Rosie’s Avid Readers #RBRT Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell #Classicbooks #bookreview

Rosie's Avid Readers

Rosie’s Avid readers are people who like reading and have a book to tell us about, they are the voice of a friend who says ” I just read this book….”


Avid Reader’s thoughts

‘I have always loved Victorian literature, and after reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel ‘Mary Barton’, published in 1848, this love has only been strengthened. First of all, Gaskell explores one of the most central social problems of the era:  the hardship of the working classes. The novel is set in Manchester, a poor, industrial city, and the daily struggles of these factory workers, such as ‘clemming’ or starvation, are portrayed by Gaskell in such a tragic, realistic way that as readers we can feel only deep sympathy for them. 

The protagonist of the story, Mary Barton, is a young, working-class seamstress, whose beauty and kindness, and her emotional sensitivity, makes her loveable from the very start of the novel: the narrative follows this young beauty through times of starvation and hardship, family tragedies (there are a number of terrible deaths throughout the novel), a love triangle, and eventually a shocking murder that implicates those whom Mary loves best. It is this love triangle, with Mary being caught between two lovers of opposite classes, being a factory worker and the son of a factory owner, that gives the novel a more tender, emotional, sensitive edge: amidst all of the shockingly realistic hardships of the poor, and clashes between the social classes, young love and romance can still blossom, and for me this sweetness made the novel more enjoyable. Another aspect of the novel that endeared it to me was Gaskell’s development of a number of complex, unique and loveable characters, who despite being realistically portrayed, making many appear especially cruel and ugly at times, are explored in such detail, down to exact their facial expressions and tone of voice, that they become so true and therefore so endearing. Personally, my favourite character is Margaret, a young girl who becomes Mary’s closest friend, but who also gradually loses her sight: there are a number of these tragic side stories for many characters throughout the novel, which heightens both its drama and its melancholy. Regarding Gaskell’s narrative structure, I also enjoyed how the novel begins when Mary is a baby, and the reader follows her growth through childhood until the pace slows down as she becomes a young adult: I feel that this makes the reader much more emotionally invested in Mary’s well-being and future, as we feel like part of her past. 

However, I do feel that some parts of the novel are unnecessarily lengthy; it feels as if some of the events in the novel, such as Mary’s desperate ship chase, though exciting and essential, are dragged out to last too many chapters, and although the action does move between different characters and settings, the plot feels too slow-moving in places. 

In conclusion, what I love most about ‘Mary Barton’ is how very important social issues of the time are explored, such as the impacts of industrialisation and the power of the Trade Unions in fighting for the rights of the working classes (meet John Barton), yet Gaskell explores these alongside the emotional struggles of a young girl and her love for a certain young man, giving the novel a more moving and relatable feel. And because of this, Gaskell is fast becoming one of my favourite writers of the Victorian era.’

Book Description

This is Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel, a widely acclaimed work based on the actual murder, in 1831, of a progressive mill owner. It follows Mary Barton, daughter of a man implicated in the murder, through her adolescence, when she suffers the advances of the mill owner, and later through love and marriage. Set in Manchester, between 1837-42, it paints a powerful and moving picture of working-class life in Victorian England.

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