Mary Barton is Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel. It takes place in the industrial town of Manchester, and (like North and South) it is full of industrial concerns: factories, foundries, trade unions, strikes, wages, masters and men, and the inevitable conflict. The personal struggles, as dramatic as they are, seem — not exactly secondary to this, but a kind of consequence of it; the epic battle of capitalism is the real theater where they play out.
The novel takes place during the years of a recession, when Manchester workmen are having a terrible time getting work. This means that they and their families are slowly starving to death: no one can afford firewood, bedding, new clothes, doctor’s visits, rent on decent housing, or — eventually, after many trips to the pawnshop — food. Children and the elderly (always the most vulnerable) are dying. The owners of the businesses also have to cut back, but in the eyes of the workers they are cutting back from luxury to luxury. They aren’t explaining why the work isn’t coming in, or why they are making certain apparently frivolous decisions. Distrust grows between owners and workers, and later, after a strike, worse than distrust: anger and violence.
Against this backdrop, we have Mary Barton, a teenage girl who has had a little too much license since her mother died. She’s been flirting with Harry Carson, the son of one of the mill owners, but her father, John, is one of the angriest of the workers, so she knows she has to keep her flirtation a secret. Jem Wilson, who works at the foundry, has loved Mary for years, and when she turns him down — something she instantly regrets — he goes away sad and reckless. When a murder is committed a day or two later, Jem is the accused, but Mary knows he’s innocent. How can she keep him from being hanged, without incriminating anyone else?
These two storylines — the large and the small, the grand and the intimate — run hand-in-hand through the book. Every decision the characters take is in the shadow of the battle for survival: living meal to meal, sewing at mourning in the evenings to make a few extra pennies, two men from very different social classes managing to connect because both of them have lost a son. Gaskell sympathizes with both sides, as she does in North and South, which must have been revolutionary. She says, yes, of course, the owners have their reasons for their business decisions, but couldn’t they tell their reasons to their men? Real understanding between owners and workers would go a long way to alleviate this suffering and this anger. (I’m not so sure about that; when people are starving, decent wages are mostly what alleviate that. But hey.) She provides for repentance for her harshest characters on both sides of the divide. There’s also some foreshadowing of her treatment of the “fallen woman” motif that she’ll work on later, in Ruth, with Mary’s aunt Esther, who has become a prostitute out of desperate need.
I did not enjoy this book nearly as much as I’ve liked Gaskell’s other novels. It’s melodramatic and much less subtle than the effects she achieves later on. She explains her meaning to us in a heavy-handed way, and kind of drags us by the neck to the ending. However, if you can relax into the melodrama, it has some excellent scenes (the chase after the sailor providing the alibi to the accused man is particularly fine, and I always like a nice hearty rich-man’s repentance.) If overall it’s the weakest of hers I’ve read so far, it is also pretty great for a first novel.
Now, the only novel of Gaskell’s I have left is Sylvia’s Lovers. Have any of you read it? Is it any good?