Now, where do I begin with Elizabeth Gaskell?
As it happens, where I began with Elizabeth Gaskell was with her most famous novel, North and South, which I read when I was about thirteen years old. I then read Wives and Daughters and Cranford, and several shorter works – and then promptly and unjustly forgot about Elizabeth Gaskell. That is, until last month, when I picked up Mary Barton.
Written in 1848, Mary Barton follows the lives of several families of industrial workers in Victorian Manchester. It centres on Mary Barton, a young seamstress, and her father factory worker John Barton. After the death of his wife, John Barton falls into depression and becomes involved in the Chartist movement. Meanwhile his daughter grows up unattended, and attracts two suitors – one, her childhood friend Jem Wilson, and the other, Harry Carson, the son of a wealthy mill owner. But this is so much more than a love story. Its chief subjects are the poverty and difficulties of the working class in Manchester, and what such poverty can drive them too. The novel is bound up in factory politics, but never in a way that would be inaccessible to a modern reader. Moreover, the novel shifts effortlessly between the political and the domestic, and it is a deeply human story, a tale of grief, violence and family, the darkest of Gaskell’s novels that I have read.