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.
What impresses me again and again about Elizabeth Gaskell’s work is just how varied it is. I often think of Gaskell as a more political Jane Austen – or at least, that was how North and South felt to me, and Wives and Daughters too has a similar feeling to a Jane Austen novel. Cranford reminds me of Trollope or of Dickens in its satire, or like a comic version of George Eliot in its dealings with small town drama. I recently read the Gaskell Penguin Little Black Classic, The Old Nurse’s Story – two gothic tales that are more akin to works by the Bronte or Wilkie Collins. Yet Mary Barton reads more like Hardy or Gissing. Of course, I should really stop comparing Elizabeth Gaskell to other writers of the period. The fact is that she herself was an incredibly skilled writer, with novels more varied and unique than perhaps any other writer of the period. She seems to have been involved in every literary movement of the time, in Realism, in the Gothic, in novels of social commentary. She is one of the few Victorian novelists who I think deals equally and equally well with both issues of large cities and small country villages. In her novels you can see such astounding breadth of content, and with every single book I read by her I am freshly amazed.
Turning to Mary Barton specifically, there are so many things I love about this novel. One is certainly its unpredictability. I love Victorian literature, but not all Victorian novels are page-turners. I’ve gotten used to the patterns of them, and I can sometimes predict the endings (especially in terms of romantic plot lines) from the start. But this was absolutely not the case with Mary Barton. There have been few Victorian novels I’ve flown through quite as fast. There gets to a certain startling point in the book when it becomes near impossible to put it down. It is an intensely complex and interesting novel, dramatic, moving and engaging throughout.
The writing and the character development is superb. What I like about Mary Barton as a character is that she is by no means saintly. She is vain and ambitious, but she is also deeply sympathetic, and wonderful to read. She is also a refreshingly strong heroine for a novel of the 1840s, and the independence and determination she shows in the second half of the novel were thrilling to read. Her friend and neighbour Margaret, a blind girl who makes her living by singing, is a similarly strong and intriguing character. John Barton too is well done, and Jem was one of my favourites. I always admire the complexities of Gaskell’s characters; each one, however minor, has their own internal battles and frustrations, their own pains and difficulties.
I loved Mary Barton not only because it is a wonderful novel, but because of the fascinating history it tells. It is a deep and interesting portrait of working-class life in Manchester in the Victorian period. It deals with day-to-day life, as well as with the struggles of poverty and illness, and the difficult position many women found themselves in at the time. It is the sort of novel that will appeal to those that love Dickens or Gissing or Hardy – and anyone who has read North and South and found themselves intrigued by the story of the Higgins family will definitely find Mary Barton engaging.
All in all, this has been one of my favourite reads of the year. I was so thoroughly moved and engaged by the characters and story, and once more Gaskell’s skill as a novelist impressed me so much. Mary Barton is now rivalling North and South for my favourite Gaskell novel. And considering that a year ago I ranked North and South as my seventh favourite novel of all time (http://justbooksandthings.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/things-few-of-my-favourite-novels-part-2.html), that’s a pretty high recommendation.
Greatest strength: The characterisation and the dynamism of the story.
Greatest weakness: There were a few things about the ending which felt a little contrived and while I loved the ending in general, the last page or two felt a little too neat and miraculous. But this is a minor point for a book I loved so much.
Let’s finish on a quote: ‘I don’t want money, child! Damn their charity and their money! I want work, and it is my right. I want work.’
Next week: I’m a tad behind, so we’ll just have to see what happens...