Mary Barton, by Elizabeth Gaskell. Read 19th April to 23rd April 2017. 4 // 5 stars.
This story is about a young woman and her father, two young men, and the poverty and depression that struck Manchester at the time. There’s also a murder, a chilling plot twist, and a lot of deaths. It’s really quite tragic how many characters are dead by the end, most by easily preventable causes.
One of the things I loved about this book was the fact that there weren’t tonnes of characters to keep track of. Often in classics there are many characters and it can be difficult to keep track of them all; this one, however, had just the perfect amount. There really were very few compared to other classics, and the secondary characters were very much kept to a minimum. Except for one instance where there were two Marys in one room, I was never confused!
This book opened my eyes to the extreme poverty that England – and perhaps the world – was facing. While books like Pride and Prejudice are social commentaries on higher classes of the time, this book really gets down to the nitty gritty. An excellent commentary on the lower class of Manchester in the late 1840s.
I couldn’t help comparing this book to Dickens. I mean, both authors portrayed the lower class in England, and both wrote about the struggle between the classes, and the consequences that followed. However, the true difference between the two was that Gaskell’s characters are all very personal. The book felt like Dickens in its representation of the poor, but the characters were much more personal – all the secondary characters had emotions that Dickens never quite captures, at least in my opinion (but that’s a discussion for another day :)). A personal version of Dickens, then.
The main reason that this wasn’t a 5 star book for me was its focus on goodness as a means for salvation. If a character was at the point of death, they would have absolutely no assurance – they would look back on their life and cringe at the sin it had contained. As a Christian, I have assurance in Christ. Unfortunately throughout many of these old novels, characters – rich or poor – simply do not have assurance of their what their existence after death will look like, because they are under the impression that being good gets you to Heaven.
However, this was but a personal thing, and did not stop me enjoying the narrative in the slightest. It was only really afterwards that I stopped to consider the worldview of the novel, and it was then when I picked up this issue.
A quick list of likes:
- Stunningly written!
- Personal, endearing, believable characters!
- Its focus on the poor with very few wealthy characters – refreshing I felt!
- Its treatment of death and human suffering, not dehumanising the poor and making grief something that all classes of life feel!
- Character development that happens slowly so you don’t notice it!
- The clever combination of social commentary and gripping plot!
- The absolutely delicious plot twist at the end which I didn’t see coming despite myself!
And some dislikes:
- The aforementioned misguided beliefs concerning salvation.
- The first half of the book was rather sloooooow.
- Sometimes the social commentary arc overshadowed the actual plot. (although by the latter half the plot was in full swing!)
Overall, then, a thought provoking, well written book that I would recommend to nearly everybody! If you can’t do Dickens, for whatever reason, but still want a view of life as it was in the 1840s, then this one is for you.
Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865 – goodness, she died so tragically young!) also wrote North and South, which I’ve heard many things about but never tried. Given how much I enjoyed this one, I’m definitely adding her to my list!
Have you read this book, or any others by this author? I’d love to know!
Love, Emmeline 🙂