Friday, May 16, 2014

Book Review - Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
Published by: Everyman's Library
Publication Date: 1848
Format: Hardcover, 390 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

"In my research phase, I like to get my hands on anything my characters might have read, both to pick up on the slang and physical details of the day, but also so I know what my characters’ cultural landscape is like. Mary Barton created a huge stir when it came out in 1848, detailing, as it did, the life of the poor in Manchester. My historical heroine scandalizes her staid sister-in-law by reading Mary Barton.

It also provided me with inspiration for the background of my hero, Gavin Thorne, who grew up poor on the streets of Manchester and begged and stole his way to the Royal Academy.

Even after all this time, Mary Barton is still a multi-hanky read. (Or a box of tissues, if we’re being modern about it.)

Of course, you could always just skip straight to North and South…." - Lauren Willig

Mary Barton's life isn't easy. Even before she lost her mother and her unborn sibling, she had lost a brother and her aunt had run off. Mary's life is just her and her father and a few close friends like the Wilsons. The Wilsons have had their fair share of loses as well, if not more then the Bartons. Young Mary works hard at a seamstresses, supplementing her father's income from the mills, and when he's laid off, being the only source of income, and a meagre one at that. Most days the only thought is whether to spend money on food that will barely stave off the hunger, or spend it on opium to take away the pain. But the father and daughter still have reasons to live. John Barton is heavily active in the local unions trying to get fair wages for his fellow workers, while Mary is for a time happily the center of a love triangle, where one of her suitors is the son of a mill owner. But as the times get harder and John is out of work longer and longer, the thought of rivals in love does little to comfort Mary when she realizes she has been playing a fool with other's hearts. Her own heart might just break when a shocking murder happens in Manchester and she might just be the cause of it.

For 19th century women writers you can't do better then Jane Austen and the Brontes. There's a reason why all their books are still classics to this day. Yet sometimes Austen is too perfect with her happily ever afters, which Charlotte Bronte dissed as lacking passion, the feel of blood being pumped through a beating heart. Whereas the Brontes, Emily in particular, could be a bit bleak. That's where Elizabeth Gaskell enters in. When I first read Wives and Daughters I thought to myself how it was such a happy blend of the two extremes of these other popular authors. With Elizabeth Gaskell, the romance of Austen is tempered with the bleakness of the Brontes. What results is a happy, yet realistic, middle. The harshness and horrors of the world aren't covered up or hidden behind lacy curtains while the heroine sits and daintily sips tea in a parlor. Life isn't extremes, it's not all roses and it's not all bleak moors. Elizabeth Gaskell's work feels more relatable, more real by her having the good mixed equally with the bad.

But I was sorely tried when starting Mary Barton to find the balance Gaskell is known for. For much of the book you aren't just inundated with the depressive lives and the horrors of Manchester, you are drowning in it. If, at any time in your life, you're feeling a little too happy and content, pick up Mary Barton and I guarantee that you will be in a nice depressive state in minutes flat. The sorrow of the book is so overwhelming that at times I wondered if I could go on, with the book that is. There's stillbirths, typhus, drug addiction, prostitution, destitution, stalking, murder, starvation, delirium, blindness, strokes, and this is just off the top of my head! Death, death and more death, spiraling ever downward.

But what shocked me is, when you think about it, these struggles are still ongoing. People are still starving, still dying. There are constant arguments about raising the minimum wage, of what to do with the homeless. So many of us live in a bubble that we just don't see. We don't dwell on the starving children because they are easy to forget in our daily lives filled with immaterial concerns. I can't imagine the sensation this book caused in it's day by not sugar coating life. Did this book provide a wake up call for Victorians? Because if it did we sorely need a reminder in this day and age. We need a modern Gaskell or Dickens to come along and shake the tree. You can see why they were friends because they believed in showing the real underbelly of the world that most don't see everyday, if ever. If you do get severely depressed at least it's eyeopening.

But the genius of Gaskell is, despite the fact that she's taking you on a personally guided tour of hell, she weaves in characters and stories of such eloquence and romance that you must keep reading, if just to see if there's a happily ever after. The point in which Mary Barton really connected for me was when the murder was committed. This is referred to in the introduction as the "crisis point" in the book. Before this the book didn't have much plot. We were just wallowing in the filth, sadness, and despair of Manchester life. Yes there's a little love triangle and comings and goings, worries about where the money for dinner was coming from, but nothing that really declared itself to be the spine of the book. The all of a sudden, out of nowhere, murder!

Now I love me a murder mystery, I can't deny that, but here it galvanized the loosely assembled coterie of characters into a driving force that made the last half of the book fly by where previously I had been laboring through it. I was there with Mary as she worried about the accused, as she made herself physically ill hunting down an alibi, as she took to the witness stand resulting in her losing her grip over her mind. I mean, yes, I was somewhat involved in Mary's life previously, but, wow, Gaskell just stepped it up a notch and took a book that I thought would be nothing but me crying and made it something more. She made it a classic worthy of those other authors of her time...


You wrote such a perfect review, Elizabeth! I have to get Mary Barton as soon as I can. I'm planning to read Cranford next, and Mary Barton after that. :D

Thank you Giada! Cranford is wonderful too! Very funny, so a lighter Gaskell if you will...

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