Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Throwback Books – Mary Barton, by Elizabeth Gaskell

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.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Short Stories – Used To Be, by Elizabeth Baines

(Note: this book was sent to me by the publisher for review.)

Nearly a year ago, I reviewed two short story anthologies, Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontës and Best British Short Stories 2015. Within these, I read two short stories by an author called Elizabeth Baines. Both mesmerised me. They had an intriguing narrative style and a self-conscious awareness of storytelling that intrigued me. I was keen to read more by her and now finally have.

Her new book Used To Be certainly lived up to my high expectations. The collection is separated into two halves. ‘What Was, What Is’ contains stories that deal with the theme of memory, of the shifting connections between the past and the present. The second section, ‘What May Be’, deals with what if stories and hypotheticals, with dreams and turning points and possibilities. Both sections have a wide variety of stories, ranging in perspective, theme and even the time period in which they’re set. We have middle-aged women looking back at the turning point of their life. We have sisters who have never understood each other, nineteenth century men being haunted by the ghosts of their deeds. We have black holes and near train crashes and ruined castles. These stories are journeys into the past and into possible futures and strike a superb balance between the thought-provoking and the poignant.