since the plot is quite predictable in place. I found Mary to be frustrating at times, especially at a certain realisation she has part way through the book. The characters as a whole lacked depth and so I didn’t have the same engagement/connection with the characters as I had in, for example North and South (also by Gaskell). This clearly shows her growth as an author and it was interesting to see where her writing began. I also felt that I didn’t understand some of the motives behind the characters, especially of the murderer. For the most part I did enjoy reading about them – I just felt that the characters needed more depth.
I did enjoy this book and I am glad that I picked it up, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as her other books I’ve read. I would definitely be interested to reread it at some point as I think I would pick up on new things and I think I forced it abit reading it this time – maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood. Bearing in mind that this was her first book I think as a whole it is well worth a read. Yes in my opinion there are some issues but it is interesting to see how Gaskell developed as an author. Overall I would recommend this book, especially if you are already a fan of Gaskell’s work, however I would suggest that this is not a great place to start if you are new to her books. I would recommend North and South or Cranford as a better place to start
Have you read this book? What did you think?
See you next time.

4 thoughts on “Mary Barton / Elizabeth Gaskell

  1. I agree. This novel is actually a great look into the poverty of the working class, but the plot was a little over the top, and the moralizing just a little too obvious. Her other works are much smoother in conveying her message, and her characters are more believable.
    You can definitely tell it’s her first book.

    Liked by 1 person

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